When Arthur Levine, then the president of Teachers College at Columbia University, wrote a scathing report in 2005 on the preparation of American school leaders, the one institution he singled out as a “promising model” wasn’t even in the United States. It was England’s National College for School Leadership.
Created by the government of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, with the mission of “every child in a well-led school, every leader a learner,” the college was designed to modernize the way school leaders are developed and supported at every stage of their careers, and to elevate their status.
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According to Tony Bush, a professor of educational leadership and management at the University of Lincoln, in Lincoln, England, it is “probably the most comprehensive and sophisticated national school-leadership-development model in the world.”
Located here in Nottingham in a state-of-the-art conference facility, with soaring glass windows overlooking a lake, the college is a free-standing institution, independent of any university and almost wholly funded by the government. The focus is on developing individuals who can lead instructional improvement in their schools by drawing on both research and practice, aligned with the country’s national standards.
One of the college’s key responsibilities is the National Professional Qualification for Headship, or NPQH. Introduced in 1997 to prepare candidates for the headship, or principalship, and underpinned by a set of national standards, the credential will become mandatory for all newly appointed head teachers by April 2009. Since April 2004, individuals new to the headship must either hold the qualification or be in the process of getting it.
The college is essentially the national credentialing authority for the NPQH—determining the content of the program, setting the standards for its delivery, and maintaining quality across nine regional providers. The latter range from Manchester and New Castle universities, to two free-standing leadership centers, to a consortium of local government authorities.
Most candidates earn the credential within 14 months, although a small fraction with more extensive leadership experience can complete the program in as little as six months. Like all the college’s programs, the NPQH relies on a combination of face-to-face seminars, mentoring, online instruction and networking, and site visits to actual schools.
In addition to the NPQH, the college offers programs for teachers who are just beginning to take on leadership roles, school business managers, school teams wishing to improve their effectiveness, and experienced heads who want to exercise leadership beyond their own schools. A robust research and evaluation program; an extensive e-learning community, with more than 120,000 members; and a series of strategic initiatives in response to government priorities round out the college’s activities.
“What’s most important, and what our research emphasizes here, is what I’d call applicable knowledge: know-how, as well as know-what,” says Geoff Southworth, the deputy executive director of the college and its strategic director of research and policy. “Our courses do rely on theory, but they’re deeply practical. And that’s what our clients, our customers, our colleagues in schools value.”
In England, standards for ‘heads’ are clear and public.
Since 1997, more than 23,000 people have completed the NQPH, or about 85 percent of those who began the program. “When the NPQH was first set up, it was itself a big innovation,” says Southworth. “There hadn’t been such a qualification. So one of the early things it had to do was to get into the bloodstream of the profession, and it’s done that.”
An “Independent Study into School Leadership” , conducted this year conducted this year by PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international consulting firm, found that 44 percent of school heads who had completed the NPQH thought it was the most useful of the professional-development activities they had participated in.
Judgments by the government’s school inspection unit —the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services, and Skills—also have found that the quality of school leaders is going up. The office now judges leadership and management to be good or better in 84 percent of secondary schools and 76 percent of primary schools, while only 4 percent of primary schools and 5 percent of secondary schools have “unsatisfactory” leadership.
“Before, there was virtually no formal preparation for school leadership. It was a matter of luck if you managed to be in the right place to pick up decent training,” says Carole A. Whitty, the deputy general secretary for the National Association of Head Teachers, whose 40,000 members represent the largest association of school leaders in England. “So by introducing NPQH, you’re raising the aspirations of the whole country, in terms of what you get when you appoint somebody to run your education system.”
A survey this year of 640 heads, deputy heads, and other school leaders found that 87 percent believe the college is helping to raise standards in schools.
“I think its strength is it does provide a focus for school leadership training, and that’s really important,” says David Hopkins, who was the dean of education at the University of Nottingham when it won the competition to house the college and who subsequently served in the Blair government. “The symbolic nature of the college raises the status of school leadership in the country.”
Even so, both the National College for School Leadership and the National Professional Qualification for Headship have been subject to criticism since their inception. Particularly in its early years, the college was criticized for being too diffuse and for trying to deliver too many of its programs directly.
