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A ‘Big Education’ for leaders

Written by: Ellie Lister and Liz Robinson
10 min read
Ellie Lister, Project Lead, Big Education, UK
Liz Robinson, Co-Director, Big Education, UK

The world is changing beyond recognition, but arguably, schooling is not (Burns and Polchar, 2019). At Big Education, a multi-academy trust formed of three schools – School 21, School 360 and Surrey Square Primary – and a social enterprise, we believe that the ever-increasing challenges regarding politics, technology, conflict and inequality, to name a few, signal a need for an education system that recognises the importance of educating the whole child, rather than solely looking at academic success. This will involve a paradigm shift – new thinking about the very purpose of schooling, through to the values of the system, the curriculum, pedagogies, culture, assessment and the leadership. Through our philosophy of the head (academics), the heart (character and wellbeing) and the hand (generating ideas, problem-solving and making a difference), we believe that we can prepare children to thrive in an ever-changing world.

COVID-19 has given school leaders the opportunity to reflect on our existing education system (Edge, 2020). We believe that this over-emphasises high-stakes exams, Ofsted and an unbalanced focus on knowledge over creativity. The profound disruption that we have experienced through COVID has also highlighted the need for adaptive and agile leadership. There was no evidence-informed approach to draw on; leaders had to radically redesign and rethink how they operate overnight.

The leadership landscape is also evolving. There are ongoing debates within the sector around the balance between ‘domain specific knowledge’ and ‘generic leadership skills’ (Munby, 2020). In Munby’s recent review of leadership development in the sector, he acknowledges a shift in the perception that there are specific problems faced in education that can be solved through a set of mental models. These institutions are also critical of applying leadership research adopted in the business sector to an educational setting. However, we believe that this type of training develops leaders to indirectly conform to the current education paradigm and ultimately recycle the same solutions to the same problems.

If we want the education system to change, we must find new solutions, and this means stepping out of the current problems that we face to rethink and redesign. This involves going against the usual, which is difficult and perceived as high risk when incentives are heavily stacked towards accountability measures within the current metrics.

We have heavily invested in leadership development as a key aspect of our theory of change. This article will address school and system leadership as a catalyst for systemic change, by exploring the underpinning research of the Big Leadership Adventure (BLA) programme.

Big Leadership Adventure

The BLA programme is designed to nurture leaders who want to build a more balanced, equitable and expansive education system. Using a range of toolkits and frameworks, the programme develops educators in the mindsets, behaviours, skills and confidence required to do things differently.

The design of the BLA is heavily informed by research and theory from a range of sectors. We also engaged CUREE as a learning and evaluation partner, which has enabled us to build in effective evaluation from the start. Our own ongoing research looks into the role that participation in the BLA plays in developing schools and organisations to deliver a more rounded education.

The programme had seed funding from Big Change, Salesforce and The Mercers. Independent of government, we have been able to design the programme outside of the existing scope of DfE programmes, and the BLA has a very different approach to many other leadership offers in the sector. We are wary of the infantilisation of many adult training/learning spaces, and the programme is deliberately designed to respect the fact that we are working with leaders, and not just participants on a course. This places a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and means that we have high expectations for what leaders can achieve.

Head, heart and hand

It was critical to embed our vision for a more expansive approach to leadership in research and evidence. In the early stages, we commissioned a piece of research in order to understand the leadership required to push the boundaries within the sector. Adhering to British Psychological Society standards of best practice, the BLA competency framework is grounded in real data through a series of critical scenario interviews. The interviewees were selected from the Big Education network, those who we believed were already demonstrating the type of leadership that we needed to see more widely. Through a thematic analysis, a set of descriptors were developed that outline what ‘good’ looks like on the ground. The findings are grouped under head, heart and hand, which is the same framework that we use to describe curriculum design for our students.

The framework (Figure 1) is a powerful underpinning of the design of the programme and is used as a selection, self-assessment and coaching tool.

Figure 1: BLA framework

Figure 1 shows three concentric circles, each divided in three segments. The three segments are titled "Head", "Heart", and "Hand" and form the innermost circle. The "Head" segment has the parts "Purpose of Education" and "Horizon Scanning" on the next circle. The "Heart" segment the parts "7 Leadership Tools" and "Building High Functioning Teams". The "Hand" segment the part "Design Thinking". On the outer circle, the "Head" segment has the parts "Purpose", "Ideas", and "Strategy" listed. The "Heart" segment the parts "Inspiration", "Teamwork", and "Authenticity". The "Hand" segment has the parts "Design", "Problem Solving", and "Impact".

Leadership of the heart

An overarching aim of the BLA is to develop innovation across the sector. In an ever-changing and complex world, we believe that we need dynamism and new solutions, and this is achieved by an ethical approach. We call this ‘leadership of the heart’. There is a body of existing research and science that looks into the enabling factors for cultures and behaviours that empower this work. The BLA has been heavily influenced by the concept and research around ‘psychological safety’ (Edmondson and Lei, 2014) – the conditions that enable teams to admit when things haven’t gone right, to give and receive feedback regularly, to learn from failure and to feel safe taking risks (Scott, 2017). This creates a willingness to challenge the status quo and each other.

A deliberately developmental culture of innovation

To create environments that are psychologically safe, learning cultures are essential (Edmondson and Lei, 2014). We call this a ‘deliberately developmental’ (DD) culture. A DD culture leads to an openness to the fact that we are all learners and that risk and things not going as planned are inevitable in moving forwards. According to Edmondson and Lei (2014), this has a positive impact on our creativity, as we feel less restricted, receive regular feedback and are therefore more likely to be open to things going wrong.

