School improvement requires leadership but depends on effective leaders at every level

Nov. 22, 2016

School leadership has never been more important. As responsibility for school improvement transfers to the school-led system, we will need effective leaders at every level, from middle leaders up to multi-academy trust CEOs.

We believe developing leaders at all levels will guarantee that every child has a high quality education.

Role of leaders in school improvement

For decades, educational research has shown that school leaders are central to school improvement. Across multiple countries, researchers consistently find that in schools or regions which show sustainable improvement, one of the earliest steps in their journey is the development of good leadership practice (*). England’s school leaders are already responsible for more decisions than in almost any other OECD country (**).

In England, schools where Ofsted rates the quality of Leadership and Management higher than the school’s overall performance are ten times as likely to see improvement in their overall performance at their next inspection than those where leadership and management is rated worse than performance overall (***).

"My ambition is to provide every child with the best possible opportunity to achieve their potential."

- Titilayo, Director of Education

However, too often leadership development has focused on the role of the leader in isolation, helping to contribute to the idea of the ‘hero head’ who can singlehandedly transform school performance.

Leaders do not influence children’s performance directly. Successful school leaders create conditions that support effective teaching and learning, and build capacity for professional learning and change (****). They enable their staff to perform well and, as a result, pupil outcomes improve.

The behaviours of effective leaders

Alongside expertise and technical skills, effective leaders exhibit a specific set of behaviours. Research shows that, across sectors, strong leaders engage staff in their vision, establish clear expectations, plan strategically, develop others and create a positive, constructive climate (*****).

  • Only one approach delivered long-term improvements in pupil outcomes. Findings from the Centre for High Performance.

This is evidenced by recent findings from the Centre for High Performance. They identified five approaches to headship, but only one which delivered long-term, sustainable improvements in pupil outcomes. These leaders focused on building the right culture and environment, engaging the community, then addressing behaviour and teaching (******). Improved pupil outcomes then followed. This is the style of leadership we need for a consistently high-performing system.


* P Rudd, H Poet, G Featherstone, et al. Evaluation of City Challenge Leadership Strategies: Overview Report. Slough: NFER. 2011. K Seashore Louis, K Leithwood, K Wahlstrom, S Anderson. Investigating the links to improved student learning. Washington, DC: Wallace Foundation. 2010. E Thoonen, P Sleegers, F Oort, T Peetsma. “Building school-wide capacity for improvement: the role of leadership, school organizational conditions, and teacher factors”, School Effectiveness and School Improvement (2012) Vol. 23 No. 4, pp. 441-460.
** OECD 2008 https:// school/44374889.pdf
*** The School Leadership Challenge 2022. London: Teach First, Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust with analysis by McKinsey & Co. 2016
**** P Hallinger, R H. Heck. Collaborative leadership and school improvement: understanding the impact on school capacity and student learning. School Leadership & Management: Formerly School Organisation (2010) 30:2, 95-110.
***** V Robinson, M Hohepa, C Lloyd. School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Coventry: CUREE. 2009. P Tamkin, G Pearson, W Hirsh, S Constable. Exceeding Expectation: the Principles of Outstanding Leadership. London: The Work Foundation. 2010.
****** A Hill, L Mellon, B Laker, J Goddard. The one type of leader who can turn around a failing school. Harvard Business Review, 20 Oct 2016. 

This was taken from our report, Ambitious for every child - addressing the leadership challenge. Download the full report or read it online.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute. 

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