Developing and maintaining your school leadership team

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

School leadership teams contain a wide variety of roles. But what are the options and how can we ensure we all work together in the best interests of pupils? Suzanne O’Connell talks to one school about creating an effective leadership team

A school’s leadership team is key to ensuring consistency and cohesion and the best outcomes and support for your pupils.

At one time, the senior team was simply the headteacher, a deputy and perhaps a curriculum leader or SENCO. Now there are many different job titles with varying roles and new leadership trends.

Many smaller schools have come to share their leaders and with the arrival of academy status has come the preference for the title of principal and an increase in the number of executive headteachers.

And as executive headteachers began overseeing more and more schools so the role of “head of school” has become more common, with increasing numbers of assistant headteachers being added to the team to support and manage particular areas of school life.

Whatever, the make-up of the SLT in your school, at intervals it is worth reviewing how your team has developed, how it communicates, and how it combines and works together to provide the most effective model of leadership.

Common leadership roles

There are important points that distinguish the assistant headteacher from the deputy headteacher. The deputy can deputise for the headteacher when they are absent. They can officially take decisions that usually the headteacher would take. The School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD) requires any deputy head to take on the professional duties of the headteacher as required.

Of course, in most cases there will be consultation but when it comes to issues like suspending or excluding a pupil, they have the authority to do so if necessary. With this additional responsibility there comes a better level of pay but also more accountability.

In most cases your deputy headteacher will be assumed to be an aspiring head. Although there have been more deputies recently who are happy to continue at this level rather than taking the top job, in most cases it is a stepping-stone.

The assistant headteacher, on the other hand, does not hold as many responsibilities but still is generally considered to be a step up from standard TLRs (teaching and learning responsibilities) with the role providing the opportunity to try out leadership skills and learn from those around them who are more senior.

Both assistant headteacher and deputy headteacher would be expected to play a major part in creating aims and objectives, establishing policies, managing staff and monitoring progress.

Above and beyond this, wider roles on the leadership team, which may well be assigned with the team of assistant headteachers, include SENCO or inclusion lead, Pupil Premium coordinator, designated safeguarding lead, school business manager, pastoral or behaviour leaders, family liaison leaders, key stage leaders, and curriculum leaders.

Crossacres Primary Academy

Crossacres Primary Academy in Manchester has achieved an outstanding judgement in its last two inspections – the latest being in January this year. It is a very large school (718 pupils) and understandably has needed to put in place several senior leadership roles.

The headteacher, Suzanne Blay, is supported by a head of school. Although Ms Blay remains the substantive headteacher, her additional roles include Ofsted inspector and acting as an executive headteacher for other schools when needed.

As such, the appointment of Mr Thompson as head of school helped ensure the smooth running of Crossacres in her absence. They have worked together for a long time as Mr Thompson originally came to the school as an NQT: “He really knows the area and the challenges we face,” Ms Blay added.

Roles and responsibilities

A key feature of a successful team is its diversity and staff knowing and understanding their professional responsibilities. In any school, whatever its size, bringing together a group of school leaders with different skills and strengths is an essential part of developing an effective team.

Once working together, it is important that your team members recognise their own and each other’s capabilities and are clear where responsibilities lie.

The Crossacres’ leadership team incorporates the roles of both deputy and assistant headteacher. In addition to the head of school role there are three deputy headteachers, each with different areas of responsibility.

Mr Higham is key stage 2 leader and Ms Cordwell has responsibility for key stage 1 and the Foundation Stage. Ms Harrison, meanwhile, is one of two SENCOs – the other, Laura Christie, holds SENCO responsibility as part of her assistant headteacher role.

The nursery and reception classes are managed by an assistant headteacher as well. Ms Blay explained: “Our nursery has 90 children and requires a lot of staff – it is a level of responsibility warranting a more senior title.”

Each member of staff has a clear understanding about their roles and responsibilities and how they fit with those of the other members of the team.


