In our second report on the IOE Conference we begin by reflecting on Professor Katherine Riley’s call for compassionate leadership.

We then turn to the presentations by Professors Louise Stoll and Qing Gu.

Compassion and moral purpose

In her opening keynote at the conference, Professor Katherine Riley made a strong case for compassionate leadership in schools. 

On reflection, we would find it hard to believe that anyone working in the education service lacked compassion or moral purpose. Surely it is a prerequisite? However, it is an observed variable amongst teachers and school leaders. In our experience some of this variability can be attributed to the context in which they find themselves, access to suitable role models and personal disposition. 

When I first became a head teacher in the 1990s I challenged a particularly stern member of my leadership team about why they appeared to lack compassion in dealing with our students and staff. They replied that they had been told as trainee teachers not to smile until December, but no one mentioned which year. I suggested that last December seemed a good starting point.

Leadership in education – a global perspective

Professor Louise Stoll provided a brief but succinct global perspective on educational leadership. Her presentation was divided into four parts.

  • The future of society and education, 

  • The case for sustainable learning and sustainable schools 

  • The need to create the capacity for sustainable learning. 

From this, she identified the leadership agenda. 

For her perspective on the future, Professor Stoll referenced the OECD initiative which identified longevity, sustainability and wellbeing as some of the aspects of the future which need to be addressed. From her own work she spoke of a power that she called the “habit of mind, individual and collective.” Utilising this to “engage in and sustain learning at all levels of the educational system for the collective purpose of enhancing pupil learning and wellbeing and to be truly open to embracing the transformation necessary to address complex educational challenges.”

She concluded by presenting her leadership agenda for the future:

  • Purpose fit for the future

  • Learning, leadership and leadership learning – curiosity and inquiry, mindful, creative, courageous, fearless, transformative – modelling and growing

  • Collaborative and connected leadership within and beyond schools – co-creation, networking, knowledge exchange, collective endeavour, collective responsibility

  • Nourishing, stimulating, creative and flexible workplaces and working lives

  • A new language.

Why quality retention matters

Bringing a current focus to the conference, Professor Qing Gu, Director, UCL Centre for Educational leadership drew on her own research and her colleagues to make the case that if schooling were to improve then improving the quality of teaching was essential. In the current climate with its a global recruitment crisis, this improvement was unlikely to be achieved solely by appointing newly-trained teachers. However, as the Matthew Effects illustrates, schools in England have consistently demonstrated their ability to use resources to transform their organisational capacity and cultures to retain their teachers and to continue to improve year-on-year. 

These schools focus on the generic and situational or contextual aspects of their teacher learning. In addition, they work from their teachers’ learning requirements to the school and system-wide. She concluded by stating that “teachers who excel and whose students excel with them do not just do so on their own.” It was a whole school approach which has to be underpinned by quality leadership. 

We are grateful to Professors, Riley, Stoll and Gu for allowing us to reference their presentations at the UCL Centre for Educational Leadership annual conference, Connecting Research, Policy and Practice – Leading into the Future held in London on January 30-31 2023. We are sure that our global readership will be interested in their work and it will provide a point for reflection on their own. 

In our next conference report we focus on the presentations from those working within the school system in England. 

Take care and stay safe


Professor Sir George Berwick, CBE