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With a new National Academy for Educational Leadership currently under development, Professor David Woods considers the wider benefits of system leadership for all schools in Wales…

Put at its simplest system leadership refers to the form of leadership that goes beyond the individual school to influence the education, achievement and wellbeing of children and young people more widely.

In an area or region, the best schools and leaders extend their reach across other schools so that all schools improve.

There is a system focus on collaborative partnerships, sharing expertise and identifying and disseminating high-leverage best practice.

System leaders realise that classroom, school and system impact on one another and seek to engage with this in a meaningful way. So given the right school improvement model in the area or region, what does system leadership do?

It can:

  • Empower the real leaders who can make change happen;
  • Find time and create the space for innovation;
  • Keep the work where it needs to be – close to the front line;
  • Sustain a sense of shared endeavour and a climate for improvement;
  • Influence an educational system at both a lateral and vertical level;

At its most mature, system leadership will go beyond headteachers and senior leaders and include other leaders and teachers in schools – going deeper and wider.

We sometimes refer to this as ‘systemic leadership’, where a range of leaders and teachers in schools at different levels share a strong professional motivation to collaborate.

In providing support and challenge to other schools they seek reciprocal benefits that lead to self-improvement through observation, evaluation, reflection and joint practice development, as well as the dissemination of the most effective practice.

Systemic leaders take professional responsibility for leading, co-ordinating and delivering sustainable school improvement.

However, there are some problems in making system leadership work effectively. The first issue is how an education system designates system leaders and gives them the authority and legitimacy to work with other schools.

This is usually done by an area authority recognising the high standards of such a school which will also have the highest inspection grade and a track-record in supporting other schools.

Of course, school leaders in schools seeking to improve may recognise the benefits of a partnership with a stronger school and seek to organise this themselves, but this won’t work consistently across an area.

A second issue is the willingness or otherwise of high performing schools to practise system leadership.

In any high-stakes accountability system, the temptation for school leaders is to put all their energies into running their own school without a care for the success of children and young people in other schools.

In some circumstances, where schools are directly competing with each other, it is difficult to work together for the common good.

Even if the previous issues are dealt with successfully, how do areas and schools set up organisational systems to work together and share knowledge with those who need to learn through school-to-school support?

Here there is a need for some training, particularly in relationship-building, coaching and mentoring. Finally, who matches schools together accepting that most schools won’t do it for themselves?

It can’t be assumed automatically that a successful school in one context will be successful in working with schools requiring improvement in a different context.

This needs to be done with care by an organising authority that has the confidence of the schools concerned, taking into account all the contextual factors.

Evaluations of well developed systems report that system leadership works best when it is founded upon a compelling and inclusive moral purpose shared and acted upon by school leaders, with the belief that all children and young people in a local area or region deserve the best possible education.

We might term this as moral capital. From this starting point, knowledge capital can be built – identifying those schools and individuals who have the best school improvement practice and capturing this effectively.

Sometimes, of course, the best practice in a particular aspect of schooling is to be found in less successful schools and this needs to be recognised.

It is also important to develop social capital, helping schools and staff to develop skills that ensure good working relationships – and also organisational capital, setting up organisational systems to share knowledge and practice enabling those who need to learn to do this efficiently.

Evaluations also point to a ‘win-win’ bonus as the schools providing support sharpen their own leadership and school improvement methodology, as well as the schools receiving support.

This can lead to a ‘double lift’ in performance outcomes, thereby improving education in the whole area.

To make system leadership work really well, all school leaders need to be in the business of creating outward-facing schools working with each other in a climate of mutual support and challenge.

They should develop effective relationships with fellow professionals based upon trust and honesty, championing best practice and striving for equity and improved outcomes for all children and young people.

System leaders should model innovative approaches to school improvement, leadership and governance based on excellent practice and well-evidenced research. They should seek to inspire and influence others, within and beyond their own schools, so that the education system as a whole can be transformed.