Educational leadership & learning

This book about Primary Headship by Bill Laar (2014) made a fascinating read for me at the start of my third year of headship, and still being early on in my professional learning and development journey. I found it particularly interesting to read the number of case studies of successful heads, who had thrived in their complex roles: journeys that were inspiring, strategic, driven and innovative. Whilst there were differences in context, size of school, leadership style and approaches to the schools’ development, there were also a clear number of common threads. I have summarised some of the main points / messages from the book in the sections below.


“Recent educational reforms have called for a radically different type of leadership: visionary and innovative, intellectually rigorous and enquiring, analytical and evaluative, competent in the management of the complex business of institutions, creative in the professional development of personnel, outward-looking and active in the making of professional networks”


Characteristics of exceptional Primary Leaders

  • Forward-looking and an inspirational vision of schools with the potential to instil in the children a positive concept of themselves and a belief in their ability to flourish in the world
  • Effective management of teaching and learning which enriches and transforms learners
  • Creative professional development of staff which improves teaching and learning
  • Innovative curricular design and provision
  • Strong partnerships with parents and the wider community
  • Courage, self-belief, determination and tenacity
  • Sharply aware of the growing complexity and demanding diversity of the role
  • Highly intelligent, sharply analytical, with the capacity to evaluate and understand the significance of information and data
  • Effectively distribute school leadership
  • Motivate staff, maintain moral, exploit capacity and provide high quality working conditions
  • Independent thinkers, wary of official dictat, open-minded, flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances
  • Self-aware, self-critical, rigorous, thoughtful, reflective and introspective
  • Ready to investigate and study innovation and development elsewhere
  • Remaining dedicated teachers at heart, emphasising the centrality of teaching and learning
  • Driven people with a consuming belief in the value and importance of their role and school
  • Humanity, optimism, compassion and belief in others


Headship and Leadership

  • Committed to developing children into assured, accomplished and positive social beings, constantly learning and achieving
  • Create, articulate and engage others in a guiding vision which ahs been profoundly considered, wisely informed and gives an inspirational view of the purpose and mission of the school
  • Be inventive, at the cutting edge of things, leading a team to search for, evaluate and try out the new
  • Binding staff together in a shared purpose, and regard their calling and work as a form of sacred trust
  • Transformational leaders: moving a school forward to be the best it can be, fully serving the interests of the pupils, through the shared endeavours of individuals
  • Welcoming and encouraging professional debate, constructive criticism and evaluation: creates a climate of reflection, celebration of achievements and treats setbacks as momentum for fresh endeavours
  • Calls for a firm sense of purpose, dedication, self-awareness, and a readiness to seek out advice and to learn from others’ practice
  • Importance of positive leadership. Working alongside people, identifying their skills and capabilities and building on them.
  • High expectations and refusal to accept anything less than the best
  • Putting together a strong team, committed to the success of the school, rich in potential, eager to learn and advance their professional development
  • The role and genius of the effective head lies in their ability to draw together staff in the creative enterprise of providing effective education
  • “The leader and staff of a new school must create their own history, culture, climate and vibe, and this is extremely hard and challenging work. There is no place for the faint-hearted”
  • “You are not paid to run a commentary on the disasters and tribulations visited on your school. You are paid to change it”
  • “Leadership is about identifying what it is you need to get done, identifying the best people to get it done, putting in the resources that will help them get all the systems in place to enable them to achieve the targets, empowering them to get on and do it, but coming back to make sure they are still on focus.”
  • “Leaders must have the conviction and determination to do what has to be done, based on hard, strenuous, mature reflection and judgement, for the good of the school and the betterment of the children.”
  • “We must be constantly about self-improvement. That must be the purpose that drives us – that inspires us”
  • “There are times, when in the face of hostile opposition, your convictions can waver…but that cannot be the way of Headship. You must remain true to your vision and beliefs, even if that may be personally bruising at times”
  • “Mastering leadership only comes over time, from reflection and response to practical experience, from a readiness to learn from mistakes and setbacks, from a commitment to collaborative professional endeavour, and from a learning disposition in a school that is a thinking organisation”
  • “I am a great and unremitting enthusiast for the school”
  • “A major part of headship is facilitating expertise and creating the circumstances, conditions and support so that highly skilled professional teachers can exercise their craft to the very best of their ability”
  • “The truly hard part is recognising destructive dissent, negative behaviour, unprofessional conduct and then dealing with it. This aspect can make headship an isolated and lonely occupation”
  • “One of the most critical challenges to leadership is persuading staff to embrace your vision, especially where there is a need for substantial change or where staff are resolutely resistant or ill-equipped to manage new directions”


