Leadership In Outstanding Special Schools

Leadership in Outstanding Special Schools



Having spent two years in a northern local authority as the education officer including Special education (which then included seven special schools, the EWO service, the service to the hearing impaired, various units now known as PRUs, the Educational Psychologists, placements in residential settings out of borough, exclusions and any strange role that nobody else wanted) I was fortunate enough to obtain my first headship in 1979 in an ESBD/MLD all male special school. I was thirty three and on day one I was shaking with nerves. All the education officer colleagues in my previous role had attended Oxford, so when a mother lamped the male head of a local primary guess who was delegated to warn her off ? But I was the youngest and had played prop at teacher training college, and anyway it was within the definition of ‘special’.


I had taught in Tottenham and ,as it was then, Dingle, I had manned the door at an all night cinema in Toxteth, I had delivered milk and laboured in a power station; in that role the pay was £70 a week (1967) whilst when I started teaching it was £14 a week. The Assistant Director who led the education committee making the appointment was an inspirational figure, but I soon discovered the enormity of the task .Within the first term of headship I had excluded , contrary to the wishes of the local authority, four male pupils I found bullying a youngster with Down’s syndrome, sold the dinghy which had been a fun summer pastime for two male teachers and three youngsters, and worked for several evenings with the team decorating a sad, depressing staff room. On day one I had removed the top table for staff dining, set out on the stage, and anyone wishing to eat a school meal thereafter sat with the pupils.


I was once challenged by a police officer at around 0300hrs, walking round our school carrying a baseball bat and in the company of my two German shepherds; I had grown weary of the robberies and the broken windows, including the shots fired through seven plate glass swimming pool windows. I am if nothing else ‘Old School’, but as a teacher and deputy and head I have completed a first degree, a research Masters and approaching retirement completed my doctorate. I encouraged and enabled our best and keenest to complete Masters. I believe in personal development and life -long learning, support and praise for the hard working and the deserving, staff and youngsters alike. I also believe that we need to demonstrate that many of us working in special education are thoughtful and intellectually competent, reflective, research focused professionals.


21st Century leaders


I am fortunate now in my 48th year in education to be working as a consultant (by invitation of the heads and Governors) with special schools in Liverpool, Wirral, Stockport , Salford. Blackburn and Trafford, which are either OUTSTANDING or GOOD WITH OUTSTANDING FEATURES. Their leaders are highly energetic, intelligent, strong minded people who are honest about the challenges they and their teams face daily, especially as there is an ever reducing central support service and an increasingly complex and challenging budget situation.


I do not know whether I would have been a better head, a more patient person, and less stressed (and avoided brain surgery in the 1990s) had I initially completed a degree and a PGCE, then the NPQH. I have recently discussed the role with clients and colleagues, younger than I, I have interviewed them face to face and used questionnaires, and thus sought their motivation and their views. What follows is not presented as pure research, rather as short insights and stories.


Several weeks ago I watched the Wigan Rugby league under 19s squad, and after the warm up session several young men remained on the pitch, listening to an ex member of the armed forces; his role is to encourage and develop their skills as ‘the leadership team’ on the pitch. Sport has long known the qualities that need to be identified and enhanced in young aspiring athletes, qualities that can be recognised in the elite members of the military.


There are some inspiring books on educational leadership, which go far beyond this systems approach. The BUTTERFLIES, described by Brighouse and Woods (2008) indicate the delicacy and fragile nature of those small interventions which make real differences. I admit to being attracted and persuaded by the title of Will Ryan’s book ‘Leadership with a moral purpose’ (2008) and I wish we might all share his perception –


‘Outstanding schools are created by passionate leaders. It is passion that will make the head teacher rise early and stay late to achieve their goal. And this goal is owned personally by them-and certainly not a goal imposed by an external agency such as a Local Authority, central government or an academy chain’


Michael Fullan (2003) in ‘The Moral Imperative of School Leadership’ refers to research (Bryk And Sneider (2002) ) on relationship trust within organisations , identifying key skills and attitudes for leaders as-


‘Respect, competence, personal regard for others and integrity’


Proposing that these traits become part of the school culture, and that the absence of any one element in the leader can undermine relationships in all aspects of school life. Leaders require courage and the capacity to build new cultures, in often challenging circumstances. I have sometimes struggled,( as a deputy, an LA officer, inspector, head or consultant) to reduce or eliminate the tension within some organisations where there is seemingly a lack of awareness that the primary purpose of schools is for the benefit of children .


