What makes great school leadership?

Great leadership improves the ethos, culture and systems of the school


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

William Ernest Henley, Invictus, 1875


1995 Rugby World Cup, South Africa 

‘We weren’t the most talented, but we had the most grit, determination, team spirit, fitness, and support.’ Francois Pienaar, South African captain.


MANDELA: Tell me, Francois, what is your philosophy on leadership? How do you inspire your team to do their best?

PIENAAR: By example. I’ve always thought to lead by example, sir.

MANDELA: That is right. That is exactly right. But how to get them to be better than they think they can be? Inspiration perhaps. How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us? I sometimes I think it is by using the work of others. On Robben Island, when things got very bad, I found inspiration in a poem, a Victorian poem – just words – but they helped me to stand when all I wanted to do was lie down. We need inspiration Francois, because in order to build our nation, we must all exceed our own expectations.

Invictus, 2010

When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison after 27 years, many of South Africa’s four million whites feared they would be driven into the sea. Many of South Africa’s forty million blacks were calling for retribution for four decades of brutal apartheid repression. Mandela overcame the scarring divisions by leading by example, with the words and work of others. He had the visionary foresight to convince the ANC to keep the emblematic name of the Springbok rugby team, loved by whites as a symbol of their history, hated by blacks as a symbol of white supremacy. Using the words that gave him courage in prison, wearing the Springbok jersey and cap, despite the hostility he faced, he inspired the national rugby team to exceed their own and the nation’s expectations, and win the rugby World Cup in 1995. Mandela inspired both black and white South Africans by embodying the ethos of reconciliation, and forged a nation with a sporting triumph against all odds.


Back in the world of English education, when Michael Wilshaw, former Head of Mossbourne Academy and now Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, spoke at the 2012 London Festival of Education, he said:

“You can’t divorce teaching from the culture of the school and the culture is determined by leadership. The best leaders understand that you can only improve teaching if you combine a strong vision of what you want to see in the classroom with a common sense and pragmatic approach to school organisation”.

Vision, ethos and systems: Ofsted’s 2012 annual report defined school leadership in three ways –

  • An ambitious vision that inspires a shared commitment to excellence
  • A culture of empowerment
  • Evaluation and accountability systems

Intuitively, and from my own experience, this makes sense. The school I teach at in London achieves good results. It gets 80% of its GCSE students 5A*-C with English and Maths with a challenging, fully comprehensive intake with 40% of its pupils on FSM. It has narrowed the gap between the poorest pupils and their less disadvantaged peers, which nationally is at 28% in GCSE attainment, to just 1%. Staff turnover is among the lowest in the country at under 5%. Parent satisfaction is high with 9 applicants per place. The chief reason for this is good leadership.

Having taught there for two years, I’ve seen how its leadership works through ethos, culture and systems. The vision is excellence for all, an ethos resolutely shared by all senior leaders and teachers. The culture is highly trusting, with very low monitoring, surveillance or pressure. The staffroom is welcoming and encouraging. There is no divide between senior leaders and staff: senior leaders are a consistently visible presence who enforce consequences for misbehaviour: all staff work to create a climate conducive to academic progress and cultural and sporting participation. What helps make this culture possible are clear, simple systems. The behaviour policy is reinforced by always raising the bar on expectations and following through on all sanctions. The observation and appraisal process and is straightforward and unobtrusive. In short, because of good leadership, the school works well.


Strong leadership aligns systems

But such leadership in tough schools seems quite rare. Many of the teachers I talk to nationally who teach in deprived areas, are in schools that get under 50% of their pupils 5 A*-C at GSCE, and have an annual staff turnover of over 50%. I’ve been asking teachers in these schools about how such dispiriting results happen.


