Lessons from Headstrong

Headstrong, by Dame Sally Coates with Steve Adcock and Michael Ribton, highlights eleven lessons for school leaders – handily though unintentionally making it easier for me to structure this blog post. Although many of the lessons are relevant for leaders more generally, the writers mention on a number of occasions that their focus is primarily on schools in challenging circumstances which need turning round. The book draws on the writers’ experiences in transforming Burlington Danes Academy in London.

Headstrong begins with the narrative surrounding Coates’ appointment as headteacher of Burlington Danes whilst the remainder of the book explores what it takes to turn a school round. This includes, “strong leadership; dedicated and talented teachers; decent facilities and resources; and personalised support.”

Coates sets out to establish that, even though “the tragedy is we’ve known about the pernicious link between social background and achievement for decades,” there is no need to accept this link in a defeatist or fatalistic manner. In fact, with strong leadership, and in particular a strong headteacher, Coates argues schools can have an impact on achievement and therefore play their part in narrowing social divisions. The 11 lessons are as follows.

Lesson 1 – Lead from the front

A central message of Headstrong is that headteachers should be flying the flag for SLT, teachers and students to follow. In order to do this, they should be authentic – few of any worth will follow an inauthentic leader or a false idol.

In the early days of leadership, Coates argues headteachers should maximise the leverage they have in their honeymoon period to kickstart necessary changes. This means not accepting that which is substandard, thereby setting your high expectations early. Coates warns against timidity and directs new headteachers who wish to turn a school around towards being:

  • Professional
  • Decisive
  • Boundlessly optimistic
  • Energetic
  • Calm
  • Authoritative
  • Brutally honest

Lesson 2 – High expectations

The kind of high expectations Coates believes should be set early stem from having belief in the students – a belief that should exist no matter what the students’ backgrounds. Children, on the whole, won’t rise higher than their community expects them to and their environment allows, though there will be outliers.

Your behaviour system, Coates maintains, helps demonstrate your expectations. This includes detentions, ‘corrections’ and acceptance of low level disruption. Maintaining high expectations is affected by the contemporary cultural climate but this cultural climate can be overcome by effective relationships and systems driven by strong leadership in schools. Pivotally, the claim of high expectations is less important than the consistency of their application.

Lesson 3 – Professional culture

Coates argues for the prioritising of teacher quality. Central to this is the creation of a culture where teachers can do their jobs, which she goes on to outline in lesson 4.

Making the right appointments to your team is key, but alongside this should be opportunities to gather together to develop and reflect through internally organised CPD. SLT should be a clear presence in the school on what Coates calls walkabout. The idea is to generate a level of sensible consistency. Coates also argues that, where possible, because you’ll have developed your staff you should promote from within.

Lesson 4 – Set Your Teachers up to Focus on Marking, Planning and Teaching

Coates sees this as meaning headteachers and SLT having a vital role in enabling teachers to do the core of the job. In order to achieve this, leaders should secure behavioural standards; recruit wisely; establish minimum standards and core expectations for teaching; provide opportunities for development; and, over time, enable teacher autonomy.

Lesson 5 – Create a culture of transparency and accountability.

Headteachers, Coates believes, are responsible for ensuring that rigorous, accurate, meaningful data is in the hands of those who need it: namely teachers, students, parents and the rest of their SLT. This means that the relevant staff must have had training on producing and using robust assessments. It also requires that checks are in place to secure accuracy of assessment. Coates maintains there should be a rigour rather than ruthlessness around data. She also believes in rank orders as a catalyst or motivator for student progress and, therefore, attainment.

Lesson 6 – Treat students as individuals and personalise intervention.

Headteachers, according to Coates, should make sure students are known as individuals and cared for – in part this means developing and maintaining a strong tutor and pastoral system. It also means:

  • Getting the right data into the right hands.
  • Avoiding intervention outside class impacting on learning inside class.
  • Treating exclusions with the gravitas they deserve.
  • Looking to maximise students’ talents.

