Leadership programme

Balancing the Paradox: Rethinking Leadership for Teacher Agency

Sam Gibbs

Trust Lead for Curriculum and Development

Greater Manchester Education Trust

‘Leaders create leaders, by passing on responsibility, creating ownership, accountability and trust’.

James Kerr, Legacy: What The All-Blacks Can Teach Us About The Business Of Life

‘Wicked Problems’ of School Leadership

Given the current context our school leaders work in – where funding shortages, an exponential rise in child poverty, squeezed public services and a growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis are creating unparalleled pressures – it is more important than ever that they are prepared and developed to tackle the complexities of the job.

School leadership comprises, by nature of its scope, breadth and focus, a range of ‘wicked problems’ – those which are multi-faceted, highly changeable and unpredictable. Improving the quality of teaching, closing the attainment gap for students experiencing disadvantage and poverty, and evaluating the impact of initiatives designed to improve learning, are all examples of the ‘wicked’ and complex problems intrinsic to the role. Tackling such problems requires deep knowledge in a range of domains and robust, flexible mental models which allow leaders to apply adaptive expertise to find context-specific solutions.

The Current Situation

As Kerr discusses in Legacy, great leaders enable healthy cultures by building trust, and empowering others to take ownership and accountability. However, in education the concepts of ‘ownership’ and ‘accountability’ are often at odds with one another.

Operating in environments of high-stakes accountability can make it difficult to feel a sense of ownership or exercise professional agency in decision-making. Furthermore, where accountability measures determine how schools are publicly validated and perceived, leaders will inevitably be drawn to approaches and initiatives which are measurable and accredited. The issue is further exacerbated by the training they currently receive, which is similarly lacking in contextual relevance.

What Else? What Next? What If? highlights the limitations of the content and form of leadership development, which is currently available to leaders through the National Professional Qualifications (NPQs). While the NPQs build some mental models of leadership and use case studies to provide practice in knowledge application, by nature of their design they (perhaps unavoidably) remove context. This understates the need for leaders to exercise agency in making decisions which best serve their own schools. For these reasons, they are necessary, but not sufficient.

The Situation in Action

In the high-stakes environment in which school leaders operate, they will most often – understandably – focus on the things for which they are held to account. As What Else? What Next? What If? points out, current metrics prize leadership strategies and approaches with clear boundaries and identifiable solutions to ‘tame problems’. This is problematic where accountability comes to determine decision-making and stifles criticality.

Such simple metrics provide a comfort blanket, in the sense that we might feel convinced we are doing the right things, because they have been ‘rubber-stamped’ by powerful policy makers – but where decision-making in schools comes to be driven by rubrics, inspection frameworks and league tables at the expense of context-specific approaches, we need to be mindful that with such structure can come unintended consequences. In the absence of a more meaningful definition, based on a wide research base combined with lived experience in schools, there is a real danger of driving practice in Trusts that values quantity of courses completed, and sidelines the need for careful implementation which interrogates applicability to context.

As Dylan Wiliam observed, ‘nothing works everywhere’. Where programs like the NPQ suite are rolled out at such scale, in contexts of high stakes and high accountability, it can result in genericism at best and ‘institutional isomorphism’ at worst.

This situation is not conducive to developing adaptive leadership. As the Big Education paper argues so powerfully, we are in real need of school leaders who can respond flexibly to changing circumstances and contexts, to meet the challenges of the system and tackle ‘wicked problems’.

Developing Adaptive, Contextual Future Leaders

We need leaders in our schools who are able to exercise professional agency in their roles and their own development, who can make brave decisions which best serve their own contexts. And who, in turn, invest in future leaders who will do the same.

Herein lies the paradox: if, as What Else? What Next? What If? argues, the current widely accessed models of leadership development focus on generic, definable strategies, how should we expect leaders to be able to create the cultures those core practices sit in? If NPQs over-emphasise instructional leadership styles and do not equip leaders to exercise agency, how should we expect them to develop future leaders who can also think critically and flexibly about complex problems?

There is a danger of replication simplicity in the current approach. Leaders develop teachers and future leaders in ways which mirror their own experiences. And inevitably, given the high stakes nature of the accountability system, this will tend to favour ways which are easier to codify, quantify and meet criteria for judgement. We might question whether we are measuring what we value. If, as the Big Education paper states, ‘we oversimplify, we risk promoting a lack of curiosity, questioning of approaches, or desire to develop more expansive thinking.’

