Charging the Power Pack

Sarah Thomas (Bryanston School) and Nigel Lashbrook (Oakham School) offer their perspectives on the recent Sustainable Leadership Course organised by HMCPD

Sarah Thomas (Course Director)

For the first time this year, HMC trialled a course looking to enable current Heads to consider their own methodologies for sustaining their leadership of schools. The delegates who took the plunge possessed a pleasingly wide range of headship experience and I want to thank them all for signing up to a bright idea and for getting stuck in.

I think it’s true to say that some sessions were more immediately useful and effective than others (as I suppose is always the case with a new course) and I’ll leave Nigel to tell you more about that if he wishes as a non-partisan delegate. Suffice to say I left thinking hard about next steps, both for this first cohort of brave experts and for the course itself.

I think it’s important to do so because I think it’s essential that people with experience continue to run schools. As one of the older ladies in the South West division, I can say that I have been saddened by the way in which colleagues seem on occasion to disappear in a puff of smoke, never to be seen or heard from again, for more or less mysterious reasons. The sense that headship is as precarious as running a Premier League football club has grown in my 14 years and it seems inimical to good progress in schools. And schools matter, they really do, because pupils matter. I can’t believe, incidentally, that this is an issue confined to independent schools.

And then there is the sense that the job has just got more full-on, more demanding, more consuming, however successful you are and however much you are enjoying the role. And it is a role. And a vocation. It’s not your entire life force or personality. And it will all come to an end at some point, because all things pass. Key to dealing with all of this is to keep sight of self and of personal values and to find the right balance. The course looked at ways to achieve this, whether in your first, second or third headship.

There’s no one answer to how to sustain your own leadership but it turns out that life coaching ought to be considered standard in terms and conditions, even if some Heads don’t want to access it themselves - and that the most dangerous temptation of all is to think you are your suit.

Next steps will follow I hope at HMC Conference in October. I’m guessing that the job of being a successful and sane Head isn’t going to get any easier over the next few years and good, successful (as opposed to simply Teflon) people are needed in the job. I’d like to think this course has helped begin some sort of joined-up thinking on this, with the help of all the delegates involved, many of the contributors, not least of Richard Harman in his AGBIS role, and of Director of HMC Professional Development, Melanie Horsburgh. Thanks to you all!

Nigel Lashbrook (Course Participant)

At a time when we are constantly looking at our planet’s sustainability – and we must do so if we are to guarantee the futures of those generations which will follow us – it seemed very apt for HMC to run its first course in Sustainable Leadership. This lies at the heart of leadership and none more so than in an educational context.

Sustainable leadership works on two levels: firstly from a whole school perspective to ensure that our vision goes beyond mere short-term outcomes and becomes part of the longer term learning culture. Secondly, and vitally, it is fundamentally linked to us as individual leaders sustaining ourselves in what is an all-consuming role in our schools.

By bringing together Heads, with a wide range of experiences, there was a wonderful opportunity to share ideas, different perspectives and simple strategies for sustaining ourselves and our schools at a time of ever increasing pressures – be they economic, political or simply the challenge of leading an independent school in a world of ever increasing parental expectations.

Quite rightly, the course could not properly address sustainability without an opportunity to engage with leaders from outside the ‘bubble’ of education, and thus the discussion led by David Ashton was pitched perfectly. The chance to draw parallels with leadership in the NHS gave us all food for thought and reassurance that there is much for us to learn from, and share with, other sectors. His session reinforced the fact that we should be seeking out more opportunities to do this, as it is, unfortunately, all too easy for Heads to feel isolated within our own schools.

Throughout the two days, there was much to share about the need to embed positive learning in our schools for all our students - which comes from a clear strategy that is well communicated. The role that Governors must play in working with Heads in establishing the vision and subsequent strategy was extensively explored in the session led by Richard Harman onGovernance and Management (and where the boundaries lie). Without such a strategy, which is well communicated to all stakeholders in the school community, there can be little hope of sustainability within a school. Effective strategies must go beyond mere temporary gains (such as those driven by league table position) but must focus on sustained development of student learning.

Sustainable leadership must be spread across a school and no more so than amongst the senior leadership team. Much discussion touched on the need to empower other leaders in school, including middle leaders, and to develop methods of “talent management” in a school context. Heads cannot work in isolation – effective teams create a far stronger culture of sustainable leadership than can ever be achieved by one individual.

It is often said that leadership can only ever be sustainable if it sustains the leaders themselves. There was much for us to share and learn about mental well-being and there were many good ideas to take away. The importance of taking time off without feeling guilty was a strong message that struck a chord with all.

At its core, sustainable leadership recognises that there are many different kinds of excellence in learning, teaching and leading – there is no one approach (standardisation is the enemy of sustainability) and by sharing we are able to add so much more to our day-to-day professional lives.