Ms Blay is confident that despite the number of senior leaders, the shared ethos which they all present in their day-to-day work is “consistent and clear”.

The fact that staff tend to stay at the school has contributed to this consistency. There is a shared language and leaders are aiming towards a common goal.

Trust is perhaps at the heart of this and as an established team working within a challenging catchment area, this has been an essential characteristic underpinning the way they work together.

In some schools, the situation arises where there are many talented staff, but they have difficulty collaborating or combining their individual skills and strengths. This can particularly be the case when a number of staff are relatively new and there hasn’t been opportunity to build the trust and understanding that is needed in a successful team.

At Crossacres, the development over years of mutual understanding and credibility has resulted in a very stable foundation for new staff.

New ideas

However, how do you keep fresh and inspired when a significant number of your staff remain in post over time?

For Crossacres, the stability within the leadership team is complemented by the number of NQTs. In fact, Crossacres currently has seven early career teachers (ECTs) – a number that surprised the inspectors back in January.

“We have many established staff so there is plenty of support for them,” Ms Blay continued. “It’s the perfect environment for an ECT to take up their first post with so much experience and enthusiasm for sharing it.”

Unlike some schools in challenging catchment areas, Crossacres has no difficulty in recruiting staff.

“Crossacres falls within a catchment of the top 10% deprived households,” Ms Blay explained, “a factor that can sometimes deter candidates from applying to a school.

“However, we are very open and honest during the appointment process. We clearly express some of the challenges that we face but applicants know that there is an established leadership team who can provide help and assistance when needed.”

Ensure meetings are fit-for-purpose

I wrote recently in Headteacher Update about effective meetings as did school leader Robbie Burns – two very useful articles for leaders of all levels. Too often, schools can continue to follow a tired meeting schedule without reviewing its effectiveness.

Recognising the importance of everyone’s time and refusing to allow meetings that have little purpose is an important way of building trust and dedication.

If staff know that careful consideration has been given to the need for a meeting then attitudes towards it are much more likely to be positive, with a greater contribution from all those attending.

An example of prioritising and matching need with time came when Crossacres was introducing new schemes of work.

“The staff needed the opportunity to get their heads around it,” explained Ms Blay. “Rather than continuing with whole staff meetings at this point the time was given over to working in year groups, allowing them to develop their understanding of the new schemes.”

Shared spaces

A major factor in their effective communication at Crossacres is that leaders share office space: “This makes communication a lot easier,” Ms Blay continued. “We are talking to each other regularly and our proximity means that we can also act quickly when it’s needed.

“When something arises, we can make a quick decision rather than scheduling a meeting to agree it.”

Sharing office space also applies to the inclusion team and again, Ms Blay feels that this has contributed significantly to both reaction time and consistency in approach.

Financial recognition

Respecting the individuals who make up the team and financially rewarding them when possible, makes leaders feel that their efforts are recognised as valuable.

It can be difficult for schools in challenging financial circumstances to prioritise staff remuneration. Partly because school leadership can tend to put their own expectations down when it comes to making decisions about spending across the school.

However, no matter how dedicated our leaders, in the longer term this can lead to a sense of dissatisfaction. Ensuring that school leaders remain rewarded is vital.

Most curriculum leaders at Crossacres have TLRs and those in positions of responsibility are on the deputy headteacher and assistant headteacher scales.

“It’s also about smaller acts of recognition,” Ms Blay added. “Sometimes just the provision of tea and coffee or appreciation of the need for work/life balance can make all the difference.”

Career choices

The assumption is that there are more opportunities for career progression in large schools. The fact that retention at Crossacres is so strong means that the paths to senior leadership aren’t always available.

This is one of the reasons that Ms Blay and her governors are looking ahead to their development as a trust. The first stage has been inviting five schools to join them.

“In this way we can work together to share our leadership roles and ensure investment in the next generation of teachers and leaders.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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