In today’s tough teaching world, what makes a good primary leader? – Words by Emma Turner.


As Sir John Jones says in his book, “The magic weaving business”, great teachers possess “passion, wisdom and righteous indignation”. A good primary leader is no different.

Understanding the purpose of primary education is central to excellence in primary leadership. This may seem obvious, but when interpreting national guidance, research or training, the unique domain specific primary lens is needed through which to view associated advice, professional learning and development. In primary, Children join at the edges of toddlerhood and journey through to the cusp of adolescence. This is a huge developmental trajectory, and great primary leaders will develop teams who are skilled within and knowledgeable about the associated pedagogies and practices specific to the challenges, demands and joys of teaching children in this stage of their development.

The leader’s development of the culture of a school is key. It is possible to “feel” the culture of a school within moments of arriving on site. It permeates all aspects of the life and work of everyone in the building. It is not some will-o-the-wisp type magic that floats down corridors though, but the result of clear and shared understanding of what the school believes, champions and is willing to challenge. It is the school’s own passion, wisdom and righteous indignation. Culture is not set on an inspirational leadership day, nor does is reside in a verbose word document in a lever arch file somewhere or an expensive wall decal. It is developed through the relentless focus on everyone doing the right thing in the right way at the right time.

The behaviour of children in school, including their attitudes to learning and their in class learning behaviours are a key area for focus for any primary leader. Without the bedrock of behaviour established as a secure foundation, no further work in school can flourish. Behaviour and culture therefore need to be central pillars of the work of an effective school leader.

Balancing the demands of the primary curriculum are huge. With only approximately 228 hours available to teach the whole of the National Curriculum Key Stages 1 and 2 for each of the foundation subjects, devising a curriculum to serve your school community, inspire, challenge and support which at the same time is academically robust and suitably resourced is a vast challenge. Developing and accessing curriculum networks across primaries, liaising with secondary colleagues, and sharing subject leader expertise is therefore a key way in which to enrich and develop the curriculum offer. This is especially important where staff may be leading more than one subject or there may not be a subject expert on the staff. Developing communities and network to support the work of curriculum therefore not only supports staff but provides further opportunities for collaboration and sharing of ideas and practice across the sector.

A great culture, a well devised and resourced curriculum and a focus on developing excellence in primary pedagogy can ensure that staff, any school’s most precious resource, are then unencumbered to focus on teaching and learning. Great school leaders get things out of the way which would otherwise prevent or impede the work of the teachers and support staff. A culture which supports staff to do their most important work – that of the face to face interactions and teaching with the children is a staff which is likely to then have a manageable workload – an unmanageable one often cited as a reason for leaving the profession.

Devising systems and structures which allow teachers to teach, which have a focus on reducing extraneous workload and which enable staff to focus on their core business of teaching and learning is therefore one of the hallmarks of a great primary leader.

Enabling teachers daily to demonstrate their passion for primary practice and to develop and use the wisdom of experience should therefore be an aspect of primary leadership “righteous indignation”.


Emma Turner

Emma Turner has served in primary education for 25 years across multiple schools within teaching, leading and headship. She has worked as national strategy consultant and as Trust Research & CPD Lead and is due to begin a new role as Deputy Director of Education for a West Midlands MAT.

Emma provides school improvement support locally, nationally and internationally, and regularly guest lectures within ITE and ECF.

She has written four previous books on education – Simplicitus, Be More Toddler, Let’s Talk about Flex, and The Extended Mind In Action. She co-hosts the John Catt Podcast ‘Mind the Gap’ with Tom Sherrington.

She is also a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and Advisory Board Member for the Global Equality Collective.

Twitter handle @Emma_Turner75