Brian Sims: What is in great school leadership?

Brian Sims, Director of Education at Ark, writes about their school leadership principles.

Ark is a network of 35 non-selective schools, educating over 21,000 children and young people across Birmingham, Hastings, London and Portsmouth. From our executive principals to our admin teams, we are all united by our mission to ensure that every young person, regardless of their background, has access to a great education and real choices in life.

We have guiding principles, our six pillars, that underpin everything that we all do. These pillars are: excellent teaching, high expectations, exemplary behaviour, knowing every child, depth before breadth, and more time for learning. What these mean in practice vary from school to school. We have very purposely never taken a cookie-cutter approach because we know that our principals know their schools and their local communities better than anybody.

It is this uniqueness that makes the Ark network so special. Though wildly different at times, what unites us is our urgent pursuit of great outcomes for our students. The more I study our schools – and other amazing schools around the country – the more I come to believe that no matter the differences, great schools share three common traits. These schools all have leaders who are: Brutally consistent in designing clear policies, communicating them simply, and implementing them to the highest standard. Respectfully relentless in developing people and helping put them in a position to maximise impact. Rigorously joyful in embracing the opportunities and challenges of educating young people, having fun while doing it, and celebrating success along the way.

If you want to be a great school leader, I urge you to consider these three areas and measure your actions against them. Literally, as an SLT, self-evaluate against each one. You’ll find yourself pulling up a bit from the details and remembering the why behind the what, and the how behind the who. More importantly, you’ll begin making adjustments that help you get stronger, right from the start.

As leaders, one of the most important roles we play is ensuring the people around us are able to do their best work. Creating the conditions for people who, if we’ve done it right, are better at their areas of expertise than we ever could be, is a critical part of our job.

Equally as essential is how we respond when someone isn’t meeting expectations. One approach I’ve tried over the years is to ask myself: is the person unaware, unable, or unwilling? These three categories offer a simple checklist, sequenced in a helpful order. In fact, they basically follow the “I do, we do, you do” of lesson planning.

If someone is unaware, that’s my fault and therefore falls into the I do category. I need to communicate expectations more clearly.

If someone is unable, that’s a joint task; a we do. I need to help them develop the skill or capacity to do the work at a high level.

If someone knows what’s expected and has demonstrated the ability to do it but still isn’t getting it done, then they’ve moved into the unwilling category – the you do. It’s important to try to understand why they aren’t doing it, but the reality is, if they’re unwilling to do the task that you need them to do at the level you need them to do it, that’s not OK.

As a manager, trying to understand where someone sits along this continuum can help in deciding how to improve the situation. At best you provide the right support and they begin to do the work properly; at worst you provide the right support and they don’t. Either way, your next steps are clear. Our students deserve our best. That means the adults around them have to be able to do great work, every day. As leaders, it’s our job to make sure that happens.

Many school leaders face a huge task in raising aspirations and achievements in their schools. It is likely they will face a number of challenges on the way. But my experience as an educator has taught me that hard work, a desire to see your colleagues and students succeed, and the ability to look at oneself critically, all help to drive high levels of achievement.

One of the highlights of the school calendar for me is the Ark Music Gala, where hundreds of students, primary and secondary, from across the country, come together to perform together on the famous Barbican stage. I am always amazed by their courage and musicianship, and surprised by their creativity and confidence. 

We take it incredibly seriously and countless people work hard to make it happen, led brilliantly by our Music Team.  The Gala for us has become a symbolic reminder of the heartbeat of who we are and what we believe.  As much as any Results Day, it brings us that much closer to achieving our mission.

As school leaders, it also provides us with an opportunity to consider leadership in a different context – that of the music conductor.

I saw a Ted talk recently that analysed symphony conductors as a way of identifying the most powerful characteristics of effective leaders.  It’s well worth the 20 minutes, and you can watch it here.

The speaker, Itay Talgam, provides a humorous and insightful take on different styles of conductors, complete with action videos.  To Talgam, the best conductors create the conditions for musicians to feel autonomous in their work – despite the fact that each one has a specific seat in the symphony and exact notes to play during a piece.  

It’s fascinating to consider: what messages can a conductor send to his orchestra to motivate and inspire them while also holding members to account?  How can she empower musicians to transcend the notes on the page and produce not just music but beautiful music, and not alone but together?

Talgam’s conclusions about great conductors apply equally well to our work in schools.  The best leaders start with a deep and personal understanding of the music they’re conducting; they have a relentless drive for storytelling; they set high expectations for quality and collaboration; and they are committed to accountability.  Just as important, they see themselves as a partner in the work, well aware that the musicians bring the score to life.  Ultimately, he believes that the leader’s capacity to “do without doing” makes all the difference.  

The Ark network is a special place to be a senior leader – what always strikes me is the incredibly collaborative and collegiate atmosphere that we have created. From hosting school visits for their peers to taking part in overseas studies and regional tours, our leaders are always ready to learn, to hone their craft and to share their learnings with others. This is most visible at our Principals residential and regular meetings where we support, stretch and encourage each other to be the best leaders that we can be.

Leadership is not just a set of skills, it is a hunger to learn, to listen, to challenge, to support and to improve yourself as well as the others around you.

Do you agree with their leadership methods? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter. ~ Sophie

Are you a trainee teacher, NQT, teacher, headteacher, parent or  just someone who cares about education and has something to get off  your chest in a Schools Improvement Guest Post? Follow this link for more details at the bottom of the page.

Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin (around 7am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link.

We now have a Facebook page - please click to like!


West Sussex governors threaten 'strike' over school funding
Lucy Parsons: How Teachers can Stick Up for Homework
Categories: Leadership.


  1. Interesting and inspiring – i like the analogy of orchestral conductors. BUT no mention of responsibility for public money or sound strategic financial leadership. No wonder deficits are rising even before the redistribution of funding.

  2. Anonymous

    ‘It is this uniqueness that makes the Ark network so special. ‘

    There’s nothing unique about it at all. Typical academy self-promotion. Implement a widespread practice and then make a pronouncement about how innovative it is.

  3. I also wonder how much of it is more than just good words?
    What about the 20% of each school day allocated to breaks from classroom-based learning? Play can be an extremely effective transmitter and validator of school culture (as well as super-boosting activity, wellbeing, behaviour, engagement, personal development, enjoyment and learning) but I have to wonder how many ARK schools have actually put playtime provision improvement in their list of priorities yet?
    Want to be the best? Not without focusing on ALL aspects of the school day you wont.

Let us know what you think...