Shaping school culture through Headteacher Standards – do researchers need the same?

By Ben Durbin

Thursday 12 June 2014

The Department for Education is currently consulting on a new set of Headteacher Standards, and yesterday I attended a breakfast briefing hosted by Roy Blatchford, the Vice Chair of the review group.

At the event, a group of about 20 headteachers discussed a range of issues, from the content of the new standards (for example, moral purpose, values, competences, knowledge and skills), to more fundamental questions of what the standards are for, and how they can be written to apply as much to the head of a small rural infant school as an executive head of a group of inner city secondary schools.

One attendee highlighted the opportunity the new standards provide to reinforce the importance of creating the right culture in schools. I agree that this is key for a host of reasons, not least so that when a successful headteacher leaves a school, the success doesn’t leave with him or her.  I’m particularly interested in how a culture of innovation and continual improvement can be created where, at each stage, practice is informed by and tested against the best available evidence.

NFER has recently undertaken a joint project with United Learning to explore some of the ways this can be achieved. We interviewed a variety of staff from seven schools identified as having made positive progress, and discussed the approaches they find are working best. One common thread was the emphasis placed on confidence: to try new things, to take risks and sometimes fail, and to turn problems into opportunities.

Specific approaches include providing resources and support to research and evaluate new practice; providing targeted insights from external research; and building discussions about research findings into regular meetings (e.g. departmental or all staff meetings). Our joint report (due to be published in the next few weeks), will contain plenty more suggestions, and will be accompanied by some resources for senior leadership teams.

I wonder, though, whether headteachers are just part of the story. For young people to benefit from an education informed by the best available evidence, it will take more than just leadership within schools. Carole Willis highlighted in her recent blog some of the changes that are also needed within the research community. These include a focus on the needs of teachers and schools in research commissioning and design; and translating research findings into concrete messages for practice, again involving teachers themselves where possible.

The challenge is to ensure that such best practice becomes the norm, and the responsibility here lies with the research and commissioning communities. One part of the solution could be to follow the example set in teaching: why not develop a set of Researcher Standards, to be adopted by all individuals and institutions committed to making a difference with their research?

Agreeing a set of standards would require similar discussions to yesterday’s headteacher group. And, much like that process, it would provide a valuable opportunity to shape a research culture centred around meeting today’s education challenges and improving the lives of learners.