Leadership by Design


Scholar 6, Transforming the Sixth Form

There is a memorable scene in Oliver Stone’s film Nixon where the US President is confronted by a group of students about the Vietnam War. At first he blusters and tries to defend his record but, slowly, a sort of epiphany dawns both on the protesters and on Nixon himself. The truth is he can’t just stop the war – even if he wanted to, the most powerful man in the world is bound by obligations and contexts which override his own wishes. Finally, Nixon concedes that the force which really determines events is the ‘System’. He didn’t create the System, he explains, but he suggests that perhaps he is best placed to try to manage it for the common good.

Two aspects of this scene resonate strongly with me in the context of school leadership: first, the reality that executive power, whether held by US presidents or the head of your local academy, is always constrained and in some cases even illusory; secondly, and more importantly, the vague but abiding phenomenon of the ‘System’. Anatomising the ‘System’, as it applies to education, is not the purpose of this article, but it is useful to distinguish between two perspectives: there is the system which heads preside over, or ‘manage’, and the system imposed upon them – whether by statute and inspection or by the de facto instruments and customs which affect all schools to a greater or lesser degree, such as league tables and parent associations.

As a result of my one fleeting experience as a head, I came to understand the term ‘management’ as relating, predominantly, to the business of dealing with live ‘issues’ and keeping as many stakeholders as happy as possible with the status quo – i.e. the system as the school interpreted and applied it. This meant explaining the system, tweaking it (including making the occasional exception), apologising now and again for its shortcomings; but, most commonly, it meant defending the system on grounds such as fairness, best practice and pragmatism.

At the same time, I also realised that while system maintenance occupied much of my time, what interested me more were deeper questions of system design – not least, because a significant number of the issues requiring daily, responsive attention during my headship were the product of systemic choices which had been made years before I arrived. In short, my experience of management came down to mustering what limited resources of patience, attentiveness and charm I possessed and applying them (not always successfully) where they were needed most. The skills which the job required certainly did not play to my particular strengths – they were, instead, political skills rather than strategic ones. And since that experience, I have wondered how many heads – brilliant and pragmatic operators as they may be – are genuinely interested in, or capable of, reimagining how a school might work – of reaching into the tangled wires of the System and wondering what would happen if . . .

Leadership by Design



Likening oneself to any occupant of the White House, especially these days, is certainly ill-advised. But the school I was a head at did at least have pillars and a sort of portico, and while I did not last as long as Nixon (though I hasten to add I was not impeached) my time as a head brought me comparable moments of epiphany and exasperation. I certainly realised the limitations of my influence, but I also realised the importance of trying to develop systemic understanding of why things were the way they were and whether they had to be.

I was certainly very naïve: I had run a large English Department of twenty or so, but never been so much as a deputy by way of preparation. Part of me assumed heads just made decisions and everyone else got on with implementing them. As a boy at RGS Guildford, I had revered our lanky, six-foot-two headmaster John Daniel, who, though unfailingly affable in conversation, always seemed to carry himself with the aloof assurance of the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular Campaign. That impression must have imprinted itself on me and shaped my expectations. I could never be as naturally authoritative a figure as Mr Daniel – being short and fat doesn’t help. But I do now realise that even he could not always have been holding the reins quite as firmly as he seemed to be to us boys.

The institution I was – theoretically – in charge of during that year was an eccentric but original little school called Hampton Court House. HCH attempted to perform a pot-pourri of educational functions – part nursery, part prep, part secondary (to GCSE) and even wondering at the time whether to do a bit of sixth form too. I use the word ‘eccentric’ not as a criticism but both because its structure was so unconventional (long and thin, stretching across thirteen age groups with just one class per year group), and because the place revelled in not wanting to be like anywhere else. It was full of life and characters and fun, and still is (not to mention being set in one of the most beautiful buildings in Surrey). HCH was the creation of Eliana Houstoun-Boswall, her son Alex, and of Guy Holloway, who later succeeded me as Head (and has subsequently done a far better job).



Being chosen by Eliana, Alex and Guy to lead the school, however, was not quite like being anointed by an archbishop. Some of the decisions they had made in the past were, by their own cheerful admission, a bit left field. Having said that, I am not sure I was ever really chosen to lead the school anyway – my role was always going to be more titular than executive. Because, as many chairs of governing bodies (or of premier league soccer clubs) appreciate to their advantage, it is always convenient to have someone nominally in charge of the team who can be blamed if things go wrong.

Which they sometimes did. There was a very nice parent association chair, for example, who frequently raised money to purchase extra recreational items for the children. I remember being in hot water with her when, having accepted a splendid set of giant plastic chess pieces a few weeks earlier (the school employed Richard James, one of Britain’s best junior chess coaches), she asked me to account for their whereabouts. I learned that every piece had been hidden somewhere around the grounds and that a few had even been chucked over the walls into Bushy Park. Sadly, despite the efforts of an after-school search party (which almost certainly contained some of the mischief-makers responsible) we never reassembled the full set.

