Systems leadership is all about spotting the right people in your school to share their wisdom and best practice, regardless of job title. And it can lead to dramatic improvements, says Neil Miller

Every school leader should be focused on improvement, whether that’s taking a school from “inadequate” to “good”, or “good” to “outstanding”, or anything in between.

There are many ways to do this, but I’ve found that taking a systems leadership approach to the improvement process not only supports rapid, positive change across an organisation, but can also provide a productive, long-term, sustainable and collaborative way of working.

The idea of systems leaders in education was introduced by Canadian educational researcher Michael Fullan in 2005. Then, in 2010, David Hargreaves from the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services wrote about “creating a self-improving school system”. He positioned systems leaders as one of four building blocks for effective school self-improvement, encouraging collaboration as schools became less centralised.

Essentially, systems leadership is about identifying the best people within your wider organisation to share best practice and support their colleagues, regardless of their position – so it could be a middle leader, an experienced teacher or an NQT leading a project. What matters is having the skill set for the job. So it’s about embedding processes that you know work, delivered by the people on the ground who have tried and tested the techniques.

By modelling behaviour on the ground, systems leaders support staff in a collaborative way on the front line. This gives much greater validity to what is being suggested in terms of change, nurturing an environment of shared vision and purpose rather than one of autocratic, top-down management (which is unlikely to get the best out of all staff).

The members of staff selected as systems leaders are also likely to benefit significantly from the opportunity, developing their own coaching and leadership skills.

Systems leadership: No wrecking ball

Here’s a good case study. Our trust took on an “inadequate” school last April. Like any school in this position, it faced significant challenges, but it also had key strengths with some exceptional talent and great ideas.

Rather than going in with a wrecking ball, we were focused on harnessing the positives. We worked closely with the existing leadership team to preserve the things that were working and empowered them to make the changes needed. We then brought in specialist staff – our systems leaders – from across the trust to work alongside the staff team to further improve key areas.

Behaviour, for example, was supported by a brilliant middle leader who went into the school and worked with staff to demonstrate techniques that had already proved a success at our other schools. This was not about telling staff what they were doing wrong; it was about sharing ideas from the perspective of someone who deals with the same issues every day and empowering them to look at things differently.

As a result, improvement was swift and dramatic. Staff felt supported throughout, which meant great cooperation and very little pushback.

By taking this approach, we retained good staff members, and were able to ensure that we fully understood the needs and challenges of the school and its pupils. The improvement journey has been rapid, despite the challenges of Covid-19.

Any organisational or cultural change like this requires the adaptation of current working practices, and that can be challenging. Taking a systems approach to leadership can support this by encouraging less autocracy and less hierarchy, along with greater recognition of the strengths of staff.

As in any workplace, if staff are put at the heart of decision making, and are genuinely consulted and involved in change, you are much more likely as a leader or leadership team to earn their loyalty and commitment. And it follows that a well-supported, collaborative and motivated team will result in better teaching and learning, as well as improved outcomes for pupils, which is the ultimate goal for every school.

This isn’t about taking accountability or ownership away from the leadership team – it’s about harnessing talent to support change and improvement.

Here are some points to consider if you’re implementing a systems leadership approach:

Dive into the talent pool

Look across your whole organisation, not just your senior leaders. Is there a first-rate practitioner who could work with their peers to share techniques, ideas and approaches?

The behaviour specialist we sent into the new school was a middle leader, and he rolled up his sleeves to work with staff and pupils. From his modelling of behaviours and demonstration of tried-and-tested techniques in the classroom, staff gained confidence to do the same.

Don’t overload staff

Ensure you can backfill positions when moving high-performing staff to support others. And don’t put too many new initiatives in place at once. Systems leadership is about carefully managing resources and identifying where capacity is available to provide peer-to-peer support, without weakening successful provision. Concentrate on a small number of initiatives and embed them successfully rather than adopting a scattergun approach that will overwhelm everyone.

Observe, consult, collaborate and review

As executive headteacher, the first thing I did when we took on our new school was to observe and listen to what was actually going on, from the kitchen to the classrooms. Only with this full understanding of the landscape could we then put support in place where it was needed. Genuine consultation and action on feedback is key, together with regular reviews of any changes, to ensure they are deliverable and are having an impact.

Give the right people the tools

It’s all about supporting people by empowering them. Support specialist practitioners to use their expertise by ensuring they have everything they need to do the job, rather than trying to tell them how to do it. This may include mentoring, coaching and other professional development, as well as providing them with the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills more widely when things are working well.

Neil Miller is Deputy CEO and Executive Headteacher at London South East Academies Trust

In the News: This article originally appeared in the 23 April 2021 issue of the TES under the headline “How to harness the underused talent around you”


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