The role of creative leadership in schools

As the new Creativity Collaboratives begin their exciting programme Bill Lucas, Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester, shares findings from new research to support them on their journey

Across the world the importance of creativity is increasingly being acknowledged in education systems. But though leadership in schools is well-researched in general terms, leadership for creativity is not. The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education identified ways in which creativity can play a larger part in the lives of young people, both within, and beyond, the current education system and laid out the challenges facing school leaders embedding teaching for creativity in their schools, in essence that many want creativity to be more central in their schools but few feel confident in the current educational climate in England to do so. Funded by the Mercers’ Company, new research Creative Leadership to develop creativity and creative thinking in English schools, reviews the evidence on which school leaders can draw and has been designed to begin to answer some of the challenges raised in the Durham Commission.

What does creativity look like in secondary schools?

One answer to this question is the University of Winchester model featured in the Durham Commission. It has evolved over nearly a decade in more than thirty countries. Thomas Tallis School in London, England, has one of the most developed and practically useful versions of the model anywhere in the world. The model has five creative habits of mind – imaginative, inquisitive, persistent, collaborative, disciplined, each of which has three sub-elements.

Nine steps towards a creative school

A conventional definition of educational leadership from Vivianne Robinson is that it ‘causes others to do things that can be expected to improve educational outcomes for students.’ When thinking about teaching for creativity this is certainly true, but it calls on a real understanding of creativity and of what it is to be creative in life. Each of the nine steps below ends with an invitation for a school leader to reflect on their practice.

1. Create an agenda for change

In England it requires bravery to embark on a leadership journey where creativity is prioritised in a world where Ofsted tends to focus on literacy, numeracy and examination results more generally, especially at 16+. But with the energy provided by the new Creativity Collaboratives and the authority given to creativity by the new PISA test of creative thinking in 2022, the context for schools is becoming more encouraging.

Tip - Download the Durham Commission report, read the opening chapters and create an agenda for action in your school.

2. Set a creative tone

One of the most important jobs of a school leader is to set goals and expectations for the institution and at the same time to inspire staff to to feel safe about the development of their own creativity. Louise Stoll and Julie Temperley’s research identified nine conditions ‘that creative leaders appear to need to work towards in their school to promote and nurture creativity in others’. These include stimulating a sense of urgency, exposing colleagues to new thinking and experiences, and promoting individual and collaborative creative thinking.

Tip - Read pages 5-11 of the research by Stoll and Timperley and ask yourself how many of the conditions for creative leadership are already present in your school.

3. Resource for creativity

With any change in schools there will always be resource issues of time, skills and money. A key activity for secondary school leaders is to create time for staff to plan lessons together. Specifically, they will need to decide where opportunities for students to develop their creativity can best be located in every subject on the curriculum, perhaps using the five creative habits model to guide them.

Reflection - Who is already teaching for creativity in your school? How can you make time for them to share their learning together and then more widely across the school?

4. Prioritise pedagogies for creativity

School leaders who want to cultivate creativity take a keen interest in teaching and learning. They realise that curriculum planning is hugely important if creativity is to be embedded in every subject of the school. They appreciate that some pedagogies are more likely to cultivate creativity than others. In selecting methods, they are aware that flexible, well-designed learning spaces are essential, that open-ended questioning is important, that it is important to engage learners in meaningful and authentic activities and that collaboration enhances creativity.

Reflection - Download Creative Leadership to develop creativity and creative thinking in English schools and read Chapter 3. Which of the signature pedagogies described might be most suitable for your school?

5. Promote formative assessment that stimulates and recognises creativity

In our own work we have begun to identify the kinds of formative assessment methods being used to track the development of student’s creativity in schools across the world, see the below chart for an example.

Tip - Use the table below as a prompt for your teachers to take stock of the methods they are already using. Ask them to find out more about one new method and try it out in their own teaching.

Example of table to track the development of student’s creativity in schools

6. Influence teacher attitudes to their creativity

Research suggests that the development of teachers’ creativity and the development of teachers’ skill at teaching for creativity are connected. But not all teachers believe they are or can be creative! It is important that leaders create opportunities for teachers actively to develop their own creativity.

Tip - Share the Tallis habits model with a group of teachers. Ask them to look at the five creative habits and talk about which of the five they feel most confident about as an adult. Get them talking about the kinds of things they are doing when they are using one of the habits.

7. Nurture and grow creative leaders

Creative leaders need to be thinking about growing all leaders in their school to be catalysts for the sorts of changes that bring about creativity. While there is little research specifically focused on teacher leadership for creativity, the significant role of distributed leadership in bringing about change and improvement is increasingly widely documented.

Tip - Invite teachers to visit different classrooms and observe each other in action. Afterwards get them to debrief using the five habits model to describe the creative teaching they saw. Invite them to think about how they could use their leadership to support others.

8. Develop a school-wide creative professional learning community

From wider study of school leadership, we know that the promotion and participation in continuous professional development and learning (CPDL) is the single most important activity that teachers can undertake in terms of improving outcomes for pupils. Significantly the impact is most marked when leaders participate in professional learning alongside their staff.

Tip - Plan and deliver an introductory CPDL session for the whole staff which takes them through the nine steps outlined in this article.

9. Connect with the wider learning eco-system

The Creativity Exchange has been designed explicitly to connect teachers and school leaders with the wider eco-system. For our research indicates that there are many promising practices out there; they are just not widely enough known yet.

Tip - Browse the site and encourage others in your school to do so too.


Countries across the world are increasingly focusing on the teaching of creativity. As the Creativity Collaboratives start their important work here in England there is a growing appetite for this too. Creative Leadership to develop creativity and creative thinking in English schools has been written to help all schools in their creative journey; please share it widely.

Professor Bill Lucas is Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. With Dr Ellen Spencer he has researched and written extensively about teaching for creativity.

Useful reading

Lucas, B. and Spencer, E. (2017). Teaching Creative Thinking: Developing learners who generate ideas and think critically, Crown House Publishing Ltd.

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M. and Lloyd, C. (2015). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration. Auckland, New Zealand Ministry of Education.

Stoll, L. and Temperley, J. (2009). "Creative leadership: a challenge of our times." School Leadership & Management 29(1): 65-78.

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