I use this example just to illustrate what every senior manager knows only too well – how a trivial incident or complaint can take up hours of time. And, as a head, one is often so busy fire-fighting ‘issues’ that stepping back and reflecting on the processes and structures which sit behind them is rarely possible. Whether schools should accept donations of kit which they don’t ask for, or have the personnel or processes to look after properly, would be a case in point. Much better, as we subsequently established, if any donations to the school went to subsidising educational trips.

All of the People

It was a forerunner of Nixon’s who spoke about not being able to please all of the people all of the time. The adage is pretty close to the dilemma of headship: heads, I soon learned, can’t be crowd-pleasers but nor can they ignore opinion altogether because isolation saps authority as surely as surrender. Parents unhappy with one decision will sometimes cluster with parents unhappy about another completely different decision, and both will conclude that the final straw has been reached (even when each offended party may have been the beneficiary of the other’s principal grievance). Parents are not the only challenge, of course, though they are probably more powerful in the private sector, where the act of fee-paying itself legitimises certain proprietorial assumptions.

As for actual proprietors, being a head is hard enough if a school is owned outright, but even harder when the owners live and work on site. Many of my painstakingly justified decisions – often about rather trivial things like inappropriate dress – were overturned instantly by Eliana, who ran a sort of appeals-on-wheels service for the disaffected. Her criteria were probably no more suspect than my own, but the problem with the school having no uniform was that some of the older girls used to arrive in outfits which Beyoncé might have dismissed as too skimpy. Eliana, being a bit French, felt that if a girl in a spandex miniskirt and a belly-button length tank-top had a sort of scarf on, that was stylish and acceptable, but without the scarf – that was, as she put it, de putain.

Yet, even here there was a humanity about Eliana’s approach: she always tried to see the whole child and was rightly uninterested in the particulars of collars having to be x inches long, or skirts y inches below the knee et cetera. Although we hear about children being desperately keen on fairness and consistency when rules are applied, they also respond to adults who make an effort to see the big picture rather than to isolate each little indiscretion.

So parents have power, especially when they ‘associate’; governors have power, owners have more; even teachers have power – especially modestly paid teachers in a school which, in those days, was not yet quite full. You had to ask very nicely indeed for someone to direct a play or edit a magazine.

And, of course, pupils have power too – especially collectively (which, thank goodness, they generally don’t realise). Probably the most frightening sort of power because, really, the whole fragile edifice depends on civility and compliance. Lurking within all schools are incipient alternative universes resembling St Trinian’s or St Custard’s. At my current institution, a leading boarding school for boys, the pupils very rarely (not for years now) stage a form of mass protest called a ‘leg-it’. During mid-morning break this would involve gathering in their hundreds in the streets outside the main school buildings, doing a bit of chanting and giggling until, finally, a ringleader would shout ‘Leg it!’ – igniting a human stampede a bit like Pamplona but with baffled motorists instead of bulls. It is rather an inept form of protest (boys took part because they enjoyed it, not out of principle) but at such times you would see in the eyes of the School authorities a genuine anxiety – Civilisation’s ancient fear of Anarchy.


After all, our modern, regulated forms of football were largely the creations of 19th century schoolmasters aiming at once to satisfy and to tame the preference among schoolboys for random recreational warfare. The ‘System’ has evolved to inhibit disorder of every kind. And it’s really the system – organised sport, organised exams (internal and public), organised lessons, organised reports etc. – that holds everything together. Most heads would sooner manage this system than mess with it: it’s more powerful than they are, and it is propelled by the momentum of tradition. It’s also a huge hassle to change, especially because each element is linked to another and revisions have inevitable knock-on effects.

Yet, most surprisingly, when circumstances change sufficiently and internal school systems really do require a re-design, heads commonly delegate that process to expert deputies or to committees. Ages ago, I was on the Curriculum Committee at my current school when I came up with a proposal to reframe the timetable on a basis now called the ’35 lesson week’; a proposal subsequently implemented, and which the school has now been running on for ten years or more. It’s rather amazing to me that I can make that claim. Of course, it was a proposal endorsed and revised by others but, to the best of my knowledge, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the then head. Yet the timetable is a key part of any school’s essential life: it underpins the entire internal system, embodying priorities and allocating the one precious commodity which everyone agrees there is never enough of.

I guess I am a systems man. It sounds boring, but secretly I suspect more influence resides – or should properly reside – in the design of the system than in its management. Management may be a more public role but is it a more important one?

