Skip to main content

Some reflections on what works in school leadership

The following are some of my reflections for school leaders already in post, and those aspiring to such roles, on some of the strategies and approaches that I feel help produce the best results for you, your learners and the schools you lead. They are a reflection from my eighteen years as a headteacher, or principal, and are some of the key insights I have gained in that time. The list is not exhaustive and it is personal to myself and my contexts. But, I offer it in the hope it may help some, and stimulate debate or thinking for others.


  • Prioritise people and relationships: It is very easy to get sucked into focusing too much of your time on systems and structures, when in fact it is the people you lead and collaborate with who will make the difference. You can have the greatest systems and structures in place, but if you don't have the right people, or you neglect the people you have, these count for little. It is your teaching and support staff, pupils and parents,  who make the school come alive and who will deliver your vision. Your key role is to support and help them to do this, so that collectively you deliver the best outcomes for all your learners.
  • Build a culture and ethos built on mutual trust and support: I have long believed that the success of any school stands or falls on the culture and ethos in that school. If you want to get true 'buy in' for your vision and aims, and maximise sustainable impact, you need a culture that promotes and supports this. Otherwise, you are likely to get tokenism, compliance and practice built on shifting sands, rather than firm foundations.
  • Be clear about your values and your vision: When you are clear about your values, and when these are used to help shape your individual and collective vision, you are better able to create a culture as described above. You are also clearer about what you will accept, and equally what you won't, and why. You have to challenge behaviours and practice that conflict with your own, and your school's, values.  I have always used our values as the first criteria in self-evaluation processes. Are what you espouse as your values reflected in all your actions and decisions?
  • Keep learning and teaching as your main priority: Sir John Jones talks about 'keeping the main thing the main thing', and to me the main thing has to be learning and teaching. Schools are established to develop learning and help educate our young people. We can only achieve this if we maintain our key focus on learning and improving this, and developing our teaching practices, as part of an on-going and continuous process. It seems obvious, but too often it is easy to be deflected into other areas, often at the expense of learning and teaching.
  • Critically engage with professional reading and educational research: I think it is essential that school leaders continue to read and engage with research in order to keep developing their understanding, thinking and practice. Such engagement allows you to keep reassessing your practice and protects you from some of the fads and trends that continually emerge in education, often pushed by people trying to sell you a resource or training, and which produce little in terms of improved outcomes for learners. Be professionally curious and informed.
  • Try to lead more than you manage: It is easy to get bogged down in the managerial duties of your role, and these are important. They are also never-ending! However, it is easy to neglect your leadership role and fail to 'get your head up' to see what's coming over the horizon and to be thinking strategically long-term, not just short term. You also need to acknowledge and recognise your system-leadership role. The school leader role is bigger than just being about your own school or schools.
  • Promote and support collaboration and collaborate yourself: Collaboration is the lifeblood of school development and it provides the check and balances, as well as the support, for the whole process. Just as teachers need to get out of the 'silos' of their classrooms and their own practice, so too do school leaders. None of us are as effective working in isolation, though there are times when leadership can feel isolating. To paraphrase Ken Blanchard, 'none of us are as effective as all of us' so build collaboration and partnership for the common good of all. Professional dialogue is often the most impactful professional development tool, and its cheap.
  • Admit your mistakes and don't expect to know everything: Especially as a new headteacher or principal, you can fall into the trap of thinking that you need to know everything and solve all problems. You don't and you can't. Don't be afraid to show your vulnerability, just not all the time! Accept that you will make mistakes, and don't be afraid to admit them when this happens. If you are not making mistakes, you are unlikely to be growing and developing your practice. When you attend your first meeting with colleague headteachers, it helps to know that no-one in the room has all the answers, or understands everything that is going on. Don't be afraid to ask. Its amazing how often headteachers, many of whom want their staff to be active participants in meetings and discussions, are the worst at contributing to their own discussions. Often this is out of a fear of being wrong, or worse being seen to be wrong.
  • Change is a constant, so manage it: We are constantly dealing with change and you need to manage this. Some of the steps above will help, but also you need to be able to prioritise and say 'No'. Decide on a few priorities, put these into a plan, and then use this to gate-keep and stop other agendas cascading into, and onto, you and your staff. Less really is more, and you can do fewer things better. Slow down, rather than look to keep speeding up, getting busier and busier, but achieving less and less which is sustainable and meaningful.
  • Have staff, and your own, well-being to the fore: You need to recognise the individuality of staff and their circumstances, and then allow for these when setting your expectations. Staff working conditions are learners learning conditions. When staff are stressed and overburdened, this is passed on to pupils, and reduces their productivity and effectiveness. The same applies to you. Prioritise  a sensible work/life balance for all, and model this yourself.
  • Teach whenever you can, but get into classrooms every day: You learn more about the effectiveness of school development, and learning and teaching, by being visible and getting into classrooms. Mix the formal with the informal. I have always found informal visits more illuminating and informative. When visiting on formal occasions, i.e. pre-planned, go with the intention of observing learning, not the teacher. Being regularly in the classroom also gives you a better perspective on the demands placed on teachers, and what development looks, and feels like, to them and their learners. This is easy to lose sight of. Observing learning, and supporting learning, is always more impactful than answering emails.
  • Support and situate professional development in the school and individual contexts: One size definitely does not fit all, in terms of professional development. This needs to be a career-long disposition and expectation of all, and it works best when shaped by local, and individual contexts. As a leader, don't just support professional learning and development, but be actively involved in the process. model yourself as a professional committed to career-long learning. 'Grow Your Own!' should be every school's approach to school development.
  • Fight for your staff and your profession: Find you professional 'voice' and be prepared to use it. There are many, who don't know better, who are more than willing to criticise schools and the profession. Don't just get your head down and ignore this, be prepared to defend the work and professionalism of your teachers, and others. Don't stay silent when things are happening which you fundamentally disagree with, Too many in education are too compliant, which is why we are still having policies and practices imposed on us which have no research base or evidence to support them, and which might be harmful to learners and learning. Act professionally if you want to be seen as a profession.
None of the above were discovered by me in isolation. They are a result of years of collaboration and picking the brains and experiences of peers and more experienced colleagues. They are also the result of all the mistakes I made as an early school leader. They informed by much of the professional reading and research I have engaged with during my career. This continues every day, even as I prepare to retire from my school role. I could write more, and in more depth, about each aspect, but this is not the place for that. My aim is more to help those starting out to begin to consider some of the issues they will face in their careers, and to help those already in position to perhaps consider and reflect on their own practice, priorities and insights. Your list might be different to mine, but I don't think its a bad starting point. I recognise everyone is an individual and has to develop their own thinking and practice, linked to their own context. If this helps in any way I am happy for that, and I thank you for reading.

