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This paper is about a group of schools that are bucking a growing and concerning trend: that of schools narrowing their focus, and hollowing-out their teaching, in their desperation to meet the constantly shifting demands of the government’s accountability system.

This trend is understandable. The risks associated with leadership have become so high, with governors and trustees fearing for their schools and headteachers fearing for their jobs, that the task of clearing the latest threshold or hitting the next target has come to dominate almost everything many schools do – proof, if it were needed – that in high-stakes, low-trust systems, only those things that get measured tend to get done (with too few questions asked about how they get done).

But there are some school leaders who simply refuse to play this bureaucratic education-by-numbers game; leaders whose decisions are shaped, not by the government’s agenda, but by their own sense of mission – by the higher purpose to which they have dedicated themselves and their schools.

This report is about them – about a group of ‘missionary’ headteachers and the mission-oriented schools they lead. Despite their many and important differences, they have one thing in common: they are all driven by a sense of purpose that goes well beyond meeting the demands of the government’s accountability system. They are in the business not only of preparing their students to write a good exam, but to live a good life.

These inspiring schools provide a glimpse of what England’s school system could look like if we were to loosen the accountability system’s vice-like grip on our schools, many of which have now completely internalised both its logic and its language. A glimpse of a future in which those that lead, and teach in, our schools can reclaim ownership of their institutions, their profession and their practice – taking greater responsibility for their own standards and using research and evidence to guide their pursuit of excellence. 

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