From the ‘what’ to the ‘how’ of school leadership development

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Date published 27 October 2021

In this blog series, we have been attempting to answer the question: ‘what is expert school leadership and how can we develop it?’. This is an important question for us given the important roles that school leaders play in society, and the responsibility that we have at Ambition Institute to provide effective professional development for tens of thousands of colleagues who lead in schools.

In the series so far, we have argued that leading schools is a complex task, requiring high levels of expertise. We have critiqued what we describe as a ‘generic leadership’ approach to school leaders’ development which we argue has become the dominant paradigm in both training and discourse. We have also argued that school leadership is domain-specific in nature and that we should place greater emphasis on building specialist knowledge within leadership development.

In our last post, we considered school leadership through the lens of expertise, arguing that we might be better able to prepare and support leaders to address the core challenges of their roles by developing their mental models - what an individual knows and how that knowledge is organised to guide action and decisions. We acknowledge that when talking about knowledge, it is common for people to interpret this as a focus only on formal or ‘textbook’ knowledge and so have defined knowledge broadly, encompassing what an individual knows, understands and believes about their work, context and the people around them.

Having considered the persistent problems that leaders face in the roles, alongside the types of knowledge that help leaders respond to them, in this post we turn our attention to the ways in which this expertise can be most effectively developed - moving from the 'what' to the 'how' of leadership development. Firstly, we consider what it is that makes professional development effective, and secondly, what this means for the design and delivery of school leaders’ professional development.

What is effective professional development (PD)?

Research suggests teachers spend approximately 10 days a year engaged in professional development. Across the teaching workforce, this equates to more than 5 million days. Being able to deliver professional development which has a good chance of impacting upon pupil learning is vital if this time (and cost) is to be worthwhile.

In recent years, a consensus has developed around what makes effective professional development (Fletcher-Wood, 2018). Researchers have argued for a combination of characteristics, which tends to include: ​

  • Subject-specificity​
  • Collaboration​
  • A sustained duration​
  • Active learning​
  • External expertise​
  • Teacher buy-in​

But when examined more closely, it appears that many instances of professional development programmes which had adopted all of these characteristics did not always have the intended impact. Currently therefore, we don’t know exactly why it is that some professional development programmes work and others don’t.

In focusing on building expertise, research suggests we should consider carefully how professional development is designed, looking beyond the forms (such as reading, keynotes or coaching), the characteristics (such as collaborative, domain-specific or asynchronous) and into the ‘mechanisms’ or 'active ingredients' that are more likely to lead to learning and behaviour change.

A recent report by the Education Endowment Foundation (Sims et al., 2021) identifies 14 such mechanisms which they find is more likely to lead to impactful teacher PD. They describe mechanisms as ‘empirically-evidenced general principles about how people learn and change their practice’ (Sims, et al., p62). Mechanisms enable us to better understand what is happening during professional development that is making a difference to individuals’ behaviour, giving us language to be specific about what might be causing the changes we want professional development to achieve. The report tells us, for example, that it is specific act of creating a cue to elicit a certain behaviour that is making a difference, not just instructional coaching (which is a form of professional development that can be delivered in different ways). It tells us that it is the specific act of daily self-monitoring of a certain behaviour that is making the difference, not the opportunity for weekly collaboration with a more experienced teacher (which is a characteristic of many types of professional development).

The 14 mechanisms the study reports are listed below, grouped into one of four categories. Importantly, the report argues, professional development containing at least one mechanism from each category is three times more likely to have an impact on pupil standardised test scores.

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Along with the importance of mechanisms, the study underlines the value of aligning professional development with the broader needs and priorities of the school, specifically the ‘fit between the intervention, the school’s priorities, and the reality of the classroom’ (Sims et al., p58). Any professional development should therefore build upon and enhance existing policies and practices, make participation straightforward and convenient and ensure clear communication and simple to use resources at all times. An especially important consideration they report are the significant constraints on individuals’ time.

What does this mean for school leaders’ professional development?

The design of professional development is a complex undertaking but a range of literature – including the recent study above - provides us with the following four key insights that can support the design of more effective development opportunities for school leaders:

  1. Consider that school leaders learn like anyone else.
  2. Incorporate evidence-based 'mechanisms'.
  3. Attend to the conditions in which professional development takes place
  4. Focus on the 'priority problems' that a leader is facing in their school.

1. Consider that school leaders learn like anyone else

School leaders, like teachers and students, are subject to many of the same challenges when it comes to learning. They may lack motivation, they can be distracted, they can easily forget things and struggle to transfer learning from one piece of content into another. Fortunately, we have a good evidence base about how humans learn (for example, managing individuals’ cognitive load, ensuring opportunities for retrieval practice and revisiting ideas over time), and we can also apply this evidence to teacher and leader development.

