The domain of senior leadership (II)

Following on from two posts here and here in which I made a case for the importance of leadership knowledge, and against the idea of generic leadership competencies, this series of posts will explore the parameters of a domain of knowledge to be developed by all school senior leaders. Part 1 can be found here.


Part 2: The common ground of school leadership (in which I speculate as to the domain of expertise which all senior leaders must develop)

Senior leaders in schools have quite specific roles, whether leading on the curriculum, teaching and learning, pastoral system or CPD. These roles are overlapping and interdependent (as discussed in Part 1 of this series of posts) and, if the senior leadership team structure is designed well, will be complementary and lead to the outward appearance of a joined-up, ‘team’ approach to running the school.

However, whilst we often consider senior leaders to ‘do different jobs’, there are actually a significant range of shared roles which most senior leaders will be expected to carry out. As well as developing expertise in relation to the specialist aspects of their job description which they are solely responsible for, senior leaders will also need to attend to a common set of responsibilities. Let’s consider what these might be (in a secondary school context in particular) and the challenges in carrying out these duties.

Developing the ethos and culture of the school

Senior leaders will set the tone for a school through the way they behave in specific circumstances. Ethos is fractal, by which I mean the same patterns can be observed in how humans interact with each other at the macro and micro level. For example, if teachers and students take turns in speaking and do not talk over the top of each other in every day conversations, this behaviour will likely be observed in lessons or large assemblies also. Such expectations can be reinforced through routines for entering assembly or rewards and sanctions in the classroom, but also, and possibly more profoundly, through the multitude of interactions which happen every day between people across the school. Senior leaders model what is desirable and acceptable, both through their interactions with other staff and with students. Others will take their cue from leaders and learn the unwritten rules of behaviour. It is in this way that you end up with, for example, ‘shouty schools’ (watch for the raised voice by the headteacher in a meeting where things aren’t going his/her way – such behaviour becomes normalised).

The micro-interactions involving senior leaders are to some extent predictable and can be categorised. For example, when it comes to the duty of enforcing positive behaviour around the school, the senior leader will find themselves repeating similar behaviour and dialogue. I wrote about this here in relation to what I called ‘stop and shirts’ interaction.

The question arises as to the importance of all senior leaders adopting similar patterns of behaviour and dialogue in the micro-interactions. Whilst there is room for individualism, there is a need for a strong ‘House Style’ i.e. consistency between all senior leaders. The argument for such a House Style when it comes to behaviour is that students will be treated consistently and expectations will be clear and unambiguous. If students know they will never walk past a senior leader without having a uniform transgression addressed (and over time this modelling and consistency should promote other staff to challenge consistently also) then they will conform to these expectations more readily; increasingly without prompting or annoyance at being picked up for transgressing the rules. However, a House Style to interactions between senior leaders and staff is also important. These interactions will be less predictable and therefore can not be codified as an exchange, but senior teams can adopt a consistent approach which may include a ‘door always open’ policy, a calm and constructive approach, and caution over offering to take on problems which should rightly be dealt with by the member of staff. A consistent approach will model how staff are expected to behave towards each other, setting norms of behaviour for working relationships. It will also help avoid imbalances occurring in who staff go to when they have a concern or problem. It is human nature that we will tend to approach the senior leader who is available, listens, asks the right questions and shows empathy. We may also be tempted to approach the leader whom we know will take the problem away from us or go against the decision of their colleague whose answer we didn’t like. Inconsistency can therefore cause imbalances in workload and also encourage staff to play off senior leaders against each other to get the outcome they want. A House Style for senior leader interactions is therefore necessary and desirable.

How is such a House Style for interactions created? To some extent you will be dependent on the personality traits of those in post and the extent to which they observe and adjust their approach to fit in. An astute leader will pay attention to the social context and to the behaviour of others, adjusting their approach to be complementary and adopting effective behaviours. However, this process should not be left to chance. The headteacher, or senior team collectively, should consider what culture they wish to create and how their everyday interactions will contribute to this. The headteacher can observe and nudge when senior leaders step outside this House Style, for example if a member of the team is working behind a closed door too much rather than getting out and about around the school. It is important not to stifle the individual’s style or undermine their autonomy in carrying out their responsibilities, but there must be a degree of consistency in approach in how senior leaders interact with other members of the school community. An inconsistent approach will lead to an inconsistent culture, one where ‘anything goes’.

The senior team can and should be even more specific about the regular routines of school life e.g. how assemblies run, how students move between classes and queuing systems at break and lunch. This is a simpler task than that of setting our expectations for everyday interactions, therefore there should be no excuse for inconsistency. School cultures are molded by the deliberate actions of senior leaders and developing expertise in this domain is essential.

Dealing with extreme behaviour and situations

When things get out of control, they usually end up at the door of a senior leader. Such instances will often involve extreme behaviour and emotions. For example, the parent who feels that their concerns have not been adequately addressed and is at the end of their tether with the school, the student in isolation whose behaviour has become so extreme that it is no longer possible to ensure their safety (or perhaps the safety of others), or the member of staff at breaking point. Knowing what to do when no-one else knows what to do is part of the domain of senior leadership.