The authors rightly assert that ‘[s]chool leaders have to create a working and learning environment that models and makes manifest the knowledge, qualities and behaviours they are seeking to develop for and with young people.’ So too, then, should that environment model and make manifest the leadership behaviours and competencies that are vital for future leaders to grow and thrive.

The Benefits of Agency and Contextualisation (in tackling ‘Wicked Problems’)

To tackle wicked problems, school leaders need to develop agency. They need to gain knowledge, yes (and this is where the NPQs play a clearly important role) but also to gain fluency in the application of that knowledge and to think critically in the contexts of their own schools. Therefore, leadership development must provide such opportunities and should be sustained beyond the length of any finite programs.

A lack of professional agency in schools may partly account for the teacher retention crisis. The oft-cited Kraft and Papay study (2014) demonstrates the impact of professional cultures on teacher learning. In their recent report, the Chartered College of Teaching also found that environments of trust which gave teachers professional control, empowered them and involved them in decision-making, were important determinants of retention (Marinell and Coca, 2013; Ladd, 2011).

We should ask what kinds of inputs support the development of school leaders who are skilled in building cultures which enable teacher agency? This is why the paper from Big Education comes at such a critical time.

Opportunities For System-Led Improvement

We have a huge opportunity right now to define what high-quality leadership development should look like and to present solutions from within the system. What Else? What Next? What If? offers a series of considered, practical recommendations to move forwards.

It is vital that, to support leaders in the crucial work of building cultures for teacher agency, their own experience of professional development empowers them with the same.

To this end, we might consider these further points:

  • We need to build a coherent leadership development offer which begins with or includes NPQs as the foundation of core knowledge and enriches the golden thread beyond them. Inevitably, the content of NPQs will continue to steer the direction of travel for some time – so, our focus should be on enhancing the offer.
  • We could create opportunities for leaders to engage in critical thinking through the creation of psychologically ‘safe spaces’ which provoke professional dialogue, intellectual curiosity and collaboration. We could build a sense of belonging through connection with other school leaders. As the Big Education paper points out, leaders need to ‘see their schools as part of a wider local and national ecosystem’.

While we cannot control the high-stakes nature of the current accountability system, we can be clear about the challenge, and the evidence, and do things with intentionality. We can balance ‘quick wins’ with tackling complex problems. We can work to build school cultures of intellectual curiosity and professional dialogue, which develop leaders with agency, who can empower teachers with the same.

To Close: The Legacy of Leadership

As Kerr states, ‘[l]eaders create leaders’: by investing in the development of our current generation of leaders, we lay the foundations for the next. As Hamilton says in my favourite musical of the same name, a legacy is ‘planting seeds in a garden that you never get to see’. Essentially, the benefits of the fruits of these seeds will be to our young people, who need them more than ever.

Sam Gibbs is Trust Lead for Curriculum and Development at Greater Manchester Education Trust, and co-author of The Trouble With English and How to Address It: A Practical Guide to Designing and Delivering a Concept-Led Curriculum (Routledge, 2022) and The Coaching Curriculum (Routledge, forthcoming).


  • Department for Education. (2023). Annex B – Trust Quality Evidence. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/64a676f0c531eb000c64ff2d/Annex_B_-_Trust_Quality_Evidence_July_2023.pdf
  • Hallgarten, J and Robinson, L. (2024). What Else? What Next? What If? A Report By Big Education and CfEY Into Leadership Development in England. Available at: https://bigeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Big_Education_Rethinking_Leadership.pdf
  • Huat See, B. et.al. (2024). Effective leadership practices and teacher wellbeing: A review of international evidence. Available at: https://my.chartered.college/impact_article/effective-leadership-practices-and-teacher-wellbeing-a-review-of-international-evidence/
  • Kerr, J. (2013). Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About The Business of Life. Constable.
  • Kraft, M. A., & Papay, J. P. (2014). Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching ExperienceEducational Evaluation and Policy Analysis36(4), 476-500. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373713519496
  • Ladd, H.F. (2011). Teachers’ perceptions of their working conditions: How predictive of planned and actual teacher movement? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 33(2): 235–261
  • Marinell, W.H. and Coca, V.M. (2013). Who stays and who leaves? Findings from a three-part study of teacher turnover in NYC middle schools. The Research Alliance for New York City Schools. Available at: https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/2021-01/TTPSynthesis_Report_March2013.pdf.
  • Wiliam, D. (2006). Assessment for learning: why, what and how. Orbit: OISE/UT's magazine for schools. 36. 2-6.

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