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Reflections on school leadership

School leadership   Leadership for Learning

With the recent publication of the Developing your school with Cambridge guide,aimed at school leaders and teachers, it is a good time to reflect on what school leadership really means.

Everything about a school needs to focus on student learning with the dignity and development of each individual at its heart.

While schools have much in common, every school is a unique community and leadership needs to be situational and come from within. Outstanding school leaders strive to improve both the components and the dynamics of the system. This includes a concern for curriculum, assessment, the school’s culture and values, the role of parents and the community. Above all school leadership should be focused on improving learning through developing better teaching as teachers are the most powerful influence on student learning.

Good leadership is a necessary condition for educational excellence

The best schools understand the difference between leadership and management, viewing leadership as a process rather than a position of authority. Great leaders get the best out of the system by creating, implementing, monitoring, reviewing and refining goals practices and policies so that student learning outcomes are continuously improved. It also involves, in the words Geoff Southworth , the ‘liberation of talent.’ Teachers and students, fully supported, are leadership resources of enormous power and potential. For this reason leadership is best viewed as a collective responsibility and widely distributed.

Accountability and standards are critical

School evaluation practices, teacher appraisal and professional development systems need to reflect the complex nature of the educational process. They should involve teachers as reflective practitioners conscious that they have a role in improving both their own and institutional practice. Involvement breeds confidence, commitment, ownership and dignity.

It can result in raising a wide range of educational standards as well as creating a culture of excellence based on the needs of the school at that particular time. All leadership is situational; inexperienced teachers need more directed support from experienced colleagues and progress needs to be benchmarked to meaningful targets with individuals held to account.

While every school is unique and leadership should ideally come from within, there is particular value in sharing practice and experience with schools supporting each other as critical friends.  One example of an initiative that focuses on developing networks and the capacity for school leadership is Leadership for Learning [LfL] at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. This is a vibrant network concerned with learning and leadership, and the connection between the two.  LfL has developed a framework of ideas, principles and processes that have been successful in different contexts throughout the world and which are currently being practised by 16 Cambridge schools working with the Faculty of Education.

LfL practice is based on the following beliefs:

  • Learning and leadership are a shared enterprise, as much as an individual one
  • Leadership should be ‘distributed’ and exercised at every level
  • Collaborative modes of working strengthen both teams and individuals
  • An independent, critical perspective, informed by research is vital
  • The status quo and received wisdom should be persistently questioned

Nurturing student leadership has never been more important in a world where education is even more about ‘’providing young people with the competence and self-confidence to tackle uncertainty well.’’ Employers are desperate for students who are adaptable, able to be ‘intelligent in the face of change’ [Claxton, 1990], able to work together and lead teams effectively.

Leadership starts with ‘knowing yourself’ and developing self-confidence, empathy and resourcefulness. This cannot be taught but it can be nurtured and needs to be infused in every day school life and culture rather than become a mere marketing slogan. Schools are part of a community and must acknowledge their responsibility to contribute to and play a leadership role in community life. Learning and leadership do not begin or end at the school gate.

At Cambridge we will be working on improving the support and training we provide in the school leadership area. The potential for networking and sharing research-based international best practice is unique amongst our diverse range of schools. There is something very powerful about a community of schools and partners in so many different countries and contexts sharing practice and learning from each other.


Claxton, G [1990] Teaching to Learn: A Direction for Education. Cassell Education, London. UK.

MacBeath J. and Dempster, N. (Eds.) (2008) Connecting Leadership and Learning: Principles for practice. London: Routledge

Southworth, G. [2011] Speech given at the Cambridge Teachers Conference on School Leadesrhip

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