The School Doctor: What do leaders do?

The School Doctor discusses the start of a new year and what it means for school leaders…


The new year brings with it a sense of trepidation and excitement in schools, especially in schools’ senior leadership teams. While others are worrying about Dry January, Veganuary, gym memberships, or how to get rid of the freaking Christmas tree, governors, heads and deputies are drawing up job descriptions, working out curriculum allocations, and crossing their fingers that the perfect candidate is out there hitting ‘refresh’ on the TES website.

While it might be relatively straightforward to replace one, say, History teacher with another, replacing school leaders brings extra challenges. Many headships and deputy headships will have been sewn up last term, but this will have created power vacuums that need to be filled with extraordinary administrators who have compelling visions, impeccable academic records, phenomenal people skills, spectacular oratorical abilities, and sometimes a Labrador. Simple as that.

A year or so ago I suggested various ways that aspiring school leaders might boost their chances ( This year, I want to stand back a little further and think about what these leaders actually do, or what they are meant to do.

They create a compelling vision for the future – they do not sit there and gripe about the problems of the moment. This vision will not just consist of gimmicks easily downloaded from another institution’s website. They will be more wholesome, far-reaching and looking much further into the future. Excellent leaders will not just do what they did last year, carefully saving the Word document so it can be used next year – those phoner-inners aren’t leaders. Equally, that vision should be practical and centred on the fundamentals of a decent education. It’s all very well saying that you want a £5 million pavilion, but if you can’t get the money or convincingly explain pedagogically why you need a pavilion (beyond it looking nice), it’s all a load of hot air.

They administer to a watertight level – but they don’t just sit behind desks. This is always a tricky one, as leaders are constantly – and rightly – being told to get out there on ‘learning walks’ (or ‘walks’ as most people call them), to press the flesh, flash smiles at parents, get to the know the pupils, governors, kitchen staff, and so on. Still, administration never goes away and if it isn’t done impeccably by the SLT, faith is easily lost in them, especially when the resulting chaos ensues.

They troubleshoot and problem-solve – but they don’t let the troublemakers and problem-pedlars set the agenda. Staffroom-corner naysayers tend to think they should set the agenda, or they take a perverse pleasure in putting grit in the school machine. Thankfully, these people are very much in the minority. A decent leader will listen to the gripes, but not be derailed by them. They have much more important things to worry about, like educating people.

They look out for the interests of everyone – they don’t just work for the betterment of their buddies or ‘base’. They create a culture of cooperation wherein the strong look after the vulnerable.

They listen to a cross-section of opinions – but they don’t do it just to be seen as a listener or to implement the results of referenda at the expense of a coherent vision. Listening is not the same thing as agreeing or doing. A good leader will explain clearly and cogently why some ideas won’t gel with other developments. They will explain why different areas of an institution need to coexist, and why the desires of one might impact negatively on another. They will understand that ‘Something Must Be Done’ is usually an expression of one person moaning that ‘Something Is Being Done But It’s Not Being Done The Way I Think It Should Be Done, And I Know Best Because I Moan A Lot’.

They are fair – but they are not overindulgent. They rise above petty rivalries and pitched battles. Alas, these things will occur in any institution (or, indeed, anywhere that more than one human being is present). But the leader will firmly and kindly work to solve the disputes, lifting the rival parties’ eyes to why we’re all here: to educate to the best of our ability.

They take the burden off others – but they don’t kill themselves through overworking, and they do expect others to pull their weight. They delegate, but they don’t over-delegate. Delegation can be both a virtue and a vice. It is a vice if you employ as your mantra ‘Can I leave it with you?’, then take all the credit for the work of others.

They are visible – they don’t just do the glamorous bits, leaving the day-to-day work to others. Leaders pick up crisp packets and put out chairs too.  

They create an environment in which we are nurtured to become better people than we already are – they do not encourage us to short-circuit to our worst gut-instincts. There are many tiring professions out there, and teaching is certainly one of them. It is very easy, especially when exhausted, to take the negative route, to gripe, to blame, to mock change, to perpetuate division. It is harder – but much nobler – to remain positive, to search for understanding, to coordinate and collaborate. A decent leader will keep this is a guiding principle. If they don’t, they are not a leader – just an occupant of an office.


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