Sustainable school leadership: comparing approaches to the training, supply and retention of senior school leaders across the UK

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Education


Senior leaders in primary and secondary schools across the UK play an essential role in shaping educational experiences and outcomes for children, particularly in the most challenging communities. These leaders are teachers themselves and also influence working conditions - and thus training and retention - for wider teachers and staff in schools.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were concerns that many existing leaders are leaving the profession early, while potential future leaders often choose not to apply for headship, due to the pressures and workloads involved. The pandemic has exacerbated these pressures, raising the risk of a headteacher succession crisis. Furthermore, there are challenges in terms of diversity, with certain groups of leaders facing additional barriers to promotion, while schools in the most challenging contexts often face increased recruitment challenges.

Policy makers across the UK have prioritised actions to enhance the supply, quality and diversity of senior school leaders. These approaches reflect a wider global trend towards defining and promoting a singular interpretation of 'effective' leadership, for example through national headteacher standards and training programmes. But these national frameworks can be problematic, given that individual, school and local needs differ widely.

This study will develop a deeper understanding of approaches to the training, supply and retention of senior school leaders - in particular headteachers - for primary and secondary schools in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and will offer a vision for where and how these approaches can be enhanced.

The research questions are:
1. How do England, Scotland and Northern Ireland recruit, train and retain school leaders?
2. How well do these approaches take account of individual, local and systemic needs, in particular in relation to the sustainability of leadership supply, its diversity, equity, quality and fitness for the future?

The mixed methods comparative study will include:
i. a review of international literature and practice on senior school leadership development
ii. interviews with policy makers and leadership development experts from education and wider sectors
iii. development of an original theoretical frame which draws together work on individual biography, school and wider policy contexts, with understandings of how these are shaped across diverse place-based contexts
iv. research into existing approaches to leadership development in each nation, including through: documentary analysis to assess current policy and practice; secondary analysis of existing datasets to examine the composition of the leadership workforce, how participation in national training programmes is associated with outcomes of interest, and patterns of recruitment and retention for headteachers; place-based case studies, involving interviews with leadership development providers and employers, interviews and focus groups with aspiring and serving headteachers, and observations of leadership development events; and national surveys of school leaders, with responses linked to secondary datasets where possible.
v. comparative analysis which allows us to refine our theoretical framework and address the research questions.

In Wales we will undertake interviews, a national survey and hold a policy seminar, building on an ongoing national review.

We will work with key stakeholders throughout the study, including through three national expert advisory groups, to inform the research and to identify implications and practical recommendations for future development. Building on these relationships we will publish and disseminate the findings and recommendations to research, policy and practice audiences and will work to secure impact. This will include the development of web-based tools and resources that can be used to enhance local and national leadership succession planning efforts.


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Thomson P (2024) The best of times, the worst of times: Continuities in school leaders' work in uncertain times in Educational Management Administration & Leadership

Description Toby Greany invited to become a member of Department of Education, Northern Ireland: End to End Review of School Improvement Academic Advisory Group
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Description Presentation at World Education Summit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Toby Greany and Pat Thomson invited to present a workshop on 20.3.23 at this international online conference aimed at school leaders and teachers as well as wider policy makers, for example from local authorities and multi-academy trusts. The presentation was called 'Doing the job? Comparing representations of school leadership in national headship programmes with practitioner experience' and drew on the 'practitioner literatures' strand of the project's rapid evidence review.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023