Underpinned by research into psychological safety, leaders on the programme are trained in a set of leadership tools, known as the ‘Big 8’, that enable a shared accountability for this work:

  • entry: the process of forming relationships with one another, both personally and ‘professionally’, to build the trust needed to do meaningful work
  • contracting: the process of forming mutual agreements that aren’t one-sided
  • catalytic style: a process of truly listening to somebody, without guiding their thinking or giving advice – purely speeding up their thinking
  • acceptance style: the process of truly listening to someone and supporting them to get in touch with an emotion, without bringing your own emotions into the situation
  • feedback: providing this without judgement (there is a huge difference!)
  • prescriptive: the process of giving advice, which we have a tendency to do as default
  • theory: understanding the theoretical underpinning to the tools to gain a deeper understanding.

The Big 8 are our ‘leadership foundations’ – a set of behaviours, mindsets, cultures and approaches that are the foundations of and underpin what it takes to lead in a ‘BLA way’. These act as a mechanism to empower everybody to find their own solutions, take ownership over their own learning and build an inclusive environment where all voices are heard and genuinely listened to. If fostered well and by everybody, these tools become the ‘beating heart’ of any school or organisation.

Leadership of the head

Education is ideological. There are differing views across the globe of why, what and how we teach and lead. We believe that our philosophy should guide our decision-making and that educators should have a deep-rooted view of what this is. This is supported by Cordingley et al.’s (2020) research into the effectiveness of CPDL, which identifies that a key priority for school leaders is to promote a culture of dialogue around evidence, theory and practice, and argues that one way of doing this is to align the belief system within a school.

Our ‘Philosophy of Education’ module is an explicit exploration of the historical and philosophical roots of different traditions and theories of education. Designed to support leaders to deepen their own understanding and knowledge, the module is a powerful tool for reflection and growth, often resulting in new ways of leaders seeing their teaching and leadership. This deepens their ability to articulate their position and understand others.

We use the mechanism of a ‘stump speech’ as a way to demonstrate progress in this area. Leaders create their first draft speech as part of the application process to the programme, outlining their core beliefs about education. They revisit and redraft this several times in light of the input and learning. It has been fascinating to see how they have changed and adapted, providing a powerful mechanism for seeing evidence of learning and development. Our work with CUREE is looking further into the implications of exploring and deepening our own philosophy and how this guides everyday practice.

Leadership of the hand

The ability to design new approaches is a hugely underdeveloped aspect of leadership development in the sector. Our experience is that ‘new solutions’ are likely to originate from a senior team meeting and often risk ‘recycling our own inadequacies’.

Design Thinking is a well-established methodology that encourages leaders to see problems as design challenges. Originally led by organisations including IDEO and the UK Design Council, Gruber et al. (2015) describe this as ‘a human-centred approach to innovation that puts the observation and discovery of the often highly nuanced, even tacit, human needs right at the forefront of the innovation process’. Through both behaviours and frameworks, this methodology works to break down human bias in a decision-making process (‘for example, rootedness in the status quo’) and challenges the notion of shutting down ideas and creativity before being explored (‘“That’s how we do things here”’) (Liedtka, 2018). Although deeply established across most industries as a way of working, there are few examples within education, although its use is described powerfully in the social care context in Hilary Cottam’s (2018) book Radical Help.

Liedtka’s (2015) research into the impact of Design Thinking methods on innovation outcomes tells us that this ‘creates higher quality solutions’, ‘reduces the risk/visibility of failure’, improves the ‘likelihood of implementation’ and improves ‘adaptability’. If we want to develop both leaders and their institutions to design solutions that challenge the current system and prioritise educating the whole child, we have a very strong rationale for why this methodology has so much potential.

Our own research is currently looking at the role that Design Thinking can play in the context of achieving a ‘Big Education’. This includes an analysis of the innovation projects that are being undertaken as part of the programme. These projects require participants to use Design Thinking to work through a thorny problem in their own context. While the outcome of the project is important in developing a new solution, we place a larger emphasis on the process, tools and frameworks used, to ultimately create a broader shift in mindset and ways of working.

Approach to learning

Cordingley et al.’s (2020) research into the effectiveness of CPDL has been influential in our programme design, specifically when structuring the learning. The BLA provides a range of tools that enable leaders to navigate complex situations and scaffold the learning process. Exponential growth is critical to our mission in transforming the leadership across the sector. Through our ‘train the trainer’ model, we then work with our participants to use these tools in their own contexts to support the growth of us.

What’s next?

We are passionate about the need for a different type of leadership across education, which learns from other sectors and reflects the ever-changing world in which we live. Our own research looks into the role that this plays within the wider education space and we will be sharing the findings in the coming months.


Burns T and Polchar J (2019) The future of education is now. In: OECD Education and Skills Today. Available at: (accessed 4 July 2021).

Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2020) Developing great leadership of CPDL. Available at: (accessed 4 July 2021).

Cottam H (2018) Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State. Virago.

Edge K, Descours K and Oxley L (2017) Generation X leaders from London, New York and Toronto: Conceptions of social identity and the influence of city-based context. Educational Management Administration & Leadership 45(5): 863–883.

Edmondson A and Lei Z (2014) Psychological safety: The history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 1(1): 23–43.

Gruber M, Leon N, Thompson P et al. (2015) Managing by design. Academy of Management Journal 58(1): 1–7.

Liedtka J (2018) Exploring the impact of design thinking in action. Darden Working Paper Series. Available at: (accessed 4 July 2021).

Munby S (2020) A new paradigm for leadership development? Occasional Paper 164. Centre for Strategic Education. Available at: (accessed 4 July 2021).

Scott K (2017) Kim Scott ‘Radical Candor’ INBOUND Bold Talks. YouTube. Available at: (accessed 4 July 2021).

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