School improvement in challenging contexts

Insights from ten new headteachers

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Date published 18 September 2019

Last updated 21 March 2024

At Ambition Institute our vision is of an education system where every child can thrive, no matter what their background. To achieve this, we help teachers and school leaders serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds to keep getting better.

Underpinning our suite of development programmes, which support educators at every stage – from new teachers through to leaders of groups of schools – is cutting-edge research taken from around the world.

We commission some of this research ourselves and we worked with the University of Southampton to carry out our latest project, School improvement in challenging contexts: Insights from ten new headteachers.

Download the research >

Our aim was to understand the thought processes of headteachers entering a new headship in a challenging context. Researchers interviewed ten headteachers: five of whom are novices in their first year of headship; five of whom are in new roles but with previous headships under their belt.

What have we learned from the research?

This qualitative study gives us a fascinating, albeit small, insight into the behaviours of headteachers with different levels of expertise in response to similar school improvement challenges across England. Through this, we gain an insight into their ‘mental models’, which we believe underpin expertise.

The study challenges the school leaders to unpick the ‘why?’ behind their actions, as opposed to just recording them. This is vital in helping us improve our programmes for developing leaders serving schools in challenging contexts.

"This qualitative study gives us a fascinating, albeit small, insight into the behaviours of headteachers with different levels of expertise."

To accompany the research, two of our school leadership experts – Tom Rees and Jen Barker – have added their own commentary to guide readers’ thinking and dig deeper into the qualitative findings, comparing some of the interviewees’ experiences, assumptions and analysis with our own.

Tom and Jen show how this research paper has informed Ambition Institute’s thinking on school leadership development, feeding into our understanding of the persistent problems which school leaders face and the steps they need to take to become experts in their roles.

Taken together, we hope that this report provides the sector with new insights into the complex, challenging but ultimately rewarding role of being a headteacher in an English school.

Download the report >

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