Stephen Covey’s book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has sold over 15 million copies. Borrowing from Old Andrew, the pseudonymous education blogger whose blog now gets some 1,000 views a day and is approaching 1 million hits, we can adapt this to look at what makes SLT in English schools effective – and defective. What follows has been collated by asking many colleagues in tough schools nationally about their SLT, who have asked to be kept anonymised. One in particular is a teacher and teacher trainer who over the last ten years has worked with thousands of teachers and hundreds of school leaders in hundreds of schools, and given hundreds of school INSET days, and who sent me four pages to illustrate the trouble with much school leadership in the most ineffective schools. So here are some anecdotal illustrations of some of the worst-led schools in the country.

Seven Habits of Highly Defective SLT

1. Conform at all costs

This comes from my teacher trainer source:

‘The system in these schools encourages conformity to the prevailing orthodoxy. SLT, very often, have risen up the ranks by being conformist. The system doesn’t encourage divergent thinking, it rewards conformity. Teachers gain promotion, not because of their phenomenal teaching prowess, but because of their ability to parrot the prevailing fashion. The promotion system is actually built upon teachers never, ever thinking for themselves. In the main, they’re follow-the-fashion, jump-on-the-bandwagon, march-to-the-beat-of-someone-else’s-drum teachers. Energy is focussed upon gaining Ofsted approval. For too many the purpose is to receive inspectorate approval; to build up inspector-pleasing evidence. Fast track career development? Above all else – do not rock the boat! Do not break the mould! Do not question the status quo! Do not question the actions of the people above you who’ve been the architects of the current, prevailing, failing school culture! Convergent thinking wins out over genuine reflection or principles – any day! The whole aim is to please Ofsted’.

2. Exult fads

As does this:

‘Gimmicks, untested, unmonitored, but fashionable – rolled out! For a while! Then they become old hat. Cost a fortune in money, time, lost opportunity, battered teacher morale and wasted potential. Yet, nothing is learnt, a new gimmick comes along, once again, welcomed with open arms and empty heads. SLT, very often, like off-the-shelf solutions! The world loves a brand! A brand means “no thinking required”, a brand means “I’m in the know”, “I’m part of the pack”, “If I’m wrong, they’re wrong too”, a brand means “safety in numbers.” SLT love flash, computerised reward systems – again they succumb to the marketing. The pretty graphics, the stats. Stats and graphs are good! They’re “evidence”! But, these packages are bought, installed, never really monitored and rarely really work! But it’s so much easier to spend money on a branded package than to really think about the cultural shift required in a school. Teachers are obliged by their SLT to use new technology such as interactive whiteboards and ipads. Technology is seen as the answer – taking responsibility and choices away from teachers’.


3. Talk the talk

Education blogger @redorgreenpen has written of the frustration with SLT inconsistency: ‘announcing new policies to the kids and then never ever mentioning them again, nor supporting teachers in enforcing this new arbitrary standard. Here are a few of the things SLT have announced at large to the children, with no prior warning to staff, and then rarely or never mentioned again:

  • If you have patterns carved into your hair, you will be sent to work in isolation until it grows out
  • If you are seen with headphones in class, the teacher will come and snip them with a pair of scissors
  • If you truant a lesson, the teacher will come to your form room at the end of the day and go through the missed work with you
  • You will be sent home for wearing black trainers
  • If you’re not wearing a tie, you’ll be expected to buy one that same day from reception for a fiver
  • Hugging is banned
  • If you are 5 minutes late to a lesson, you will be given a 15 minute detention
  • You will be sent home to wash your face if you’re wearing excessive make up

As Red says, this is SLT ‘making up rules that they never stick to, making random declarations to students about new sanction systems, new uniform or presentation policies then never mentioning it again’… ‘It’s not about whether these rules are reasonable or not. It’s about the absurdity of making these school wide announcements and then not following them up. Every single teacher knows that failing to actually do what you say you’ll do is a death sentence for your behaviour management. You lose all authority.