“It was all over the map,” says Michael Fullan, a professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, who recently completed a small-scale evaluation of the college for its chief executive, Steve Munby. “It was sponsoring networks upon networks, and nobody could find its center of gravity.”
One of Munby’s first acts in assuming leadership of the college in March 2005 was to reach out to some 500 heads across the country to find out what they wanted from the college.
“So we’ve seen, over the last few years, a much closer partnership between school leaders and the national college,” says Whitty. “School leaders feel they’ve got a college which is more theirs than it was.”
Munby has focused the college more clearly on the preparation and support of school leaders at all levels of the system. And he has worked more closely than his predecessor with the national government to provide advice on key government priorities. One of those is leadership succession. Nearly a quarter of England’s head teachers are expected to retire in the next five years, creating a pressing need to identify and groom the next generation of school leaders.
The NPQH also has been criticized as being too mechanistic and for credentialing people who never intended to become heads. Although the national data are weak, estimates are that fewer than half those who have earned the qualification so far have gone on to assume a headship.
“I don’t think it would be a secret to say that I think it needs a bit more refocusing,” says Barry Day, the head of the Greenwood Dale secondary school in Nottingham. “From my perspective, I’d like to see a bit more streamlining, and a bit more rigidity in terms of how people get into the program.”
While some of those at a recent training session expressed a strong desire to become head teachers, others were less certain—citing concerns about balancing work and family life, among other considerations.
“I don’t necessarily want to be a head teacher,” said Louise J. Goffer, an assistant principal at Longslade Community College, a secondary school in Birstall, a suburban village north of Leicester. She enrolled in the program because she felt that colleagues who had completed it “had a wider understanding of learning and of leadership.”
“Now I’m on the course,” she added, “I’m more open-minded about it, because I can see it’s an exciting prospect.”
Last May, England’s secretary of state for education approved the college’s plans for redesigning the NPQH, based on a yearlong consultation with the field. This fall, the college will begin recruiting 150 candidates for a pilot to begin in March 2008. The redesign will include a more rigorous assessment of candidates on entry; a more rapid and personalized route through the program, focused on peer learning and coaching and on placements outside a candidate’s own school; and efforts to improve the proportion of graduates who actually become head teachers.
In part, the college is responding to the changing and increasingly complex leadership environment. The government’s Every Child Matters agenda now requires head teachers to coordinate education with other social services and to give children access to a variety of activities beyond the school day. And its agenda for upper-secondary education requires school leaders to work more in partnership with higher education institutions. In addition, new models of school leadership have been springing up around the country, ranging from head teachers who are leading more than one school to those given responsibility for coordinating strategy and relationships between networks of schools.
Induction day: Candidates meet their personal tutors and other members of their tutoring groups and form “learning circles” with four to six colleagues who support one another through the six- to 14-month program.
Contract visit: Each candidate receives a half-day visit at school from his or her tutor, during which they agree on a personal-development plan, including visits to other schools and a school improvement project.
Supported self-study: Candidates work through 16 study units based on their areas of need, participate in online and telephone discussions and meetings with their learning circles and tutoring groups, and attend four face-to-face events focused on developing the skills needed for headship. Each candidate must also keep a “learning journal” and carry out his or her personal-development plan.
School-based assessment: Candidates each receive a whole-day visit at school from an assessor, who gauges their contribution to school improvement, their expertise in the key areas of the national standards for headship, and their capacity to reflect on what they’ve learned.
Final skills assessment: During this one-day assessment, the candidate demonstrates his or her overall readiness for the headship. Both the school-based and final skills assessments are subject to regional and national moderation to ensure all candidates have met the same criteria.
SOURCES: Education Week; National College for School Leadership
“What we want to do is make the NPQH more personalized, more contextualized,” says Southworth. “It’s probably, in its current form, not as flexible as it needs to be.”
