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2020: A new perspective for school leadership?

Written by: Jen Barker and Tom Rees
5 min read

At Ambition Institute, we have come to hold what we see as a different perspective on school leadership from the orthodoxy – one with an increased focus on the specific educational work of school leaders and the expertise that they need to do it well, and a reduced focus on generic leadership concepts.

In this article, we set out four key ideas within this perspective:

  • key idea 1: complexity
  • key idea 2: domain-specific expertise
  • key idea 3: knowledge
  • key idea 4: persistent problems.

1. Complexity

The main purpose of leaders is to enable effective teaching to take place. This sounds simple and yet, in any classroom, we’re attempting to change 30 or so brains belonging to young, immature humans with varying levels of motivation, who are often distracted by a plethora of other things. Considering the work of school leaders through this lens, where leaders’ behaviour and decisions influence multiple classrooms or schools, the relationship between our actions/decisions and their impact is often messy and inconclusive.

While searching the evidence base for answers can draw us into long and winding rabbit holes, it does suggest that a number of previously accepted ideas deserve more scrutiny and scepticism. We learn, for example, that judging the quality of teachers by their progress data or by an observation rubric is flawed. We suspect that bold and pithy statements such as ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ might not be true, and that jokes about leaders having a dream while managers have a plan may romanticise ‘leadership’ at the expense of getting important and hard work done.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the more we learn about leadership, the more we can feel ignorant – unsure of what it is we do as school leaders that makes a difference. For those more familiar with research, however, this is no surprise. As Becky Allen and Ben White said in their recent ResearchED talk:

“Recognising ahead of time our own limitations and/or that of education as a lever to effect social change may be helpful in itself. It can be cathartic to recognise that the system itself likely induces many to feel a vague sense of not being good enough without granting clarity on what, exactly, to do about it.”

(Allen and White, 2019)

In accepting complexity and the limits of both our knowledge and potential impact, there’s a risk that we might feel our efforts are futile. This exposes the challenge – that we’re a long way from the ‘final word’ on school leadership and that there’s more for us to do as a system in understanding the work that school leaders do.

2. Domain-specific expertise

In thinking about the work of school leaders, there are two conflicting approaches that we can take:

  1. Generic leadership: the skills, knowledge and attributes that are assigned to leadership as its own domain. An implication of generic leadership is that school leaders should learn about concepts from the field of leadership and how these can be applied to schools because, broadly, leadership is just leadership – regardless of sector.
  2. Domain-specific leadership: the skills, knowledge and attributes linked to the leadership/management of a specific field. An implication of domain-specific leadership is that school leaders should develop deep educational expertise in areas such as curriculum or teacher development, because leading a school is very different from leading a hospital or a library.

(Adapted from Gilbride, 2018)

Few argue against the importance of domain-specific expertise, yet the concept has been notable by its absence in the school leadership narrative until recently. Instead, it’s far more common to read about leaders’ traits, values and behaviours; the current orthodox view of school leadership is dominated by the influence of transformational leadership, generic leadership approaches or the ‘hero paradigm’ (Gronn, 2003).

Our new perspective, however, has more emphasis on what educational leaders know and are able to do. An appreciation of the importance of domain-specific knowledge, along with an understanding of how expertise is developed – it doesn’t come through experience alone – leads us to the issues of school leaders’ development and the substance of school leadership. We need to look beyond the surface level of leaders’ actions and behaviours to better understand the vast expanse of tacit knowledge that governs the decisions and moves that they make.

3. Knowledge

It seems an unfashionable idea that leadership might mainly be a matter of knowledge when there are far more romantic and emotive interpretations available. Bereiter and Scardamalia note that ‘most people we talk to do not want to believe that research shows expert performance is mainly a matter of knowledge. They do not necessarily have an alternative explanation ready, but they feel there has to be more to expertise that that.’ (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993, p. 43)

But knowledge is foundational to expertise in all fields, and the work of school leaders is no different. Professor Viviane Robinson suggests that leaders need to use content knowledge to solve complex school-based problems, while building relational trust with staff, parents and students (Robinson, 2010). Further, Professor Amanda Goodall’s work on the proposition of the ‘Expert Leader’ suggests that leaders with strong domain-specific knowledge are more likely to lead happier and more successful organisations, with benefits to individual performance and retention (Goodall, 2012).

We believe that expertise arises when educators have a clear understanding of the problems of their role, as well as knowledge to address these and guide their behaviour appropriately. Think about the teacher who appears to have eyes in the back of her head, the head of department who deals with complex challenges serenely and the headteacher who knows what to do, however challenging the circumstances. Their expertise and experience allow them to solve problems effectively and efficiently.

Accepting that knowledge is foundational to developing expertise as a school leader leads us to another big question: what knowledge? To answer this, we first need to better define the problems that school leaders are trying to solve.

4. Persistent problems

Seeing school leadership as largely a problem-solving activity is not a new concept (see, for example, Leithwood et al., 1994) but one that we think is helpful and should be more prominent. Too often, we believe that leaders can be drawn into creating solutions, initiatives or interventions without thinking enough about what problem it is that they are trying to solve.

In her 2016 paper ‘Parsing the practice of teaching’, Mary Kennedy represents teaching through five ‘persistent problems’, using this term to represent an understanding of not just the moves that teachers carry out, but also the purpose behind these.

Over the last 12 months, we’ve applied a similar approach to school leadership, and have carried out significant work to understand more about the persistent problems that school leaders face.  Through this work, we’ve identified seven ‘persistent problems of school leadership’. You can read more about these at:

This an edited version of an article that was first published on Ambition Institute’s website on 3 January  2020, entitled ‘2020: A new perspective for school leadership?’


Allen B and White B (2019) Careering towards a curriculum crash? Talk at researchEd Kent, 30 November 2019. Available at: (accessed 6 April 2020).

Bereiter C and Scardamalia M (1993) Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry Into the Nature and Implications of Expertise. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company.

Gilbride N (2018) The relevance of domain-general and domain-specific skills for educational leadership. Unpublished paper.

Goodall AH (2012) A theory of expert leadership. IZA Discussion Paper No. 6566. Available at: (accessed 7 April 2020).

Gronn P (2003) The New Work of Educational Leaders: Changing Leadership Practice in an Era of School Reform. London: P Chapman.

Kennedy M (2016) Parsing the practice of teaching. Journal of Teacher Education 67(1): 6–17.

Leithwood K, Begley P and Cousins J (1994) Developing Expert Leadership for Future Schools. London: Falmer Press.

Robinson VMJ (2010) From instructional leadership to leadership capabilities: Empirical findings and methodological challenges. Leadership and Policy in Schools 9(1): 1–26. DOI: 10.1080/15700760903026748.

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