Leadership and staff retention (Part 1)

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

“The strength of a nation’s economy and the vitality of its society depend on the quality of its schools.”

So begins a report by the Centre for High Performance (published in the Harvard Business Review in 2017) on what it takes to be a successful school leader.

The study, by researchers Ben Laker and Alex Hill, examined 411 school leaders working in 160 academy schools in England. Laker and Hill concluded that the education system in England was appointing, recognising and rewarding the wrong kind of school leader. Our system, they argued, favoured short-term thinking – quick fixes rather than sustainable improvements.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the system is somewhat myopic when you consider that policy decisions are made within Parliamentary cycles and often with the objective of making a politician look good rather than with the best interests of pupils in mind.

In short, politicians with just a few years to demonstrate impact favour school leaders who quickly improve exam results through intensive interventions, rather than those leaders who carefully and thoughtfully build schools in which good results can be sustained over the long term as part of the natural order of things.

Politicians also tend to tinker with school structures – again as a means of demonstrating impact on a bigger scale – rather than focusing on what matters most (and is proven to have the biggest impact on outcomes): the quality of teachers and the quality of teaching.

Indeed, the move from local authority control towards over-large multi-academy trusts (that are beginning to look very much like local authorities and so experience the same problems inherent in that middle tier system) has consumed government’s attention and spending for nearly a decade and yet there is no evidence that academisation (or the introduction of free schools, studio schools, UTCs and so on) has improved standards.

Anyway, I digress…

Five types of school leader

The Centre for High Performance report posited five types of leader, but found that the most effective – the kind of leader who turns around failing schools and builds institutions in which exam results improve year-on-year and continue to improve long after they’ve left – are the least well-known, the least recognised, and the least well rewarded. But, before we consider which type of leader is the most successful and why, let’s examine all five types.


These leaders cut and redirect, and focus on test scores. Surgeons are both decisive and incisive; they quickly identify what’s not working and redirect resources to the most pressing problems – how to improve this year’s exam results, for example.

Eighty-five per cent of the surgeons in the Centre for High Performance study were PE or religious studies teachers who had a high profile both inside and outside their schools. They believed that schools failed because students were not performing and if they removed the poor performers and made the rest work harder, performance would improve.

Surgeons are tough, disciplined leaders who focus on investing in the oldest students as these are the ones about to take their exams, often at the expense of anything and anyone else. They move the best teachers into exam years, reduce class sizes and increase interventions such as revision classes.


These leaders trim and tighten, and focus on the bottom line. Soldiers like efficiency and order; they hate waste. Ninety-five per cent of the soldiers in the study were IT or chemistry teachers who often began their climb up the leadership ladder by managing support staff.

Soldiers are tenacious when it comes to cost-cutting – often removing support staff roles – and believe those people who survive the chop need to work harder.

Financial performance often improves under these leaders and does so quickly, but exam results remain static and staff morale falls. As soon as the soldier leaves the school, costs simply rise back up.


These leaders invest and grow, and focus on the top line. These leaders try to grow their schools; they are resourceful, systematic and revenue-focused. Seventy-eight per cent of the accountants in the study were maths teachers and believed schools fail because they are small and weak.

These leaders are creative financiers who immediately look for new revenue sources, such as using the school’s facilities for out-of-hours sports, meetings, and conferences. Accountants improve their school’s long-term financial performance and let teachers work out where to spend the extra resources. Revenue increases dramatically during these leaders’ tenure, but exam results remain the same as this is not their focus.

Financial performance continues improving after they leave as revenues keep growing and costs start consolidating, but exam results hardly change.


These leaders debate and discuss, and focus on values. Philosophers are passionate about teaching. They are usually English or modern foreign language teachers (89 per cent in the case of the Centre for High Performance study) and believe that schools fail because they are not teaching their students properly. They think of themselves as experienced teachers, rather than as leaders.

Despite early improvements in staff morale – because colleagues feel valued and important – fundamentally, nothing really changes. Students carry on misbehaving, parents stay disengaged, and financial performance and exam results remain static.


These leaders redesign and transform, and focus on long-term impact. Architects quietly redesign their school and transform the community it serves. They typically studied history or economics at university (68 per cent of those in the study) and acquired an understanding of how past leaders created the societies and economies we live in today.

