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By: Jeni Ling

The role of senior leader

The role of senior leader (SL) in school, encompasses a broad spectrum of roles, including; Vice Principals, Assistant Vice Principals, Faculty Leads, Advanced Skills Teachers (ASTs), SENCOs, and curriculum or pastoral leaders. Most, but not all, Senior Leaders will be members of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) and have whole-school responsibilities, but this will vary from school to school. Often there is no generic function of the role of SLs in schools and at times little distinction between the role of Vice and Assistant Principals, or indeed middle and senior leaders.

Each Senior Leadership role may have different requirements according to the setting, so how can teachers best prepare for this role? In my article in TEACH Middle East, March 2019, I outlined the prerequisites for applying for a middle leader’s role. All these are also relevant when applying for an SL post. Do you need to be a middle leader before a senior leader? Not necessarily, if you can demonstrate the right skills, expertise, and experience.

The focus for SLs is on continuous improvement of teaching, learning and pupil achievement. Their leadership experience and skills ensure that they understand the impact that changes in process and procedure can have on teaching and learning. They need to lead their teams authentically to ensure these changes are made. They are expected to take on significant accountability for the school’s performance which means the role is often both operational and strategic and relies on working with and through colleagues, particularly through middle leaders, to ensure every pupil gets a high-quality education. They also have considerable budgetary responsibility and are expected to play their part in ensuring school resources are used efficiently and effectively.

What skills and expertise do Senior Leaders need?

Senior school leaders need to exhibit competencies and behaviours similar to those of a Principal

as they will play a key role in developing, promoting, and evaluating the impact of school strategies. With the Principal, they have the responsibility for whole-school performance and are accountable for the performance of staff reporting directly to them. This pushes accountability down to middle leaders, who need to be accountable for performance in their areas. Holding others to account can be challenging for new SLs, particularly if their promotion is in-school.

Building professional and leadership capacity among middle and aspiring leaders across the school is a key responsibility of SLs. They need to know their staff very well, being able to identify those with talent or skills, and know-how to identify the development needs of colleagues, as well as how to address them appropriately. They must also be aware of poor performers and be rigorous in developing monitoring and support strategies. SLs need to balance coaching skills to support staff development, with managing their performance and holding them to account by demanding high standards and setting stretching targets which they monitor rigorously.

Senior Leaders need a depth of expertise across a number of specialist areas related to their role                             

  • curriculum, assessment and data analysis
  • behaviour, organisational management
  • knowledge and expertise in school improvement strategies
  • budget setting, monitoring and evaluating
  • essential knowledge, skills and concepts that underpin successful school leadership.
  • Performance management, holding others to account

They must understand the relationship between these different domains, how they can change over time and how to contribute to a culture and conditions in which staff and pupils are able to thrive, all while maintaining the highest professional conduct.

Professional Development.

There is no one size fits all in terms of what CPD will help you become a SL. British Curriculum schools favour National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) with NPQSL being the one aimed at aspirant Senior Leaders. These qualifications can be undertaken remotely, or face to face. I have delivered both ways, and much prefer face to face. These qualifications are not UK curriculum-based, so are suitable for developing leaders in all schools.

There are three new NPQs which are specialist qualifications, NPQ for Leading Teaching (NPQLT),

NPQ for Leading Behaviour and Culture (NPQLBC) and NPQ for Leading Teacher Development (NPQLTD). These will provide CPD for teachers who want to focus on classroom teaching, whether or not they move into school leadership. NPQML has been discontinued, and the content in the remaining NPQs (NPQSL, NPQH and NPQEL) has been adapted.

Other international schools will have their own leadership curriculum. Any programme should cover 10 areas of school leadership.

  • School Culture
  • Teaching
  • Curriculum and Assessment
  • Behaviour
  • Additional and Special Needs and Disability
  • Professional Development
  • Organisational Management
  • Implementation
  • Working in Partnership
  • Governance and Accountability

Other schools prefer a more bespoke version. They may appoint an external consultant who can deliver a bespoke leadership programme to all their leaders. I have done this with whole school leadership teams, consisting of Middle, Senior Leaders and Principals. This can provide a cost-effective solution while ensuring all leaders in a school are working from a shared understanding and common language of the vision and leadership in their school.

Whatever CPD you undertake the curriculum should aim to develop expertise that is flexible and allows you to respond to the challenges you will encounter in a range of contexts. It should develop expertise that can be applied to both identifying and addressing persistent and common challenges in school leadership.

How can potential Senior Leaders prepare themselves?

Shadow SLs to gain valuable insights into the role. Talk to them about the role, understand the complexity and potential challenges, look at policy documents to familiarise yourself with them.

Emulate the role. Ask to see strategic documents, especially the budget. Discuss these with a member of the SLT. Seek out and take up any leadership opportunities around and beyond the school. A short term secondment to a school needing support is a great experience.

Dress for the role you are aiming for!

Be visible, attend networking events beyond your school. Be visible online.

Look at SL job description, identify your gaps in experience and expertise. Undertake CPD to upskill for Senior Leadership. Most countries now have standards for Principals, and some for Senior Leaders as well. In UAE there are Professional Standards for Principals adec_professional_standarda_for_principals.pdf ( which set out clear competencies and indices for Principals. Start to audit yourself against these, you will begin to get a feel for where your gaps might be.

Look for a senior leadership programme that incorporates a school improvement project or set up and carry out one of your own. The project needs to be one where the quality of teaching and learning is improved and there is measurable attainment. You need to show that during such projects you have understood the key components of improving school performance. You will need a structured plan, an audit of existing provision using data and school improvement priorities. You will need to discuss and set target(s) with SLT member(s) before you begin to implement, and then to set up and lead a team to carry out the project through to the end.

Finally, your review and evaluation need to show how you have demonstrated impact, what leadership skills you have learned, and what you have learned from the project. Be honest about what has gone wrong as learning from this can be a powerful indicator of your leadership capacity. Finally, collate your evidence and try to get a meeting to present to SLT, Governors or Board Members.

Being an SL is a challenging, complex, demanding job, but the personal satisfaction levels are fantastic. Have a go, you might just be ready!

Jeni Ling

Jeni is an experienced Education Consultant, working across the UK and Internationally. She has been a successful Principal and Local Education Authority Change Management and Assessment Consultant. She had a range of system-wide roles developing leaders across the UK whilst working at NCSL, where she also led all the Middle Leadership Level Programmes.  She has developed, delivered, and evaluated national leadership programmes across India, and delivered NPQs in the UK and internationally. Jeni is a trained school inspector, Certified Coach and Lead Facilitator. She has carried out inspections, virtually and face to face across the Emirates in UAE. Jeni is also a regular contributor to podcasts and LinkedIn Live.