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Heads coaching heads for school improvement

8 min read
Rebecca Raybould, Associate, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education, UK
Philip Hamilton OBE, Chief Executive Officer, Community Academies Trust, UK
Holly Rigby, The Telford Park School, UK

Coaching has great potential for supporting school leaders in school improvement in a way that emphasises individual and collaborative agency, contributes to wellbeing (Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh, 2018; Lofthouse et al., 2021) and aligns with the wider evidence about effective continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) and its leadership. This is of particular significance at a time when the teaching profession is working its way through a number of challenges, including those generated by COVID-19, the recruitment and retention issues within the sector, and a growing awareness of the need to tackle racial, social and environmental injustice. While different types of coaching are used in and across schools, peer coaching between heads has particular potential for promoting openness to professional learning and shared accountability, both of which are highlighted as important aspects of effective CPDL and its leadership (Cordingley et al., 2020).

This case study explores how colleagues at Community Academies Trust (CAT) set up a headteacher peer coaching programme to support school improvement. The article shares: the vision of Philip Hamilton (the Chief Executive Officer) and the heads of the family of 18 primary and secondary schools; the way in which the coaching training was introduced and supported by Rebecca Raybould (the author of this article) and Sally Curson, both associates of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE); and the views of the heads about the emerging impacts on themselves, their schools and the MAT. There is consideration of the benefits, challenges and ways forward for this model of school improvement. Reflective questions are included for leaders interested in introducing or further developing peer coaching within their context.

The vision behind the headteacher coaching

Philip Hamilton, the CEO of Community Academies Trust (CAT), was keen to work with leaders to develop a school improvement model that recognised the expertise of colleagues within the schools. CAT is a family of likeminded institutions that together educate the one student body. A crucial part of securing this collaborative approach to school improvement was developing a system of headteacher peer-to-peer coaching where all CAT headteachers would be fully trained coaches who worked with at least one other headteacher.

‘The main source of school improvement already exists within our Trust and rather than take it out of schools we wanted to retain and mobilise it.’ – Philip Hamilton, CEO of Community Academies Trust

With the headteachers, he developed a vision of success for the peer-to-peer coaching that included schools improving because:

  • There is more innovation, where structured coaching encourages headteachers to believe in their vision and build the courage of their convictions
  • Headteachers engage in regular structured personal and professional reflection
  • Headteachers’ networks and professional relationships are strengthened
  • There is greater CAT-wide resilience in school leadership.

This would lead to even more impactful school leadership and the retention of great headteachers. The plan was to achieve this through an approach that complemented other aspects of the school improvement model and included:

  • high-quality training for heads and CAT accreditation as a coach
  • headteacher pairs meeting every half-term for typically a two-hour coaching session, where one head would coach the other for the first hour and the roles would be reversed for the second hour.

Initially Philip worked with heads to set up the approach so that the important role that colleagues would be playing in supporting each other was recognised financially. Rather than spending resourcing on an additional central school improvement team, each head’s salary was adjusted to include an additional payment for the role. Pairings were organised so that heads coached someone who was not in their immediate regional group.

When the vision and approach were developed no one had foreseen the pandemic but, throughout, the coaching continued and adapted to the ever-changing wider context.

Coaching training and support

Sally Curson and Rebecca Raybould facilitated three interactive workshops with the heads. These were rooted in the evidence about effective continuing professional development (Cordingley et al., 2015) and included exploration of key concepts, skills and tools in coaching, along with opportunities to experience and practise the coaching approach. Heads fed back that they found the CUREE questioning frameworks particularly useful. One of the frameworks provides questions that the coach can use in each phase of the coaching conversation, and the other framework provides questions that the professional learner can use to help them get the most from a coaching session. Coaches found these useful in giving them a bank of questions and a structure that they could draw on, and they also valued opportunities to see coaching modelled and to practise skills in a supportive environment. Following the training, coaches started working with their coaching partners to set up learning agreements (using the CUREE template) and to carry out sessions. The content of the discussions remained confidential, but agreed themes and the impacts on school improvement were fed back to Philip Hamilton using an agreed log.