They didn’t set out to be teachers, but decided to initially work in industry.

Architects believe that it takes time to improve a school and so take a long-term view of what they need to do. They create the right environment for teachers and the right school for its local community.

They then improve student behaviour (for example, by moving poorly behaved students into a separate pathway), increase revenue (by developing non-teaching offerings), and improve teaching and leadership (by introducing coaching, mentoring and development programmes).

In short, they take a holistic view of the school, its stakeholders, the community it serves, and its role in society. Architects are visionary, unsung heroes; stewards rather than leaders.

The most effective leaders

It will come as no surprise, reading the synopses above, that it is the architect which proves (according to Laker and Hill’s research) to be the most effective leader. Indeed, architects are the only leaders which the researchers found to have improved exam results over the long-term.

And yet, perversely, architects are the types of leader we least reward, least recognise, and rarely appoint as headteachers, principals and executive principals.

Instead, we reward the “surgeon” leaders for dramatically increasing examination results during their tenure, even though these improvements are not sustained and tend to have a devastating impact of staff attrition.

Indeed, 38 per cent of the 68 surgeons analysed for the study had been knighted by the Queen, 24 per cent had received a CBE, MBE or OBE, and they were paid around 50 per cent more than the other leaders.

Surgeons are also the types of leader who hog the headlines, and not always for the right reasons. You need only read the education press to gauge how many of the “surgeons” who have been celebrated by politicians and others have later been found wanting: either because their success was short-lived and so exam results have fallen and, having been judged to be less than good by Ofsted, their schools have been abandoned or forcibly excised from their trusts, or because of financial irregularities or other improprieties such as the bullying of staff. Why should it be this way?

As I explained earlier, the incentive structure currently inherent in English education is much too short-termist. Our system – or so it seems to me – honours and rewards school leaders who get short-term results, no matter the means and no matter the sustainability. In other words, they reward the knighted surgeons.

Architects, meanwhile, who maximise impact for the maximum number of children over the maximum amount of time, go largely unrecognised and unrewarded.

The biggest losers

Does it matter if surgeons get all the recognition and reward? Does it matter if our system favours the types of leader who get quick results?

After all, these leaders do improve exam results, often dramatically. And improving exam results means that more young people get outcomes that will open doors in the future.

Surgeons, therefore, enhance the life chances of their oldest students. Can that be so bad? Well, I would argue two things.

First, do these leaders genuinely improve the life chances of their exam-taking students? They embody the “teaching to the test” mentality – it is all about drilling for exams. And so students may pass their exams and cross the all-important border that takes them from a grade 3 into the brave new world of a standard grade 4 or a strong grade 5 pass. These results enable them to access further education and, potentially, higher education too. But are they any better educated? Or are they being set up for future failure? Do their exam results mask a lack of genuine understanding? Is their learning merely superficial?

Second, dramatic improvements in exam results tend to be achieved on the broken backs of teachers who are flogged to the point of exhaustion. They are mandated to deliver intensive interventions, extra classes before school, at lunchtime and after school. They are forced to abandon all hope of a work/life balance as they dedicate evenings and weekends to additional planning and preparation, and the relentless treadmill of marking and assessment.

It is no coincidence that many of the schools led by surgeons which demonstrate a dramatic turn-around have exceptionally high levels of staff attrition. Teachers leave in their droves every summer, either because they’re burnt out or because they’ve been bullied out due to their exam results.

And this – for me – is the biggest concern regarding surgeons: teacher recruitment and retention. Their plans are not sustainable.

We can ill-afford to add to the growing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. We must stem the flow of experienced staff from the profession by valuing them and caring for their wellbeing.

After all, the best education systems in the world – such as the oft-cited Finland – succeed, at least in part, because they attract high-quality candidates into the profession then train them well (ITT being a rigorous affair that only the best survive), invest in their CPD throughout their careers, and reward them appropriately.

Accordingly, if our schools are to succeed and to do so sustainably, we too must ensure that we have a rich supply of qualified, high-quality teachers entering the classroom, and we too must invest in our teachers’ development and make them feel valued in order to ensure that, once they enter the profession, they remain in it.

Next week, I will examine five organisational models on which schools can be moulded, and identify the model that is proven to be most effective in terms of staff recruitment and retention and – through it – performance.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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