Example: Programmes of professional development should be to be designed and sequenced in such a way that means leaders are introduced to concepts which they continually revisit, alongside the use of techniques such as low stakes quizzing which make it more likely that knowledge is retained over time. The addition of opportunities for this knowledge to be applied in a school context alongside carefully curated opportunities for practice and feedback gives the highest chance that relevant information will be retained and embedded into practice.

2. Incorporate evidence-based 'mechanisms'

Professional development should support individuals to know or be able to do something new or different. But research tells us that it often fails to make a lasting difference to individuals’ practice (Copur-Gencturk, 2014). By incorporating specific mechanisms, or active ingredients, professional development is more likely to have the effect we want it to have. Importantly, professional development should incorporate a ‘balanced design’ that is, it should include at least one mechanism from each of the four categories (IGTP) identified by Sims et al (2021).

Example: In designing the new Ambition Institute leadership programme content, we have incorporated a wide range of models (e.g. EEF implementation framework, simple model of memory), artefacts (e.g. extracts of literature, school based resources or mock-conversations that have been held) or worked examples (e.g. scenarios depicting authentic challenges leaders face). These are selected from literature or provided by serving leaders to ensure they are highly relevant to participants. These worked examples are then analysed and unpicked by participants throughout the programme, supporting them to both understand what it is about the example that made it effective and increase the likelihood that participants are able to translate the examples into their own practice. Sense-making opportunities (every half term) provide an additional opportunity to retrieve, apply and evaluate knowledge alongside peers and an experienced facilitator.

3. Attend to the conditions in which professional development takes place

When focusing on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of professional development, there is a danger we might overlook the conditions within which it takes place, which research suggests are just as important (Kraft and Papay, 2014). The conditions in a school can lead to any CPD-related activity being viewed as developmental or threatening depending on how they are experienced. Professional development will be most effective in a school culture where the participating individual feels supported, valued and trusted, where the purpose of the PD is clear and aligns with the individuals’ goals, and where the school (and leaders) have thought carefully about how to protect the time needed to engage in professional development.

Example: Ensuring that professional development is designed in such a way that it fits around school timetables is key. Individuals working in schools have many responsibilities they need to maintain, whether teaching or not and so the incorporation of content which can be completed flexibly, at a time that suits participants is one way of overcoming this challenge. Within our new NPQ design at Ambition, we have increased the proportion of online modules so that participants can access these at a time which suits them, rather than relying on face-to-face events at fixed times.

4. Focus on the 'priority problems' that a leader is facing in their school

Evidence suggests that more effective leaders develop staff consensus around clear pedagogical goals and priorities. Professional development has also been found to be more effective when it is selected on the basis that it relates to and enhances individuals' ability to address identified priorities of their work. Supporting staff to engage in professional development which can be clearly connected to the current priorities of the school (and the particular problems they are addressing) is therefore important.

Example: Within the new Ambition NPQ programmes, we have designed ‘communities’ sessions which are focused on personal challenge which a participant is facing. Through a carefully crafted sequence (underpinned by research from medical rounds) this challenge is unpicked and explored through peer questioning and challenge and advice. Rooting developmental conversations around personal challenges ensures professional development closely connects to the priorities individuals’ need to respond to in school.


Alongside a focus on what school leaders should learn as part of their professional development, it is also important to consider how - through programme design - learning should be structured and sequenced. But designing effective PD is challenging: the work teachers and leaders do is complex, and the circumstances within which they work are hectic and challenging, and so making the time, consistently, to prioritise personal development can be incredibly hard.

To address this challenge, we can draw on some key insights including what we know about how humans learn, alongside recent research into the mechanisms, or active ingredients, that underpin successful professional development. Doing so gives us more insight into what is actually causing the behaviour change we want to see within professional development. We should also pay attention to the conditions in which professional development takes place, acknowledging the limited time and attention that school leaders have to engage in professional development. Finally, we should ensure that professional development links to the priority problems that leaders are addressing in their schools so that we can ensure it tackles what is most important for the school and builds coherence in the work of the wider school staff.

In our next and final post, we will summarise some of the key points from within this blog series along with some reflections from feedback and discussion that we’ve enjoyed over the summer through conversation and debate around some of the posts. We will finish by posing some questions that we think could help us make further progress in designing more effective professional development for school leaders in the future.


Copur‐Gencturk, H., (2014). The effects of a master’s program on teachers’ science instruction: Results from classroom observations, teacher reports, and student surveys. Journal of research in science teaching, 51(2), pp.219–249.

Fletcher-Wood, H., (2018) Designing Professional Development for Teacher Change. Institute for teaching. Accessed here:

Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H., O’Mara-Eves, A., Cottingham, S., Stansfield, C., Van Herwegen, J., Anders, J., (2021) What are the characteristics of effective teacher professional development? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Education Endowment Foundation. Available at:

Jennifer Barker
Jennifer Barker
Dean of Learning Design

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Tom Rees
Tom Rees
Executive Director

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