School leadership: How to respond to and solve problems

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As a school leader, problem or cause analysis is important and it can be worth taking time to understand a problem’s root causes before springing into action. Sean Harris considers two models for moving from reactive to responsive problem-solving

In the 1940s, Allied forces plotted an invasion of Sicily to tackle the growing problem of Mussolini’s fascist regime. To mitigate against the problem of enemy forces discovering the plan, British intelligence officers devised an elaborate scheme.

“Operation Mincemeat” involved obtaining the body of a deceased homeless man and dressing him as an office of the Royal Marines. The body as Captain William Martin, real name Glyndwr Michael, contained fake documents signalling that allied forces would invade Greece and Sardinia.

This solution to a significant problem may have seemed ludicrous to military leaders at the time, but it was a success. As a result of the fabricated information, 160,000 Allied troops successfully invaded Sicily in July 1943. The mission is considered a turning point in the war. It’s little surprise that a film of this affair has been created.

In conflict with problems

Of course, school leaders are not at war. Yet, the landscape that education leaders serve within is riddled with conflict against further political turbulence, a cost of living crisis, and staff retention issues across our schools.

Leadership in education is arguably more complex than it has ever been. Farley et al (2019) warn that school leaders in this century are being required to do even more than before.

Meanwhile, Tintoré et al (2022) carried out a scoping review of the problems and challenges faced by school leaders (2003 to 2019) and identified that a core problem was the conflict between the demanding and multi-tasking nature of the job and the need to concentrate on leadership for learning.

They conclude: “Increasing demands from the educational system and the necessity to handle multiple tasks prevent principals from focusing on what is essential in their work: improving teaching and learning.”

Barker and Rees (2021) say a further problem is that the concept of school leadership has been poorly defined over time. Insufficient emphasis is given to the expertise or skills that leaders may need to tackle the “persistent problems” that they face every day. They conclude that we need to “pay more attention to the specific educational work of school leaders and the expertise that they need to do it well”, with a reduced focus on “generic approaches to leadership and management, leadership styles or personal traits”.

Cause analysis

Poor attendance, recruitment, underperforming or fatigued colleagues may be a real and present problem in your school right now.

School leaders face a plethora of problem-based scenarios regarding things like safety, child protection, and unplanned events on a regular basis.

As a result, it is understandable for leaders to spring into action and feel under pressure to conjure up an immediate or reactive solution to emerging problems.

However, a different approach would first attempt to understand the root cause of the problems. Thorough cause-and-effect analysis can help leaders in any organisation to become better problem-solvers because it enables them to grow in expertise of the problem and the underlying causes of it. Consequently, this can yield better and broader solutions.

Problem-analysis tools are sometimes referred to as cause analysis tools. Research documents the extensive use of these tools in education and non-education sectors. Here are some examples.

Fishbone analysis

The book The Quality Toolbox (Tague, 2005) is a comprehensive reference to a variety of methods and techniques commonly used for quality improvement. Tools are included for generating ideas, analysing processes, determining root causes, planning, and data-handling.

The book includes a tool which I have found useful as both a school leader and classroom practitioner.

The “fishbone analysis” tool, also referred to as a cause-and-effect or Ishikawa diagram, is used to identify various possible causes for an effect or problem. The diagram is then used to structure a dialogue with colleagues about prospective solutions that may not have otherwise been considered.


Begin by inviting a member of the team to act as a facilitator for the discussion. This person keeps colleagues on track and reminds the team of the purpose of the fishbone analysis – i.e. to identify root causes rather than solutions.

Leaders begin by identifying a problem statement (effect) – for example: attendance in year 9 has dipped rapidly since the start of term.

The facilitator writes this statement on the centre-right of the board and draws a box around the problem.

Colleagues then consider and identify what they think are the broad categories of causes or areas relating to the problem. If this is difficult, leaders may prefer to generate broad or generic headings (e.g. aspirations, administration, behaviour, ability…).

These categories are then added as branches from the main arrow that leads to the problem-statement. For example, for the statement, “children’s attitudes to learning have dipped since the start of term”, leaders might add branch categories including:

  • Environment
  • Systems and processes
  • Attendance
  • Engagement in curriculum
  • Home/external factors

The facilitator now challenges colleagues to consider specific causes, asking: “Why do we think this problem has occurred?”

As discussions develop, the facilitator adds these issues or causes as branches from the relevant category. It is normal for some causes to correlate to more than one branch, showing connections and patterns.

For each cause, the facilitator continues to probe: “Why does this happen?” Continuing use of “why” leads colleagues to consider further sub-causes to the problem. Remember, at this stage it is about identifying root causes rather than finding a prompt or surface-level solution.

Once complete, the leadership team is then able to begin to consider possible solutions to the identified root causes.