Whilst the response to extreme emotions and behaviour will depend greatly on the individual’s ability to remain calm, think clearly and take decisive action, there is a body of tacit knowledge which is being drawn upon during such high-stress moments. The senior leader will be referencing other such experiences to help establish what might be effective and what risks need to be considered. They may also be referencing knowledge acquired through training, for example on de-escalation techniques, physical restraint or conflict management.

Within the senior leader’s remit will also be medical emergencies and critical incidents. Fortunately such things are not frequent, but they will occur and senior leaders will be making quick decisions of high consequence. The knowledge base will include understanding of lock-down procedures, critical incident plan and evacuation procedures.

Line management and curriculum leadership

Managing middle leaders is a duty which relates mostly to the individual responsibilities held by a senior leader. For example, the Curriculum Deputy may line manage the Exams Officer. In line with my rejection of generic leadership competencies, I contend that the effective performance of such roles is fundamentally dependent on knowledge of the aspect of the school’s activities in question. Therefore, in the example of line managing the Exams Officer, the senior leader must develop a sufficient level of knowledge about what this role entails in order to ‘line manage’ them effectively i.e. provide support and hold them to account.

A particular challenge for school leaders in this regard is the duty held by most senior leaders of line managing subject departments. This role falls outside of the individual remit of most senior leaders and is often treated as a shared responsibility across the team. So, for example, a pastoral leader may be asked to line manage one or more subject departments. The challenge is greater if, as stated previously, the postholder has not themselves been a Head of Department/Faculty. Even more problematic is the task of line managing a department for which you have no subject expertise.

Christine Counsell explains this challenge here. In her blog, she sets out why she believes curriculum leadership should be the concern of all senior leaders, and what challenges this presents. She states:

“Where SLTs have tried to reach into pedagogy with generic strategies that fail to attend to subject distinctiveness, all manner of distortions have occurred. In tackling the ‘how’ (teaching and learning) and in attempting to judge its efficacy (progress, assessment, data, outcomes), if we ignore ‘what?’ is being learned, we risk damaging so much else that school leadership and management ought to foster.”

Christine’s argument goes beyond the case for senior leaders requiring deep knowledge about subject domains because they line manage them. She points to the ‘distortions’ which have occurred due to the generic strategies employed by senior leaders in various roles, thereby making the case that ‘senior curriculum leadership is the whole SLT’s business’. This is a significant challenge for senior leaders in schools, and we are yet to establish the depth of knowledge which might reasonably be required or bow senior leaders should go about this task; what questions do we even ask? As momentum gains around the importance of curriculum in school effectiveness, we will begin to develop a shared vocabulary and analytical framework which allows us to explore the differences between subject domains, and over time we might better understand what effective senior curriculum leadership looks like.


Already we see that the general roles of senior leaders in schools are extensive and require considerable expertise to carry out effectively. I have only covered three areas and have neglected others such as staff conduct and capability, delivering training, and chairing meetings and events. Each aspect discussed above can also be sub-divided and compartmentalised, and we begin to see what a ‘curriculum’ for senior leadership might look like (and we haven’t even begun to examine the specific roles and responsibilities different members of the team hold).

Setting out the domain of senior leadership in this way highlights how nonsensical the concept of generic skills is. Let’s take ‘decision making’ as an example. Within all of the context described above, decision making will be necessary. But we cannot possibly separate the decisions which need to be made from the specific circumstance within which they are being made, nor imagine that the ability to make a good decision in one circumstance may somehow confer advantage when we come to make a decision in another. For example, through experience we may have developed the ability to de-escalate situations where students are particularly angry and upset to prevent them doing damage to themselves, property or others. Our decisions will be around the tone of voice we use, what we say, how we position ourselves in relation to the student, our posture and body language. We will also draw on our knowledge of the child, what triggers their outburst, who they relate to and what has worked previously in calming them. The quality of our decisions in such an instance will depend on our knowledge, explicit and tacit, of the student, the situation and of similar situations in our experience. In a different context, we may make decisions about whether to offer advice to a Head of Department who is struggling to improve student progress in their department. This decision will require us to weigh up what we know about the model of progression in the subject, the levers which might be used to improve progress and the liklihood of success of particular strategies. We will also draw upon our knowledge of the middle leader, there likely response to our intervention and ability to solve this problem themselves, given enough time. These vastly different scenarios illustrate that ‘decision making’ cannot be a skill we possess independent of the specific context within which we make the decision. In what sense could we hope to transfer abilities from one context to another?

If we are to become better leaders we must be precise about what we are to become better at. It is manifestly insufficient to say we wish to be better decision makers, better at problem solving, better at managing people or better at holding others to account. These are hollow goals, not worthy of our consideration. Instead, we should set our goals in relation to specific aspects of our jobs and the concrete knowledge which will underpin any improvement in the execution of our duties. Only then can we set about acquiring the expertise we need to deliver what is required of us.


In Part 3, I will consider how leaders develop expertise and make the case that this begins by attending to knowledge.



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