It is entirely fair, of course, for a head to excuse him or herself from responsibility for external systems imposed upon all schools – UCAS, say, or the timing of public examinations – but it is critically important, today more than for generations, that heads get involved in profoundly re-designing their schools. The principal reason for this is that, with a rapidity many find disturbing, Technology is changing every element of society including the way in which students read and learn.


The reason I started the Scholar 6 project was because I wanted to strip down and re-imagine what a highly effective school might look like in the coming decades.

There is now universal recognition that a fundamental redesign is needed in private education because it cannot carry on becoming more expensive at more than twice the rate at which incomes are rising and expect to retain pupil numbers (which have fallen by 7% among school age children since 2008).

But under-funding is as big an issue in the state sector as high fees are in the private sector. Attracting and retaining good teachers; refurbishing or replacing buildings; delivering unfunded pay rises (very possibly, in the near future, unfunded pension contributions) – all these factors require a dramatic reassessment of how quality education can be delivered economically.

One might suppose technology would have a role to play here – and I believe it does. But hitherto, rather than being a solution and helping to save money and increase efficiency, tech has – let’s face it – added considerable cost to schools: IT support, hardware, licences, intranets, some very pricey automation and administration software. Interestingly, while commercial sectors like banking and retail have long been using technology to reduce cost, the most human sectors – Education and Health – have found technology both increasingly necessary and increasingly expensive.

There is also, even in Silicon Valley, something of an anti-technology backlash occurring concerned with its detrimental effects on young people. The contradictions are peculiar at times: we know Tech is the future but we also want to protect children from the increasing number of dangers we perceive around gaming, social media and the tyranny of the ‘push notification’. The Secretary of State for Education, Damien Hinds, has recently won praise in some quarters for suggesting that schools should permit the old ‘brick’ phones but not smartphones. If the Secretary of State for Defence suggested that henceforth British troops were issued only with muskets, he would be in much hotter water and yet the two positions are roughly equivalent.

old phone


Rather than banning the future, why aren’t we putting the smartphone to work in the classroom – making it a functional necessity in schools just as it is in the workplace? And why are we blaming the smartphone for social media? If I learned one thing from being a Head in 2010/11 (when only a handful of people had an iPhone, and none of them children), it was that social media was alive and kicking well before the touchscreen – all you needed was a laptop.

Yet nobody wants their children taught by a computer program: the near universal consensus about EdTech is that it will work best in a blended environment, where teachers contribute oversight and guidance but where students pursue projects and assignments with a degree of independence. Even so, schools seem unable to redesign themselves away from a model where the teacher is essentially holding court and doing the traditional bulk of explaining, setting and marking work. Of course, there are individual teachers who ‘get’ the possibilities of technology and are working hard to change the parameters of teaching and learning. But no school, yet, has implemented a cross-curricular vision where, in every subject, some of the teaching and marking work is being done by technology.

Moving the Rock

Heads are still at the stage where, far from designing or adopting a systematic technology vision which might modernise learning and change the role of the teacher, they’re doing the much easier thing which is to nurture a technology free-for-all where many different, often contradictory visions are coexisting within schools. After all, the head’s principal job is political – keeping people happy – letting teachers and departments do their separate things and reflecting, really, the mixed technology economy of the world at large. But you can’t build a new paradigm either by compromise or by increment: there comes a point where you have to scrap some things and you have to start from scratch with others.

The only truly universal tech in schools is administrative, including the so-called VLE architecture costing thousands annually to licence, update and maintain, and which is better described as a virtual bureaucracy rather than as a virtual learning environment. There is nothing approaching a universal technology for delivering genuine learning content across the curriculum. Such a system used to exist before the tech revolution. It was called a library.

In some ways, I wish I could say that all we have to do is ditch technology and refocus on books. But although I am an unlikely advocate for technology, I am not stupid. The students I teach today are reading and learning in different ways, and education hasn’t caught up with them yet.

As an English teacher, I am a believer that the soul of education lies in things like reading great literature, both ancient and modern, and exploring ‘open’ questions (the questions we don’t really know the answers to – the questions we must debate). I have every confidence that, however much tekkies bang on about A.I., no machine will ever – OK, let’s not say ever, let’s say in my lifetime – be able to mark an essay on Hamlet with intuitive human flexibility and understanding. But equally, I have no problem with allowing computers to deliver interactive, engaging educational tasks created by human intelligence, and I recognise that they are very good at dealing with anything connected to another important component of education – the closed question.

Closed questions have answers which are precise and more demonstrably right or wrong – and that doesn’t mean simplistic. It could be sorting chemical compounds into a hierarchy of toxicity, or (back to Hamlet), working out who dies on stage, who dies off stage and who dies before the play begins. It’s now possible to create thousands of high-quality, interactive investigations asking questions like these which build the foundation of understanding. I won’t elaborate further, except to say that this is what our technology team and the teachers we are assembling to build content are working on and that we are very excited by what we are creating.