I have found it helpful to ask leaders to take away the root causes and begin with to generate their own ideas for solutions independently before bringing colleagues back together to consider next steps.

Questions to consider

  • How could leaders ensure that other voices are heard as part of the root-cause analysis? (e.g. support staff, pastoral, pupil or parental voice)
  • Do some areas have fewer ideas in the diagram and what action might be needed to understand the underlying issues or causes for this category/problem?
  • How could the tool be used with governors, trustees or external stakeholders to take a broader view of problems faced within the school or across your local community?

The Five Whys

Vale (2013) asserts that used effectively a good question can be an excellent vehicle with which to start a process of inquiry.

Asking the powerful question “why” can challenge colleagues, ourselves and children to think deeply. As classroom practitioners we are undoubtedly in the habit of asking why. But to what extent do we make use of “why?” in our response to the persistent problems of school leadership?

The Five Whys tool is widely used in sectors beyond education and can be helpful in understanding the anchor causes to complex problems.

Its origins are in the Toyota Production System (TPS), and it was developed by Japanese inventor industrialist Sakichi Toyoda. Taiichi Ohno (1988) describes it as being at the core of TPS methodology: “The basis of Toyota's scientific approach is to ask why five times whenever we find a problem. By repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”

The method

To begin, the leadership team should agree on a common and identifiable problem that can be observed. It is not necessary for every member of the team to agree that this is a significant problem, but leaders should have a consensus that it is an issue that should be addressed (e.g. poor attendance, a decline in pupil outcomes…).

A facilitator should be appointed to help steer the discussion and should introduce a clear problem statement based on what has been agreed (e.g. pupil outcomes in the summer were significantly below what we predicted).

It is important to be clear on this statement as this will help to define the scope of what is being critically discussed by colleagues.

The facilitator should help to ensure that responses are based, where possible, on facts and data to support insights rather than relying on subjective or knee-jerk emotive standpoints.

Begin the discussion by asking why. The facilitator should continue to do this as needed until colleagues in the room can help to identify one or several root causes of the initial problem.

However, it is important that the facilitator doesn’t ask why each time a contribution is given. Dialogue across the team should be embryonic and give opportunity for colleagues to hypothesise why some of these issues and sub-issues may be contributing to the problem as a whole.

To ensure the discussion remains focused on establishing root causes, the facilitator and colleagues should challenge contributions that attempt to move the dialogue to a solution or a plan of action.

Once the team has detected one or more root-causes, the facilitator should provide an opportunity for a comfort break and begin to allow the discussion to move towards solutions or approaches to the problem.

On occasions I have found it helpful to invite a different facilitator to lead this second aspect of the discussion, thus reminding colleagues that we are moving forwards with a different focus.


Pupil outcomes were not as we predicted them to be


Some subject/phase leaders predicted incorrect results for pupils


There was a lack of understanding from Team X or Colleague X as to what constitutes a pass or grade X


Colleagues X, Y, Z have less experience and the current quality assurance of data input has been limited


They are working in smaller teams and there was an assumption that moderation across the whole school would be sufficient


We didn’t consider the bespoke CPD or data input process that this small group of colleagues might need in relation to data input and predicting pupil outcomes


  • More experienced staff members to be “data-input buddies” and to support data-input for these colleagues.
  • No colleague inputting data predictions in isolation.
  • Bespoke CPD on predictions facilitated by more experienced teachers.
  • Digital resource showcasing high, medium and low-level pupil work having achieved each grade criteria to support moderation and CPD.
  • Inviting further moderation from external partner to support these teams.


It is important to remember that problems will not yield easy or straightforward solutions. However, understanding the root cause of problems can enable us to grow in our expertise of the problem and be better equipped for identifying better fitting solutions.

We may find that the problem-cause analysis approach with leaders surfaces unlikely solutions in our schools and challenges existing orthodoxies that we hold in our leadership teams.

  • Sean Harris is a doctoral researcher with Teesside University investigating the ways in which system leaders can help to address the problems of poverty and educational inequality in schools. He is also a trust improvement leader at Tees Valley Education, an all-through multi-academy trust serving communities in the North East of England. You can follow on Twitter @SeanHarris_NE and read his previous best practice articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • Barker & Rees: The persistent problems of school leadership, Ambition Institute, 2021:
  • Farley, Childs & Johnson: Preparing school leaders for America’s wicked problems? How the revised PSEL and NELP standards address equity and justice, Education Policy Analysis Archives (27,115), 2019.
  • Ohno: Toyota Production System: Beyond large-scale production, Productivity Press, 1988.
  • Tague: The Quality Toolbox, Quality Press Publications, 2005.
  • Tintoré et al : A scoping review of problems and challenges faced by school leaders (2003 to 2019), Educational Management Administration & Leadership (50, 4), 2022:
  • Vale: The value of asking questions, Molecular Biology of the Cell, March 2013:

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.