Inclusive Leadership and Developing Talent

Last Friday I was delighted to be asked to be the opening keynote for the inaugural Leadership Matters conference in Birmingham at the Think Tank, in the Millennium centre. I opened the day with a series of provocations about recruitment, staff development and retention:

How do you recruit?

We need to disrupt this education recruitment space and move away from some of the traditional practices of days gone by. As a headteacher I recruited for potential and for aligned values as I believe that you need to get the right person on the bus. You can enhance someone’s subject knowledge but can you develop someone’s teacher persona?

How do you grow your own talent?

I have always been heavily involved in professional learning and staff development. Having worked in big MATs I have had hands-on roles with our SCITT and University providers. In my new role at the University of Buckingham  I work closely with Premier Pathways on a salaried distance learning teacher training model. Retention rates are high on school-based pathways into our profession.

What is your NQT/RQT/ECT offer?

In our increasingly competitive market we need to hook our trainees but we also need to look after them. Offering to pay them from July 1st means they can have a summer break and start refreshed instead of holding down a summer job. Ensuring beginner teachers across a LEA or a MAT have a similar experience and a consistent offer reduces the comparison of school offers and ensures teachers are employed by schools that are aligned with their values. RQTs need consideration too including mentoring, reduced timetables and ongoing training opportunities to consolidate their NQT year.

What is your Mentoring offer?

I am shocked at how much we ask from our Middle Leaders. Some Heads of Subject have 3 or 4 trainee teachers in their teams due to recruitment issues. We need to invest in our mentors, with time, training, support and remuneration. Our trainees are only as good as our mentors and they can make a massive difference to the experience of an early career teacher. If we want to retain our staff we need to look after both parties with equal consideration.

How much ownership do your staff have over their professional development?

We want our teachers and educational staff to be lifelong learners and passionate about what they do. We want them to be reading and interested in constantly developing as professionals.  The surge in grassroots events and Saturday CPD opportunities reflects the high interest for teachers to take their growth into their own hands. We need to enable staff to find their own path and develop their own approaches rather than delivering a ‘one size fits all’ CPD offer. 

How does your Professional Learning offer extend from Beginner Teacher to CEO? 

When you review your offer for all staff in your organisation, where are the gaps? Are there opportunities to grow and develop for every tier of personnel and for the operational as well as the teaching staff? The National College of Education are doing some brilliant work around the Apprenticeship Levy and how to reinvest this pot of money back into our greatest resource – our staff!

How do you retain?

We hear all the time about the ‘recruitment crisis’ but we know in fact our profession is facing a ‘retention crisis’. We need to do better. We need to invest our time, energy and resources on the staff we have, to keep them in the system or to reengage them in the profession instead of focusing on increasing our recruitment drive. If we don’t change why teachers are leaving, we are not going to change the problem longer term. We need to listen to our staff, we need to review our workload, and we need to challenge the systems that are driving our teachers out of the profession and out of the country.

How do you spot and nurture talent?

We live in nepotistic times and a lot of internal recruitment processes lack transparency. As school leaders we reward presenteeism, we reward heroic leadership, we reward the self-promoters. How can we level the playing the field? How can we create opportunities which diverse staff can apply for and excel in? How can we grow our bright spots through shadowing opportunities and secondments?

How can you innovate your HR processes?

As a profession we need to catch up with other approaches. Flexible working…. Agile working… Flipped meetings… Secondments and Sabbaticals…. Unconscious Bias training… Talent Partnerships… are just some of the initiatives I know are disrupting how staff are deployed in different industries. In the highly competitive job market for millennials how can we ensure that we are meeting the needs of our workforce?

How can we compete with the international market?

Statistically we are under an increasing pressure to compete with the appeal of a teaching role overseas as the number of international schools is set to snowball over the coming years. The international market need is set to be greater than the total number of teachers in the UK by the end of the decade. We need to prepare ourselves for how to transition staff in and out of the UK education system as the workforce will become increasingly fluid and more internationally minded in the coming years.

How diverse is your work force?

We have seen some marginal shifts in more diverse representation at entry level, headteacher level and governance level but we still have a long way to go. Our schools do not reflect the communities that we serve. Our young people do not have visible role models. There have been a number of diversity and inclusion initiatives, but we have systemic and structural barriers which we need to address to diversify our workforce.           

Who does your recruitment?

When you scrutinise the make-up of your trust board, your governors and your senior leadership team which demographic groups are represented? I reflected on the fact that I fulfil the stereotype of who leads ITT. We are a homogenous group. We need to rethink not only how we recruit teachers but who recruits them. How are we creating opportunities for career pathways for under-represented groups?

