David Jackson



“Leaders have to be engaged at the heart level in order to be courageous champions.”

Margaret Wheatley


There are many definitions of leadership and maxims about it, so for this piece I’m going to appropriate one or two. Why? Because what we perceive leadership to be, inevitably conditions how we believe it should be enacted.


What does it mean to lead?

For those of us who lead in the professional context of education, I see it as being a pretty high calling. It is not a position or a status; it is a role bestowed upon us by those who entrust their custodianship (trustees or governors) and followership (staff and parents) upon us. Ultimately, therefore, it is something earned by the quality and integrity of our enacted leadership. It’s not a role thing or a position thing. It’s a lived thing.

What that means, in practice, is that a group of professionals, whose values have called them to work in school (because they are passionate to be in the changing lives business), entrust their experience to the leadership of the headteacher. The fulfilment of their mission is largely dependent upon the degree to which it is enabled by the leader of their school.

So far so good!

My belief is that we have lost the boldness of that calling. That leadership in schools is too much about managing the public accountability context. That we have sidelined our values. That too many leaders have such fear for their jobs that they compromise on what they truly believe. That we are selling short those professionals who passionately care – and in so doing diminishing ourselves and the educational mission.

That we need more courageous leadership.

Integrity, vision and hope

So, let’s take a few loosely attributed quotes about leadership:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity”

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way”

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality”

“Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration”

“A leader is a dealer in hope. Where there is no vision, there is no hope”

These are variously from Warren Bennis, Dwight Eisenhower, John Maxwell, Robin Sharma, Peter Drucker and Napoleon Bonaparte. Great leadership has both a moral compass – it stands for something that really matters – and it has vision. The two are linked, because people get inspired by the moral foundation of leadership as it forms itself into narratives and images that cohere into a vision of what is possible.  Good leaders are storytellers and vision shapers.

It is not the task here to portray the vision for schools – that’s what leaders do. A vision is categorically, though, not “outstanding in our next Ofsted”, or “improving our Key Stage 2 or Key Stage 4 results”, or “getting the borderline candidates over the bar”, or “managing our admissions so that we protect our results”.

It is much more likely to be housed in an ambition for the role of the school in enriching and deepening the experience for the local community; or in transforming the life chances for all learners (but in particular the most vulnerable and underserved); or in liberating the agency of all in the school – adults and young people – around serving one another and the world. These are higher order ambitions than Ofsted grades, and they are examples of the stuff of leadership.

And too many of our school leaders seem to have lost their way, their nerve or their perspective of the leader they really want to be.

Inspiring and leading through others

Time for a few quotes again…

“Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better”

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers”

“Leadership is infinite. Great leaders draw from a seemingly bottomless well”

And, differently…

“We have been assigned this mountain to show others that it can be moved”

These are variously from Stephen Covey, Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and ‘anonymous’. The bottom line is that what they all say, in one form or another, is that great leaders in pursuit of bold goals create shared enterprise, liberate potential, ignite the flame of passion in others and build leadership capacity – the irresistible capacity to move mountains together.

Some years ago a school leader friend, Chris Cotton, and I wrote a published piece together that we called “The Spaces Between the Pebbles in a Jar”. Basically, he provided the metaphor and I wrote the piece, but his was the more profound contribution. Chris’ thesis was that leadership is not enshrined in structure, position or power relationships. Instead, it is a variable and fluid capacity, and it flows within and beyond an organization – it fills the spaces between the pebbles.

For the leader, this is a creative challenge. One of the myths of what we have come to call ‘distributed leadership’ is that it equates with delegation and is bestowed ‘down’ an organisation. It doesn’t. Delegation is a manifestation of power relationships. Expanding the flow of leadership is about empowerment – opportunity, space, support, capacity and growth. Jobs and tasks are ‘delegated’ (passed down a managerial structure) but leadership is liberated and allowed to find its own space.

Such fluid leadership opportunities not only liberate leadership, they are emancipatory for the person in the professional. Those who work in schools give of who they are as well as what they do. The release and expression of potential through leadership creates the context for both personal and professional fulfilment. Leading the growth of leadership capacity is thus intensely human and social, an emotionally intelligent activity.

