2020: A new perspective for school leadership?

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Date published 03 January 2020

As we head into 2020, the start of this new decade marks 20 years since I started teaching as an NQT, 20 years since I became a mobile phone owner for the first time and 20 years since Tony Blair opened the National College for School Leadership.

Today also marks a year working with Ambition Institute after spending the previous ten years in headship. During a fascinating 2019, a personal highlight for me was the opportunity to talk to so many great people about educational leadership; considering what it is and how we might better develop it in the future.

As part of this, we proposed what we see as a different perspective on school leadership to the orthodoxy – one with more focus on the specific educational work of school leaders and the expertise they need to do it well, and less focus on generic leadership concepts.

This perspective has more emphasis on what educational leaders know and are able to do (their mental model), and less emphasis on the style in which they operate or generic concepts such as such as leadership 'styles’, vision or change.

So, with a new decade ahead of us, here are five key ideas which featured in the debate around this new perspective, along with relevant links to blogs, papers and people who have been influential within this throughout 2019. I’d love you to join the conversation.

  • Key idea 1: Complexity
  • Key idea 2: Domain-specific expertise
  • Key idea 3: Knowledge
  • Key idea 4: Persistent problems
  • Key idea 5: Context


1. Complexity

Key idea: The work that school leaders do is complex.

The main purpose of leaders is to enable effective teaching to take place. This sounds simple yet, in any classroom, we're attempting to change thirty or so brains belonging to young, immature humans with varying levels of motivation who are often distracted by a plethora of other things.

Considering the work of school leaders through this lens, where our behaviour and decisions influence multiple classrooms or schools, the relationship between our actions/decisions and their impact is often messy and inconclusive.

Searching the evidence base for answers can draw us into long and winding rabbit holes but does reveal several 'truths' of school leadership that deserve more scrutiny and scepticism than perhaps they've received in the past.

We learn, for example, that judging the quality of teachers by their progress data or an observation rubric is flawed. We discover that advertisements seeking dynamic, charismatic and innovative leaders may be misplaced and searching for the wrong things.

We suspect that bold and pithy statements such as ‘culture is king’ or 'leadership starts with vision' might not be true, and that jokes about leaders having a dream while managers have a plan may romanticise ‘leadership’ at the expense of getting important and hard work done.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the more we learn about leadership, the more we can feel ignorant - unsure of what it is we do as school leaders that makes a difference. For those more familiar with research than me, however, this is no surprise.

As Becky Allen and Ben White said in their recent ResearchED talk:

"Recognising ahead of time our own limitations and/or that of education as a lever to effect social change may be helpful in itself. It can be cathartic to recognise that the system itself likely induces many to feel a vague sense of not being good enough without granting clarity on what, exactly, to do about it."

Or, as Yuval Noah Harari describes in his book, Sapiens:

"Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus - 'we do not know everything'. Even more critically, it accepts that the things we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge."

In accepting complexity and the limits of both our knowledge and potential impact, there’s a risk we might feel our efforts are futile. This exposes the challenge – that we’re a long way from the ‘final word’ on school leadership and there’s more for us to do as a system in understanding the work that school leaders do.

2. Domain-specific expertise

Key idea: We should focus more on domain-specific expertise and less on generic approaches to leadership.

In thinking about the work of school leaders, there are two conflicting approaches we can take:

  1. Generic leadership: the skills, knowledge and attributes that are assigned to leadership as its own domain. An implication of generic leadership is that school leaders should learn about concepts from the field of leadership and how these can be applied to schools because, broadly, leadership is just leadership – regardless of sector.

  2. Domain-specific leadership: the skills, knowledge and attributes linked to the leadership/management of a specific field. An implication of domain-specific leadership is that school leaders should develop deep educational expertise in areas such as curriculum or teacher development because leading a school is very different to leading a hospital or a library.

Adapted from Gilbride, N. (2018)

Few argue against the importance of domain-specific expertise, yet the concept has been notable by its absence in the school leadership narrative until recently. Instead, it’s far more common to read about leaders' traits, their values and behaviours, or generic concepts such as vision, project management or leading change.