Who do you retain?

When you drill down into the data of who is leaving your school, how honest are you being about the groups who are voting with their feet? Which groups of school staff are most vulnerable in your school and how can you mitigate against a pattern of departures? The exit interview is a powerful way to hear the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, about why people leave.

How flexible is your workforce?

With 250,000 qualified teachers in our country, not working in our schools, we need to address the need to create flexible working opportunities in our schools. I find it ironic that our schools serve the children of others but make it difficult for working parents and carers to juggle their personal and professional commitments. The main group leaving teaching are women between 30 and 39. We need to challenge our mindsets about TLRs in particular – if someone works 0.6 FTE as an English Subject Lead they may teach for 3 days but they will lead for 5 and they need to be rewarded for that.

Who does your timetabling?

One of the biggest barriers to enabling flexible working in our schools is the timetable. Or should I say the timetable? We have a fixed approach to teaching which does not exist in other countries and cultures, in The Netherlands for example every teacher works part time, they have a  happy culture and high outcomes – win, win! If we trained more people to timetable and timetabling became a team sport, we could find more solutions to the perceived problems in a timetable. The children need the best teachers in front of them –  2 experienced teachers for half a week each is surely better than 1 less experienced teacher for a whole week?

So, I don’t come with all of the answers, but I have spent most of my 18 year career in schools, and now universities thinking about how to innovate how we do things. I am a connector, a collaborator and I thrive on joining up the dots and finding solutions to problems.     

Some shout outs to organisations I cited in my talk: the grassroots communities of #DisabilityEd #LGBTed #BAMEed and #WomenEd. The organisations bringing solutions for flexible working: Return to Teaching, Maternity CPD, Flexible Teaching and the Shared Headship Network. I also recommended 3 books: Mental Wellbeing and Selfcare (Essential Guide for Early Career Teachers) by Sally Price, Talent Architect by Mandy Coalter and 10% Braver by the #WomenEd community – all are recommended for your leadership team to disrupt their thinking.      

I like speaking at events where I am part of the day and stay to network with those attending and listen to/ learn from the other speakers. This event did not disappoint. I was followed by Steve Radcliffe who spoke such sense about the need to simplify leadership. He said many things that really spoke to me about our purpose as leaders, our energies as leaders.

Before lunch a group of Leadership Matters Ambassadors joined the stage for a panel to unpick some of the emerging themes of the day. Allana Gay spoke with grace about the stereotypes we need to learn to navigate, Bukky Yusuf spoke passionately about practical wellbeing strategies, Tricia Taylor reminded us that the fundamentals of teaching centre around the quality of our relationships with our students and Mandy Coalter’s wisdom about people management developed some of the ideas I had sown in my earlier talk. I was impressed by the level of humility from some of the speakers – Mike Buchanan shared that he had made some mistakes on his leadership journey and told us that he had stepped down from his role as Chair of the HMC, Cameron Parker, a motivational speaker in schools, who chaired the panel shared his vulnerability as a dyslexic reading complex questions off of cue cards and Andy Buck shared his thoughts on flexible working and reflected that when he was a Headteacher, he realises that he might have been a blocker rather than an enabler for his staff seeking such roles.

The final session of the day was delivered by Phyllida Hancock, from Contender Charlie, who inspired us with Henry V. She invited us to consider how we create and fill our leadership spaces, how we make choices about specific situations and how we narrate our leadership journeys.

The inaugural Leadership Matters Conference was most definitely a day bursting with ideas, connections and opportunities. I hope to see you at the next one in January 2021!

Hannah Wilson

Former Headteacher, Co-Founder of #WomenEd and Head of Secondary Teacher Training

Is Vulnerability the new Hero Leadership?

Invited to contribute to one of The Big Education’s ‘Big Conversations’ I was excited to join a stellar line up including Sir Tim Brighouse, Karen Giles and Nadine Bernard. Each speaker contributed a perspective on leadership which we all agreed should be underpinned by values, integrity and authenticity. However, we realised that in order to talk with conviction about vulnerability it felt appropriate to reveal some of our own vulnerabilities, both professionally and personally, so that the audience may learn from our reflections on our career experiences and indeed mistakes we had made along the way.   

So, my musings began: Is vulnerability a new thing? Indeed, it is not. Is it a new thing when we are looking at leadership? Perhaps it is.  How does it relate to hero leadership? Well, this is where it gets interesting in my eyes – if we review the dominant narrative and imagery of leadership, it is depicted as acts of heroism, as an effective leader being a strong leader, and often through a gender stereotyped lens too.  

