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Perspectives on coaching: What schools need to clarify

Written by: Hayley Guest
10 min read
Hayley Guest, Headteacher, East Park Primary, Wolverhampton, UK
Jan Rudge, Director, Leadership Edge Coaching in Schools, UK

Even the most seasoned of leaders are questioning themselves about the new demands placed on them. One of the challenges that lies ahead is how best to provide for your staff’s needs; with NQTs and RQTs nationally having experienced the most challenging year in living memory, our children are not the only ones with gaps in their learning. So what can be done?

With statistical data still demonstrating the high percentage of early career teachers thinking of leaving the profession, how we support and develop the next generation of teachers and leaders is a matter of high importance. Every employer needs to be asking: What do our younger workers want from the workplace? What benefits a more experienced professional? Are we providing this?

Research from the Gallup organisation (Sinyan and Nink, 2021) shows that the number one retention factor by far is that the organisation cares about employee wellbeing. In April 2021, The Guardian published the findings of the National Education Union, with the sub-heading ‘Workload and diminishing respect for profession are main reasons why 35% of teachers wish to leave within five years’ (Weale, 2021). For schools who are concerned by such headlines, the good news is that we can rethink CPD, and coaching should be one of the major CPD considerations in order to support staff wellbeing, improve engagement and develop passionate future leaders.

However, here lies a challenge! Many leaders have the word coaching in their job descriptions, but surprisingly there is still no regulated coaching system and literally anyone can call themselves a coach… and many do! Training for in-school coaches often comprises half a day to maybe two days of training, with no follow up or supervision.

Let us therefore begin with exploring what we might interpret as outstanding coaching. At the World Business and Executive Coaching Summit 2021 (which has a worldwide membership of 33,000), world-renowned coach Andre Vermeulen explored the link between coaching and neuroscience; he described coaching as ‘Helping people to re-wire their thinking’, and outstanding coaching as ‘Enabling a person to accurately understand their potential, to become solution focused and empowered to take action, to explore how they think and process information in order to influence, serve and inspire others’.

WBECS speaker and author Marica Reynolds (2021) says:

‘As a coach you disrupt the beliefs, assumptions and patterns of thinking that control a coachee’s unconscious decisions and actions. Coaching transforms their thinking, giving clarity about the possible paths forward even in uncertain times. They can step into the unknown with more confidence. It is a safe space where they can be fully themselves.’

In 2019, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) (2019) adjusted their competencies to reflect the maturity of the coaching field. Pre-2019, coaching was seen as instrumental goal-orientated tools and techniques. With advances in neuroscience and growth mindset research, the competencies now reflect a transformational and growth-orientated process, with a focus on relationships, increasing the ability of the coachee to flourish, to become more resilient, adaptable and empathetic, and to manage conflicts more effectively.

East Park Primary Academy, Wolverhampton: A journey to improvement

I had non-directive coaching in the early days of my first headship. My school was part of a local learning community, and I was participating in one of the leadership development CPD opportunities. This was my space to have a sounding board to explore my ideas and challenges. It was a diary appointment that I always looked forward to.

In the middle of the autumn term 2015, there was a game-changer as I took on my second headship of a three-form primary school that was in the process of becoming an academy.

In February 2016, just weeks after taking up the post in January 2016, Ofsted came (I did call them in!) and the unsurprising special measures journey began. As a coaching advocate, I continued to have my monthly coaching sessions to unpick and recreate East Park Primary in Wolverhampton. My coaching sessions kept me sane.

I needed to have the right leaders in post and then ensure that teaching rapidly improved.

My steps were unpicked month by month and translated into my future actions. The chart in Figure 1 shows the comparisons between the 2016 Ofsted and the subsequent inspection in 2019.

Figure 1: Ofsted inspection comparison between 2016 and 2019

Figure 1 shows a chart with an Ofsted inspection comparison between 2016 and 2019. All inspected areas have changed from "Inadequate" in 2016 to "Outstanding" in 2019. A detailed evaluation is also listed.

