Freedom to lead: inspirational leadership of primary schools

Our research report, Freedom to Lead: a study of outstanding primary school leadership in England, was written in collaboration with Peter Matthews, Robert Hill and Qing Gu. We were immensely fortunate in being able to visit and interview a range of outstanding primary school leaders in their schools over the last 18 months. The schools, many in challenging circumstances, are outstanding examples of primary education across England.

We found that the challenges the school leaders faced, whether turning round an inadequate school or sustaining excellence, may draw on different skills but required a consistent purpose or vision. Our report starts by summarising what is known about effective primary leadership, and then identifies characteristic skills, approaches and qualities demonstrated by the leaders of the most effective primary schools.

Some basic tenets of outstanding primary school leadership:

i. All children can succeed.

ii. Primary schools determine life chances.

iii. Background should not limit outcomes.

iv. Successful primary schools do the right things consistently well.

v. Almost all primary teachers can be good or better.

vi. Teaching which focuses on clear learning objectives, effective instruction for all, the steps needed to make progress, feedback and assessment, is essential to children's good progress. vii. School leadership is key to raising standards.

viii. The most effective school leaders readily model good teaching.

ix. The most effective support for teachers comes from other expert practitioners.

x. The quality of the curriculum makes a significant contribution to the children's interest, engagement and learning and thus to the outcomes they achieve.

Source: Freedom to lead (Matthews, Rea, Hill and Gu) p12

Our report then illustrates the career pathways through which a sample of the heads have developed their leadership expertise. The report gives examples of how leaders have turned schools around and improved outcomes for children through first rescuing, then reinforcing and refining their schools, and in many cases replicating the best aspects through their system leadership. Finally the report looks at new models of leadership and the role of governance in outstanding primary schools.

Throughout our report there are lessons learned and conclusions drawn. The following points illustrate some examples, all of which are discussed in the report:

  • The culture established in outstanding primary schools is one in which leaders have very high expectations, a no-excuses culture and a single-minded focus on making the school a place of learning for all.

  • The research suggests that outstanding primary leaders are people of exceptional character, determination and courage – firm in their values, clear about priorities and with the leadership and interpersonal skills needed to carry people with them.

  • The paths taken by the sample of outstanding school and system leaders to their present posts are many and varied.

  • The evidence of outstanding leadership points strongly to the commitment of outstanding primary headteachers and governors not simply to distribute leadership but to develop it at all levels among adults and children in the school.

  • Leadership has different emphases depending on the quality and context of the school. The evidence suggests distinctly different approaches depending on whether the main task is that of rescuing an underperforming school, reinforcing, refining or renewing it.

  • The S-curve model of organisational growth and decline is relevant to school leadership. Organisations can benefit from a change or re-focusing of leadership after a period of improvement.



The secret of constant improvement is to start the new growth curve at A before the current one peters out.

Many organisations, schools among them, leave change until they face decline (point B). At this point it may be too late for the current leadership to do much about it.

Source: Freedom to lead (Matthews, Rea, Hill and Gu) p48

  • The evidence of the case studies – which cover a range of school partnership arrangements – reflects the rapid growth of interest and understanding relating to system leadership.

  • The outstanding primary schools have demonstrated their potential and achievements in supporting other schools and many schools newly judged outstanding are keen to become national support or teaching schools.

It was a real privilege to spend time discussing leadership in primary schools with some undoubted experts in their field - for example, talking to Mike Tonge at Prestolee in Bolton about empowering his staff through professional development; discussing the opportunities of teaching schools with Nick Capstick at the White Horse Federation in Swindon; or considering the growth of school federations with Chris Toye at Vauxhall and Wyvil in Lambeth. The report would not have been possible without the kind assistance of all the school leaders and their staff who were involved. We hope that the findings will contribute to the current debate about the future direction of primary education in England and the role of school leaders in shaping that debate.

Simon Rea