When you start searching for vulnerability definitions and quotations some common ideas begin to take shape which encompass elements of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. An expert in the field of vulnerability is Positive Psychologist Brene Brown who has written a number of books and delivered a TED talk on why we need to embrace it.

“Vulnerability is at the core, the centre, of meaningful human experiences”.  (Brown)

Thus as schools are people-centred, and the ultimate success of a school is based on the quality of the relationships nurtured between the people the school serves and those who are serving them, then the messiness of the human existence and the rawness of human vulnerability is at the core of education.    

As school leaders we work with increasingly vulnerable communities. We are under daily pressure to meet the needs of the children in our care, their families and the wider community.  As a headteacher I was acutely aware of the emotional labour my team were weighed down with as we safeguarded our school community. As a school we decided to put mental health and wellbeing at the centre of our curriculum and our decision making as a school, which elevated the initiatives we committed to such as our art therapy, thrive and nurture programmes.

Alongside, the needs of our students, we also needed to meet the needs of our vulnerable staff. As a school who was prepared to do things differently to strive for a different outcome, our hope and optimism attracted staff who were looking for solutions, staff who wanted to stay in the system but who were feeling forced out. A school is often a safe haven, a place of security and stability, a place of belonging and visibility, a place of diversity and inclusion. In her work on silence and speaking out, Audrey Lourde suggests “that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength”. (Lourde, 2017)

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness”. (Brown, Daring Greatly , 2015)

It has become more and more apparent that some schools are more vulnerable than others to work in. Schools serving the disadvantaged communities, coastal schools and schools with poor inspection outcomes often become SNOW schools (schools no one wants) which are then often academized and (re) brokered into trusts to fix.

In our current school system we equally find that school teachers and school leaders are finding themselves in increasingly vulnerable roles. The ‘glass ceiling’ for women leaders in the school system has been a high-profile topic of debate for the last five years since we started #WomenEd a grassroots gender equality movement. With the arrival of our sibling #BAMEed, our reflections and discussions moved from the ‘glass’ ceilings to ‘concrete’ ceilings as we scrutinised the data of the demographic breakdown of our teachers and leaders versus our students. In an increasingly diverse country, with nearly one quarter of children in our primary schools representing a range of different cultures we have a disconnect when the number of BAME teachers is significantly lower than this and the number of BAME school leaders represent a marginal percentage.  With national initiatives to increase the number of women and BAME headteachers, we need to ensure that they are recruited to roles which are well-supported and do not end up in roles which are ‘glass cliffs’, those roles which are isolated, unstable and unsupported. Vulnerable demographic groups ending up in vulnerable roles in vulnerable schools is problematic for our workforce data as the narrative then becomes warped about who the ‘heroes’ in the system are.    

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage”. (Brown, Rising Strong , 2015) 

We also find ourselves in an era where we are struggling to recruit and retain teachers, but equally where we have a high attrition rate and mobility of headteachers. There is an emerging narrative of headteachers speaking out about the vulnerability of their role.  James Pope, the former Headteacher who featured on the ‘School’ television documentary has started a campaign and series of events to support school leaders who are casualties of the system. With the corporatisation of our education system, the HR processes and systems in schools are becoming increasingly business like. The language of ‘NDA’s, ‘Gagging Orders’, ‘Pay Offs’ and ‘Gardening Leave’ is now commonplace.

As I prepared my speech, listened to the other speakers, reflected on the topic and discussed it with others in the room my final thoughts are: is there a difference to being vulnerable and feeling vulnerable as a school leader? Do we thereby need to  learn from and embrace these facets in different ways?

“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations”. (Brown, Daring Greatly , 2015)

To embrace our vulnerability we are encouraged to: find the courage to be seen; ask for what we need; accept the  imperfect; show compassion to self and others; talk about how we are feeling; be authentic; be prepared to take risks; own our stories. A great piece of advice I once received stated that: maybe life isn’t about avoiding the bruises, maybe it’s about collecting the scars to prove we showed up for it. This resonated with me and my philosophy of character education, growth mindset and learning from mistakes, as a fear of failure can inhibit our potential. In order for us to be ‘innovative, creative and agents of change’ we need to lean into our vulnerability. (Brown, Daring Greatly , 2015)  

Hannah Wilson

Former Executive Headteacher, Co-Founder of #WomenEd and Head of Secondary Teacher Training


Brown, B. (2015). Daring Greatly . New York: Penguin.

Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong . New York: Penguin.

Brown, B. (n.d.). The Power of Vulnerability. TED Talk.

Lourde, A. (2017). Your Silence Will Not Protect You. Silver Press.