As the school went through its transformation, a coaching culture emerged that became significant in the process of rebuilding a broken school. In December 2018, East Park Academy was awarded Coaching Mark Gold. In June 2019, Ofsted returned and East Park was formally recognised as ‘outstanding’, with coaching at the heart of our mantra of ‘Growing hearts and minds’.

How coaching enabled East Park to move out of ‘special measures’

Coaching began with our SLT, with more experienced leaders coaching less experienced leaders. This enabled rapid development for leaders, from both sides. The confidential thinking space, driven by their agenda, allowed them to explore their priorities, empowering and enabling them in their roles.

Is there a connection between pure coaching and successful learning?

Absolutely! With high aspirations at the heart of our agenda, developing a growth mindset for all, alongside excellent teaching, was crucial. As substantive leadership posts were filled and those who didn’t want to be on this journey stepped back, we were able to recruit new teaching and support staff roles. It was important that non-directive coaching (what we call pure coaching) provided the thinking space to give clarity for individuals in taking their next steps and maintaining their own sanity in this much-needed fast-paced journey!

How can coaching improve classroom practice, pupil learning and pupil outcomes?

Effective coaching includes high levels of challenge. In our experience, we began to see this level of challenge within people’s leadership roles and within the classroom. Teachers’ levels of questioning expanded and became more effective as their active listening improved along with their use of challenging and open-ended questions. They appreciated the impact of exploring their own thinking in their individual coaching sessions and began to see the impact that this had upon their own children within their individual learning, enabling children to drive their learning independently.

When is it more appropriate to use directive approaches or non-directive approaches?

Mentoring and clear articulation by leaders, for both teachers and support staff, provided clarity around our direction of travel, in which the contribution of the individual was essential. What some schools today may be calling instructional coaching we have always termed as mentoring: ‘the passing on of professional knowledge and guidance to someone less experienced or competent’. Quality feedback was and continues to be essential in maintaining our progress and standards.

Leaders were talent-spotted to step up their training to lead year groups, and our coaching competence was further developed. What emerged became the coach training system, which became the Leadership Edge 3 tier programme, which we continue to develop and share with other schools in our MAT and beyond. Coaching is seen as inclusive: ‘the way we do things round here’. To be a coach, you have to have a coach – this wasn’t going to change!

In our schools, what do we mean by coaching?

Figure 2 is titled "The coaching spectrum" and shows a list of terms arranged in an ascending order, starting from the bottom left to the top right of the graphic. The terms listed are: "Instruction", "Giving advice", "Offering guidance", "Giving feedback", "Making suggestions", "Asking questions that raise awareness", "Summarising", "Paraphrasing", "Reflecting" and "Listen to understand". Two yellow arrows, one labelled "Non-directive" and pointing upwards, one labelled "directive" and pointing downwards from the centre, categorise these terms.

Figure 2: The coaching spectrum

There continues to be a challenge in the school workplace about what school leaders/teachers understand by the term coaching. The coaching spectrum (Downey, 2004) best illustrates the difference between the four perspectives of coaching used by schools. Mentoring sits in the lower part of the spectrum, as shown in Figure 2, and is frequently described by a school as ‘coaching and mentoring’.

Let’s explore a few:

Instructional/incremental coaching (a directive coaching model) is used to raise attainment in the classroom. Residing primarily in the lower half of the spectrum, the focus is on feedback, advice and instruction. It sits in the school improvement agenda, driven by organisational objectives rather than a focus on personal needs and circumstances. This coaching methodology can be linked to a support plan and can mean that rapid improvement is needed to avoid competency procedures.

Performance coaching is mid-range, similar to the above but with more emphasis on shared dialogue. Professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh (2020), Carol Wilson (2020) and Peter Hawkins (2021) have continued to build on this work in promoting coaching in the workplace that primarily drives performance. Performance coaching is often the model that people think of in relation to sports coaching. The coach is there to improve the performance of the team. Performance coaching has a focus on the workplace, and doesn’t necessarily address the wellbeing needs that people have in order:

  • to be developed in areas of personal strengths or interests
  • to make contributions that align with their personal values
  • to fulfil their personal aspirations.

