There are a number of stages involved in the formation of any leadership team.
Rarely will you find yourself with the same leaders year after year, and in most cases – unless you’re in a newly opened school – you’ll have inherited an existing team. Here, I’ll look at what establishing an SLT as a new head involves, when and why to review it, and how to grow new leaders when experienced leaders move on.
I recently met with four heads, all new to their schools, and each said something along the following lines: “I don’t know how X got onto the leadership team – they don’t even like the school, let alone want it to improve!”
Two of the headteachers felt that members of their teams were actively seeking to undermine their leadership, citing ‘larger than life’ personalities, inappropriate gossiping in the staff room and a harking back to the ‘good old days’. Well, those ‘good old days’ are gone, and you’re what’s replaced them.
Staff-room gossip, however, directly contravenes section 8 of the DfE’s Teachers’ Standards, which calls on staff do ‘Develop effective professional relationships with colleagues.’ What do you do in that instance?
The first thing to remember is that you were employed to deliver your vision. The school’s governing body will have spent a great deal of time and energy recruiting you, and you must feel that you are in a position where you can lead – which means you don’t have to retain the existing leadership team. They’re the old guard.
You’ll very quickly come to know the strengths of your team. Back in 1990s I worked with a headteacher who dissolved her entire team and took on mainly the school’s youngest teachers, since she felt they were the teachers with the most to prove and who had the best interests of the children at heart. She was right, and two years later a failing school was judged to be Good.
Equally, I remember the first leadership team I inherited. They were strong, with plenty of potential, but there was one rogue member. She made it clear that she intended to remain being a rogue and that ‘I should get used to it’. Now, to be clear, I encourage professional challenge, but not churlish actions simply for the sake of it. As I did with the aforementioned new heads, I asked the question, ‘How did she get onto the SLT?’ The reality was that whilst she was intimidating, her practice was weak and within two terms she had left.
It’s in those early days that you have to be at your strongest, while you shape the long-term team around you who you feel can help deliver your vision. In the case of those two headteachers who were struggling with rogue leaders of their own, the common thread was that the individuals concerned had holes in their practice that were significant enough to impact upon their capability, which they attempted to mask with overbearing personalities. Perhaps there’s a correlation?
Once you’ve organised your team you must consider how you’re going to shape it. Fair representation from across the school is important, as there’s a risk that the SLT members cam all come from the same Key Stage. In some primaries and all-through schools, it’s critical that you include someone from the EYFS. Their curriculum and experience of the school will be radically different to the rest of your staff, with the result that their departmental team can become disenfranchised. Keeping them on the SLT will ensure they retain a meaningful stake in school development.
The shape of an SLT can also be determined by the stage you’re at as a school. At various times I’ve had larger and smaller teams depending on need. Changing the team kept things fresh and focused on our learners’ needs, rather than having it turn it into a weekly club who met in the head’s office. When I opened a new school we kept the SLT intentionally tight; only three years into our growth did I expand it to encourage new members. Which brings us to…
Growing new leaders
The SLT can feel like a closed ‘club’. Middle leaders might get the impression that there’s no reasonable access into the upper echelons of school leadership, which not only limits their growth but may also deprive you of that additional energy new leaders bring to the team. You should be intentionally looking at who within your staff body has the potential to be a leader. Even if you have limited capacity for moving your SLT around – it can happen – that doesn’t prevent you from inviting a middle leader to join your focus SLT meetings.
This can introduce them to the strategic dialogue within the room that’s distinct from the ‘training monologue’ that typically characterises weekly staff development meetings, because tempers can flare in the SLT. Confidential items will be discussed and ideas will be floated, so it’s important that an element of professional confidentiality is maintained by those present. You wouldn’t expect a member of SLT to speak inappropriately in a staff meeting, and equally you wouldn’t expect them to share confidential information. Attending SLT meetings as a guest can be an effective soft introduction and ease your way towards growing the team if you feel it’s appropriate.
If your team is working successfully, then your deputies or heads of school should be moving on to headship themselves. In six years of being a headteacher I’ve managed to grow three heads of school and two headteachers. We haven’t lost momentum as a school, since I’m constantly looking for and challenging those who could potentially take up leadership positions when gaps inevitably arise. Importantly, I’ve grown my local network of ‘headteacher friends’ with my own staff. The first time someone moved on filled me with some fear, but my policy now is to enjoy the energy the team brings in the moment rather than worrying about how to fill any gaps, as I know there are people waiting to step up. Indeed, some are quite keen to!
Leadership teams reflect where a school is at, as well as the reality that ambitious staff will inevitably move on. By definition, your most ambitious colleagues will be those who have applied for senior positions, making SLT potentially the most vulnerable team in the school. Understanding that movement in the SLT will allow you the space to change its make-up, so that it best reflects the needs of the school and presents opportunities for potential new leaders.
Even if you have what you consider to be a strong team that already reflects the school’s needs, you should still be looking to all staff for growth. Because if they’re ambitious and you don’t accommodate that ambition, somebody else will.
5 points to remember
1. It’s your school – if you’ve inherited SLT colleagues who aren’t on board with you or your vision, change them.
2. A good SLT should be representative of the whole school and contain a mix of specialisms.
3. When looking to appoint someone new, familiarise them with SLT protocol by first inviting them to a meeting or two.
4. Smaller, more consistent teams may be better when a school is new; a different, larger team may be more suitable when a school expands.
5. Don’t be too concerned when ambitious SLT members move to different schools – you’ve developed successful leaders, and others will want to follow them.
Anthony David is an experienced headteacher, executive headteacher and educational writer and speaker