Lesson 7 – Create clear systems and structures

Coates asserts that SLT need to be both operational and strategic. They need to gain and maintain the respect of other members of staff, students and the community. School, pastoral and faculty structures all need to be in alignment with the school’s vision. In terms of timetabling and intervention, Coates argues we should look first at how you can maximise the time you have already in the school day before adding any more.

Lesson 8 – Cultivate a Bullet Proof Culture and Ethos.

Here, Coates makes the argument that schools need to create their own code of honour. A headteacher is the champion of the school, the establishment and maintenance of this code. This includes the internal relationships between students, staff and the school as well as the relationship between the school and the community. To achieve this:

  • Use assemblies to share key messages about culture. They drive a sense of collective purpose.
  • Behaviour systems, uniform, your extra-curricular offer, a house system and decor play a key role here too.
  • Use newsletters and staff briefings to support in the development of the code.

Lesson 9 – Develop the Whole Child

Academic outcomes alone are not enough. Many schools talk about developing character without thinking hard enough about the mechanisms through which they will do so.

A substantial role here is played by the school’s extra-curricular and co-curricular programmes. Students need to be aware of and take up the positive opportunities available to them within and outside the school gates if they are to become positive participants in society. Engagement with charities and the local community enable students to see the impact they can have on the world outside of school.

Leadership opportunities, such as school council member and prefect, offer students opportunities to practice the roles they might take on in society in the future.

Diet – both that provided by the school canteen and that sold by local shops – is important too.

Development of character comes from teachers modelling respect towards each other and towards students.

Lesson 10 – Schools Don’t Operate in a Vacuum

In this chapter, Coates deals with the impact of government policy and external accountability. Schools leaders, she argues, have to accept accountability and change but do so whilst managing it in the best interest of their students.

Schools can both support students towards academic success and nurture them to develop other talents.

Accountability is required to ensure they do both. A key point she makes is that testing brings equity between students taught in middle class schools and their peers in other communities. Accountability therefore brings credibility to the profession. In the 1970s-1990s, there were issues for students in schools serving low income communities as they were often neglected. The curriculum in any school shouldn’t hold students back, no matter their background. In fact, it should be designed specifically to help students maintain equality with their peers. Schools are well placed to make a significant impact on social inequalities, though they cannot do this in isolation. Homes, parents and societies matter. This takes a significant commitment from all staff, particularly in schools in deprived areas and challenging circumstances.

Lesson 11 – The Pebble and the Mountain

In this lesson, Coates outlines four stages of school improvement:

  1. Intensive care – six months in which the head tackles low expectations and poor teaching. Some headteachers get stuck in this stage as it’s intoxicating for them. This is where schools can become based on fear rather than trust.
  2. Critical but stable – here, headteachers work on convincing staff that they can develop under the new regime. Provision of excellent training is important here. Leaders need to be highly visible here to support this development of increased expectations.
  3. Development – Coates also calls this professionalisation. In this phase, headteachers shore up routines and rituals to develop a systemic approach to each aspect of school life. Leadership can be distributed more at this stage.
  4. Collaboration – this is where the head is looking to share what they’re doing with others. This can include expansion.

Constant renewal runs through each of these stages. Everyone, especially leaders, needs to guard against complacency. Small details matter as they all add up to the overall impact your school has on the students and the community. This includes the school environment and uniform. Criticism and correction is done in private whilst praise is done publicly. Leaders need one eye on the long term and the other on the day to day processes of the school.


Leadership matters. Though there are standard aspects of school development, strong leaders are required to adapt these to a specific school’s context. Schools are human organisations so require strong systems but strong human leaders and relationships. The headteacher drives this agenda.

Coates argues that headteachers need to find their own strengths and play to their advantage – there are other models than Sally Coates’ but hers is most likely to be successful in schools in areas of deprivation or schools in challenging circumstances which need turning round.

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