The InterAction Collection

Solution Focused Special Education Leadership in Schools

by Neil Birch and Nick Burnett

Jun 28, 2021

alasdair-macdonald, neil-birch and nick-burnett

Review by Alasdair MacDonald

This piece reads like the introduction to a larger body of work. It correctly identifies a number of issues facing both special educational provision and mainstream education in the UK. A number of issues are specified based on the author’s research. Solution-focused methods are proposed as a means of successfully addressing these issues. A distinction is made between achievement as defined by currently fashionable thinking in education, as against attainment which is an important central theme in Special Needs teaching.

The authors point to the crucial role of leadership in keeping solution-focused ideas active in the organisation throughout the school year. They identify that such ideas need to be believed in, used and refreshed with and by all staff if the approach is to be effective. The authors find goals to be one of the central tools in this process. Other central points are commitment and collaboration, and the valuing of relationships within the team. Many of the points identified in this work appear to parallel the application of solution-focused ideas in other forms of organisation.

This work highlights the many applications of solution-focused work and shows how useful it can be within Special Needs provision in the UK and elsewhere. I look forward to more information from these authors about their work.

Alasdair MacDonald



Staff within schools spend a lot of time investigating the causes of perceived underperformance within areas of the school and then set about rectifying those problems. This is potentially even more of a trap within the field of special education where an emphasis (from the system at least) and subsequently the mindset can be on identifying difficulties experienced with a student as opposed to their strengths and abilities.

Could it be that in order to move special education to a solution – focused frame of reference then leadership within the school needs to demonstrate this in its daily practice and organisation? We believe that the leadership of a solution – seeking organisation that plans development to achieve goals, rather than analysing failure, is a solution – focused one and is the way forward in relation to Solution – Focused Special Education (SFSE). This is not to negate the importance of detailed analysis of performance and nor does it fly in the face of accountability; it simply recognises that we do not always have to ‘solve’ the problem in order to achieve a solution.

“Clearly both problems and solutions do exist. However, it is not always the case that they are connected or dependent on each other.”

This paper draws on the research of one of the authors that was completed for the National College of School Leadership in the UK and also explores the possible implications for SFSE leadership in schools. It must be noted that the research was not limited only to special education settings but this paper places the findings and discussion more centrally within a special education context. We also want to recognise that we are not referring solely to special education in special schools but also to those who are in special education leadership positions within mainstream settings; hence the title of the paper.

Findings from the Research

The research locates solution – focused working within the context of strategic leadership, learning – centred leadership and distributed leadership models. It argues that the gap between the leader’s vision for the school and the commitment of all staff to achieving this vision is where many organisations become culturally unstuck. All the schools within the study had developed their own approaches to closing this gap, with different interpretations about how solution – focused working could help them do so. It is felt that the solution – focused approach, based on constructive dialogue and goal-setting at an individual and group level, gives a number of tools that enable staff to be involved in designing and achieving the vision.

It is clear that tools alone will be less effective if they are not applied within a positive culture. With education systems focused on the analysis of pupil performance results and league tables, many leaders and staff are fearful of being identified as failing.

An additional issue within the field of special education is how we measure achievement as opposed to attainment; where the former is more focused on what is relevant to the individual and the latter on particular milestones. Whilst measuring attainment is important, to measure successes within special education by this alone would paint an inaccurate and unfair picture, as for some students, and their staff, achievements may mean ensuring skills are not lost or their loss is slowed down.

An issue facing school leaders is how to foster a culture of success where they and their staff are confident to put their head above the parapet. From the research, the following were identified as necessary prerequisites:

  • Commitment and Collaboration
  • Applying Solution – Focused Tools
  • Valuing Relationships

It is to each of these elements that we will now turn, to discuss more detail in relation to special education.

Commitment and Collaboration

All schools within the study reflected on the need for the leadership team to be committed to adopting a solution – focused approach. The use of many of the tools for encouraging staff contribution can quickly be negated if staff believe their contribution is not appreciated; leaders risk criticism that the leadership team is paying lip service to consultation. Having a member of the leadership team to drive school improvement in a solution – focused way appears a successful approach to incorporating personal and team goals into school improvement.

