Leadership has always been an uncertain and messy business, and no more so than today. In the eye of the Covid-19 storm, school leaders found themselves holding the ring, struggling to manage the emotional overload, as well as the requirements of governments and the needs of families, staff and communities. Middle-level leaders juggled often irreconcilable priorities, and national governments responded to the crisis with varying degrees of success.

Times are tough in the English education system currently and in some instances tougher than during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the extremes of a crisis, people come together: (‘we’re all in the same boat’). For most school leaders, the pandemic was an all-encompassing sprint, with their energy directed towards getting over the finishing line: the vaccine; young people and staff back in school.

School leadership today is becoming a marathon, and the finishing line is positioned on an all too distant horizon. Global uncertainties and events generate a perpetual storm cloud for our education marathon runner who is likely to encounter many obstacles along the way. Some are economic: deepening pressures on school budgets; growing numbers of young people and their families living in poverty. Other obstacles are social and psychological: growing numbers of young people seemingly reluctant to come to school, and those who attend more likely than in the past to be uncooperative. Meanwhile, schools are suspending or excluding more pupils, and new challenges emerge out of the mist.

Scanning the contemporary landscape, two different models of how to be a school leader seem to be emerging. The first I would characterise as relational and the second as functional.

The relational leaders have learned to ride the Covid-19 ‘leadership wobble board’ – not with ease but with compassion, and with the help of others. Their experience of the pandemic had led them to re-affirm – that first and foremost – children and young people need to be seen for who they are, rather than as the examination grades they are projected to achieve. By and large, they have emerged from the crisis with a determination to step forward into more compassionate and relational forms of leadership, and they seek to build trustful alliances and connect more deeply to staff, young people and their families.1

For many other school leaders, the trials of the Covid-19 period have led them to conclude that they need to ‘fix’ things – and in ways they know and understand. For them, this means stepping back into old and familiar ways of working which can broadly be labelled as command-and-control. In a national climate of high stakes testing and accountability, a more functionally driven response to leadership seems a safe route.

Given contemporary challenges, it is entirely understandable that across the leadership ‘piste’, many school leaders are hesitant to go down the compassionate leadership track, reluctant to leave the familiar and believing that the ‘control’ ski run will get them across the finishing line. Equally too, the leadership road ahead is far from easy for those headteachers who want to create schools which are spaces of belonging and compassion, yet feel overwhelmed by the many pressures and the structural constraints of England’s strong national accountability system… And yet the compassionate way has much to offer!2


Neuroscientists report that we are hard-wired for compassion3 and the journey to kindness and compassion has benefits for all – so what’s getting in the way? The barriers include:

  • the shackles of routines
  • the complexity of regulations and protocols
  • the fear of making mistakes in organisations and systems that are bureaucratic and overly prescriptive
  • demanding performance targets; stress and overload.4

The benefits can be found in the process and the outcomes. The weight of evidence suggests that a compassionate approach encourages ingenuity, flexibility and a ‘can do’ culture. Compassion brings out the best in people. It enables leaders to acknowledge their own limitations and to bring joy and fulfilment into the lives of others. It helps make connections and is the superglue that binds communities together: the ingredient that has the potential to redress some of the imbalances and inequities accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

I often describe the compassionate leader as someone who possesses the enviable skills of an eagle: that capacity to look in two directions at the same time. Their vision crosses boundaries, reaches out to communities and takes account of the internal world of the school, as well as the world beyond the school gates. This is why compassionate leadership and school belonging go hand-in-hand.


The educational rewards of compassionate leadership are rich and the costs minimal. Compassionate leaders ‘walk’ their leadership in a highly relational way by:

  •  Attending: They are present and focussed on young people and adults.
  •  Understanding: They listen and ‘see’ people for who they are.
  •  Empathising: They are aware of the needs and feelings of others and are committed to responding to those needs.
  •  Helping: They draw on their wisdom (their skills and knowledge) to identify purposeful and intelligent actions.

Their wisdom grows from marrying the intellect and the heart. Wisdom enables them to ask the questions that matter, such as:

What holds people together? What builds communities?

Compassionate leaders act from ‘first principles’.5 They take a long hard look at their school communities, drawing on the Prism of Place and Belonging (a concept I developed some time ago), to help them think about the school from the ‘Inside-out’ and the ‘outside-in’: see Table 1.

From the ‘Inside-Out‘:

  • Do young people understand what is expected of them, believe that what they say matters, think their teachers listen to them?
  • Do they feel connected and safe (physically and emotionally): a key aspect of belonging?
  • Do staff feel respected and have a voice?

From the ‘Outside-In‘:

  • Do families feel accepted and heard?
  • Whose voices are heard?
  • How does the school respond to what’s going on locally? Ignore / evade / engage?

School leaders matter. They are the mediating force whose values shape the culture of the school. Whether a school becomes a place
of welcome and possibilities, or a closed place where young people are ostracised by a clique of their peers, and staff feel unappreciated
is down to the leadership. Leaders have choices about how they lead.


What kind of school are you trying to create?

1. See K. Riley, (2022), Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging, downloadable free at UCL Press (chapters 7 and 8), for a discussion of research undertaken with 16 headteachers and school principals during lockdown. This research is reported more fully in K. Riley & M. Mendoza (2020), Leading in a New Era: Compassionate leadership for place and belonging, A Research Inquiry. Telford & Wrekin Council, The London Boroughs of Hackney & Islington.(

2. A parallel model is that of ‘Caring’ leadership developed by M. A. Smylie, J. Murphy & K. Seashore Louis (2020) The Practice of Caring School Leadership. California: Corwin Press.


4. This analysis is based on an exploration of compassionate leadership in the health and care sectors. West, M. A. (2021) Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care: The Swirling Leaf Press.

5. See: Q3 What do schools look like where belonging works? Let’s Start with First Principles