John West-Burnham, in a presentation for the NCSL, indicated the necessity to ‘support the growth of moral confidence by providing resources to deepen understanding of this aspect of leadership’. Sadly I have only met two local authority figures who offered and understood this approach.


Who participated ?


Twelve school leaders (plus deputies, senior leaders and TAs) from the following regions- Blackpool, Wirral,Liverpool, Oxford, Kent, Stockport, plus two residential third sector schools not within local authority structures- participated. This range included educational provision for visual impairment and sensory challenges, challenging autism, moderate learning difficulties/ASC, Severe and complex learning difficulties, emotional, social and mental health issues, physical and medical challenges, ASC/psychiatric and anxiety issues.


The ages of pupils were primary, secondary and from 4 years to 19 years. All of the schools had received at least one OUTSTANDING judgement in the last three years, whilst the total of Outstanding judgments varied from 1 to 5, under ever changing guidelines. It is also important to remember that those providing care have two inspection regimes with which to interact, and in residential faith settings three.


The length of service as heads varied considerably from 18 months to 14 years and several of the heads were in a second headship post. One head had moved into consultancy and interim headship, two others are taking early retirement this year.


Challenges leaders encounter


We are in a very complex environment, not only for leaders in the education system but additionally for those leading special schools and colleges; Education Health Care plans will only be effective providing results if, and only if ,all participants place equal value on the specific requirements of the client, and on their own participation. Working towards an inclusive society and school system should not be at the expense of local expertise, with some schools constantly broadening their remit to enable their LA to cope or to foster the objectives of their charity or funding agency.


For example one school which participated will grow in the next two years by almost 50%, whilst another already crowded provision was to receive a third more young people next term, without any planning for budget or staffing or physical alterations in place; this has, due to the intelligence and courage of the head been delayed by one term.


In the absence of central expertise, perhaps an Assistant Director and /or adviser for Additional Needs, many heads in special schools are engaged in building plans, parking problems, siting mobiles and HR issues. Whilst these are not specific to our sector the limited size and breadth of teams in our schools does not necessarily offer thinking or consultation time or expertise.


I have been aware of people on deputy head salaries managing building issues in a mainstream high school, whilst in contrast I admit to having been on the roof to clear the downspout in order to avoid a flood from the saturated ceiling. The delay in making the tough decision to refer a family to a special school may increase the challenge of planning for the specific social and educational needs of the child, and whilst the very best special schools are adapting and learning daily the sheer breadth of contrasting demands can be exhausting.


Apparently on Amazon there are over 9000 books with the word ‘leadership’ in the title, but predictably many rehearse the stories of Mourinho, or Churchill, rather than inner city hostel managers or heads in the most challenging environments.


Personality features, experience and philosophy

Two of the many exceptional people who participated have achieved expert martial arts status and  one woman is a seasoned marathon runner and deputy head who has achieved student county level rugby/ gymnastics/cricket and athletics representation; there are two accomplished guitarists and a tattooed drummer, together with an ex police officer who also served in the forces during the Falklands conflict. One has a first class honours degree and another with a background in engineering is now a PhD. The majority have achieved a Masters degree and/ or advanced SEN/ASC qualifications, usually part-time, together with NPQH. Some (as I did) struggled at school and had to make up for lost time subsequently. One, now with a doctorate, was expelled from secondary school.


Some of these leaders would admit to being obsessive about achieving the best outcomes for children, and their comments on their role are illuminating- and bravely and tellingly one stated that a central motivating factor is- “My own experience in care as a child and with parental abandonment” – whilst other leaders’ and team members observations were profound-


