School, executive and system leadership: the real ‘middle tier’

We are have entered a new era of school leadership, with the pandemic placing unique demands upon us and requiring us to adapt our teaching methods. The question now is whether teaching practices will ever return to normal. Here Peter Matthews examines the three other phases  that have resulted in equally seismic shifts in teaching. 

In three short decades, the nature of school leadership in England has been transformed. In the fourth, post-coronavirus phase, it will doubtless mutate further. After an enforced hiatus in 2020, when schools closed for months and accountability measures such as inspections, tests and examinations were suspended, many schools were guiding students and parents in inventive, web-based distance learning. UNICEF reported this was happening across much of the world. Education provision will – or should – not be the same before.

But, to roll the clock back as well as forward, a short history of leadership development in England, pre- and post-millennium can be summarised as you might a play in three acts. 


Act 1: The nineties (1990-99) – the decade of school management. 

Prefaced by the seismic shock of the 1988 Education Reform Act, school leaders had much to manage. Local Management of Schools (LMS) involved comprehensive financial delegation. Previously, all spending apart from a per capita allowance for curricular requirements was managed and filtered by the local education authority. Schools could become ‘grant maintained’ and leave the control of the local authority and its oversight of governance, in-service training, headship appointments and quality assurance, managed by their teams of officers and inspectors or advisers. 

The 1988 Act meant that schools had to learn quickly how to manage delegated budgets, introduce the National Curriculum and assessment, and react to open enrolment. Headteachers became amateur accountants as well as managing the implementation of centralised policies. The introduction in 1992 of the double whammies of regular inspection by Ofsted and the annual publication of school performance tables raised the accountability stakes. Ofsted’s early inspection frameworks focused more on management than leadership, and school self-evaluation was conspicuous by its absence. The 1993 Act brought a greater focus on underachieving schools. In the years that followed, school management had to deal with various national strategies for raising achievement, particularly in literacy and numeracy, and what heads frequently regarded as initiative overload. 

Act 2: The noughties (2000-2009) – the flowering of modern school leadership 

Self-evaluation became fundamental to improvement. Pedagogical leadership deepened – through, for example, learning walks, coaching, the introduction of assessment for learning, and CPD which focused on teaching and learning. The new National College for School Leadership (NCSL), oversaw national professional qualifications for headship (NPQH) and a range of other development programmes aimed at enhancing the competence, confidence and efficacy of school leaders. School leaders in London signed up to a collective effort to improve London’s schools through the leadership strategy of London Challenge. Headteachers of successful schools, fired with moral purpose, supported underachieving ‘Keys to Success’ schools as consultant leaders, and many of their senior and middle leader colleagues were drawn into school-to-school support. School business managers proved themselves capable of relieving headteachers of much of the onus of budget management, aided by improved management information systems. External ‘school improvement partners’ (SIPs) provided a measure of challenge and support. In 2006, Ofsted was re-established with a far wider remit. The incoming HM Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert, had particular concern for overcoming social disadvantage and undertook studies of outstanding schools in very challenging circumstances. By the end of the decade, a growing number of schools entered into supportive federations led by executive headteachers, and the first academies had been created. London’s consultant leaders had paved the way for designating (from 2006) national leaders of education (NLEs): headteachers recognised as being able to support other schools. 

Act 3: The teens (2010-19) – the growth of system leadership. 

The white paper ’The importance of teaching’ presented leaders with the challenge of forging a self-improving school system through taking responsibility for teacher education, school improvement and professional development at all levels. The numbers of NLEs and teaching school alliances swelled. The Education (Academies) Act 2010 gave good schools even more autonomy by encouraging them to convert to academies while reducing the autonomy of those that were corralled, willingly or not, into multi-academy trusts, many of which have a mission to adopt schools facing the greatest challenges. The leaders of large trusts are the new system leaders, their boards largely replacing the former middle tier of governance. Challenge Partners was different, a large network of like-minded schools with common purpose and principles, challenging and supporting each other. The National College was killed off and the Ambition Institute sprung up to do a similar job. Regional Schools Commissioners were appointed as government agents to do the business of promoting academies, brokering and rebrokering under-achieving schools and MATs. Curriculum and examinations were reformed, providing schools with further turbulence to manage. But the vision and leadership of pioneers like George Berwick, who have sustained a passion for improving the system, was key to solving many educational problems, as the frequently-changing succession of education ministers realised. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the world – although often surprised by the course of events in England – had not slept. New Zealand moved first and fastest in the ‘90s in detaching local government from schools. The European inspectorates began to meet regularly and pursued contrasting approaches to England. School autonomy grew in the Netherlands and elsewhere, not just in England. Sweden allowed chains of publicly funded schools like Kunskappskolen. Charter schools in the USA provided a stimulus for academies. Ontario borrowed and built on English standards for school leadership and Victoria, Australia valued its high performing principals to the extent of sending them to major leadership centres of learning across the world. Singapore provided an enlightened model of a creative school culture. Above all, major OECD studies: of teacher supply; school leadership, and accountability, assessment, and evaluation, have provided insightful analyses of these and other topics when combined with country data from PISA.  

Act 4, the present day, 2020 – the coronavirus pandemic. 

Schools closed in the UK and much of the world are to reopen gradually as it becomes clear that the virus is ageist, fortunately sparing of youth but devastating to those eligible for education in the Third Age. What will be the educational legacy of the pandemic? Will it change humanity, the nature of schooling, the engagement of parents, the role of distance learning and – above all, the deal for the underprivileged, for the better? What an opportunity for creative leadership. Something good must emerge from such a dreadful period.