4. Excuse disorder

Most of the teachers that work in schools where SLT leadership is weak say that not only are promises made that are never followed up, but excuses are made that are never resolved. In this revealing anecdote from Andrew Old, teachers in these schools begin to ‘expect SLT and Head of Years to ignore incidents referred to them, even after six weeks of emailing every lesson for a fortnight and every day about what’s happening. Thirty five out of forty-three [80%] incidents referred for follow up got ignored. This was excused by computer errors and students removing incident reports from desks’. The excuses that SLT come up with to explain poor behaviour have been extensively catalogued by @oldAndrewuk:

  • ‘This is a deprived area’
  • ‘Families here have no educational aspirations’
  • ‘We don’t have the support of parents’
  • ‘The children here aren’t academic’
  • ‘They are turned off by all the preparation for tests’


5. Pander to parents

In another school with weak leadership, another anonymous teacher blogger says appeasing parents is a top priority: 

“SLT talk of the importance of raising pupil numbers to get more money. Parents are the best way via word of mouth, as they spread the word about the school throughout the community. Everything they say could make or break the school. So, if a parent phones up angry with something a teacher has done, for example, they’ve confiscated a phone, the teacher gets told to make an exception for the child. Lots of kids have notes in their planners excusing them from homework because their parents don’t believe in it. If parent phones up and says kid won’t be in as ill, pastoral team run around interrupting teaching to ask for work for the absent child. If work is sent home, child isn’t recorded as absent but educated offsite, which means it doesn’t affect attendance percentages. But this parental doesn’t exactly hold parents to the highest standards of involvement in their kid’s education”.


6. Blame teachers

In Old Andrew’s satire of SLT leading the school INSET day, a senior leader announces: “Our first session will be about using data. During this session some graphs will be shown to suggest that we aren’t doing too badly, and to suggest some targets that will never be met. It will be heavily implied that if the targets aren’t met then it will be your fault.” Behind this parody, there lies an uncomfortable reality: that teachers in ineffective schools feel they are blamed by SLT for the schools’ problems: ‘Teachers often encounter behaviour from senior managers that undermine them and their ability to teach, such as blaming teachers for all discipline problems. This includes disorder in the corridors, and around the site, problems faced by all new teachers, and worst of all verbal and physical abuse of staff. The key phrase used is “Discipline is all about relationships”. This is made worse when those head teachers do not teach and have had the power and status of being senior management to protect them for years. History teacher Matthew Hunter echoes this in his articles and his blog post on behaviour:school managements turn the blame for bad behaviour onto their staff.


7. Pressurise and scrutinize

The worst SLTs create a climate of fear through enormous pressure, intense monitoring, hovering supervision and scrutinizing surveillance. Blogger @redorgreenpen shared the anecdotes of: ‘Unrelenting “learning walks” that pile the pressure on and interrogate teachers in front of kids as to why there is no green pen response in books. The Head of Teaching & Learning rushes into your classroom without knocking, interrupting you mid-flow, saying ‘we’re having a real push on homework. Can you make sure you set homework for this lesson?’ He has done this twice, using his whole free period to walk around every class in the school to say that.’  Another blogger has a similar experience: ‘Teachers are obliged to submit a list of homework set every week to SLT, in addition to a list of every learning objective for every lesson every week.’ Teacher @teachric mentioned that SLT entered every classroom in secret to monitor books. My teacher trainer source sent through the obligations he’s seen SLT inflict on teachers:

‘Teachers obliged to frame written objectives in specified formats. Words chosen for them. Especially which verbs they must use. WALT/WILF was massive at one point with every classroom in some schools having small whiteboards at side of main board. Top of board had sentence starter…WILF and then WALT permanently on display. Had to follow format. Teachers obliged to have certain starters, plenaries and mini-plenaries. Teachers obliged to annotate Schemes of Work to identify which activities cater to V/A/K kids’.

‘Failure to comply is then made public; teachers are named and shamed; there are lectures about impending inspections; there are regular tellings-off in briefings and serious reprimands for non-compliance’. Promotion to the least effective SLTs depends on acquiescently ticking the boxes.


