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Free article: Leading the way to outstanding learner progress

Published: Monday, 08 May 2017

Steve Burnage discusses engaging with good practice in the leadership of teaching and learning.


  • The leadership of teaching and learning is central to any school, college or academy leader’s role.
  • Good leaders will promote and participate in teacher learning and development in order to gain the very best from their teachers.
  • Through planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum school leaders can support learners on their journey towards outstanding learning outcomes.


This article explores how school leaders create a learning community to improve learning for all. If effective schools are those where a range of outcomes for children and young people are provided for, and where pupils make better progress than predicted on the basis of where they started, then the quality of the teachers and the learning they provide are central to success. The steps taken to attract, appoint, develop, support and retain good teachers are vital responsibilities for school leaders. Leadership is not just a second order effect influencing through others – it is integral to the learning of the whole school community.

So what do we know about the leadership of teaching and learning? Much can be learned from inspection reports and education research.

What can we learn from inspections reports?

According to Ofsted, in effective schools, effective leaders set the tone in terms of how learning is understood, they actively develop all their staff in ways which improve teaching and learning and they ensure that the organisation is designed and operated in ways that focus on learning and teaching.

Ofsted has no doubt where the observed strengths and weaknesses in teaching and learning lie (please see the table below).

Characteristics of teaching

Enthusiastic, knowledgeable and focused clearly on developing pupils/understanding of important skills. Ineffective teaching methods, low expectations, weaknesses in planning, poor use of assessment.
Constructive relationships between pupils and staff. Tasks and resources fail to meet the needs of pupils of different abilities.
Pupils encouraged to become indenpendent in their learning. Ofted pedestrian or pays too little attention to what pupils need to do to improve.
Assessment used well to monitor pupils' progress - enabling pupils to understand how well they are doing and teachers to plan challenging activities. Opportunities to use and apply mathematics too restricted to short everyday problems rather than more extended work.
Challenges and engages pupils. Setting tasks for pupil that are not sufficiently demanding limits opportunities to extend kowledge and understanding and apply what has been learnt.
Makes regular use of assessment to match activities to their needs and abilities. These missed opportunities result in loss of interest, slow progress and deteriorating behaviour.
  Uninspiring teaching is often too dependent on published materials which are not well matched to pupils' needs.


In schools where there was deemed outstanding leadership of learning and teaching, inspectors found:

  • A strong culture of self-evaluation and parents were clear about the high aspirations for pupils.
  • Traditional values for behaviour alongside innovative curriculum programmes; young people were equipped with excellent interpersonal skills and good qualifications.

Strong leadership was seen as crucial to learners’ success in ensuring:

  • Clear roles among the senior leadership team.
  • Shared leadership focus on teaching and learning.
  • A high profile to effective support for students with learning difficulties.

Middle leaders were also seen as playing a central leadership role in learning and teaching. They:

  • Took responsibility for monitoring teaching and standards in their departments.
  • Advanced skills teachers (ASTs) promoted outstanding practice both in the school and beyond.
  • There was a shared commitment to CPD.

What can we learn from research?

Research also suggests that the way leaders work to bring out the best in others i.e. motivating staff, will directly improve outcomes for pupils when used alongside:

  • Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development.
  • Planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum.

Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development

This involved more than just providing opportunities for staff development. The leader participates with his or her staff as the leader, learner or both. Such learning can be formal (staff meetings and professional development) or informal (discussions about specific teaching problems). The impact of this dimension underlines the value of school leaders as the ‘leading learners’ of their school. In higher achieving and higher gain schools, school leaders are more likely to be active participants in teacher learning and development and more likely to participate in staff discussions of teaching and teaching problems.

Planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum

Leaders in higher performing schools were distinguished by their active oversight and co-ordination of teaching – an idea captured by the term ‘shared instructional leadership’. They were more directly involved in co-ordinating the curriculum across year levels than in lower performing schools and in activities such as developing progressions of teaching objectives for reading across year levels. Such leaders were found to be directly involved in classroom observation and subsequent feedback, with positive comments from staff about how useful such feedback was and how helpful appraisal interviews were in identifying ways to improve teaching. There was greater emphasis in higher performing schools on staff monitoring student progress and using test results to improve lesson planning.