Leadership as described above is an infinite, not a finite thing. Leaders can grow it within their organisations and they do so by inviting people into the spaces so they can achieve great things. As Linda Lambert says, ‘everyone has both the potential and the entitlement to contribute towards leadership’. In so doing we ennoble the educational enterprise and fulfil those we work with. And boy does our profession need some of that currently!

But there is another essential piece to this section. How the hell, in the current context, do you create schools that feel and function like this? It may sound good, but heads have to live in the real world. True. But we live in the real world that we create. We can be victims of the wider context or we can be the creative designers of our own reality.

Some years ago, in the 1990s, Joseph Murphy acted as an evaluator in the States for some of the country’s most ambitious schools – those within the New American Schools programme. As one outcome of that, he wrote a book on the modern principalship in which he constructed a set of alternative contemporary metaphors for school leadership. They have been adapted a little for this piece, but the essence of Murphy’s metaphors survive:

New Metaphors for School Leadership

School leader as shaper of culture

…. as moral agent

…. as organisational architect

…. as social architect

…. as educator

…. as advocate for children

…. as community builder

…. as servant

…. as leadership capacity creator

All of which – holding onto a bold vision and liberating the capacity to achieve it – takes us to the final section, turning all this into action.

Turning vision into action

Re-imaginer and re-designer – the moral purpose                                                                                                           
There is a legitimate image of the education system as being a form of UK Education PLC. Effectively, then, a corporately run enterprise with 24,000 local branches, much like a major bank, or supermarket chain, or Starbucks; each school compliant to the corporate design, values and operational procedures. In such a vision of the world, national policy dictats, Ofsted inspections and the public accountability expectations are the means to keep the system compliant and relatively standardized.

In such a world, school leaders are primarily the intermediate managers ensuring the ship runs efficiently and effectively within these corporate parameters. Managers first, leaders second.

Yet there is another view. This one says that there is no desire to standardize the system. In fact, it says, the whole thrust of policy has been to liberate schools to create their own unique ethos and design consistent with the local context and the ambitions of the school leader and the community (school and local). It says that UK headteachers have been given unprecedented freedoms and autonomy and that the only checks and balances (other than fiscal probity) sit with the public accountability expectations applied to all schools, and the Ofsted framework – and that these are as constraining or as liberating as each leader chooses to fashion them.

It will be obvious which of these world views I favour. But this second scenario doesn’t go far enough. There are two further dimensions of this leadership freedom beyond having the creative opportunity to lead as we might wish.

The first involves reimagining the school; the second reimagining the system.

Reimagining ‘school’

‘School leader as moral agent and organisational architect’ obviously means shaper of the design, creator of enabling conditions, entrepreneur of time and space. But there is a broader and bolder sense in which this is true.

Our model of schooling is more than 100 years old and it is way out of date. The rest of society – our industrial practices, technology, the media we use, our leisure activities, communication systems – has undergone a revolution. There has been a similar revolution in our approaches to adult education. For example, since the 1960s, the Open University has demonstrated that virtually every adult is capable of degree level study, given the right learning approaches and modes of assessment. More than 3 million people, most failed by their schooling, have now passed OU degrees. By contrast, our schools have hardly changed at all.

And yet this highly durable school model has singularly failed to achieve equitable outcomes, or to address socio-economic disadvantage, or to fully engage most learners. More profoundly, it has failed to equip all learners with a graduation entitlement of positive self-esteem, an affirming portfolio and a desire to continue learning throughout life. It has also notably failed to provide teachers with an intellectually and emotionally challenging and fulfilling professional context, or actively involved parents in the learning experiences of their children. And all this should not be a big ask – it should be the purpose of school; a moral entitlement for all.

The original purpose of school – designed to sort and sift, to separate sheep and goats – is now redundant. We need 100% of students to be skilled and capable citizens able to contribute positive agency to both their economic and social world.

Our UK government (and others around the world) are still flogging the dead horse of the out of date school model, when it is patently incapable of responding to the challenges set out above. And it isn’t the fault of the students (many of whom go on in adulthood to achieve remarkably beyond their schools’ predictions). It is the fault of the model of schooling – and no amount of Ofsted inspection, or examination rigour and reform, or teacher performance management, can make an out-of-date model fit for our times.

