Principled Leadership: Reflections from the SSAT Primary Conference 2023

Laura Burton, Senior Education Lead at SSAT and head of our Primary Network, reflects upon the key themes from the SSAT Primary Conference – Principled Leadership: reconnect, re-inspire, restore, which took place earlier this term.

 Dr Dan Belcher, Senior Education Lead at SSAT, opened this year’s conference reminding us that ‘leaders set the weather’: that, within our schools, we create and reinforce the climate.  Delegates considered the four levels of influence within which we have impact when considering leading with moral purpose:

Dan argued that possibly the most important level of influence (one that we all have, regardless of whether we are leader, teacher or support staff) is our individual level of influence.  We all make a difference every day by who we are, the values we hold and by the way we interact with people within our teams and with the pupils in our schools.  As a leader, we make an impact at a wider school level, we shape a culture across a school through shared and ‘lived’ values.  Through this we have impact far beyond ourselves.  We make a difference to children’s lives both in the present but also in a way that lasts way beyond the time we know them: we are planting seeds long before they are fully grown.  Some of us will be system leaders, which gives us a chance to impact wider than our own schools.  We can influence and seek to make changes perhaps through our work leading a MAT or in our local networks.  Dan urged us to take every opportunity to share the importance of ethical leadership and social justice in order to continue influence across the wider education system.  Finally, our wider societal influence, not just how we connect with core education activities, but how we engage with our communities on all different levels (our parents, community partners and perhaps charitable organisations).  We can start to act upon and influence wider social issues that impact on our children although, at times, these issues can feel big and overwhelming.  Stephen Covey’s circle of influence (1989) reminds us that we need to start from where we are, impact on those things that we can influence and as a result, our impact and our influence will start to reach out into the circle of concern to those things that we initially thought we had no control over.

Our second speaker, Sean Harris, exemplified this through sharing the experience and practise across Tees Valley Education in Middlesbrough.  Sean (Trust Improvement Lead) shared current statistics to highlight the scale and impact poverty is having for children nationally:

Sean acknowledged that, for his Trust and for us all nationally, there are no ‘silver bullets’ to address this within our schools and communities but rather, poverty informed practice within our schools, along with collective and shared experience and expertise can be powerful tools.

Be an expert in your pupils, not the pupil premium (Marc Rowland 2021)

Deep social justice needs deep social listening.  When considering our work and approaches to tackle disadvantage in our schools, Sean urged us to consider the actual needs of our pupils rather than the perceived needs through these key questions –

  1. What do we know about local need/poverty in our school(s)?
  2. How do we better listen to the emerging needs of schools/educators?
  3. How do we better listen to the emerging needs of families/children?

The power of listening to our families and our children can unlock deep understanding and provide us with better opportunities to tailor our work in school to make the biggest difference.  Both Sean, and delegates within breakout discussions, shared examples of how this could be achieved at an individual pupil/family level, as well as school and sector wide.  SSAT members can head over to The Exchange to access the conference recording to explore these ideas and examples further.

Leading with moral purpose at a school, system and societal level takes bold and courageous leadership.  Our final speaker, Dr Tamara Russell, Chartered Clinical Psychologist and founder of ‘What Colour is your Dragon’, shared with us her whole school approach to monitoring and managing emotional wellbeing which is essential for mental health and wellbeing.  In Tamara’s approach, three coloured dragons represent our three brain modes and systems of regulating emotion: the red dragon is on the look out for threat; the blue dragon is our drive and focus; and the green dragon is what soothes us and keeps us calm.  By learning about these states, both adults and children can regulate their own emotions more effectively, have better mental health and build better relationships.

As leaders ‘set the weather’, how we manage our ‘red dragons’ (threats), how we look after ourselves (‘green dragons’) and how we get things done (‘blue dragons) is essential to building the climate for wellbeing for the whole school.  Using the dragons can open up shared permission and language for communicating our emotions to others which, if embedded within the climate and culture of the school, can be powerful for whole school wellbeing.  As leaders, we need to know what our ‘green dragon’ looks like; what is it that makes us calm and soothes us?  By giving ourselves time to gain greater self-awareness of our own emotions and permission, to prioritise ‘micro green moments’ during the school day can, individually, help us better navigate difficult and challenging situations and associated emotions but can collectively help build a culture of openness, understanding and wellbeing across our whole school.

You can find out more about Tamara’s Whole School Approach here or contact her directly –


To find out more about SSAT Primary Membership click here.

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