Leading literacy in schools: aims, challenges, and solutions

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Date published 29 April 2022

In this blog, Sarah Bagshaw-McCormick unpicks what we know about leading literacy in schools, the challenges currently faced by literacy leaders in the sector, and possible solutions.

Many of us take for granted the literacy skills which give us access to everyday texts. Imagine not being able to read the dosage on a medicine bottle, seeing a bus timetable, but being unable to locate your bus or the time, or receiving a letter through the post with red writing, knowing it is important, but not being able to read what it says. This is the reality for hundreds of thousands of adults across the UK, who are functionally illiterate.

Literacy skills have a direct impact on quality of life, and are closely correlated with disadvantage.

Developing expertise in the leadership of literacy is key to improving schools, learning outcomes and future lives for pupils across the country.

The recent government Opportunity for all white paper describes literacy as “the bedrock of a great education, unlocking the whole curriculum and turbocharging social mobility…the essential tools which allow children to go on to further training and employment, and to live fulfilled lives. They are the gateway to the broad and rich curriculum children need." (DfE, 2022. P.14).

In this blog, I'll unpick what we know about leading literacy in schools, considering the aims of literacy leadership and teaching, some the challenges currently faced by literacy leaders in the sector, and possible solutions to these challenges.


The recent white paper reminds educators that literacy is essential for all pupils.

It recognises that pupils’ language and literacy understanding, knowledge and skills can be a barrier or an enabler to learning. In fact, effective literacy underpins pupils’ learning in every subject, at every stage of formal education.

It also emphasises that effective leaders and teachers of literacy are essential. To understand why, it's worth looking at the bigger picture.

Literacy is an impediment to many pupils and adults in education and society. 1 in 6 adults are functionally illiterate, meaning that they have not been supported to develop basic literacy levels, which would enable them to understand bills, read instructions on medicine bottles, fill out application forms, or use digital technologies. In fact, low levels of literacy have a significant impact on peoples’ quality of life and have been shown to be a predictor of decreased health, limited employment opportunities and quality of housing (National Literacy Trust, 2019).

At Ambition, our mission is to help educators serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds to keep getting better. To achieve our mission, literacy must be at the heart of our work. Disadvantaged pupils are less likely to achieve the expected standard, with a learning gap exacerbated by Covid (DfE, 2022). Developing leaders, teachers and pupils’ literacy knowledge and skills is one way we hope to tackle this disadvantage.

There is hope in the form of an increasing evidence base, which sheds light on how literacy is effectively developed, led and taught. This evidence base is being shared more widely by organisations like the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), who have produced guidance reports to support the leading and teaching of literacy at every stage of pupils’ education. This evidence is a great starting point for developing effective approaches to literacy, which teach, develop and support high levels of literacy for all. And this must be our aim.


Leading literacy at every phase is a challenge and an important responsibility. At Ambition, we are committed to improving leaders by developing their expertise.

Whilst there is a wealth of evidence to inform the leadership, teaching and development of literacy in schools, this evidence can be challenging to access for hard-working, busy colleagues. Resources have been disparate, time-consuming and costly to access. This is often at odds with the time, resources and capacity of colleagues in schools. Faced with a phase, key stage, school or trust, it can also be difficult to know where to start in developing your knowledge.

"Developing leaders, teachers and pupils’ literacy knowledge and skills is one way we hope to tackle this disadvantage."

A potential solution

The Department for Education announced the arrival of the National Professional Qualification in Leading Literacy, or ‘NPQLL’. This framework recognises the central role of literacy in all learning and the impact that effective literacy leadership can have on improving schools, teaching and learning. We think that the leading literacy NPQ presents a potential solution for some of the challenges of literacy leadership in the sector.

The programme synthesises the up-to-date evidence in one place; offering bitesize chunks of digestible knowledge to develop literacy leaders’ expertise. It covers the domains of literacy; language, reading and writing, and effective leadership; through implementation and professional development. The content of the framework is relevant to leaders across all phases of education and all subject specialisms.

At Ambition Institute, we’re incredibly excited by the arrival of the NPQ, and see it as a great opportunity for leaders of literacy to develop their knowledge and increase their effectiveness in the role.

National Professional Qualification in Leading Literacy (NPQLL) | Find out more about this new programme. Register interest.

Sarah Bagshaw-McCormick

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