Teaching schools and system leaders: who they are and what they do?

 Mike Tonge, headteacher at Prestolee Primary School in Bolton, discusses his work as a National Leader of Education (NLE) with NCTL Chief Executive, Charlie Taylor.


If you are the headteacher of an outstanding school, you might want to apply to be a national leader of education (NLE). In this role, you and your staff would support schools in challenging circumstances, in addition to leading your own school.


The goal of national leaders of education (NLEs) is to increase the leadership capacity of other schools to help raise standards. This is one part of the government’s plan to give schools a central role in developing a self-improving and sustainable school system.

One of the most effective ways of achieving school improvement is by working with other schools. 

There are now many opportunities for school leaders and governors to work with and receive support from their peers. This guide summarises the options available to you and how to access them.

How to find a system leader

Use the school-to-school support directory to find and contact system leaders in your area.





There may be costs, depending on what type of support you need. You will negotiate any payment with the teaching school.


Time commitment for you and/or your staff


This will vary considerably, depending on how much support your school needs. Some projects only take a few days, others can include full-time support roles over a period of several years. Your school, the teaching school, and any concerned organisations (for example, Ofsted or the local authority) will negotiate this.


Further information


Local authorities and other educational support organisations who want to work with teaching schools should email us at the address below to discuss options.


For more information about teaching schools, email teaching.schools@education.gsi.gov.uk.


National leaders of education (NLEs)


NLEs are outstanding headteachers who work with schools in challenging circumstances to support school improvement.


Because their support role will often include members of their own staff, the school of a national leader of education is called a national support school.


You should contact an NLE if you want to improve performance at your school. They will meet with the headteacher and senior staff from your school to discuss the challenges you face and what help is needed. Their work will be tailored in partnership with you.


They can get involved in different ways, including:


  • working with your school alongside their staff
  • working with your school on their own
  • their staff working with your school under their initial direction


Contact an NLE


Use the school-to-school support directory to find national leaders of education in your area. Contact details are available through the directory. You can contact theNLE directly.




There may be costs, depending on what type of support you need. Any payments will be negotiated between you and the NLE’s school.


Time commitment for you and your staff


This is a very intensive form of support. The length and type of work can vary significantly. It could involve up to 3 to 4 days of support per week for 2 years or more.


Further information


For more information about NLEs, email nle.enquiries@education.gsi.gov.uk.



Leadership - Developing talent 

Now you have identified the people who have leadership qualities, you need to consider what steps to take to realise that potential and meet aspirations.


Evidence confirms that organisations that offer able and talented staff opportunities to develop leadership skills have a lower turnover because the workforce feels motivated, empowered and valued. At the same time, in-house leadership development creates a ready-made pool of potential candidates for when senior vacancies arise.


Who is involved?

Creating leadership opportunities need not be restricted to teaching staff. Support staff carrying out roles as diverse as office administrative tasks or site management, for example, also have aspirations and can bring vital expertise to your school through their own personal and professional interests.

The governing body, too, is a key part of the equation. Any decisions on leadership development should be carried out in consultation and with the support of governors, who need to understand the vital part that succession planning can play in the school improvement process, And don’t overlook the wider picture: working with other schools in your locality – organising job swaps, for example – may enable you to address both your leadership needs and theirs more effectively.


Strategies for growing leaders

It is important to have a strategic approach to developing leaders in order to bring on people with the right skills and abilities. It can also mean a smoother transition when someone in a leadership role announces they are moving on.

Popular strategies include:

  • carrying out an audit or questionnaire of your staff annually asking them where they see themselves in three to five years’ time
  • having in place a systematic talent management pathway that provides leadership opportunities within the organisation or across a group of schools
  • mapping management opportunities with individual aptitudes and needs
  • providing a range of authentic leadership placements and context-based development experiences
  • taking positive action to encourage diversity within the senior leadership team

Give them opportunities to lead

Effective school leaders do not just emerge. Some people are well suited to leadership but don’t realise it themselves; others are put off by the impression they have formed of leadership, which may be very different from the reality.


To overcome misconceptions and to give people a true picture of what leadership entails, they need to see for themselves what it means on a day-to-day basis. Asking staff to ‘act up’ to take on new and greater responsibilities for a particular aspect of work, for example, or putting emergent leaders in key positions, gives them the opportunity to do this and to develop professionally in a safe, supportive and familiar environment.


Job shadowing and observing effective, more senior colleagues and taking on some of their duties in their absence is another way of giving staff insight into leadership, while encouraging individual leadership on whole-school issues gives people a valuable understanding of the big picture beyond their existing role.


Added support from a coach or mentor can also give people the confidence to try out leadership, knowing they have a ‘safety net’. 


Beyond the comfort zone

Internal opportunities are valuable, but potential leaders may actually need to be taken beyond the comfort zone of their own setting to face challenges in different contexts to allow real progress to be made, and for their potential to blossom.


One way to facilitate this is to provide them with opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge in a different organisation, such as a secondment to another, perhaps more challenging setting within the same cluster, chain or partnership. 

Organising ‘job swaps’ with staff in other settings within the same local authority can have a similar impact for both your emerging leaders and those elsewhere.


Benefits for the school

Developing leadership potential within the organisation, and offering opportunities for professional enhancement, can have far-reaching benefits for a school.


It can reduce churn – that is, lower staff turnover as individuals’ enthusiasm, motivation and commitment to the school increases. Succession planning is strengthened as potential high-quality leaders are identified early on and prepared for suitable vacancies. 


The internal capacity of the organisation also improves as individuals’ leadership experience increases their knowledge and insight, which they can share with colleagues.


Other benefits include:

  • the encouragement of innovative practices and continuing professional development of all staff, which can keep schools at the cutting edge
  • identification and implementation of innovation and good practice observed in partnership schools by prospective leaders on secondment
  • adding value to school improvement agendas and building capacity to meet those demands
  • promoting a culture of high aspiration and expectation within the school – for staff, as well as pupils

Most importantly, the enhanced professionalism, expertise and knowledge that staff derive from their new leadership experiences is likely to mean better outcomes for pupils, helping them to progress and raising attainment.


National leadership qualifications

The National College offers a leadership curriculum of qualifications and flexible study modules to support professionals aspiring to all levels of school and academy leadership. The curriculum is structured around five levels which reflect the different needs and challenges that leaders face as they take on new roles and responsibilities. Find out more about the leadership curriculum.