What the college hopes to retain are the benefits of the practically rooted, peer-to-peer interactions, evident at a recent face-to-face meeting at Beaumanor Hall, just outside Nottingham. On a beautiful spring day, 32 aspiring school leaders are crowded into a second-floor conference room in the 19th-century mansion, which now serves as a conference center for teachers in Leicestershire County.
Despite the temptations outside, the buzz in the room is palpable. The educators have just been asked to each turn to a colleague and discuss a time when they served as a leader and had a successful outcome. What did they say and do that led to that outcome?
Ten minutes later, they’re asked to share with a different partner the behaviors and attributes of a colleague in a leadership role who had a positive impact on them.
Ten minutes after that, the educators change partners yet again to talk about how a past or present head teacher shaped the culture of their school in a positive way.
The rapid-fire exchanges, designed to encourage reflection and to root the day’s discussions of “leading for learning” in the very practical context of real schools, are typical of the college’s approach. The session is led by Neil Plimmer, a practicing head teacher with 16 years’ experience, and Graham Osborne, a tutor and previous head teacher, who is responsible for supporting about a dozen of the individuals in the room as they work their way through the qualification program.
Prior to the meeting, the aspiring head teachers have participated in an induction session; completed a self-diagnosis of their leadership skills and learning styles, derived from key areas of the standards; and received a half-day visit from their tutors to develop an individual learning plan targeted on their needs and to identify a school improvement project that the candidates will each lead, and that will form a significant part of their school-based assessments.
At today’s face-to-face event, most of the candidates are deputy head teachers, or assistant principals, although a few are heads of subject-matter departments, and one is serving as a consultant to a local authority. In between the assigned day’s activities, they swap stories, network, and share problems and other issues.
“I think face-to-face is really useful because everyone brings with them their own experiences, and there are similarities in those that we can discuss quite openly, which gives you confidence in your own decisionmaking and leadership skills,” says Simon T. Bent, a deputy head at the Melton-Mowbray Sherard Primary School in Leicestershire County.
Fiona Oliver, a vice principal at Fullhurst Community College, a secondary school in the city of Leicester, describes the biggest strength of the program as “the ability to really reflect, because there normally isn’t too much time to do that, and that’s quite powerful.”
For her improvement project, she’s leading an effort to revise the school’s behavior plan in consultation with teachers, parents, students, and all the primary schools that feed into the school. Other candidates are updating a school policy for gifted and talented students, forming an “ecoteam” of students to make their school a greener place, and improving a school’s use of data to provide better mentoring for students and raise achievement.
The school improvement project must show that the candidate can manage a leadership effort across the whole school, and must be embraced by the head teacher as useful for the school itself. “It shouldn’t be spurious, made-up work, but a pretty substantial piece of work to move the whole school forward,” says Richard Jones, a senior program manager for the National College.
At the end of the self-study period, an assessor will visit the candidate’s school to determine whether he or she is ready to proceed to the final stage of the NPQH program, after examining evidence that includes the results of the school improvement project and interviews with people at the school.
The final stage includes a 48-hour residential session at the conference center in Nottingham, as well as a one-day skills assessment.
The total cost of the program is about 3,000 pounds—or $6,000—per participant in the standard, 14-month route. Candidates from large schools pay about 20 percent of that, while those from schools of 100 or fewer pupils are entirely subsidized by the government.
Despite criticisms, and the pending redesign, most observers say that the college has changed the discourse about school leadership in England by making such notions as distributed leadership—spreading initiative across individuals within a school—part of the common nomenclature.
“For the first time, we have an organization that is working with us, for us,” says Richard Gerver, the head of Grange Primary School in Long Eaton, a suburb of Nottingham.
Whether something like the National College for School Leadership could ever work in the United States is an open question. Many of those interviewed in both England and the United States suggest that the college—or something like it—would be feasible at the state level. But they doubted it would be possible at the national level, given both the size of the United States and concerns about federal intrusion in state affairs.
The advantage of the NPQH, notes Jones, is that both the qualification and the standards on which it is based are “very public. They’re transparent.”
“And it does give that national assurance,” he says, “that a head in Cornwall and a head in London are working toward the same standards, although obviously how it will play out is different in different schools.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as A National View