Condensing findings from a number of pieces of research, it can be argued that good leadership improves the quality of learning and teaching when:

  • There is clear pupil-centred vision and purpose ensured pupils reached their potential.
  • Maximising young people’s well-being and achievements was at the heart of these schools.
  • Getting the best or most out of people was related to the philosophy, leadership approach and personal skills of the headteacher, including:
    o Motivating, encouraging, trusting and valuing colleagues to do well.
    o Modelling, leading by example, especially in teaching.
    o Providing an opportunity to undertake greater responsibility and undergo development programmes from the second year of teaching.
    o Promoting professional development focused on teaching, learning and leadership, and keeping abreast of change; coaching is much in evidence.
    o Encouraging initiative and allowing people – students and staff – to experiment, confident they will be supported.
    o Showing interest and being generous with praise, encouragement and help in moving forward.
    o Knowing the names of a very high proportion of learners; valuing and respecting them.
    o Being community-minded, involving, consulting and being engaged within the local community.
    o Building teams and empowering them.
    o Approachability and the ability and readiness to listen. Closeness to the core work of the school meant that headteachers were aware of people’s needs and what colleagues were already doing.
    o Innovative heads were identified as looking out for new ideas and being entrepreneurial.
    o Enthusiasm, associated with commitment, passion, hard work and energy. This is also motivational, especially when accompanied by a sense of humour.
    o Determination and decisiveness; without denying the importance of consultation and distributed leadership the best heads are credited with having high expectations, setting high standards and being very demanding.
    o Effective communication skills to imbue staff with confidence, relate to learners and manage day-to-day transactions, consultation and corporate decision making.
    o A focus on quality, which applies most to learning and teaching but is reflected through analysis and observation, high expectations, moral purpose and a striving for excellence, on the basis that learners deserve nothing less.
  • Leadership actions develop a learning community, in which staff learning is key to enhancing student learning in three ways:
    o Creating a collaborative culture: a collegiate approach ensures knowledge is shared through expectations and systems (such as ‘learning triads’).
    o Ensuring staff learning: a non-negotiable process includes appraisal, coaching and mentoring and systems for peer learning.
    o Widening the community to include links with other cultures: networks, learning partnerships and outreach work can include engagement with national organisations and education in other countries.

You can audit your own leadership of learning and teaching using Template 1.

Leadership for Personalising Learning (West-Burnham 2008), uses linked processes as the basis for good leadership for learning:

  • Modelling – setting an example.
  • Monitoring – analysing and acting on data relating to pupils’ progress and outcomes.
  • Dialogue – creating opportunities for teachers to talk with their colleagues about learning and teaching.

This triad concentrates on doing a relatively small number of important things well, it is important not to overcomplicate the craft of leadership.

Template 2 allows you to plan how your school leadership team might implement these three key areas of West-Burnham’s leadership for learning


In order to ensure sustained positive impact on the quality of learning and teaching in school, it is important that senior leaders take into account:

  1. Good leadership powers the drive for school improvement and pupils’ success.
  2. Well-led schools are clear on their missions and proactive about their futures.
  3. In highly effective schools, leaders are involved in learning and with learners. As pedagogical leaders, they are both highly skilled in teaching and learning and deploy considerable leadership skills.
  4. Effective leadership provides for CPD of all staff, including structured opportunities for leadership development.
  5. As far as possible, effective leaders of learning apply the same principles, values and expectations to staff as to student learning, building a community of learners.
  6. The development of pedagogical leadership uses a range of practical approaches within the home, school or a group of schools utilising the experience of outstanding schools.


  • How do school leaders successfully lead learning? Matthews, NCSL, 2014
  • The Impact of School Leadership on Pupil Outcomes: Identifying what works and why, Day, C, Sammons, P, Hopkins, D, Harris, A, Leithwood, K, Gu, Q, Penlington, C, Mehta, P & Kington, A, ACEL, 2007
  • Leadership for Personalising Learning By West-Burnham, NCSL, 2018


Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Steve Burnage has a breadth of experience leading challenging inner-city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Steve may be contacted by email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via his website