Popular posts from this blog

Some thoughts on Scottish education

This week I was asked if I would go along to speak to labour MSPs and MPs about Scottish education and schools. My brief was to talk about education. its current state, the reality of how the attainment gap can be tackled, how teachers can help government address the challenges of poverty, and how we might start to reinvest in our schools and our teaching staff. The politicians did not want to hear from the 'same people' who always spoke to them, and wanted to hear from someone 'fresh from the chalk-face'. I had forty five minutes, about twenty minutes input from me then a discussion and question and answer session. No pressure there then! Anyway, I gave it my best shot.

I started with a brief introduction to myself and my background, to give them some idea of who this person was, and why they might be able to help them and I tried to cover most of the following in my time slot.

I started with some the positives from our system.

Stuff we should be proud of:
Our learners …

Structure and systems versuses learning, teaching and leadership

A couple of days ago Education Scotland announced that they planned to make changes to how they carried out school inspections as, 'the first step in a radical new way Education Scotland will work to support and drive improvement in schools.' This new 'radical' approach was to carry out more inspections, coupled with employment of new HMIEs and 'associate assessors' so that they could raise the number of inspections from the 180 expected to be undertaken this year, to a target figure of 250 for the following year. Amongst their stated aims was a desire to engage with every school in Scotland each year in order to support schools, teachers and school leaders and to drive forward improvement. They will also seek to include the 'younger voice' in inspections and include more use of learners in the inspection process, aiming to produce a How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) for young people to help them become engaged. (give me strength!) In addition, they will b…

A PISA My Mind

When John Swinney stood up in the Scottish parliament this week and described the performance of Scottish Education as making for 'uncomfortable reading' and that 'radical reform' was needed, he no doubt did this in the belief he was speaking from an informed position. He went on to pledge to bring 'an unwavering focus on improvement' and promised to carry out further reforms 'no matter how controversial.' His message was loud and clear, our performance is not good enough and he was going to change this. I wonder if he ever thought about the impact of his very public pronouncements had on teachers and school leaders as they were heading into their schools the next day? I suspect not.

So, what 'informed' Mr Swinney's assessment of the Scottish education system? Was it from the hundreds of visits he had made to Scottish schools since his appointment in May of this year? Was it from the conversations he had with thousands of pupils, teachers an…