  • “If there is no impact on children’s education or progress don’t do it-“
  • “Personalisation is the key”
  • “Can do attitude is essential- We can-We will- We do”
  • “High expectations at all times for both staff and pupils”
  • “I make honest and ethical behavior key values and expect my team to lead by example”
  • “Staff will try new initiatives and don’t worry if things go wrong”
  • “With a current staffing of 152 people the success of any initiative completely hinges on the ‘buy-in’ of others. Without this my own efforts are futile”
  • “We are investing an extensive amount of time, energy and training in embedding a whole school ‘Coaching and mentoring’ approach…”
  • “And there is similar investment and trust in the members of the team; one gifted TA covered two A4 pages with a list of recent in house and external training and qualifications. The comments by members of the school teams are equally enlightening-All members of the SLT are extremely approachable”
  • “The clear CPD process means staff can pursue an area for development and school is very accommodating as long as it will benefit the pupils”
  • “Our school leadership is Forward thinking- Proactive- Student focused”


I know that many of these leaders are highly energetic and generous with their time. For example this weekend, as I write, one will be devoting both days to a school based music and food festival, showcasing the skills of his students; another has provided an emergency number for the parents of young people in crisis to call whenever needed. The fund raising exploits of heads and leaders of special schools are legendary and I am aware of one of the contributors who took the fitter and crazier members of his team to participate in the mayhem of Tough Mudders experience (check it on Google); male leg shaving has contributed to the tour of school footballers and marathons and mini triathlons might buy essential equipment, 50 mile bike rides add to the sports experience.


Many mainstream schools are used to the younger, fitter team members enjoying such experiences but, in addition to being highly skilled, well qualified leaders who go the extra mile are the norm in our best special schools. Such leaders also know where and when to make key significant appointments, a deputy, a speech therapist, a HLTA, a finance officer, they know the importance of broadening the skill set of the team. The NCSL has indicated that 43% of heads appointed to Special Schools (2007/8) were internal candidates compared with 25% for Primary schools and 29% for secondary schools. This reflects well upon the development strategies within our schools, and the specialization of key team members, and their commitment to the very specific area of work.


So What ?

Classroom at school
Observing, talking with and exchanging ideas and my own experiences led me to identify some of the key aspects of these very effective leaders which impact upon families. Parents and advocates should try to build up a view of the leaders of any special school they are considering and the best route is via the community. Elected members on the council would tell me things which pupils’ grandmas had related about our school; charities which acted as advocates for our children (such as AFASIC) used the building free of charge, and supported new incoming parents ; two major local employers adopted us and their workers identified with the youngsters. In Toxteth at the local police station, the command centre during the 1980’s riots, we built up a relationship with the Juvenile Liaison Officer bringing us together before any young person got into trouble.

Talking with these leaders helped in the emergence of some key signals for parents-


  • Heads of special schools should be accessible, not remote administrators- have they greeted you and engaged with you ?
  • Leaders in this context must quickly get to know your child and their idiosyncratic behaviors and be able to support your role at home.
  • Support should be available for complex form filling, benefit claiming, and the provision of additional advice within the community to access services
  • As you walk around the school look for smiles, fun, engagement and see how the youngsters greet the head.
  • Try to discover what motivates them in their role as leader


Use your instincts – you know best.


During my doctoral research one sibling told me of his brother  –  “If he wasn’t autistic I’d bloody kill him !”


It is essential that the school leadership and the whole team recognise that the child lives, grows and is nurtured in a context, of whatever composition, and an alliance between school and this context is vital in order for the child to thrive. In the academic research I have completed on employment opportunities for young adults with specific and additional needs, and among the siblings of children with a disability, an awareness of the family context is pivotal. One mother, at a transition meeting, stated very succinctly “You don’t know what it’s like having a child that is different and living in a tenement “. In many of the settings in which I have worked there has been a close correlation between indicators of poverty and our clients. I know this is the same for many of our schools and their leaders, but in this context it is an additional layer of challenge and complexity, especially as budget cuts seem not to recognise disability.


References– Brighouse, T and Woods ,D ‘What Makes a Good School Now ? 2008
Fullan, M ‘The Moral Imperative of School Leadership’ 2003
Ryan, W ‘Leadership with Moral Purpose’ 2008

Beacon Reach (Residential)
Clare Mount Sports College
Five Acre Wood school
Gilbrook School
Hayfield School
Highfurlong School
Lisburne School
Princes Primary school
Redbridge High School
St Vincent’s RC School (Day and residential)
Wirral Hospitals’ School

DR MIC CAROLAN is an independent consultant. After being a Senior LA Officer for Special Education, he led three special schools, was seconded to Ofsted for a year, and volunteered in Uganda in a special school on semi retirement.

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