Seven Habits of Highly Effective SLT

Great school leadership would be the exact opposite of the 7 deadly sins listed above.

1. Instill the ethos

Great SLT develop a strong, shared vision and implement an ethos that aligns with it.

2. Avoid fads

Great SLT eschew unproven and faddish fashions such as NLP, braingym and learning styles.

3. Walk the talk

Great SLT practise what they preach, follow up relentlessly, and have a strong, visible presence around the school.

4. Ban excuses

Great SLT make *no excuses* their mantra on attendance, behaviour and achievement.

5. Focus on teaching

Great SLT focus on encouraging and supporting teachers to improve their teaching.

6. Ensure consistency

Great SLT create a strong, simple and consistently enforced behaviour system.

7. Build trust

Great SLT cultivate a climate of trust, without egotism, blame, criticism or complaining, by listening and following through on commitments.



Trust is like a bucket: only filled drop by drop

but knocked over and emptied in an instant.


Improving School Leadership

If we take Wilshaw’s advice seriously, that teaching and leadership cannot be separated from culture and ethos, then we might put school leadership on a spectrum from ineffective to effective. To the extent that the school culture requires conformity and creates stress, the leadership is weak; to the extent that the culture is courageous and trusting, the leadership is strong. Test it out: if you are a teacher, where on the spectrum is your school leadership? If you are a senior or middle leader, where would you place your team? Depending on your diagnosis, the way to improve leadership is by strengthening either the courage or trust levels in the leadership team.



“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities

because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

Winston Churchill

Improving schools through an inspiring ethos, a trusting culture and aligned systems is easier said than done. It depends most of all on recruiting, training and retaining great people; the question of what makes training effective is the next post for this blog. For a fascinating post on what’s needed from the teaching profession in our education system, head teacher Tom Sherrington has written convincingly on the consensus, the challenge and the courage required to tackle it. Consistently walking our talk is a continual challenge. Nevertheless, in the toughest of schools, in Mandela’s words, we must all exceed our own expectations, when nothing less will do.

See here for others’ ideas of the ingredients of successful School Leadership Teams.


About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to What makes great school leadership?

  1. missangry says:

    Really liked this. I wrote on the same topic from a different viewpoint. (See http://bit.ly/YRtlz4 ) We make some similar points, but your post reaches much further and more broadly into the theme.

  2. Thank you, Joe, for this truly excellent blog. It exactly mirrors my experience of local Brixton primary school in the 80s. Multi-cultural, high expectations, far higher standards than most ILEA schools, doing your best much more important than being one of the naturally clever kids, etc. ILEA disliked it intensely and ultimately destroyed much that had been build for generations.

  3. Tony Ryan says:

    A really thought provoking post, clear vision, following up with the things that really matter and assisting teachers to concentrate on producing inspirational lessons…simple really! Students also
    need to be able to ‘buy in’ to the ethos.

  4. Jo Hetherington says:

    Very wise words. How sad though that the leadership in too many of the schools I work with is more like the former than the latter.

  5. Griffin Mill says:

    Great post, insightful informative and spot on.

  6. ChemistryPoet says:

    Very good summary of what constitutes effective leadership…I have only one criticism…what you outline for effective leadership is exactly that…it is what is required…it shouldn’t be seen as ‘great’ leadership, it should be seen as what is required from school leadership…we need to move to a situation where this standard is frequently encountered and regarded as normal. It isn’t easy to achieve this, but neither should we regard it as ‘great’…it is what is required. Given how hard teachers work, and what we (society) expect of them, we should expect our school leaders to be delivering what you describe in this blog post.

  7. missdcox says:

    Great post. So why isn’t the NPQH preparing heads/SLT to not do these things?!

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  9. Yvonne Nunn says:

    Eloquent analysis of defective and effective leadership, everyone should aspire to the latter!

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  21. Reblogged this on Worklife Support and commented:
    Some interesting thoughts here – something to discuss with Headteachers on our Headspace programmes

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