The great radical redesign that must come, one day, is when an online publishing model is developed which offers a catalogue of interactive learning materials – because educational reading will become increasingly online and geared to the responsive touchscreen – of a quality equivalent to that found in carefully commissioned, thoroughly edited books. This does not mean digitising existing books, it means creating new content for the digital reader.

The vision the Scholar 6 team has been working on for eighteen months is to create a school which is developing and integrating – right across the curriculum – its own interactive teaching catalogue. The irony of the vision is that, of course, this requires additional investment even though we want to demonstrate that the technology can support an affordable school. But what we are convinced of is the need to create a completely new school from the ground up, within which every teacher and pupil is a stakeholder, creating and refining our own technology. The potential of that technology, proven and validated within a pilot school, is extraordinary – a reusable, scale-able tool.

Status Quo Vadis

I attended an HMC ‘How to become a Head’ course recently (I was, I admit, something of an impostor) where interview advice was being given by a rather endearingly candid expert: “Remember,” she said, “most independent school governors know very little about education and many aren’t even very interested in it. They want you to seem like someone who knows what they are doing. Someone who can lead them as much as lead the school.”

This advice struck me as indicative of the problem of power and decision-making in HMC schools: the blind choosing the luminary. Are governors making the right decisions about fees? About technology? About facilities? Are they interrogating Heads and are Heads interrogating them in return? Do they have a vision at all or do they take comfort from following vaguely advocated concepts like “best practice” (which either means what other comparable schools seem to be doing or, the most expensive option). I recently learned of a newly appointed head who inherited some wonderful new school buildings but, along with them, a development raise which had fallen significantly short. At the first governors meeting of the new academic year, the question was put to him, “What are you going to do about the shortfall?”

What I have learned from my partner at Scholar 6, Andy Rothery, Chair of Governors of a chain of Lewisham comprehensives, is that governance has had to become much more professional in the state sector, essentially because a complex, accountable system is being imposed from above. The irony perceived by many hard-working state-school governors is that setting statutory standards high means very little if the schools trying to implement them are chronically under-resourced.

But if the simplest and most elegant systems can be designed in balance with guaranteed resources, then schools would be able to get on with being schools and educational leadership would be more about fine-tuning than fire-fighting.

There is, in fact, a difference between leadership and management, though the two are commonly confuted. The same person may, of course, perform both roles, but leadership is design and direction: it’s understanding how things work and making them work better. Leadership is not blaming the System but, almost, being the System – being the person capable of identifying and implementing necessary change (and taking responsibility if change does not work – one thing that makes heads nervous of implementing it themselves). You can’t really lead within Systems unless you are prepared to redesign their structural infelicities.

Even when the System imposed from outside is intolerable, leaders have a responsibility to suggest how it could be done better, to form alliances and to persuade the necessary institutional and political authorities that change is necessary. Admittedly, it can be hard to get agreement. Many informed observers, for example, recognise that the whole university application system (including Oxbridge) could be simplified at a stroke by moving the start of the University Year to January, and processing all applications post A-level. The idea was first mooted more than twenty years ago and is more relevant today than ever when there are so many more places and candidates and when, technologically, 90% of the process of applying and getting an offer can be done digitally. Consensus hasn’t been reached but, curiously, many newer universities have realised that by beginning a significant proportion of degree courses in January they are able to accommodate the needs of more students. So even when the imposed System resists change, in some cases it is possible to circumvent it and create new possibilities by design.

“Good design,” as the great Raymond Loewy once said, “keeps the user happy, the manufacturer in the black and the aesthete unoffended.” Loewy may have been talking more about automobiles or Coca-Cola bottles, but he does capture the correlation between satisfaction among stakeholders, cost efficiency and conceptual elegance.

Alice in Wonderland


At present, I don’t feel schools are ready for the future and neither am I convinced that conventional school leaders have a vision of how to get there. We are all a bit like Alice who found herself in that curious hall full of doors which are either locked or too small to squeeze through. The golden key on the table is perhaps technology but as for the potion that says, “DRINK ME!”, perhaps, like Alice, most are wary of trying the potion. In the end she does drink it and undergoes a metamorphosis – a radical redesign – that is just the beginning of her adventures. This same kind of metamorphosis is the aspiration of Scholar 6, and our aim is to fit the golden key into the little door and escape into the future.

Scholar 6

Joe Francis is part of the Scholar 6 project, an affordable education vision which is attracting widespread national interest. It has the unusual distinction of having support both from teachers in prestigious (and expensive) independent schools and school leaders from the state sector. The reason for this curious alliance is technology: the aim to design a brand new school from the ‘ground up’ which implements a tech learning platform called ‘Brillder’ across the curriculum.

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