What is expert school leadership and how do we develop it?

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Date published 25 November 2021

Last updated 21 March 2024

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.

Through the series, we have explored this question through the following seven blogs:

  1. What is school leadership?
  2. Complexity, purpose and problems.
  3. Generic approaches to leadership and domain specific expertise.
  4. Beyond the generic/domain-specific dichotomy.
  5. Organising a curriculum for leadership development.
  6. Expertise, mental models and leadership knowledge.
  7. From the 'what' to the 'how' of leadership development.

In this final post, we would like to do three things:

  1. Summarise our answer to the question of what expert school leadership is and how we might develop it.
  2. Consider five areas relating to school leadership development that warrant further thinking and consideration.
  3. Reflect on the conversation, debate and writing that we have enjoyed from others in response to this blog series.

Part 1: In summary, what is school leadership and how do we develop it?

Having written seven blogs so far in response to this question, we have attempted to summarise our answer as follows:

The concept of leadership in schools is a recent trend and poorly defined

There are many different theoretical perspectives of school leadership, yet the term has no clear definition.  In fact, it's only in the last 20-30 years that we’ve referred to senior staff in schools as 'leaders'. Before that, they were more commonly known as administrators, managers, coordinators or heads of year/department/subject.

Furthermore, there is limited empirical evidence that supports many of the claims that are made about 'school leadership', what it is, how it might be done and what impact it might have. This is problematic when it comes to preparing and supporting individuals to deal with the responsibility (and messy reality) of leading in a school.

School Leaders are responsible for responding to challenging and complex educational problems

Not only is the work leaders are expected to do challenging, but it is work that must be done in the complex environment of schools. The relationship between school leaders’ actions and their impact is often messy and inconclusive, making it hard to draw firm conclusions about the purpose and impact of leaders’ work. However, by looking at and understanding the purpose behind the actions school leaders take, it is possible to see school leadership as the process of addressing problems and challenges.

To define the term 'problem', we draw upon Thomas Nickles’ (1981) definition: ‘the demand that a goal be achieved, plus constraints on the manner in which it is achieved’ (p111). In defining it this way, the problem is firmly rooted in the work that needs doing rather than relating to more superficial conceptions of leadership including processes, personality, persuasion, power and influence.

Over the last 20 years, approaches to school leadership development have been dominated by abstract or 'generic leadership' theories

Viviane Robinson writes that the field of leadership ‘has been dominated until quite recently by abstract theories of leadership which are not closely aligned to the specific work of educational leaders’. Examination of the evidence into leaders’ impact upon pupils suggests that there is limited evidence for a focus on personal traits or characteristics, and that a focus on generic approaches. may be limited. Robinson argues instead, that leaders ‘need to be increasingly knowledgeable about the core business of teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum’, and that ‘they need to be able to use that knowledge to make good decisions’ (Robinson, 2017, para 15). This is consistent with recent developments in national policy such as the reformed National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) which pay more attention to the specialist knowledge required to lead a school than previous frameworks.

Closer scrutiny of 'generic leadership' approaches reveals that what are commonly referred to as 'leadership skills' often rely on specialist (domain-specific) knowledge

In this blog, we argued that ‘generic leadership skills’ are a problematic focus for organising leadership development due to their abstract nature, poor definition and reliance on domain knowledge.

Furthermore, what are often described as generic leadership skills, are in fact underpinned by – or composites of – knowledge of a subject, like chemistry, or a domain, like cognitive psychology. Some knowledge will be transferable across other fields, like finance, and some will have its origins in other domains to education, like human resources.

School leadership, therefore, should not be thought of as a discipline in itself, but a field of practice which relies on more mature knowledge building structures from other disciplines.

"The environment within which leaders operate is demanding and complex, and so dedicating the time to professional development is challenging."

By focusing on the persistent problems that school leaders attend to, we can move beyond a dichotomy of 'generic' and 'domain-specific' approaches to school leadership

Having critiqued the generic leadership perspective, we can also acknowledge the challenges that come with thinking about a ‘domain-specific’ leadership development. Like any programme of learning, it is important to have a well-structured and sequenced curriculum and a good starting point for this is the core challenges or 'persistent problems' (a term we borrow from academic, Mary Kennedy) of leaders' work. In adopting this definition, we move beyond the ‘generic leadership skills’ and ‘domain specific’ debate, by placing both as subservient to the problems, or purpose, of leaders’ work.

