Reflections on Leadership with Sir Michael Wilshaw

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools in England gave the third ARK Schools Reflections on Leadership lecture. A moving, humorous, thoughtful and self deprecating discussion, he recounted the experiences, key questions and personal opportunities of his 45 year career in education.

He began by congratulating King Solomon Academy on their recent Ofsted inspection and their leadership team’s success in focusing on better leadership, governance and teaching as a means to better serve their pupils.

The steady hand of leadership

Sir Michael opened by illustrating the point that all school leaders need to question whether they have the attributes necessary to leadership. He argued that leaders need to demonstrate courage and resilience and to ask themselves “Have I got what it takes? Have I got the steady hand that leadership requires?”

Sir Michael had asked himself that question many times over his career, from the early days as a teacher then head teacher at St Bonaventure's Catholic Comprehensive School. The challenges of poor staff morale, community concerns and union opposition made many question Sir Michael’s early choices.

At the time he’d asked himself ‘was it worth it? Am I up for it?’ but grew resolute in his determination to secure better opportunities for his pupils. He commented that leaders trying to make a new start need to look across their schools for the pockets of excellence – in St Bonaventure there were a significant number of teachers already quietly going the extra mile – but without leadership support. Leaders needed to ‘tie the strands together, find the good people and build on their strengths’. Leaders need to recognise success and hard work in their schools and build the desire to improve across the school.

The true test of leadership - moving on to the next challenge

Then at 58, as many heads are contemplating retirement, Sir Michael moved from the then outstanding St Bonaventure’s to Mossbourne. He urged the audience to test themselves and push themselves harder to seek out new challenges. In his case, he said, “It was one of the best decisions of my life” as he and his colleagues demonstrated “that Hackney kids could do as well as anywhere else”.

Joining Ofsted brought a new challenge so he asked himself again “Have I got what it takes to do this?” He reflected that he could not do the job without challenging people to do better. He said: ‘I did that as a head, I always challenged people to do better, even though they were doing what I wanted them to do, I always wanted them to try to do even better. I knew that I couldn’t be Chief Inspector without challenging people, workforces, colleges and schools, to do better.”

“My job is to improve the lives of children, improve education and improve schools”

He said that “The best leaders are brave, courageous and entrepreneurial... want to go the extra mile and take on the extra challenge.”

And he reminded heads always to remember “that you’re doing it for children.”

Sir Michael closed his address by urging the optimism that attracts fellow enthusiasts and by stressing that courageous leaders embrace change and see change as their opportunity and advantage. He added that they also need to be countercultural, to stand up sometimes for what they believe ‘If you’re in schools you are doing the most important job and it is a privilege to do it…. As a network you have shown that poverty should not be a barrier to success. ..ARK is closing the gap in educational attainment... The challenge for all our teachers and heads... is to carry on doing it.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw's lecture took place on 5 June, 2013 at ARK’s King Solomon Academy on the day that Ofsted published a second outstanding report on the all through academy. The next Reflections on Leadership Lecture will be given by entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox on 30 September, 2013. For more information, email or ring 0203 116 6377