Teacher Training application deadline approaching! Apply by 23 July

Persistent problems: Finding the purpose for expert school leadership

Share this page

Date published 17 October 2019

Jen Barker and Tom Rees discuss the use of ‘persistent problems’ as the purpose for school leaders’ work.

Both of us learnt the hard way that school leadership is complex and challenging. There are so many moments we reflect back on where we were faced with decisions to make or problems to solve where insufficient time, resources or knowledge led to compromise and pragmatism over perfection. These situations will no doubt resonate with many readers.

School leaders are constantly faced with problems which are often ‘knotty’ and sometimes unsolvable. Ben White has written recently about this, describing the ‘wicked problem’ of school improvement and drawing on the work of Bannink and Trommell (2019) to suggest that school leaders would benefit from accepting complexity as a fact of life and learning to ‘live with the problem’. Leithwood et al (1994) showed that, at its root, leadership is a problem-solving process; and the problems leaders face in a school context are some of the most challenging you can find.

It’s clear that school leadership is complex, it's hard to prepare for it and that there’s rarely a ‘best way’ to solve a problem. It’s a field that needs high levels of expertise in senior roles.

We think a further complication is that the concept of school leadership has been poorly defined for a long time. Some link it to job titles or roles; some define it as the behaviours leaders exhibit or their individual characteristics; and others describe it as influence – a path of action from a leader to a follower.

Randal Cremer_two children playing with xylophone

In this space, the ‘hero-paradigm’ (Gronn, 2003) has prevailed where leadership has been defined by personal traits: the charismatic, dynamic, inspirational leader. These are not the words most leaders would use to describe themselves – and, when put under scrutiny this description is lacking in substance, as Tom has argued before. By comparison, what’s rarely discussed is the work of leaders: the way they spend their time, how they actually do the jobs they’re tasked with and, crucially, why.

At Ambition Institute, we use a model of expertise to underpin our approach to helping school leaders to keep getting better. We can think of expertise as the ability to consistently and effectively tackle the persistent problems of a role. For headteachers, this means we are less concerned with generic approaches to leadership and management, leadership styles or personal traits and more interested in building proficiency around the education-specific and highest-leverage work they do in their school context.

With responsibility for training thousands of school leaders every year, it’s work we take seriously – carefully selecting and sequencing programme curricula. It’s not enough to just come up with a new and fashionable list of competencies leaders should have or ideas they should know about; we have to understand why they need to know and to be able to do these things. We need to learn more about the purpose of the work of school leaders.

For this, we turn to the phrase ‘persistent problems’ and the work of Mary Kennedy. In her 2016 paper, ‘Parsing the Practice of Teaching’, 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."

- Mary 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 advisory group. We’ve also commissioned new research and we have recently published a report by the University of Southampton which studies the work of headteachers throughout their first year in post.

We think this research is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because it compares how novice and experienced headteachers approach the same problems. Secondly, because researchers focused on the processes and thinking behind headteachers’ decision making and strategies, rather than the strategies themselves. This gives us insight into how they used their existing knowledge in action (or mental models) in response to similar challenges.

Randal Cremer_two leaders talking

Through this work, we have 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, they’re useful in terms of the way we describe, think about and develop leaders.

These problems underpin our revised framework for leadership development and are the starting point for our programme design as we identify the knowledge that expert school leaders need to respond to them (we’ve got more to say about ‘leadership knowledge’ another day).

The seven persistent problems are:

  1. Setting direction and building alignment;
  2. Enlisting staff contribution and ensuring staff development;
  3. Organising and staffing the curriculum;
  4. Attending to pupil behaviour and wider circumstances;
  5. Diagnosing, prioritising and managing resources effectively to build and implement strategy;
  6. Managing an efficient and effective organisation/administration;
  7. Developing personal expertise, self-regulation and resilience.

Does this mean aspiring leaders need training in generic problem-solving skills? No.

We believe it's more valuable for leaders to have relevant bodies of knowledge relating to the problems they face. We're persuaded that this is a more useful approach for aspiring leaders; one which gives us a clearer framework through which we can support and develop them to keep getting better.

We began testing this approach over the summer with our new cohorts of Future Leaders (senior leaders aspiring to headship) and Expert Middle Leaders (middle leaders looking to become expert), and we’re pleased with the results. But this is just the start of our journey to keep improving our development for school leaders. We’re excited to continue pushing the boundaries of leadership theory and working with school leaders across the country to make sure we get it right for the children they serve.


White, B., (2019) The wicked problem of school leadership.

Duco Bannink & Willem Trommel (2019) Intelligent modes of imperfect governance, Policy and Society.

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

Leithwood, K., Begley, P., and Cousins, J,. (1994) Developing expert leadership for future schools. London: Falmer Press.

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

Jen Barker and Tom Rees
Dean of School Leadership and Executive Director of School Leadership

Follow Jen Barker and Tom Rees

Search blog posts by topic: