System Leadership and Leading Beyond the School

Next year will mark the 15th anniversary of LLS, launched as part of the London Challenge in 2003. On 5th October Professor David Woods CBE, Chair of LLS and former Chief Advisor to London Challenge, delivered a session for our Going for Great programme on system leadership and leading beyond the school, one of the founding principles of LLS.


In that system outstanding schools acted as ‘tug-boats’ for Keys to Success schools – the best sharing with the rest. With this and other support the Keys to Success schools improved very quickly. But the evaluations also revealed that the outstanding schools got even better, mainly because they had got sharper at reflection. It was a win-win strategy which still has great relevance for school-to-school support today.



While London Challenge and LLS showed that there are individual advantages in system leadership, a fundamental keystone of system leadership is shared moral purpose. This means a fundamental aim to drive improvement in the education system itself, to help other schools improve and serve those children that are most disadvantaged and embed the mantras that “deprivation is not destiny” and “whatever the barriers, children can achieve”. LLS has taken these principles beyond London into various regions of the country.


However, despite moves towards greater connectivity through Multi-Academy Trusts, Teaching School Alliances, Federations and the like, there is a risk to system leadership because “there is not much glue in the system”. Symptomatic of this are “system silos” - isolated groups of schools which talk to each other but don't interact with the wider system. 


One cause of the lack of system leadership is “the Janus face” - the dual pressures of collaboration and competition that have resulted from marketisation, especially in dense, urban areas. Schools compete for students and increasingly, for pockets of funding too. However, in London moral purpose remains very strong and there’s still a great willingness to work with other schools through open and connected leadership.



There are ways around this problem. David referenced the solution devised by London Universities, of which there are 40. Facing increasing competition for international students they adopted a model of “Coopetition: collaboration to bake a bigger cake, competition to divide it up”. In other words, if schools can work together to provide a better overall offer, everyone will benefit.


So what does system leadership look like? David outlined the various players within the ‘self-improving school system’. Many schools are linked within Multi-Academy Trusts, Federations, dioceses, Teaching School Alliances and other partnerships. Then there are National Leaders of Education, Specialist Leaders of Education, National Leaders of Governance and individual leaders and expert practitioners who work between schools to deliver school-to-school support.  



Other communities of practice can offer platforms for collaboration. The Going for Great programme brings together outstanding schools in order to share learning and facilitate school-to-school visits. This culminates in the creation of a book of case studies in order to share the learning more widely and inspire similar innovation elsewhere.


We also need to look beyond the school system. For example, it is important to form links with other public services such as health and social services. Here David referenced Pillar 8 of 9 Pillars of Greatness, which calls for “High quality partnerships, with parents and carers, the community, other schools and networks, locally, nationally and internationally.” David expands on this theme in a blog on Local Area Partnerships here.

More information on the 9 pillars of Greatness can be found here. They can be complimented by four capitals: moral capital, knowledge capital; social capital; organisational capital.



Then, within schools, there are opportunities for systemic leadership. Whereas system leadership refers to the leaders of the system, systemic leadership refers to leadership within the system, “going deeper and wider - reaching the parts system leadership can’t touch”. For systemic leadership to occur headteachers must “identify and value our best teachers” and encourage them to develop and take part in specialist communities of practice with other expert practitioners.


“Does the system know what the system knows? Do groups of schools know what they know?” David asked. Systemic leadership means identifying and mobilising the solutions that exist within the system, ensuring that good practice does not occur in isolation.


The Whole School SEND Consortium, both a community of specialist practice and a cross-sector network with a shared moral purpose, is a good example of these principles in action. Hosted by London Leadership Strategy it comprises more than 4,500 practitioners, parents, young people researchers, government officials and third sector organisations with the shared aim of working together to share learning, drive policy and ultimately improve provision for leaners with SEND.



Encouraging these principles and facilitating school-to-school support in its many forms is central to the work of London Leadership Strategy. Our challenge now is to take these values beyond London, to areas where they are most needed.


David closed his presentation with a quote from Michael Fullan: “The longest lever we have at our disposal is leadership: leadership at all levels, leaders who leave behind a legacy of leaders that can go even further, leaders who step out to make wider contributions and a pipeline of leaders developing their dispositions and skills… it is impossible to get a system perspective if we only stay at home. We need cross-connected leadership experiences in order to transform the system so that progressive cultures flourish.”


 LLS is based upon a compelling and inclusive moral purpose to be shared and acted upon by everyone – the fundamental belief that all children and young people deserve the best possible education whatever the barriers of race, poverty and other social barriers. Through system leadership school leaders support each other to achieve the best possible outcomes for children. The strategy provides a wide range of opportunities to work together through purposeful networking and open and connected leadership. From this leaders can develop their professional learning and exchange best practice in order to drive school improvement in London and across the country.

Jack Davies is Programme and Communications Officer at LLS

25th October 2017
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