Jane Golightly asks, how well do you know your school, are you a visible leader, and advises on how to rectify both

‘It’s never too early to start getting ready for Christmas’, the television adverts have been proclaiming over the past couple of weeks. And it’s never too early in the academic year to be asking yourself what difference you are making in your school as a leader. The new Ofsted Framework is making its mark on many schools. One of the key things that we can learn from those schools already inspected under the new Framework is how important it is for you to know your school well. In discussion with Ofsted inspectors you may need to be able to agree, argue, convince, persuade and confirm. The information you provide must be based on hard facts not on what you think may be the case. It’s the same in your discussions with your school improvement partner. He or she will want to be assured that you know your school well and can support the self-evaluation grades you believe reflect your school. You do this through speaking knowledgeably and confidently about your school and drawing upon an informed, sound and accurate school self-evaluation evidence base. So my questions to you are: How well do you know your school and Are you a visible leader?

Why does being a visible leader matter?
Leaders need to be seen and heard. Staff take their cue from the leaders. If you have a particular view about something such as the quality of professional development offered by your local authority and you share your view openly, you can rest assured that your staff will adopt the same view. Every day you are modelling professional behaviours, responses and attitudes. If you model through your behaviours and habits that the children matter and that their learning, progress, standards are important, they will be important for everyone.

So what sort of behaviours and habits do visible leaders exhibit?
There is a view held by some school leaders that being a visible leader means walking around the school in the morning, having coffee with staff in the staffroom at break and covering classes when a teacher is absent and supply is not available. I don’t want to undervalue these activities because they have their place, but truly visible leaders place emphasis on different activity. They make every effort to get to know their school and the community it serves. Their presence is felt and seen daily in, around and out of the building. Nothing is forced; they are interested in the lives of the children and families and talk to them about what they do before, during and outside of school. Importantly, children are keen to talk to them. When these leaders go into classes, staff welcome them with a smile and a greeting and use their presence to celebrate and share the learning that is taking place.

Deep knowledge of the school
One of the first things I observe about visible leaders who have deep knowledge of their school is that they know not only about expectations and progress of cohorts and groups of pupils, but also about the progress and attainment of individual children. They pay particular attention to the progress of vulnerable children and will pull out all stops to ensure that everyone plays their part in supporting all children to achieve the best they can. Pupil progress meetings are prioritised and the visible leader makes sure that he or she checks that what was agreed for individual pupils is taking place.

Awareness of current learning and teaching
The second thing I have learned is that visible leaders stay close to learning and teaching and know what happens in classrooms. These are leaders whose information about children’s learning comes from a broad range of sources including performance management, classroom observations, scrutiny of work, talking to children about their learning, talking to staff (individually and collectively) about learning and teaching and so on. And, what I like best of all is that visual leaders are up to date with what children in each year group are learning. So, when they meet a child from Year 5 in the corridor they can talk to him about the class novel that Year 5 are reading together.

Views of the school community
The third area that interests me about visual leaders is that they are proactive in gathering the views of others about the school. Ofsted will offer parents and staff the opportunity to say what they think of the school and its leadership. Leaders who want to know their school well don’t wait for Ofsted to tell them what they should have found out for themselves. The views of the school community do not always make easy listening and reading, and it’s not always straightforward to scrutinise systems and leadership structures in the school to make sure that they are doing the job they are expected to do. But the visible leader grasps that the views of others as opportunities to learn what is going well, what is going less well and what could be better. For staff, it makes a real difference to work with a leader who is truly interested in what they do, and what happens in the classroom. This can be seen in some of the hard measures such as recruitment and retention figures, pupil stability and improving outcomes.

No-one would deny that there are many demands made on school leaders but I cannot emphasise enough that our first responsibility is to bring about improvement for all children and we can only do this if we know the children and school inside out. By ensuring that our knowledge is relevant, current and detailed we will be leaders of learning and confident that we can make a real difference.

If you feel that it might be time to polish up any of the areas that I have mentioned or any other area that occurs to you, it’s never too early to start! You may find the recently published National Strategies programme Stronger Management Systems for School Leaders helpful in supporting you in this work.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education