A new look at leadership

Emma Turner, research and CPD lead at Discovery Schools Academy Trust, and previous co-head at Latimer Primary School, makes the case for a radical shift in our perceptions of educational leadership

If there was a single demographic from which experienced talent was consistently haemorrhaged – representing as much as 37% of all leavers from the profession – we would no doubt be boosting our efforts to retain these colleagues and reduce that figure.

However, in education, this figure is already a reality for women between the ages of 30–40, with 37% of all leavers from the education profession being made up by this group. After retirees, women in this age bracket are the most likely to leave education.

After having three babies in five years during my time in one of the UK’s first all-female co-headships, I could easily have been part of this statistic.

However, the flexibility of co-headship ensured that my colleague (also a working mother) and I were able to remain and flourish in our roles during a period of extreme life changes – which could have precluded us from gaining further leadership experience and growth.

We were fortunate enough to have forward-thinking and innovative governors who, back in 2009, saw the potential benefits in a new model of leadership. By establishing a co-headship, they were able to retain the combined experience of two deputy heads, as well as enable us both to remain in the classroom in our key year groups of year 2 and year 6.

During our co-headship we had two successful Ofsted inspections where the co-headship was consistently praised as a strength and being instrumental in ongoing development and improvement.

However, this more life-friendly model of leadership is yet to be thought of as anything other than ‘novel’ or ‘different’. Most writing and research into models of leadership reflects this, which was why I became increasingly frustrated during my third maternity leave at the overarching narratives of leadership that failed to take into account anything outside of the leadership post – such as caring commitments, a family, a hobby, or even a life!

I became increasingly frustrated during my third maternity leave at the overarching narratives of leadership that failed to take into account anything outside of the leadership post

All I could see was a dominating belief that in order to be a successful leader, we must always be ‘on’, present and definitely full-time.

However, the facts are that we all have lives and these lives are often messy, complicated and pull at our personal (and precious) time and energy resources.

Shared leadership, be that at headship, senior or middle management, is one vital way in which we can support colleagues with ongoing development, retain talent and encourage education to catch up with the wider world of work where flexibility is often offered far more frequently.

One of the barriers to people perceiving joint leadership in schools as something achievable is the small quota of people who have experienced this model.

Our first cohort of pupils from our co-headship will now be 20 at the oldest, so it will be some time before the adult population is able to comment on and reference their schooldays with a co-leadership model in the same way most of us can now with a sole leadership model.

But change is not something we should view with suspicion – long-established systems aren’t necessarily the most effective ones. Whatever the drivers for seeking flexible or part-time work – be it parenting commitments, caring for a spouse/elderly relative, studying or hobbies – the education system should always aim to accommodate talent rather than pull up the metaphorical drawbridge to anyone who wants to make a change to existing structures.

The benefits of flexible working in leadership are huge: in-built support and coaching, twice the brainpower and expertise when solving problems or thinking strategically, in-built flexibility for being in two places at once for the inevitable diary clashes, a balance of expertise and skills, and twice as much experience rolled into one single role.

People often query how the day-to-day management of the role is carved up, but from my own experience this is simply a question about management and not one about leadership.

If a leadership strategy is fixed in place, the day-to-day management issues are easily tackled.

I now work part-time in another leadership role within an MAT where I continue to work flexibly and have remained in the education system despite having a very young family. Thinking creatively about how we structure our leadership teams and how we develop leadership talent should be integral to our discussions about recruitment and retention.

By ensuring that the widest possible pool of talented colleagues have access to leadership positions, we ensure that our leadership lenses continue to widen and enable our wonderful profession to retain talent and encourage a natural maturation of the system.

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