This current orthodox view of school leadership is dominated by the influence of transformational leadership, generic leadership approaches or the 'hero paradigm' (Gronn, 2003).

In what I think is an important but recent debate, a number of arguments have been made on the shortfalls of generic leadership approaches, including this piece I wrote for SchoolsWeek last year on why we should focus on the ‘substance over style' of school leaders.

Other arguments have been made including this by headteacher and author Matthew Evans, who states that "without knowledge of the domain in which you practice these are vacuous notions; each ‘skill’ a hollow shell." Matthew went on to make this argument in full last year in his excellent book: Leaders with Substance – An Antidote to Leadership Genericism in Schools.

We can see how the importance of domain-specific expertise is essential in curricular leadership. Christine Counsell has consistently and eloquently argued for greater curricular knowledge, writing that:

"the absence of an adequate model of senior curriculum leadership seems to me to deepen fundamental and longstanding problems in schools with which we have all wrestled, from weak assessment systems to problems with generation and interpretation of data, from problematical judgements about teaching and learning, to attraction and retention of fine teachers, from teacher development to the effectiveness of CPD." (Counsell, 2018)

But developing expertise is difficult and doesn’t come through experience alone. In all fields, expertise can be thought of as something that is "effortfully acquired" or to gain a competence “that would never have come about naturally” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993).

This leads us to think about the challenge of school leaders’ development. In order to try and discover the substance of school leadership, we have to look beyond the surface level and understand the mental models of expert leaders and the vast expanse of tacit knowledge that governs the decisions they take and the moves they make.

Randal Cremer_two leaders talking

3. Knowledge

Key idea: Expertise is predicated on knowledge.

It feels an unfashionable idea that leadership might mainly be a matter of knowledge when there are far more romantic and emotive interpretations available. But knowledge is foundational to experts in all fields and the work of school leaders is no different.

In their 1993 book ‘Surpassing Ourselves’, Bereiter and Scardamalia emphasise the importance of knowledge and the reluctance for it to be accepted as integral to the work of experts:

"Most people we talk to do not want to believe that research shows expert performance is mainly a matter of knowledge. They do not necessarily have an alternative explanation ready, but they feel there has to be more to expertise that that." (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993)

At Ambition Institute, we believe expertise arises when educators have a clear understanding of the problems of their role, as well as knowledge to address these and guide their behaviour appropriately.

Think about the teacher who appears to have eyes in the back of her head, the head of department who deals with complex challenges serenely and the headteacher who knows what to do, however challenging the circumstances. Their expertise and experience allows them to solve problems effectively and efficiently, using up less energy and cognitive resources than their novice counterparts.

If we are to shift the dial further on the expertise of school leaders, we will need to become more comfortable talking about the knowledge sitting behind leaders' subject or specialist expertise. I’ve enjoyed learning more about the importance of leaders’ domain-specific knowledge through the work of Professor Viviane Robinson who visited us in 2019.

Robinson states that leaders "need to be increasingly knowledgeable about the core business of teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum. And they need to be able to use that knowledge to make good decisions." (Robinson, 2017) She also states that leaders use "content knowledge to solve complex school-based problems, while building relational trust with staff, parents, and students." (Robinson 2010).

Another academic’s work which has become influential in this debate is Professor Amanda Goodall. We were delighted to host her talking at our launch last year about her proposition of the ‘Expert Leader’. Goodall’s research reveals the importance of leaders having a "deep understanding of and high ability in the core-business of their organisation".

Her research has shown that leaders with strong domain-specific knowledge are more likely to lead happier and more successful organisations with benefits to individual performance and retention.

Accepting that knowledge is foundational to developing expertise as a school leader leads us to another big question: what knowledge? To answer this, we first need to better define what problems school leaders are trying to solve.

4. Persistent problems

Key idea: Defining the 'persistent problems' school leaders face in their role can help us define the most relevant and important bodies of knowledge educational leaders should acquire.

