Heads – how many hats?

On 30th October 2020, tes magazine featured an article by Stuart Lock, former head, now CEO of Advantage Schools. I met Stuart several years ago, at the first #SLTcamp event, have connected with him since and have great respect for him and all he has achieved. In the print copy of the magazine, the article was entitled ‘How to master leadership? Be a jack of all subjects’. The by-line read ‘It’s a monumental task, but really getting to grips with the substance of your curriculum will take you a lot further than generic leadership initiatives’; and this was the header picture:

The article made me thoughtful.

Having recently read pieces on the importance of contextual knowledge in leadership, including knowledge of the curriculum, by Tom Rees and Matthew Evans, I understand the suspicion of generic leadership skills which are not specific to a particular leadership context. I also appreciate the central importance of the curriculum, and the need to focus on what we teach, and why we have chosen to teach that, and can see that, in the past, we may have given too much time and attention only to how we teach. Pedagogical knowledge does, I agree, need to be firmly rooted in subject knowledge, and strong leadership has to be aligned with the specific context so that careful consideration is always given to the leader the team/school requires you to be at this point. Incoming leaders at all levels need, in my view, a clear understanding of the legacy they are stepping into and the ethos, priorities, vision and values they inherit and will build on. These leaders also need to develop as a first priority their knowledge of the individuals they lead, asking themselves what all members of this community require from its new leader if they are to achieve their professional best.

So the parts of Stuart’s article with which I firmly agreed included the following:

“Senior leaders have to lead on the substance of curriculum development across many subjects, despite not having pre-existing expertise in all of the subjects… Without the right knowledge, it is difficult to quality-assure the substance of what is happening in all these different subjects. And that can make a leader feel vulnerable.” 

“What can leaders do to avoid this? The obvious solution is for leaders to place trust in their subject leads, who are experts in their fields, and to get better at asking questions and listening to the answers.”

During my time as a head, I recognised how much I learnt about the teaching of subjects beyond my own (which was English), from working with, listening to and respecting the expertise of subject leaders across the school. This was a 7-18 school, so this involved communicating with both Junior School subject co-ordinators and Heads of Department.

I did observe lessons, and conduct professional reviews, in subjects other than English. Listening to teachers and academic Middle Leaders talking about their teaching of their subject was always fascinating and energising. Watching pupil response in lessons outside my subject enabled me sometimes to give useful feedback to the subject specialist teacher from my fly-on-the-wall, non subject-specialist perspective.

In addition, at the beginning of each meeting of our Education Sub-Committee of Governors, Heads of Departments and Junior School subject-co-ordinators worked together to give presentations to these governors on their subject area. We organised a rolling programme so that in time all subjects were covered. I learnt a significant amount in the process, and always made a point of finding the presenters to thank and congratulate them personally after the event. The staff appreciated the governors’ interest and attention; the governors developed a sound understanding of the curriculum of the school. This, together with the linked governors system we operated, which connected individual governors to areas of the curriculum (and to the pastoral team, and to the Junior School), meant that the governing body’s collective knowledge of the detail of how the school operated across all subject areas provided a sound foundation for the successful fulfilment of their governance responsibility.

I certainly knew much more about the teaching of the full range of subjects across the curriculum at the end of my ten years of headship than I did at the beginning. And my respect for these subject specialists developed accordingly.

However, I felt less comfortable with the ideas in the article when Stuart went on to say:

“While I absolutely believe in trusting the expertise of subject specialists, school leaders will most likely still struggle if they lack expertise in the subject themselves…

Essentially, as a school leader, you need to become something of an expert in all subjects.”

Stuart suggests that, ideally, school leaders need to read up on each subject (“I recently committed to reading at least one new book in every subject taught at my schools over the coming year…”), although he cautions that “you don’t want to be the leader who believes they know more than their subject experts and becomes a micromanager”, and with that I definitely DO agree. I also agree with Stuart when he goes on to say, “Our role includes helping [subject specialists] to be better at their jobs, establishing trust, being collaborative and valuing their disciplines.”

So how do school leaders get the balance right? I work with aspiring leaders at all levels, and especially when working with aspiring heads (who do not, yet, necessarily know the context within which they will assume headship) am mindful of how daunting the task can appear. Building confidence and self-belief is an important part of the development work I do. I often use Robert Quinn’s words, from 2004, that new leaders will, inevitably “build the bridge as they walk on it.” We learn how to lead from leading, in a particular context. I do believe there are a number of ways in which we can prepare, and, where headship is concerned, I suggest we are building our leadership skills throughout our career – as a leader of learning in the classroom, as a Middle Leader and as a Senior Leader, in each role working to get the best from those we lead, pupils and colleagues. But we can only continue our learning once in post – and we may never complete it!

My concern is those potential leaders who feel they will never be ready even to apply, because they do not yet know enough. In my experience, they often feel anxious about finance, for example. I would say you need to know enough about finance to have a secure overview, to know that your business manager is doing a good job (and to appoint a new one if yours moves on), and to be confident that the Chair of your Finance Sub-Committee of Governors also has their finger on the pulse. You do not need to have a grip on the detail – this is what your business manager will have. Know what questions to ask, and know enough to have a good understanding of the answers you receive.

I feel the same about the curriculum. Build trust, be collaborative and value the expertise of your subject specialist colleagues. I do not believe you need to be a ‘jack of all trades’ and ‘something of an expert in all subjects’. I can see that Stuart’s determination to read up on each subject is admirable. I do not agree that it is necessary.

Stuart concludes the article: “Ultimately, the most effective school leaders are likely to be more knowledgeable, interested and involved in the institution, context and people they’re leading, rather than “leadership” itself.”

My view is that being knowledgeable, interested and involved in the institution, context and people we’re leading is the ESSENCE of ‘leadership’ itself.

What do others think?

Thanks for reading.

Photo montage: John Berry (and can you identify me in this collection?!)


Lock, S. (2020) Why subject knowledge is key to school leadership, tes

Quinn, R. (2004)  Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change  San Francisco : Jossey_Bass

3 thoughts on “Heads – how many hats?

  1. I have only ever lead in a context that i have created, having established a small Montessori nursery over 25 years ago. This has now grown into a foundation phase school. The leadership challenges have developed as the school has grown, bringing in new teachers, a middle management team, a wider curriculum and range of activities. As we are still in foundation phase I have a good curriculum knowledge, but i really enjoy learning from our year one to three teachers who are younger and recently trained. As we grow and change i find that building relational trust is the key to developing a good team. In order to do this i endeavour to show that I am sincerely interested and engaged in meetings and my daily involvement with classroom walk throughs and lessons. I make a clear point of modelling the behaviour i wish to see, whether it be in terms of my own approach to admin, planning and delivery of lessons, interaction with parents, pupils and teachers and professional development.

    Prior to our recent staff appraisals we had a workshop on the school vision. We re-engaged with the vision and tried to articulate how we feel that our own actions as teachers and leaders actually contribute to the achievement of the school vision. This was then used as a spring board for personal reflection and explored further in the appraisal process resulting in a clear understanding of professional development needs.

    Lucy Cronje
    South Africa


  2. Thanks for your comment, Lucy. I learnt a huge amount from Early Years and primary specialists in the 4-18 school where I was a deputy, as well as the 7-18 school where I was a head.

    Very best wishes with all you’re achieving, and I absolutely agree with you about leaders modelling the behaviour they hope to see.


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