24 April 2018

A tower of strength  

Anna Newson shares her snapshots of a senior leadership development day

How many headteachers does it take to build a tower out of straws?


It may sound like staff room stand up or an episode of the Crystal Maze, but this is ATLP team building in its most literal sense.

On a Tuesday morning in March, 40 senior leaders, spanning 11 primary and secondary ATLP and partner schools, join chief executive Richard Gill for a leadership development day at Aston Wood Golf Club.

Our personable CEO (pictured below, left) is, uncharacteristically, without a tie – his shiny ATLP lapel badge reflects the informal yet collective tone of the day.

Greeting every leader with a warm familiarity, he tells me:

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by dynamic and genuine leaders who run their schools with absolute passion and a steadfast commitment to education.

Today, we’re taking time to reflect and review our leadership practice, to collaborate with others so that we can learn and grow together as part of our continuous improvement. We’re asking ourselves how we can be more effective, if we can do things differently – better – to inspire others in our schools and to shape the course of our children’s futures.”

Investing in staff

To use an analogy befitting of the evergreen backdrop, leadership development is very much par for the course at ATLP. The partnership is invested in developing leaders at all levels, to provide quality leadership and training, to nurture talent and unlock potential, and build an engaged and sustainable workforce with a desire to progress and learn.

Headteachers, deputies and business managers meet monthly with the CEO at different schools and venues to collaborate and share ideas and best practice. The partnership favours a mutually supportive environment, with Richard also providing one to one coaching with senior leaders.


At Aston Wood, external consultants Rebecca Wray and Ian Redmond have purposefully taken leaders out of their comfort zones.  Rebecca already knows what makes some of these leaders tick, having forged a longstanding relationship with the MAT at all levels.

ATLP CEO Richard Gill (left) joins professional coaches Rebecca Wray and Ian Redmond

She explains: “The concept of the day is to achieve two things – to provide some high quality development that stretches ATLP colleagues and partners through an engaging, provocative style, and to start a discussion around development opportunities for this group.”   

Richard’s introduction – set against the backdrop #ATLPlookingahead – reminds us that: “together we are stronger” and his vision to bring our islands (also known as schools) together as one.

Throughout the day, leaders take part in a range of activities, discussions. presentations and networking in rotating groups, to explore key themes around collaboration, innovation, impact and change.

The facilitative style gives them the freedom to explore ideas and opinions and to take part in innovative problem-solving.

“You’re leading behaviour – it’s a ripple effect.” Ian reminds the room to model positive behaviour as  executive headteacher and school improvement leader, Anna Balson, echoes: “it’s contagious.”  

Suzie Norton (pictured below, left) headteacher of William MacGregor School, says: “I’m finding the team ethos really strong. Everybody is on board and working well together.”

Ian (pictured below) who recently led a senior leadership coaching session with Rebecca, Richard Gill and ATLP executive headteachers and school improvement leaders, Anna Balson and Neil Warner, provides a short session on innovation.

He says: “We’re challenging the attendees to think about how well they look outside the sector to get inspiration from what other businesses are doing.  A good thought provoker as, ultimately, the children they are educating and inspiring, are on a journey to possibly work in these organisations in the future, so we’re helping connect the dots.”

Developing selfie confidence

Tasks are tailored to stretch delegates’ ingenuity and teamworking skills. Groups are challenged to construct the tallest tower out of straws. Creative solutions include utilising a pergola and procuring a broom and sticky tape from staff. In one case, a Heath Robinson scaffold is transported to the top of grassy bank, much to the bemusement of golfers.


Leaders are encouraged to be more relevant, so that they can relate to young people and staff – to hold a mirror up to themselves – or in this case – a smart phone. The selfie challenge requires teams to take a picture of what the day represents to them. The snapshots show happy, united teams – a band singing from the same sheet and a group with their eyes opened.

Behind the fun and games sits a more serious agenda. Kerriann Dyson (pictured below, left) deputy headteacher of ATLP’s Slade Primary School, comments: “It’s really exciting to work with people we don’t normally work with, to collaborate wider than our school, to reflect on what we are doing and how we can do things better as a MAT.”

Simon Roberts (pictured below left), deputy headteacher at the Coleshill School, tells me: “It’s challenging your thinking in terms of how people work together– it’s nice to collaborate with other leaders, to see the vision and rationale and to look at what can materialise as a result of the training.”

In true ATLP style, the CEO has been involved in every part of the day’s training –  he even has the selfie to prove it. Has the session met his objectives?

Richard Gill with Anna Balson and Helen Hastilow

He says:

Today has re-enforced the vision that together we are stronger – we have the power to transform our own destinies through collaboration and mutual support and trust. We brought together a group of different leaders from diverse schools – yet we found they shared the same robust leadership characteristics and core moral purpose. This shows me that our schools are in the expert hands of ambitious and innovative world-class leaders and it is a privilege to walk alongside them.

We’re building something together, escalating improvement and moving in a new direction. We model this outstanding behaviour from the top; it permeates throughout our schools and leads to positive outcomes for our students – that’s the legacy of quality leadership.”

Post event, Rebecca emails to tell me she has had lots of positive feedback from leaders.

She writes: “They have gone away thinking more about how they empower staff – who they listen to and who feels listened to.

“I’ve also spoken to a few leaders about their reflections on collaboration – lots of opportunities were identified but they now need to take the next steps.  The second part of the day was to discuss outcomes from the morning with Richard, Neil and Anna and to make any immediate plans necessary.  They all identified actions to take forward to watch this space! 

“Working with ATLP last week was really positive – there was lots of energy and a clear willingness to work together.”