Seeing school leadership as largely a problem-solving activity is not a new concept (see for example Leithwood et al. 1994) but one which I think is helpful and should be more prominent. Too often, I believe leaders can be drawn into creating solutions, initiatives or interventions without thinking enough about what problem it is they are trying to solve.

In her 2016 paper ‘Parsing the Practice of Teaching’, Mary Kennedy represents teaching through five ‘persistent problems’, using this term to represent an understanding of not just the behaviours or moves that teachers carry out, but the purpose behind these:

"We have misplaced our focus on the actions we see; when what is needed is a focus on the purposes those actions serve." (Kennedy, 2016)

Over the last 12 months, we’ve applied a similar approach to school leadership and have carried out significant work to understand more about the persistent problems that school leaders face.

This has involved scouring the literature, interviewing dozens of school leaders, reviewing what Ofsted reports say about school leadership and engaging with the wealth of knowledge in our academic and school advisory groups. Through this work, we've identified seven ‘persistent problems of school leadership’.

We think persistent problems are universal and unavoidable: all leaders will face them irrespective of the context they work in. They’re also implicit: no matter how good a leader is, they’ll experience these problems. Finally, we think they’re useful in terms of the way we describe, think about and develop leaders. You can read more about these here.


5. Context

Key idea: Although educators face universal persistent problems which require common bodies of knowledge, we must recognise that these problems manifest themselves in different ways depending on a school's context.

Occasionally I hear context becoming shorthand for ‘level of deprivation’ and I think it’s important that we consider a broader definition, considering the many different contextual threads such as: geography, position in the school improvement cycle, demography, experience of staff people and issues like funding or school structures.

Fundamentally similar challenges such as curriculum design, professional development or teacher recruitment all require nuanced responses tailored around the people and the place.

Just as an expert physician takes time to examine, observe and consider a wide range of sources such as medical history and potential conflicting medication, so too expert school leaders should invest in learning about the context and climate of their school before planning and taking action.

As Matthew Evans writes in ‘Leaders with Substance’:

"Be a student of your school. Come to know its people, ethos, foibles, peculiarities, cultural norms, hidden spaces, dark secrets, harboured dreams, storage cupboards, social dynamics, potted history, defining moments, reputation, uniqueness and dullness. Let your leadership grow in the rich soil of the school." (Evans, 2019)

It’s interesting that lots of claims made about school leadership often include pithy statements such as ‘leadership starts with vision’. I’m unsure about statements like this.

I fear they might belong to a tired conception of transformational leadership that presents a leader as the holder of a vision to be implemented in a school without due consideration of the context-specific problems that need solving. I also suspect that, in the leadership discussion, it’s easy for us to become seduced by short ‘truthy’ statements like this, which divert us from harder and more complex questions.

If school leadership starts with anything at all, I’d say it’s more likely to begin with deep educational knowledge, an understanding of context (the people and the place) and a good diagnosis and definition of the problems that need solving.

I get the feeling that the debate around school leadership is going to grow in 2020. I am particularly excited about being able to expand on some of these ideas further in the ResearchED guide to school leadership, published in the Spring along with my fabulous colleague, Jen Barker.

I’d like to finish this post by inviting you to join the discussion. If we’re to help leaders keep getting better across the system, it’s vital that the voice of practitioners is at the heart of the debate around what school leaders should know and be able to do. We’d love to hear from you about work in your schools and trusts throughout the year.

I hope 2020 is a great one for you.

Recommended further reading

Reading related to complexity:

Reading related to domain-specific expertise:

Reading related to knowledge:

Reading related to persistent problems:

Reading related to context:


Gronn, P., (2003) The new work of educational leaders: changing leadership practice in an era of school reform. London: P. Chapman Pub.

Viviane M. J. Robinson (2010) From Instructional Leadership to Leadership Capabilities: Empirical Findings and Methodological Challenges, Leadership and Policy in Schools, 9:1, 1-26, DOI: 10.1080/15700760903026748

Gilbride, N. (2018) The Relevance of Domain-General and Domain-Specific Skills for Educational Leadership. Unpublished Paper.

Tom Rees
Tom Rees
Executive Director for School Leadership

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