Leading into the future

5 takeaways on bold and innovative leadership

Cintia Shiratori

Former Project Officer, Big Education

A few weeks ago, we brought together over 50 educational leaders to discuss how leadership can connect our present to our ideals for the future of education in the UK.  We were joined by our colleagues:

  • Adrian McLean, Trust Lead for Character & Personal Development, Severn Academies
  • Annabelle Jameel, Assistant Principal, Haberdashers Academy
  • James Pope, Founder of Heads up for HTs and Director at Whole Education
  • Jennifer Barker, Dean of Learning Design, Ambition Institute
  • Kiran Mahil, Assistant Headteacher, Central Foundation for Girls
  • Liz Robinson, Co-Director, Big Education
  • Siwan Davies, Director of Scaling Impact, Fair Education Alliance
  • Steve Munby, Consultant/Speaker on leadership, Chair; Teaching Awards Trust; Visiting Professor at UCL and at Liverpool Hope.

In the midst of tests, exams, Ofsted inspections, overall operationalisation fatigue and a sense of disconnect with our real purpose; we welcomed this moment to reflect on our experiences and looked forward towards the future, through the lens of leadership development in schools. 

I’ve organised our learnings from the input we heard into 5 main takeaways:

1. The power of ‘AND’

A common thread among all discussions was the importance and need of ‘AND’, instead of ‘OR’ approaches – of striking a balance, be it between change and building upon in the system, school know-how and soft skills such as emotional intelligence and self awareness, present and future.

Indeed, the current educational system is far from perfect. For instance, in terms of equity,  many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are still left behind, with little or no progress to close the gap. There is a clear need for change towards a fairer system for all. Nevertheless, at the same time, there is good work happening in schools, trailblazed by educators across the country, with turbulent times of the pandemic showing the resilience in the sector. Acknowledging this instead of being solely overtaken by the realistic big picture perspective can avoid the pitfall of, in the course of change, suppressing individual efforts on the ground.

Alike, technical skills and school know-how is important for leadership, for the sake of impact and effectiveness. Nevertheless, they cannot take up the whole space – we also need emotional intelligence and self awareness  – to know our strengths, weaknesses as well as how to wield the knowledge we have.

2. A people-centric approach in our leadership

‘System’ can evoke the idea of a complex, inhuman facet of our society – nevertheless, it is created by people. In this context, we discussed the importance of a  people-centric approach to our practice. As Adrian McLean mentioned, “People don’t follow positions or power – they follow people that make them feel like they belong and are capable”. From this rationale, if the system is made up of people, change starts and ends with people – thus, reflection about our own behaviour, thinking, and work are central to bringing about change in the system.

3. The complexities of implementing and promoting leadership development - after all, what is self-awareness?

Although there was a general consensus of the ‘why’  when thinking about leadership development and skills, there were diverse approaches to the ‘how’. 

Leadership can take many forms and approaches; it’s not about a specific trait or perfection, but recognising we as we are, strengths and imperfections as Steve Munby mentioned, and rallying others around you that can support you with their own unique diversity and perspectives, for the sake of a shared goal. It’s not a specific trait; it’s hard work – a lifelong pursuit. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – beyond stereotypes, how can we best support our teams and value each individual’s authentic leadership?

Recognising that this work is not easy, especially with time limitations and the cognitive load this work carries with it, there was a shared agreement on the need to hold safe spaces and supportive communities for leaders to think about the future and develop the skills, mindset and behaviours that are aligned with their vision for education.

4. Having an adaptive leadership capacity and seeing beyond

As we discuss change in the education sector, how can we link the day-to-day in schools to sector-wide change? Although there are no clear definitive answers, we were inspired by the idea of adaptive leadership – a way to link efforts on the forefront of education in the classroom (on the dance floor as in the original theoretical framework) and those on the balcony – that see and design the big picture of education.

5. Asking bigger, bolder questions

We left this session feeling inspired to ask bigger and bolder questions. A huge array of opinions and approaches are present in the system and there are no definitive answers. Yet we are bound by that shared feeling that change is needed. At Big Education, we believe that now it’s time to continue questioning and work with others to find better answers, and to leverage the diversity and collective intelligence present in the sector.


Join us in asking bigger and bolder questions across the educational sector. Read more about our leadership development programme here.

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