So what exactly is so wrong with this particular dead horse? Well, we have lived with the badly-functioning model of schooling for so long that we rarely ask ourselves obvious, glaring questions, like:

  • Why have we retained so exclusively the subject-based curriculum, when no tasks in the real world segregate knowledge or its applications in that way?
  • Why do we assess all students at the same time, rather when they are ready to demonstrate mastery (think music grades, or driving test, or sports coaching awards, or Open University modules, or PhD dissertations)?
  • Why do we still have rigid age-cohorting? It certainly isn’t because we believe that all students mature and progress at the same rates. Watch rehearsals for a school production or a concert if you wonder about mixed-age learning.
  • Why are schools designed into corridors and classroom spaces – such that it makes teaching the most isolated and un-stimulating of professional practices?
  • Why do most schools set ‘homework’, when they already have students in school for 35 hours a week – and when the world outside school is rich in opportunities for self-initiated learning?
  • Why do most schools have 25 one-hour lessons – when nobody can believe that it is a unit that is enabling of deep or applied learning?
  • Why is the assessment outcome that matters still an exam written by pen on paper and marked by anonymous paid markers – when teachers know students and their capabilities from five years of engagement with them?
  • Does speaking matter? Do so-called hard skills matter? Do so-called soft skills? Does making and doing matter? If so, why are none of these things given higher currency?
  • Why do we persist with the corrosive language and practice of ‘ability’ groupings? Schools are the only places where it is deemed appropriate to classify people as ‘low ability’ or ‘less able’.
  • And… given that schools are centres of learning, why are the adult learning norms and practices in many of our schools so poor?

Some of the most innovative, future-focused schools in the US – including High Tech High, Big Picture Learning and New Tech Network – asked themselves these questions and created alternative school models that share the following characteristics:

All include interdisciplinary and applied learning (project-based learning; ‘maker’ assignments; real world tasks; internships) – some engaging and empowering pedagogical model which, not incidentally, requires teachers to collaborate as designers and facilitators.

All focus on the centrality of relationships – they have ‘advisory’, where advisory is viewed as ‘the soul of the school’, embodying support for students as higher order than teaching curriculum.

All have powerful and sustained and participative adult learning norms that model the learning practices undertaken with students.

All have pervasive cultural identity and school-level ownership of what matters – including what is assessed, and how and by whom it is assessed.

Reimagining ‘system’ – educational above institutional leadership

A few years ago, I presented at a headteachers’ workshop in a challenging northern city. They were frustrated about perceived imperfections in the Local Authority and the subsequently contracted private sector delivery organisation. I presented to them an outline of how a system might function collaboratively and collegially; could unite around some shared principles; agree policy and strategy together; deploy expertise across schools; differentiate resources and personnel to places of most need; learn from, with and on behalf of one another. We walked through the dynamics of a collegiate and collaborative system aligned around collective responsibility for all children.

When I asked whether they wanted their system to be more like that they were confounded. They would, of course, but they couldn’t imagine how it could be made to happen – from where the leadership would come. My response was to point out that the educational leadership in that city was gathered in the room. Where else was the leadership to come? It just needed to be translated from institutional concerns to higher order collegial educational concerns – a shared commitment to the success of every child in the city.

It just needed, in fact, some leaders to step up with a bold and compelling vision of what was possible and an invitational offer for others to engage in active and participatory and collectively courageous followership. And some of them did just that.

Our UK system is in flux. There has never been such a rich opportunity for school leaders to take hold of the agenda and reimagine what is possible across a local system of schools.

It starts, of course, with those of us privileged to lead getting in touch again with our true passions as our first priority – to be “engaged at the heart level” as Margaret Wheatley says – so that we can lead without fear.


David Jackson has expertise in education, leadership, organization and system change. David was headteacher of Sharnbrook Upper School and Community College for 14 years. Subsequently, he was appointed a founding director at the National College for School Leadership. He has taught on Leadership Masters programmes at Cambridge and Nottingham universities and worked on school and system change initiatives in a number of countries. Since 2010 David has been a Senior Associate at the UK’s Innovation Unit where he has supported: Learning Futures, Global Education Leaders, New York City’s iZone and Australia’s Learning Frontiers initiatives. Most recently David has been working to establish ExL Trust – a Multi Academy Trust of new school models.