Knowledge of how humans learn and develop expertise gives us useful insights for planning leadership development

Leading schools is a complex task and requires high levels of relevant expertise which is predicated on a huge amount of knowledge. A focus on knowledge has an image problem and can often be caricatured as being limited to formal or 'textbook' knowledge. We describe knowledge broadly, encompassing -alongside the more well-known categories of formal and procedural knowledge - informal, impressionistic and self-regulatory knowledge too. The quest to better understand exactly what leaders need to know and to codify this knowledge is important if we are to ensure professional development supports leaders to be successful in their roles.

Alongside 'what' school leaders should learn, we should also consider 'how' they learn it

The environment within which leaders operate is demanding and complex, and so dedicating the time to professional development is challenging. To make investing the time in professional development worthwhile, PD must be of high quality. In this blog we argue that a focus on both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of school leaders’ development: what we want leaders to learn, and how that learning might be structured, sequenced and delivered. In the design of high-quality professional development, there are a number of insights we can draw upon, including: what we know about how humans learn, recent research into the mechanisms - or active ingredients - that underpin successful professional development, the conditions in which professional development takes place,  and the focus on priority problems that underpin leaders’ work.

Part 2: Five areas we think require (much) more thinking

We think that through understanding more about how expertise develops we could learn more about how to improve the quality of school leadership development, leading ultimately to better educational outcomes for young people.

1. Understand more about what the ‘persistent problems’ look like in different leadership roles and contexts

There are so many things we could help school leaders get better at, and so little time to do them. Using ‘persistent problems’ as a starting point, it is possible to identify how these problems manifest in different school leadership roles. By eliciting the relevant knowledge that school leaders need to respond to these problems – the substance of school leadership – this can then form the basis of a curriculum for school leaders’ development. Crucial to an understanding of the persistent problems is an appreciation of the context within which leaders work, which influences how the problems manifest. Similar challenges such as curriculum design, professional development, or teacher recruitment, all require nuanced responses tailored around the people and the place in question. Local contextual knowledge makes up much of the ‘hidden knowledge of experts’, which is why experience is a necessary (if not sufficient) ingredient in the development of expertise.

2. Establish a structured body of educational knowledge that underpins school leaders’ work

Defining and codifying relevant educational knowledge more explicitly would help establish a body of professional knowledge for school leaders to work from and root their methods in, as well as create a shared language for them to communicate with. Establishing this knowledge, for example, in professional standards and national professional qualification frameworks could be a powerful lever in ensuring school leaders across the country are equipped to better deal with the complex challenges that come with running a school. Such an approach has been called for as part of proposals for educational reform by the Confederation of Schools Trusts (CST), who articulate the need for a ‘well established and agreed body of knowledge, standards and frameworks’, and broad agreement about what school leaders should ‘know and are able to do’ in their 2019 paper, ‘Systems of Meaning’ (Cruddas 2019).

3. Sequence and structure school leaders’ development carefully

We know that developing expertise takes a long time and for leaders to create meaningful shifts in knowledge and behaviour, they will need significant experience alongside a carefully sequenced curriculum. To build expert mental models, school leaders will need structured opportunities for instruction, coaching, practice and feedback. Creating the conditions in school for leaders to be able to make time for this development is important, as is working alongside expert leaders to better understand how their knowledge is utilised in practice.

4. Respecting and utilising specialist knowledge and expertise

Understanding where specialist expertise lies within schools or trusts is challenging, but important if leadership is to be distributed to those who can most effectively address different challenges. Knowing the school, the staff and the challenges that exist can enable leaders to deploy staff expertise to the places it is most likely to lead to the greatest impact.

5. Building and renewing professional knowledge within the education system

Having argued for the importance of a shared body of professional knowledge, it is worth acknowledging that our education system is not, by design, conducive to knowledge building. Unlike other professions or fields, it is unclear within the system where the guardianship of different bodies of educational knowledge resides, or what the process is to contest and renew such knowledge. The new ECF and NPQ frameworks are a positive development, and an example of a codification of knowledge related to teacher development that should be debated and refined over time. A question remains for us over how we develop the structures, relationships and mechanisms to do this effectively.

Part 3: A reflection on writing this series

Education is a highly contested field with many different valid and competing views as to the purpose of education and schools. It is therefore understandable that the purpose of school leaders’ work, and methods of training school leaders is also contested.

