Teaming up to move forward

Sponsored: Tim Wilbur, Director of School Consultancy at Gabbitas Education, looks at recruiting a successful senior leadership team

Gabbitas Education has been the proud sponsor of the ‘Senior Leadership Team of the Year Award’ at the Independent School Awards for the past three years. In this time, the following schools have proven to have exhibited the best examples in this category: Kent College Canterbury, Royal Grammar School Newcastle and this year, Wolverhampton Grammar School. The reason we have chosen to sponsor this category is that this represents the point of contact for all our work strands and we quickly get to appreciate an SLT’s capabilities and concerns.

With Independent Education Today’s special insight on recruitment, it may be worth reflecting on how a school builds an effective management team. This is apposite because our recruitment statistics show that, although the quality of applications for such posts remain high, the quantity of applications for each post is beginning
to decline. 

Independent headship is a prized role. Schools need nuanced leadership more than ever as they seek to provide the best education possible at what is becoming a difficult time for education. The complexities of competing demand on a leader’s time have reached an all-time high, with funding and compliance issues adding to the more traditional all-encompassing role. Since my appointment as a head in 2001, much-needed training, mentoring and qualification has shaped those taking up the reins. In the early days, although having a good grasp of specific elements of the role, I must admit there were aspects that I had to learn by experience. Perhaps those seeking headship remain concerned that whereas most of the other roles in the SLT are as promotion from a good working background in a certain area, headship remains a complicated catch-all position. Therefore, today, team is everything.  

Trying to keep abreast of the latest leadership thinking, a thought leader in another industry recommended I read Extreme Ownership by Willink and Babin. Although a macho account focused on leadership lessons learned by US SEAL operations in the Second Gulf War, it does go on to relate this to business and education. Like all these books, it has its limitations, but it also covers important ground. 

Tim Wilbur

The other roles in the SLT often depend on the size of the school, but almost universally there are now more of them. Leading schools long ago divided the curriculum sphere between curriculum management and curriculum development. This enabled the portfolio managers to keep abreast of developments in teaching and learning, tracking and assessment that were proving too much for one person. However, the real driver for SLT growth in recent times has become ‘safeguarding’ and ‘compliance’. In many ways, these areas have always been crucial to effective schooling; it is the tyranny of legislation that has moved them into a new dimension.

The irony remains that successful teaching practitioners often get taken away from the very
thing they are best at, to become cogs in a vast administrative wheel. The subject expertise lost to innumerable students in favour of the time given to devising and administering policy is reaching almost tragic proportions. 

On reflection, half a career spent in meetings that had few outcomes seems a complete waste. I grew to abhor meetings and scuttled back to teaching history or coaching games wherever I could. The ability to see schooling from the bottom up, the pressures on the students, the concerns of the staff but also the sheer joy of the interaction was both instructive and stimulating.

So, what is the key to recruiting a successful SLT? Modern education is complex; it requires strong leadership based on a superb team ethic. It is the role of the SLT to see that this team ethic pervades all levels of school. Teams need time and investment. Given the age we live in, we accept that valuable time has to be spent preparing for the worst-case scenarios, but we should never forget to hope for the best. Meetings as good communication are essential. However, limit them to the necessary; too many tired professionals hide behind them. Instead, focus on improving the opportunity of those incredible children in your temporary care. 

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