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What Makes an Effective Headteacher?

If we consider the characteristics of an effective school, an effective headteacher is going to be the one who ensures that all this happens. What Makes an Effective Headteacher? The National Standards for Headteachers, however, identify the role more widely as:

If we consider the characteristics of an effective school, an effective headteacher is going to be the one who ensures that all this happens.

What Makes an Effective Headteacher?

The National Standards for Headteachers, however, identify the role more widely as:

  • Shaping the future
  • Leading learning and teaching
  • Developing self and working with others
  • Managing the organisation
  • Securing accountability
  • Strengthening community

It comments that ‘effective headteachers are responsive to the context of the school and maintain an overview that integrates their work into a coherent whole’ (National Standards for Headteachers, 2020).

One might feel some concern that teaching and learning feature only as one item in the middle of the list, but there is no doubt that, over the past few years, learning-centred leadership has figured increasingly prominently in the minds of educational researchers and government ministers alike.

The Case for Learning-Centred Leadership

Barber (2010) quotes an American principal as saying, ‘The job used to be bells, buildings, budget, buses; now the pendulum has swung to instructional leadership.’

Long may it stay swung – but there are, as there always are in education, siren voices calling us more or less insistently towards the rocks.

In their 2008 review of what is known about effective school leadership, Peter Lewis and Roger Murphy presented the case for learning-centred leadership clearly and persuasively. Then, having examined these critical core practices and stressed their fundamental importance, they noted that new policy agendas were drawing heads into other tasks that could only be possible if other people ‘get on with the important everyday business of raising standards and solving problems.’

And what were these even more important ‘other tasks’? In 2008, there was quite a number. The Extended Schools and Every Child Matters agendas, for example, involved:

  • Offering support services and additional learning opportunities to families
  • Providing additional services and access to the wider community
  • Developing federations
  • Being an active partner in children’s trusts
  • Helping to define the priorities for their local area and planning and delivering a whole pattern of services that together meet community need
  • The need to learn much from managers in other public services (skills which push leaders out beyond learning-centred leadership: navigating national, local and community politics)
  • Securing staff buy-in and removing possible hostility… by articulating a vision which links these new arrangements with staff concerns about children’s learning and the standards agenda.
Extended Schools Programme 2010: Every Child Matters Green Paper (2003)

Lewis and Murphy went on to discuss further educational policy initiatives which might have a bearing on effective school leadership (the 14-19 Agenda, Building Schools for the Future and the Sustainable Schools programme). Not surprisingly (but outrageously), by the end of the review, Lewis and Murphy were expressing their doubts about the importance of learning-centred leadership in the light of this new, wider vision of the school’s role.

Times have, of course, changed greatly since those long-off days of 2008, but never underestimate the capacity of politicians for interfering in education to severely damaging effect.

Opposition to Effective School Leadership Practice

Actual opposition to effective leadership practices is most likely to arise when an interest group (teachers, presumably) has powerful allies on the governing body through personal friendship, political, masonic or club solidarity, networking, and so on.

Obstruction usually comes in a way that has more in common with the situation in state schools – simply by the head being kept so busy doing other things that there is little time or energy available for the most important activities involved in educational leadership.

Distractions to Effective School Leadership

Independent heads are inevitably vulnerable in this regard because of their position in the marketplace: PR and marketing make major, inescapable demands on their time; the need to be competitive in terms of facilities can pull them into an endless loop of fundraising and building projects.

Educationally inappropriate interventions from the school’s owners or governors can exacerbate things greatly, however. And bizarrely, this often happens in the name of ‘good business practice’. The authoritarian leadership approach is alive and well and living in certain parts of the independent sector, and if some of these requirements fly in the face of good leadership practice then the leader’s task becomes very difficult indeed.

How to Ensure That Teaching and Learning Flourish Despite Challenges

Here’s how it’s expressed by MacBeath and Dempster (2008):

  • Focus insistently on teaching and learning.
  • Create an appropriate environment for learning (in physical and school cultural terms) within which the headteacher provides an intellectual stimulus regarding teaching and learning.
  • Foster dialogue about learning.
  • Bring others on board.
  • Ensure internal and external accountability for results.

(And, of course, none of this is possible without an effective system of performance management.)

Amid all the busyness and deadlines and tensions and crises and human interactions that constitute the day-to-day life of a head, this remains the central task.


Barber, M., Whelan, F., & Clark, M. (2010). Capturing the leadership potential: How the worlds top school systems are building leadership capacity for the future. McKinsey & Company

HM Government. (2006). Extended School’s Programme. GOV.UK. Web link

HM Government. (2003). Every Child Matters. GOV.UK. Web link

Lewis, P., & Murphy, R. (2008). Review of the landscape: Leadership and leadership development. National College for School Leadership

MacBeath, J., & Dempster, N., (2008). Connecting leadership and learning: Principles for Practice. Taylor & Francis

MacBeath, M., & Mortimore, P., (2001).Improving School Effectiveness. Open University Press

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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