Pure coaching provides a non-directive model of coaching, one that values both people and results. Each coaching session is purely the agenda of the coachee. Pure coaching maintains a focus on the individual’s wellbeing and specific needs, interests and aspirations. Done well, it often shows an impact on attendance, performance, career development and perceived wellbeing.

Coachees experience a space to think for themselves and explore their current challenges or opportunities, and with their coach holding this space for them, they determine ways of being proactive and taking control over their own thinking and actions, rather than being dominated by the voices of others. The coach facilitates through questioning, and the coachee shapes their own actions going forward, identifying when and how they might achieve their next steps.

Figure 3 expands these models of coaching further.

Figure 3: Overview of different coaching models

Figure 3 is titled "Overview of different coaching models" and shows a table with three columns and three lines on the top of the graphic. The columns are labelled "percent of voice: coachee (yellow) v. coach (grey)", "Who steers the conversation?" and "Leadership Edge call this:". The lines are "Pure coaching", "Performance coaching" and "Instructional/incremental coaching". There are three pie-charts on the bottom of the graphic, displaying the values from column one.

The process of implementing coaching within schools

In implementing coaching across my MAT family of schools, we encountered many now-familiar challenges: a misunderstanding of what coaching is, the prevailing culture in a school, past experiences, money/return on investment and time.

At the start of the first COVID lockdown, we opened up the opportunity for coaching across all nine schools and actively paired coaches and coachees with individuals from different schools. We were conscious of staff wellbeing more than ever and saw pure coaching as providing effective support. The pairings from different schools added another element to our coaching approach. It enabled us to utilise more experienced and accredited coaches from schools while providing inexperienced coachees with a coach who was naturally curious, a crucial element to any effective coaching pair.

Our non-directive coaching took time to embed; it was not a quick fix – no short training course and off you go. It was a slow and steady process of introducing coaching skills, together with personal experience, reflective learning and articulation of the impact. Starting with senior leaders and early adopters in 2016–17, word spread, and in September 2018, by then with a greater capacity of accredited coaches, I opened up the opportunity to have a coach to all staff at East Park, regardless of role. A further 27 staff requested to begin their own coaching journey.

Sessions are held at a mutually convenient time for coach and coachee. Such is the value placed on these sessions, they are seen as win–win, give and take. It is a privilege to coach someone, and staff are appreciative of being coached. The words/phrases that most commonly appear in our testimonials include ‘empowering’, being ‘listened to and heard’ and ‘gaining clarity’. They confirm that staff feel that their wellbeing matters.


Downey M (2003) Effective Coaching. Knutsford: Texere Publishing Ltd.

Hawkins P (2021) Leadership Team Coaching: Developing Collective Transformational Leadership. London: Kogan Page.

International Coaching Federation (ICF) (2019) Updated ICF Core Competencies 2019. Available at: (accessed 9 September 2021).

Reynolds M (2021) Taking your coaching from proficient to profound. 11th World Business and Executive Coaching Summit. Available at: (accessed 9 September 2021).

Rudge J and Guest H (2021) Pure Coaching. Compass Publishing UK.

Sinyan P and Nink M (2021) How European Companies can fix their workplaces. Gallup, 15 June, 21. Available at: (accessed 9 September 2021).

Van Nieuwerburgh C (2020) An Introduction to Coaching Skills: A Practical Guide. London: SAGE Publications.

Vermeulen A (2021) Coaching with Neuroscience. 11th World Business and Executive Coaching Summit. Available at: (accessed 9 September 2021).

Weale S (2021) One in three teachers plan to quit, says National Education Union survey. Te Guardian, 8 April, 21. Available at: (accessed 3 July 2021).

Wilson C (2020) Performance Coaching. London: Kogan Page.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas