The persistent problems of school leadership

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

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Date published 15 October 2020

Last updated 21 March 2024

This October is an interesting time for school leadership development with the publication of the new Headteachers' Standards and NPQ frameworks this week, signalling an evolution in thinking around how we can build more effective professional development for school leaders in the future.

To coincide with this, we're releasing this two-part blog series, which shares more about how we've been thinking about school leadership development at Ambition over the last two years. The blogs feature extracts from two chapters we've contributed to the researchED guide to leadership which is also published this month.

In October 2019, we first shared our work around ‘persistent problems’ of school leadership in a version of this blog. A year on, having had further opportunities to work within this leadership development framework and to discuss our ideas further, we’ve updated the problems and this post to reflect what we’ve learned.

The work of school leaders is complex and challenging. Even in non-pandemic times, school leaders are regularly pressured to make decisions or solve problems without sufficient time, resources or knowledge.  More often than not, this can lead to compromise and pragmatism over a perfect outcome.

Leithwood et al (1994) maintain that, at its root, leadership is a problem-solving process and that the problems leaders face in a school context are some of the most challenging you can find.  Such problems are described as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel & Webber, 1973): problems which are difficult to define, and even more difficult to solve.

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 that leaders exhibit or their individual characteristics; and others describe it as influence – a path of action from a leader to a follower.


In this space, the hero paradigm (Gronn, 2003) has prevailed – where leadership is often 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. Transformational Leadership theory, which focuses on how leaders influence people through their use of ‘inspiration, vision and the ability to motivate followers to transcend their self-interests for a collective purpose’ (Warrick, 2011), has become the ‘accepted orthodoxy’ (Gunter, 2016) and dominates the discourse and narrative.

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 why.

At Ambition Institute, we have been developing a model of leadership expertise to underpin our approach to helping school leaders to keep getting better. We think of expertise as theability to consistently and effectively tackle the persistent problems of a role.


For school leaders this means we pay more attention to the specific educational work of school leaders and the expertise that they need to do it well, and a reduced focus on generic approaches to leadership and management, leadership styles or personal traits.

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 for us to come up with a new and fashionable list of competencies leaders should have or ideas they should know about; we have to understand whythey need to know and 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 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 two years, we’ve been trying to apply 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.

In describing the work of school leaders through problems, a common concern can be with the word ‘problem’ itself, which has negative connotations and may suggest an approach that treats leadership as a deficit model. To counter this view, it’s helpful to define the term ‘problem’ in a way similar to Thomas Nickles (1981) who describes it as ‘the demand that a goal be achieved, plus constraints on the manner in which it is achieved’ (p111).

A focus on problems can also suggest that we should concentrate on generic problem-solving skills within leadership development. However, researchers find that to understand and solve problems, large amounts of knowledge of the specific domain in which you work is required (Willingham, 2008).


We propose seven ‘persistent problems of school leadership’. We think this is a helpful way of organising leadership development as it helps us avoid getting caught up in with leaders’ behaviours or observable features and instead points us to the purpose of their work.

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 (we’ve got more to say about ‘leadership knowledge’ in our next post).

The seven persistent problems are:

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

In our next post – the ‘hidden knowledge of expert school leaders’ - we’ll outline how, in order to respond effectively to these persistent problems, we can develop expert mental models in school leaders and the importance of domain-specific knowledge in this process.

In the meantime, you can read more in the researchED guide to school leadership which is available here! We’re also hosting the launch of this publication next week with researchED and editor, Stuart Lock.


Bannink, D. and Trommel, W. (2019). Intelligent modes of imperfect governance. Policy & society, 38(2), pp.198–217.

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

Gunter, H., (2016) An Intellectual History of School Leadership Practice and Research, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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.

Nickles, T (1981) 'What is a problem that we might solve it?' Synthese, 47, I: 85-1 18.

Rittel, H., Webber, M., (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences. [Online] 4 (2), 155–169.

Warrick, D. D. (2011). The urgent need for skilled transformational leaders: Integrating transformational leadership and organization development. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 8(5), 11-26.

Willingham, Daniel T (2008) Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? Arts Education Policy Review. 109(4) pp. 21–32.

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

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