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Organising a curriculum for leadership development

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Date published 09 September 2021

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

In our last two posts, we examined the debate that exists between the concept of ‘generic leadership’ and more domain-specific approaches to leadership. We have critiqued the generic approach to school leadership development which we have argued has become the dominant paradigm in both training and discourse within education. We have also argued that school leadership is domain-specific in nature and that we should place greater emphasis on this within leadership development.

We concluded that generic leadership skills are limited in their value as a starting point for organising a leadership development curriculum and suggested the core responsibilities of leadership roles as a better starting point. In this post, we will explore further how the core responsibilities of school leaders’ work can be used as a basis to organise professional development and qualifications.

Before we do this, we also want to go further in moving beyond a dichotomy by arguing that the shift from thinking about leadership as generic to domain-specific is necessary, but insufficient. We cannot simply declare that the answer is: ‘domain-specific leadership’; there are limitations and valid criticisms of such an approach.

Five challenges of ‘domain-specific leadership’ when designing a programme curriculum

Having argued that domain-specific knowledge and understanding is foundational for school leaders, we should also acknowledge some problems with the concept. When it comes to designing a programme curriculum for leadership development in particular, there are five challenges that we must consider:

  1. Conceptual imprecision.
  2. Grain size.
  3. The multi-disciplinary nature of education.
  4. The importance of context.
  5. The purpose of leaders’ knowledge.

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1. Conceptual imprecision

Just as we were critical of the conceptual imprecision of generic leadership skills in our last post, a lack of consensus also exists about the meaning of the term ‘domain’.

In relation to domain-specific expertise, the term ‘domain’ refers to a body of knowledge which a leader should become acquainted with. This body of knowledge is associated with their field of practice.

But how broad are the boundaries of any given domain. For example, does education constitute a domain of knowledge in which expertise may be gained? This seems rather broad and loose. Also, defining education as a domain may suggest that knowledge gained from outside of the field of education is not valuable to a school leader, which (as we argued in our last post) is clearly not true.

Perhaps it is more useful to define discrete fields of practice such as curriculum leadership, safeguarding, or early years education. These domains certainly have specific knowledge associated with them, but we can also define smaller domains.

For example, we could define separate domains of knowledge for curriculum leadership in early years as opposed to post-16 education. It is not clear what level of granularity is helpful, or how we deal with overlap between these domains. School leaders, particularly those in more senior positions, will also draw on domains of knowledge which span various industries (such as employment law).

Such imprecision of the term can therefore be misleading and lead to confusion as to what knowledge may be considered to be inside (or outside) of any given domain.

2. Grain size

Organising a curriculum of knowledge in such a way that supports development poses an additional challenge related to what has been termed ‘grain size’ (Kennedy, 2016). Kennedy says that if we break practice into very small bits, our lists become too long and our curriculum crowded with minutia. However, if the partitions are too large, we may have difficulty clarifying individual parts in a way that helps novices “see” them.’ (p6).

When it comes to designing leadership development therefore, there is a challenge in identifying the right grain size of knowledge to be most helpful to leaders.

3. The multi-disciplinary nature of education

Education is a field of practice rather than an academic discipline. However, it draws on a variety of disciplines (e.g. psychology, sociology, economics, organisational theory) to give insight into the complex dynamics of the school system. These disciplines each bring a different perspective. They have their own knowledge-domains which are quite well defined, each with their own traditions of enquiry and knowledge-building.

Because leaders’ work requires them to draw on knowledge from such a broad range of domains, there is a danger that trying to define a curriculum based on domain specific knowledge that important knowledge from a particular field may be missed.

4. The importance of context

We know that context is important in education. So too is local knowledge important for school leaders, for example knowledge of the community, traditions, school culture, and the knowledge which underpins relationships with staff. An emphasis on domain-specific expertise alone can risk undervaluing the nuance and idiosyncrasy of such important contextual factors.

A methodology for leadership development is needed which promotes the application of domain-specific knowledge in ways which recognise a school’s context. Effective leadership is born out of the interplay between the leader’s expertise and their environment. If we ignore context, we make the same mistake as those who overplay generic leadership skills by portraying leadership as a ‘quality’ possessed by the leader.

5. Leadership knowledge requires a purpose.

A focus on domain-knowledge can be over simplified and caricatured to mean only formal knowledge such as that held in books or in documents, rather than a broader view which sees knowledge as central to leaders’ relationships, decisions and behaviours. Such a focus on a body of knowledge, untethered to the work leaders are doing, risks it not being developed in such a way that it is 'useable' i.e., it does not become assimilated into an individual's mental model, and therefore doesn't operate in a way that can guide an individual's action.

In practice, school leaders are confronted with a range of educational problems which require their application of knowledge and skills as they attend to them. School leaders’ expertise is defined by their success in addressing or overcoming these challenges; it is these problems that provide purpose to leaders work and which domain-specific knowledge must be organised around.

