Rethinking Leadership: What else? What next? What if?

In partnership with Big Education


7th February 2024

The development of school leaders is critical to the current and future success of our highly devolved school system. We have come a long way in England, but a significant gap remains between current provision and what is needed for leadership development. While NPQ reforms are a positive step forward, leaders need a more holistic journey which empowers them with the skills, knowledge and mindsets to respond to the challenging and changing contexts within which they are working.

Rethinking Leadership

In the report ‘Rethinking Leadership: What else? What next? What if?’, Joe Hallgarten CEO of CfEY, and Liz Robinson, CEO of the multi academy trust Big Education, explore the problem as it is, what else is needed, and what might come next.

The research identifies a range of areas where change is required, including the need to:

  • Think more broadly about leadership learning beyond the NPQs
  • Address the lack of diversity and inclusion within leadership
  • Better understand and cater for the distinct role of the ‘leader’
  • Ensure sufficient progression in leadership development and support
  • Review the role of research evidence in leadership development design
  • Review how market forces and government contracts are affecting innovation
  • Value and nurture collective, ‘non-positional’ teacher leadership

It calls for leadership development that will cultivate leaders who are adaptive in the face of change and can tackle wicked problems such as the challenges faced by our most vulnerable young people, which CfEY highlighted in our book ‘Young People on the Margins’.

This report shines new light on an area of work CfEY has explored for some time, through reports on topic such as multi academy trust leadership, building the leadership pool in London schools, and what makes an effective middle leader.

It also speak to our more recent work on Area-Based Education Partnerships, with a survey from our research on this topic revealing that almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of leaders across primary and secondary schools in England say The Department for Education (DfE) has too much power over decision-making in their school.

Finally, the report stresses the need to enable leaders to attend to their own and others’ wellbeing, an important theme in CfEY’s recent research on mental health professional development with Minds Ahead.


Drawing on a wide-ranging consultation with thinkers, leaders, academics and training providers from across the sector, the report makes recommendations for the future in the areas set out below.

The DfE should:

  • Undertake a full review of NPQH and NPQEL, to consider how to expand their scope and remit to more fully meet the needs of emerging and existing leaders.
  • Draw on evidence from alternative programmes and providers, including international examples.
  • Consider creating opportunities for leaders to learn with, and from, leaders from other sectors.

The government should:

  • Commission an independent expert review of leadership development provision, to consider more broadly the needs and wants of school leaders,  and learnings from approaches beyond the education sector.
  • urgently review the role of Ofsted in relation to leadership.

In the coming phases of development of its work, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) should: 

  • Evolve the selection, generation and mobilisation of research evidence.
  • Trial existing promising interventions in the school leadership field that go beyond the scope of the NPQH and NPQEL.
  • Consider a broader range of methodologies beyond RCTs.
  •  Review the scope of research schools.

In collaboration, the government and EEF should:

  • Support the design and delivery of five pilot approaches/interventions nationally.
  • Support the evaluation and tracking of impact of these interventions over the next three years. 

All stakeholders should:

  • Prioritise strategies which seek to address the significant and enduring underrepresentation of those from protected characteristics at all levels of leadership.
  • Learn from best practice nationally and internationally.
  • Support existing successful interventions to accelerate growth and reach.
  • Design and implement a specific, high quality, national entitlement to training and development for leaders from global majority heritages.
  • Closely track and monitor the efficacy of programmes as well as reporting on outcomes.

Governing bodies, Multi-academy Trust Boards and others with responsibility for school governance should: 

  • Develop their own understanding of the leadership skills, competencies, and expertise they value and want to cultivate in their most senior leaders.
  • Consider how they can invest resources into school leadership development and opportunities, going beyond the NPQs, that support leaders to develop.

Next steps

A group of educators, MATs and systems leaders involved in the creation of this research has now committed to continuing the work under the banner of ‘Rethinking Leadership’. Hosted by Big Education, The Edge Foundation, the University of Worcester and Ashoka, this group has co‑created a vision for leadership development, with the aim of deepening and extending practice to support innovation. Get in touch if you want to hear more or be involved!

In partnership with: