My involvement in National Academy for Education Leadership Wales (Leadership Academy) began in 2017. I’d been a head for 12 years, the school was successful, but I felt there was something lacking! Although I tried to maintain professional development, undertaking opportunities with the local authority or regional consortia, I still felt there was a ‘gap’. In all honesty, there really was very little for serving headteachers to keep us current and sustain our leadership mojo! Then, the Leadership Academy came along, and I saw it as an innovative opening which I wanted to grasp.
I was thrilled to be appointed as an Associate in the Autumn term of that year alongside 11 other headteachers. It all began with a nerve wracking dinner in the Vale Hotel. A dinner with Kirsty Williams MS (the Leadership Academy was her ‘baby’ initially) together with Huw Foster Evans as Chief Executive, Tegwen Ellis as Assistant Director, and others – the great and the good – from the regional consortia. The array of feelings the I experienced on that night – excitement, nervousness, intrigue, opportunity, challenge, being different, out of my comfort zone – have not left me throughout my whole experience with the Leadership Academy, but this is not in a negative way.
Officially we began in the 2018 Spring term. I was one of 12 headteachers from across Wales and that, for me, is one of the greatest strengths of the Leadership Academy. We are headteachers from every region, sharing practice, opening those borders, looking outward. Our facilitators were from across Wales too. For a small nation, working collectively across the country had been sadly lacking in my opinion, yet there is so much excellence for us all to share.
Being an Associate really did move me rapidly out of my comfort zone, but that was what I wanted! As leaders we constantly ask others to do this, but after being a headteacher at that point for 12 years, I recognised I needed to do this myself, to lead by example. So many times, I looked around the room at the other inspiring headteachers, at the facilitators we had and wondered how I’d been let in to be honest! But genuinely throughout this time it has remained a privilege to be involved with leadership discussions with so many talented professionals and I count myself as very lucky. As a headteacher and teacher I’d always felt that the profession needed to support itself more and the Leadership Academy aimed to do that and continues to do so.
As part of Cohort 1, we were tasked with the co-construction of the Associate experience – so we were working within a model, but also constructing it as we went. Imagine 12 opinionated, strong willed, controllers in a room! Our facilitators had their work cut out but somehow, they managed it although it must have given them grey hairs! This was my first experience of co-construction; it was extremely daunting, but the benefits were immense. It is a strategy I have gone on to deploy increasingly in school to very good effect. For me, the driver was that we were developing a Leadership Academy by the profession for the profession, which could help develop leadership and ultimately would improve outcomes for children. That maxim holds true today. The Leadership Academy wants to listen to leaders to ensure support. It is so important that we develop systems which support and promote future generations of leaders, leaving our children and grandchildren with a healthy legacy.
The opportunities of being involved with the Leadership Academy have been many and varied. Working with leaders from across Wales, inspiring seminars with individuals such as Professor Laura McAllister, Sophie Howe, Steve Davies, Steve Munby, and Professor Mick Waters have offered in depth debates about education and leadership. This insight and access is beyond anything I’d been able to do before. We also undertook a commission focused on equity in professional learning across Wales and well-being. These themes remain vitally important. The research was nationwide and international together with academic research. Of course, the focus on well-being for all has become even more vital during the last 14 months but let us not forget that well-being is always pivotal to allow everyone to give of their best.
There have been so many outcomes for me both professionally and personally. When I started thinking about what I could write I wondered if I’d have enough to say. However, in reality there is so much to share. The Leadership Academy did reignite my mojo, but it was also so much more, including providing high quality professional development. The power and support of the extensive Wales wide network via the Leadership Academy cannot be underestimated. Involvement in the process of endorsement of provision is a key element. This is rigorous and robust and helps headteachers from across Wales identify provisions to use, so that we don’t waste our limited budgets! Undertaking 6 days of coaching training and coaching other headteachers as a result has also been ground-breaking for me. It impacts on my daily life in work and personally. I can honestly say that coaching has revolutionised how I lead, and I use elements of it all the time.
The Leadership Academy has continued to evolve. There is so much offered to every leader now which was not there 3 to 4 years ago. Seminars, innovation workshops, a new website with useful resources, Head-To-Head every week at 11am – gives you half an hour to just be and focus on your own well-being! Moreover, the way in which Associates continue to be a voice for the profession across the system has grown too. Associates speak on our behalf as headteachers in a myriad of forums and meetings including Estyn, National Evaluation and Improvement resource, leadership development courses with the consortia, local authorities and even Welsh Government. The vital, in my opinion, All Wales Strategy for Well-being is currently underway, and Associates are representing us as headteachers on that as well. When I signed up, I never thought that I would one day represent the Leadership Academy and therefore headteachers on the Welsh Government Operational Delivery Board and be the lone voice for our profession. But I am, and I do, and I try my very best wherever I am to maintain reality across the middle tier and above as I am still a practitioner.
A key learning for me has also been that 4 years ago I felt guilt for taking time to undertake any professional learning for myself. Now I realise it is vital and having time to develop ourselves is critical if we are to be the best leaders we can be.
So, what next? – I am nearing the end of my time as an Associate in July, but I hope to be able to remain a part of the Leadership Academy in some way. If that is not possible, I will undoubtedly continue to access the wide range of leadership learning available to all to stay current, engaged and ensure our voice as headteachers is heard. There is so much excellence in our system which we need to identify, share and develop. I’d like to encourage all headteachers across Wales to use the Leadership Academy, to feed into it and to explore all that it can offer. The Leadership Academy wants to hear the reality as it is OUR Leadership Academy, so engage with it whenever and wherever you can.
I feel very lucky to have experienced all that I have since 2018. The Leadership Academy continues to evolve and having been part of the co-construction I feel very proud of what it has become as we wanted it to be flexible and profession led. This is simply a snapshot of my experience with the organisation, but its impact will continue. The Leadership Academy aims to inspire leaders and enrich lives and it has undoubtedly done that for me!
Karen Lawrence is headteacher at Llanfaes CP School in Brecon and an Associate from Cohort 1.