‘The peer coaching at CAT makes me feel valued and accountable.’ – Holly Rigby, Headteacher

Heads also started meeting in their regional groups of three to five colleagues to participate in coaching supervision on a termly basis. Sally and Rebecca worked with heads to promote reflection on the peer coaching process and its impact, and to give opportunities to practise developing skills. The sessions are confidential and psychologically ‘safe’ spaces where heads can develop their professional learning, but key themes to be shared are agreed with the group and communicated to Philip Hamilton. As one head noted, the supervision has played an important role in enabling the peer coaching to develop and respond to the changing needs and context, including the pandemic. They highlighted that the coaching enables them to adapt and strengthen their school improvement and the supervision helps them to adapt and strengthen their coaching. The next sections explore in more detail some of the key themes that emerged from analysing the headteachers’ reflections on the impacts and challenges of the approach.

Impact and benefits

Heads have valued the coaching approach. They note that it has impacted on their own leadership, on leaders within their school and on students. The most commonly noted impact has been on leadership style. Heads are not only using coaching with their partner but also using more of a listening-and-questioning, collaborative approach with the teams in their schools. Heads have also reported that coaching has enabled them to engage in strategic reflection about priorities. This has been particularly important during COVID-19, when school leaders have had to manage a multitude of seemingly conflicting priorities. Many heads also found that the peer coaching was particularly helpful in supporting their own wellbeing during the pandemic.

‘For me it is the biggest driver of school improvement.’ – Holly Rigby, Headteacher

When considering other leaders in the school, the most commonly noted impact has been them taking responsibility for leading curriculum or remote learning provision. It seems that the coaching process has helped leaders to empower other members of the school team and develop the ‘shared accountability’ for student learning and wellbeing that is highlighted in the wider evidence base (Cordingley et al., 2020). Some heads also noted that the collaborative approach used for curriculum development helped to secure team wellbeing, as leaders felt that they had more influence over school practices.

When considering students, the main impact has been on improved remote learning and/or curriculum offers. Some heads also noted that the quality of the learning experience was better for students.

Challenges and next steps

Of course, introducing any approach will bring challenges as well as benefits. Particularly during the early stages, heads found that it could be difficult to maintain a non-directive approach to the coaching. As leaders they were often called on to be the person with the answers, and this could lead to them feeling that they should ‘solve’ the problems raised in coaching sessions. Some heads have found that preparation before sessions by reading through the questioning framework has been helpful in reminding them of the role of the coach.

The training that heads had carried out explored face-to-face coaching, but with COVID-19 they faced the challenge of adapting to the online context. During supervision they shared strategies to use when carrying out video or phone coaching. Some heads noted that although they missed the direct contact, the flexibility and time-efficiency of remote coaching was helpful.

As the heads have developed relationships with their partners, some have found that they have needed to pay increased attention to establishing an appropriate structure for the conversations – a structure that enables them to relate informally and to make effective use of the coaching model. This has included having informal check-ins at the beginning and then signalling a move to the more formal coaching part of the conversation.

As CAT moves towards the next stage in its development, Philip plans to meet with colleagues to reflect on what has been learnt about the peer headteacher coaching so far and to use this as a springboard for consideration of how the approach can evolve to bring the greatest benefits to the heads, school teams and students in the CAT family.

Reflective questions for those introducing and developing peer coaching

  • CAT recognised the value of coaching and provided a structure for the process through setting up expectations of frequency and associated renumeration, and providing tools, training and ongoing supervision. How do you currently recognise the value of coaching in your setting? What structures support the coaching? How might these be strengthened?
  • Attention has been paid to gaining clarity about roles and responsibilities in the coaching, including through setting up expectations in the CAT vision of success, through discussion in the training and through heads completing learning agreements with their partners, which include expectations of the coach and the professional learner. To what extent do you and other colleagues have shared expectations of the roles and responsibilities of coach and professional learner? How might this be further developed?
  • Heads noticed that they used coaching in their sessions with their partner and as a leadership approach. To what extent do you and colleagues draw on a coaching approach to your leadership? How might you strengthen your practice in this area?


CUREE offers chargeable products and services linked to coaching and mentoring


Campbell J and van Nieuwerburgh C (2018) The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools, Kindle edition. SAGE Publications.

Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. Available at: (accessed 4 July 2021).

Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2020) Developing great leadership of CPDL. Available at: (accessed 5 July 2021).

Lofthouse R, Lofthouse C and Whiteside R (2021) Unlocking coaching and mentoring. In: Hargreaves E and Rolls L (eds) In Reimagining Professional Development in Schools (Unlocking Research), Kindle edition. Taylor and Francis, pp. 63–64.

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