Components of Professional Learning for Developing Leaders

Let me put the cards on the table- I’m no leadership expert. In fact, my area of interest is usually curriculum design and development. But recently, the world of educational leadership has caught my attention for a number of reasons.

  1. It seems to be a bit of black box. Yes there’s stuff out there on educational leadership and some of it’s pretty darn good. But it’s sparse and feels in part inaccessible to school leaders on the ground.
  2. My 6 month stint writing materials for the NPQs (National Professional Qualifications) gave me a fascinating insight into being on the ‘other side of the table’. I was no longer the Assistant Head being coached and trained; I was thinking about what middle and senior leaders needed in terms of their training.
  3. I’ve recently become a Head of School and have a personal vested interest in leadership and what we can do to to support leaders in their professional development.

Since educational leadership has piqued my interest I have had extended conversation with many people from across the sector: esteemed academics, great thinkers and expert designers of professional learning, mostly to gain an understanding of what great professional learning looks like for leaders and how I, as a Head of School, could make sure those who I lead have sufficient knowledge, understanding, support and coaching.

I love the above quote from Vivienne Robinson because it recognises and acknowledges the many decisions leaders make and how easily we can fall foul to the ‘wrong turns’. The more conversations I had with colleagues, the more clearly a picture was being built in my mind about the different component parts of professional learning for leaders, be it middle leaders, department leaders or senior leaders. It wasn’t JUST about ensuring leaders had knowledge, or JUST about ensuring they knew how to action that knowledge, it was also about ensuring that they had the right support in place to bear the emotional load of the job, to feel safe enough to share their vulnerabilities, to uncover their own blindspots and to be open to self-reflection rather than feeling like they had to be the all-knowing tsar of…well, everything.

All the while, I maintained a few key questions: ‘what would really add value and address some of the persistent challenges I see the leaders I coach deal with day-in, day-out?’

In this blog I share the findings (so far!) of my informal discussions and propose some components of professional learning that I feel would benefit developing school leaders. I intentionally label it ‘developing leaders’ because I think all leaders (regardless of hierarchical status) are constantly in need of developing no matter how strong. In fact, one of the temperature checks when reflecting on these components was ‘what did I/would I/will I I find really useful in supporting my own leadership so I can have a positive impact on the pupils I serve?’ The minute we stop developing, is the minute the complex challenge of school improvement becomes all the more challenging.

This is by no means an exhaustive list- it simply captures the components I’ve uncovered through my own experiences as a leader and through discussion with more knowledgeable colleagues so far. But I feel like it might perhaps form a good starting point in terms of giving those who coach leaders a reference points to consider the holistic offer of professional learning that leaders require and deserve. Quite rightly, we focus on teacher professional learning and this isn’t to detract from the importance of this but I do feel more can be done to support leaders in the very important work they do.

This is a very top-down overview, lacking any real detail but of course, the underlying ‘mechanisms’ of each strand are key. Harry-Fletcher Wood recently authored an excellent blog on the best form of professional development (see here- and discusses the importance of the mechanisms by which you deliver any given approach. He writes: ‘If you adopt lesson study – but just pop into the lesson and summarise what you saw afterwards – not much will change. If your discussion includes several mechanisms – feedback, praise, examining models of good practice and planning future lessons, for example – it’s much more likely to have an impact.’ Here he refers to teacher professional development but I would argue the same could be applied for leadership development. Within coaching in the actionable knowledge component for example, feedback would undoubtedly be crucial.

The above isn’t the finished product- nowhere near! However, I hope it offers a starting point, a prompt or the beginnings of a potential framework for a more holistic approach to leadership development that accounts for the many challenges and opportunities for growth that leadership brings.


British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (2021). ‘Supervision within the counselling professions’ Good Practice in Action 043 Research Overview

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

With thanks to colleagues who have generously given me their time, shared their wisdom and are shaping my ever-evolving thinking on educational leadership thus far, captured in this blog

Oliver Caviglioli

Heena Dave

Tom Rees

Dr Neil Gilbride

Cassie Young

Professor Rob Coe

Karren Knowlton

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