In this series of blogs, we have expressed a view as to how school leadership can be thought of, and how we can better develop people to be prepared to play leadership roles in schools. Within the series, we have argued that school leadership is a ‘low-validity domain’, and therefore it is important for us to acknowledge that there will be competing theories and opinions to our own, and that we are a long way from having a final word in what is still both a relatively young and immature field.

If we are to make progress in this debate, however, it is important that we can propose, contest and refine ideas in ways that bring together the work of researchers, school leaders and others within the field in discussion and debate. We believe that it is possible to do that in respectful ways that critique ideas and theories rigorously, without resorting to criticism of individuals or organisations. If you like, it’s possible to ‘play the ball, not the player’.


The noisy (and occasionally cantankerous) discussion that plays out in the public domain, often on social media, can deter people with important things to say from entering the discourse, particularly those who hold positions of senior responsibility where an online debate can mean little to gain, but lots to lose. In the economist Michael Sandel’s book, ‘What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets’, Sandel makes this point when he writes, ‘[f]or fear of disagreement, we hesitate in bringing our moral or spiritual disagreement out into the public sphere’ (p.202, Sandel, 2012).

Sandel goes on to say, ‘Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and the social practices we prize’. This is an important point – as in all sectors there are vested interests and market incentives that can work in opposition to achieving progress that benefits wider society. Leadership development is no exception. The global billion-pound industry (estimated at c.$20 billion in the US alone) relies on a common belief that leadership is a generic skill which can be taught and that accessing a variety of commercial products (such as books, development programmes, keynote talks or leadership coaching) will lead to a life of greater success, increased social impact and a higher salary.

Perhaps the most important reflection for us, therefore, is that we should continue to ask difficult questions about the field of ‘leadership’ and to question claims that are made with ‘respectful scepticism’ (to borrow Carly Waterman’s tagline).

As Professor Daniel Muijs, former head of research at Ofsted, once said: "We must escape the tyranny of the algorithm that only ever gives us more of what we already know or desire. Opening minds is a key role in education."

With this in mind, we are grateful to those people who have taken the time to engage with us throughout this series and also to those who have found space to write about their views on leadership, whether this was to agree, disagree or build on some of the ideas that were proposed.

Some of these are as follows...

Claire Stoneman: We are what we know and Meaning in School Leadership: Awareness.

Kat Howard: Leadership: The people principle, Fragmentation and Workload: the people in the house.

Nick Hart: Improvement, not change, Building trust is not a generic skill.

Matthew Evans: Virtuous Leaders, How to argue with a genericist, Curating the canon.

Steve Rollett: What can we learn about abstraction from discussions about Gareth Southgate’s Leadership? (A lot), Traversing the field by thinking about ‘practice’.

Joe Kirby: The wicked problem of learning, What was asked at ResearchED Surrey?

Nimish Lad: Knowledge, Trust, Beyond a vision: What I’ve learnt this year

Carly Waterman: Leadership knowledge: inclusive and hopeful.

Steve Munby: Why generic leadership skills matter.

We’re particularly grateful to Steve Munby for engaging with us before writing this piece and giving us the opportunity to discuss various points before publishing. Steve was diligent in taking the time to make sure we understood each other's perspectives properly, which led to us having greater clarity as to where we shared common ground, and where we disagreed.

Finally, a thanks to the many other people who have taken the time to engage, comment and offer us their opinion on ideas we’ve shared within this series. We’re particularly grateful to those who have taken the time to disagree and argue with us (respectfully, of course).

If there’s something within this series that you’d like to write about or discuss with us, we would be pleased to hear from you. We learn more with every conversation.

Making progress requires us to continue to enter into debate in good faith, to accept that our beliefs are provisional and that changing our mind should always remain an option.


Cruddas, L., (2020) Systems of Meaning, Three Nested Leadership Narratives for School Trusts. Confederation of School Trusts, Nottingham. https://cstuk.org.uk/assets/CST-Publications/10027_CST_Three_Nested_Leadership%20_White_Paper%20(002).pdf

Nickles, T (1981) ‘What is a problem that we might solve it?’, Synthese 47 (I) pp. 85-118.

Robinson, V., 2017) Leadership Q&A with Viviane Robinson https://www.teachermagazine.com/au_en/articles/leadership-qa-with-viviane-robinson

Sandel, M., (2012) What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits Of Markets. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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