Teaching and Learning

  • Having gifted teachers in an enriched school context, providing memorable learning experiences, is more likely to produce enduring and worthwhile consequences than having excessive testing, unremitting evaluation, and a narrowly focused curriculum
  • Schools are committed to ensuring that every pupil reaches and maintains the highest academic attainment possible
  • Help children to become reflective, self-aware, resourceful people, at peace with themselves; able to communicate with, relate to and get on with others
  • Imbuing children with a passion for learning and life
  • High quality teaching without exception
  • High expectations that provide worthwhile, appropriate and differentiated challenge for learners
  • An emphasis on meta-learning, which enables pupils to make sense of their experience of learning and to take increasing control over its planning, monitoring and regulation
  • A climate and systems conducive to learning
  • Want teachers who are flexible, adaptable, creative in their thinking, passionate and enthusiastic in all that they do
  • “Teaching has become more complex and challenging and only practitioners of the highest quality will serve”
  • “Charismatic, hard-working, organised and intelligent people can inspire children to enjoy learning and achievement”
  • “Meta-cognition – the capacity to examine one’s own learning, to identify what makes it effective, to master the strategies that underpin it – is absolutely essential to the effective learner


Continuing Professional Development

  • They see the school as a place of learning for all, with teachers permanently involved in the learning process themselves
  • The importance of ensuring all staff have a profound understanding of primary education
  • Learning and instruction-centred leadership can provide powerful structures to support, develop and enhance professional capacity
  • Teachers need to be perennial learners, continually trying things out and reflecting on what they are doing and its outcomes for the children’s learning
  • Empowering staff to feel capable of taking on new challenges and to benefit professionally from every experience so that they are constantly learning, growing and developing
  • Coaching in classrooms encourages a sense of partnership and mutual evaluation
  • Actively nurture the leadership capacity of staff
  • People only learn leadership by actually leading, by seeing duties, tasks and enterprises through to successful conclusions
  • Performance Management is rigorous, robust and linked to learning
  • A culture of shared learning and team commitment
  • A highly informed understanding of what makes for effective learning, derived from constant observation, analysis and classroom based research
  • Heads should spend a major part of their time in classrooms, mentoring and supporting the teaching and learning
  • The development, support and advancement of staff needs to be a priority in a ‘training’ school
  • “The development and training of teachers is inescapably one of the most important functions of headship”


Assessment, Monitoring and Evaluation

  • Assessment is at the heart of good teaching and successful learning
  • If teachers are to provide effectively for continuing progress and achievement they have to be minutely informed about the stages of pupils’ learning. Data from systematic tracking and assessment is essential, as it provides critical feedback and commentary, for both teachers and pupils
  • Formative assessment is central to the teaching and the children’s learning
  • An understanding of how to establish, maintain and learn from reliable and rigorous systems of evaluation
  • A precise knowledge of how each child is doing and what each child needs. A high value is placed on intelligence about the child’s performance, aptitudes, strengths and learning needs
  • Committed to the effective management of rigorous assessment and evaluation
  • The capacity to access, analyse and interpret relevant and important data and use it for the benefit of the school as a learning institution
  • Evaluation systems focus on the quality and effectiveness of teaching and its impact on the work and outcomes of learners
  • “It’s about peer assessment, self-assessment, defining clear success criteria, understanding the purpose of what you are teaching, teaching the children to be assessors and evaluators of their work, attainment and progress.”


Curriculum and Environment

  • The quality of the curriculum is one of the major determinants of a school’s worth
  • Offer the children a rich, highly relevant and up-to-date curriculum, a stimulating and enticing environment, and diverse opportunities for learning
  • The school environment should be an irresistible stimulus to curiosity, exploration, experimentation and constant learning
  • “A significant part of learning is dependent upon experience…a broad, enriching and inspiring curriculum is more likely to help pupils attain and achieve, particularly in those core areas”
  • We have a curriculum designed to stimulate the children’s imagination and curiosity by engaging them in programmes of practical, relevant and challenging activities…we pay equal attention to getting the basic curriculum right and ensuring its relevance and value to the need of learners of all abilities”


Partnerships with parents and the community

  • Relations with parents are crucial to the successful education of their children
  • “School must have a social conscience, and be organisations that are able and ready to contribute to the wider community”



  • Policy is formulated and implemented, so that accountability is expressed in a formal and methodical way
  • Being wholly transparent and open to governors’ evaluation


“Primary Heads. Exceptional Leadership in the Primary School” by Bill Laar is published by Crown House Publishing Limited (2014)


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