Putting knowledge to work

We have argued throughout this blog series that that the generic approach to leadership development is limited but have also acknowledged in this post, some challenges with implementing a ‘domain-specific’ approach. So where do we start? How can we develop an approach which places sufficient emphasis on domain-knowledge whilst overcoming the challenges we have outlined above?

To answer this question, we move to the idea of the core challenges that underpin school leaders’ work. Rather than organise leadership development around generic skills or domains of knowledge, we are persuaded that a taxonomy organised around these core challenges school leaders face offers us a better solution.

We borrow the term ‘persistent problems’ from Mary Kennedy (2016) who has defined teaching – and associated professional development – in relation to such problems. She describes five persistent problems that teachers face: containing student behaviour, exposing students’ thinking, portraying the curriculum, enlisting student participation and accommodating personal needs. Kennedy argues it is important to look beyond the behaviours and actions of teachers, to the purposes served by them.

‘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, p9)

What are the persistent problems of school leadership?

Based on our work with school leaders, and on a review of a considerable research base, we have identified seven ‘persistent problems’ we think school leaders face.

We think there are three things which define a persistent problem:

Universal – They are unavoidable and all educators in a similar role will face them.

Causal – If tackled effectively they will have a strong, positive impact on the outcomes of our roles.

Controllable – Things that we have a high degree of influence over.

These seven persistent problems underpin our revised framework for leadership development. They are the starting point for our programme design as we identify different domains of knowledge that expert school leaders need to respond to them (there’s more to say about ‘leadership knowledge’ in our next post).

  • School Culture - Establishing a professional and supportive school culture and enlisting staff contribution.
  • Learning and Development - Ensuring effective approaches to professional learning and development.
  • Curriculum - Organising and teaching the curriculum.
  • Behaviour - Attending to pupil behaviour and wider circumstances.
  • School Improvement - Analysing and diagnosing problems; planning and implementing strategies for continuous educational improvement.
  • Administration - Managing an efficient and effective organisation.
  • Self - Developing personal expertise, self-efficacy and self-regulation.

We believe there are several benefits to organising the work of school leaders around these persistent problems.

First, we remove the problem of ‘grain size’. School leaders are responsible for hundreds of daily activities – an unwieldly, exhaustive list of behaviours and knowledge is unlikely to be useful,and at the very least, unhelpfully daunting. By organising the work of leaders around these seven problems, we can then explore problems at different levels, nested within these seven broad categories.

Second, school leaders have varied personalities and characteristics and they behave and fulfil their responsibilities in different ways. It is not generally possible to explain why one way of working is so much more (or less) effective than another. By starting with a focus on the problems that underpin leaders’ work, rather than their personal characteristics or traits, we acknowledge that effective practice comes in many forms.

Third, by identifying the core work of school leaders, and the knowledge needed to make this possible, we can avoid being swayed by fads, fashions, and policy shifts. Rather than starting with initiatives such as assessment for learning, instructional coaching or knowledge organisers, we begin by asking what core problems need to be attended to.

Finally, a comprehensive understanding of the problems that leaders face and the knowledge needed to solve them means we can effectively structure and sequence leadership development. It focusses development on depictions of practice, not simply on developing formal knowledge. We think this can enable leaders to adapt their behaviour or approach to solve problems in a variety of ways and across different contexts.

Persistent problems in context

Taking this approach to leadership development should also take school context into account. Although these problems are universal and unavoidable, they will manifest themselves in different ways depending on the context within which the school leaders works.

For example, whilst attending to pupil behaviour is a common challenge across schools, the problem presents itself differently for an Early Years co-ordinator planning transition from nursery than for the principal of an Alternative Provision school. Likewise, the challenge of managing an efficient and effective organisation for a small village primary will have both similarities and differences to the headteacher of an urban 1400-place secondary school, or a school trust Chief Executive running 20 schools.


In this blog we have acknowledged some of the curriculum design challenges that are presented when thinking about ‘domain-specific’ leadership development. We have proposed that the development of school leaders can be effectively underpinned by, and organised around, the persistent problems of their work. We think that such an approach can help us to move beyond a dichotomy between generic leadership skills and domain-knowledge, by placing both the knowledge and skills as subservient to the problems, or purpose of leaders’ work.

A curriculum underpinning leaders’ development needs to be rich with knowledge from a wide range of fields and structured in such a way that enables them to tackle the core challenges of their roles as they relate to the context they work in.

In our next blog we plan to examine the development of expertise in more detail, looking at how individuals develop expert mental models and how these models guide their action in such a way that enables them to more effectively address the persistent problems of their work.


Kennedy, M., (2016) Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, 67(1) pp. 6–17.

Jennifer Barker
Jennifer Barker
Dean of Learning Design

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Tom Rees
Tom Rees
Executive Director

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Read our previous blog

Beyond the generic/domain-specific dichotomy

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