Tower Hamlets: Benchmarking a Leadership Development Programme

School leaders with weak knowledge of school improvement – and who do not know what a coherent curriculum or great teaching and learning look like – are likely to be ineffective, but so are school leaders who, in spite of their expert knowledge, lack the ability to create a trusting environment or to persuade others to move forward and to do it in an ethical way. “

A new paradigm for leadership development, Steve Munby, 2020

I help with the concept, the design, delivery and benchmarking of the Tower Hamlets Insights Leadership Programme. Our team – Tracy Smith, James Heale and I – have nearly completed delivery of our second cohort. 

Our aspiration is to engage school leaders and their teams in an ongoing programme to become better leaders in their professional roles. 

What are the challenges with the Insights Leadership Programmes?

The experience we offer has to be relevant, engaging and challenging. More than anything it has to have a positive impact on professional practice. 

The leaders are busy professionals with, amongst them, accumulated experience of successful years of leadership and decision-making. We try to create a compelling offer which sticks out amongst all the other competing demands on their time. Our Leadership Provocations – challenges which stimulate and stretch – must transfer into the ‘messiness’ of managing a school. 

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How has the Insights Leadership Programme been devised?

When we were first reflecting on possible models for the programme, we did three things: curated our own experiences; read the research which was to hand and looked outside of education for possible alternatives. 

We built our programme around Competencies. Spending time defining what School Leaders do, or could do, is and was, productive. Without having a framework of what it is you are trying to develop it’s guesswork or someone else’s model. 

The adult learning features of our Insights Leadership Programme include –

  • Accessing and building upon prior knowledge
  • Utilising and extracting meaning from real-life scenarios 
  • A programme where modules are deliberately spaced and connected by themes 
  • A peer-to-peer learning culture community 
  • Opportunities to learn about and practice decision-making 

The competencies are also used to frame developmental conversations. They inform our problem solving ‘goldfish bowl’ challenges. 

Why do we favour a modular competency-based programme? 

Three key words here: embedded, contextual and continuous (Breakspear et al, 2017). The best way of ensuring this was to allow for short practical tasks between Modules to ‘trial’ the learning. Spacing thus allows opportunity for reflection, speculation, peer interrogation and adjustment. It’s modelling and so it’s important to embed the practices you promote into your own delivery.

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A Leadership programme is, for us, different to a management programme. Leadership ‘moments’ have higher levels of uncertainty than management ‘moments’ and over the life of or programme this turned out to be true.  You can have best bets around curriculum, timetables, classroom teaching, budgets and premises. It’s not so easy to plan ahead for leading in a sudden lockdown or any of the other ‘unforeseens’ which come with being a leader.  

What has been successful?

  1. Deliberately developmental delivery. We work together to select and model the methods we espouse. In other words, both the what and the how, content and process, is immediately transferrable for each school leader. Simple tests help: would it work in a one-form entry Primary School; how about a Special School? A large Secondary?
  2. Design. Linking competencies, modules, inputs and activities is a must. That said, the competencies must be robust. 
  3. Bucking the populist trend. Getting away from inviting speaker contributions based solely on availability and reputation in favour of more tailored contributions which are part of a longer-term relationship and tie into the theme. Talk to contributors beforehand and align the messages: never invite because they’ve got a book out or a twitter following. 
  4. Sharper focus. Detailed work on decision-making and its transfer to real contexts; practising the process. Building problem solving communities where participants work on each other’s challenges. All our external contributors on decision-making – Kirk Vallis from Google, David Benson from Kensington Aldridge Academy, Dame Sue Campbell from the FA were all tasked to talk about how they made their big decisions. 
  5. Virtual study visits. We couldn’t actually go to Google, the Trauma Unit at Imperial College London, Not on the High Street HQ, the London Fire Brigade or the London Air Ambulance but we did have virtual visits. 

What have been the challenges?

  1. Serve or Stretch? The balance between serving participants needs and stretching them is a constant. We need to disrupt the training default of sitting back and listening to charismatic and authoritative speakers then hoping something will stick. Our team meet regularly with this in mind. 
  1. Being agile. Blended Learning and Covid were not foreseen but necessitated us amending the programme and its delivery. 
  1. It’s not about you: avoid confirmation bias! Establishing your desired outcomes, your model of delivery and, in our case, the competencies we sought to develop, helped enormously. It counteracted a built-in bias when it came to developing each of our agreed themes. 

What can others learn from us? 

  • Preparation is key. Build the structure in advance but flex when needed.
  • Stay close to the clients but don’t make too many easy assumptions about need. Staying close to schools’ experience doesn’t mean we have to recycle schools’ experience. Leadership is not the same as management. 
  • Create supportive communities through their shared experiences and give them tools to solve their own problems

Good luck!


Developing Agile Leaders of Learning: School leadership policy for dynamic times, Breakspear et al, 2017

A new paradigm for leadership development, Steve Munby, 2020

Can professional environments in schools promote teacher development? Kraft & Papay, 2014 

Professional Capital, Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012