Staff collegiality in the decision-making process has led to a greater diversity of ideas for all aspects of school improvement. Where staff are able to develop their own solutions to the issues facing them and the school as a whole, it was clear that they felt a greater commitment to those solutions.

SFSE leaders in schools need to ‘walk the talk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’. Whilst this is not different if you wish to have a positive impact on any school culture, the challenge in special education is to not get drawn into discussions focused on problems and difficulties in a paradigm that is deficit focused at source.

Applying Solution Focused Tools

Many of the tools used in solution focused working are directly applicable to whole school improvement. The use of four specific solution focused tools were fundamental to the success of the approach in the schools studied. These approaches were evident in varying degrees in different school contexts. The four tools are:

1 - Exception finding: identifying those times when success was achieved. Using this tool as a structural part of team meetings was found to be effective in helping identify strategies for future success rather than analysing failure. 2 - Celebrating progress: recognising the small steps taken to achieve the overall goal. People at all levels of responsibility felt that recognising the little things they have done towards strategic whole – school goals helped those goals to stay alive during the year. Schools felt that frequently revisiting these goals during team meetings secured a greater commitment to their achievement. 3 - Scaling: using scales to measure progress towards the goal. This was felt to be very important as it allows staff to take ownership of their progress and improvement. Where scales were used frequently in staff meetings to identify ‘where on the scale are we now?’, ‘where do we want to be?’ and ‘how do we get there?’, staff felt not only a sense of ownership of the goal but that they had a direct influence on achieving it. 4 - Picturing preferred futures: goal-setting to identify where you want to be in 12 months’ time. Where schools adopted this approach to goal – setting it appeared that not only did the goals become clearer but that all staff felt positive towards their achievement, rather than negative towards perceived failures to date.

Valuing Relationships

One of the overriding themes from all those interviewed was the notion that by incorporating solution – focused methodologies into meetings, staff appeared to believe that peer relationships had improved and there was a greater sense of shared purpose. In addition, staff also stated that they had a greater appreciation of the work and successes of other members of staff.

Feeling valued is difficult to quantify. However, phrases such as “we enjoy working here”, “I feel I am accepted as a person” and “staff are happy to come to work” kept reoccurring throughout the interviews with staff at all levels of all organisations.

Having worked in a range of school settings we would suggest that those working in special education generally have an increased awareness of the importance of relationships but there always remains opportunities to develop this further.


There are a number of key messages coming out of the research and discussion which will be explored in more detail in subsequent papers, namely the areas around staff organisation and development.

So, in summary, we believe there is a lot to commend the adoption of a “Solution – Focused Special Education leadership in schools” approach. We have identified below what we believe are the key messages, followed by a number of questions to help inform the ongoing discussion:

Key Messages

  • Where the SFSE leader demonstrates a belief in staff by allowing them the opportunity to find their own solutions to issues, commitment to improvement appears to be greatly enhanced.
  • Recognising the strengths of staff appears to allow SFSE school leaders’ opportunities to build positive solutions in collaboration with them.
  • Solution – focused tools allow a framework for collaboration and potentially give staff a number of “skills” in managing team and department interactions.
  • Solution – focused working formalises opportunities for staff to feel their contribution is valued and enhances relationships in a mutually supportive school ethos.
  • Any of the three elements of commitment, tools and relationships can be successful in bringing about school improvement, but all three in partnership give the greatest potential for success.


The study identifies a couple of special schools where there are examples of SFSE leadership taking place, are there any further examples where this approach is working well? What about SFSE leadership within a mainstream setting – where is this working well? Even better when…? in relation to SFSE leadership in both special and mainstream settings Any additional SF tools that have or could be used successfully by leaders?

About the Authors

Neil Birch

Neil is the executive headteacher of The Beacon in Folkestone. England. The Beacon is a special school for 350 pupils aged between four and 19 years with profound, severe and complex learning needs. Neil is a National Leader of Education and has been involved in successfully supporting school improvement in both mainstream and special schools. He leads the CLASS Teaching School Alliance on behalf of the 24 Kent special schools. Neil has led county-wide special educational needs (SEN) development. Neil is committed to solution focused working and has been published as a research associate of the National College for Teaching and Leadership for his work on Solution Focused School Leadership. He has a strong commitment to values-led school leadership which has collaboration, joint practice and school-led improvement at its heart. A champion for vulnerable young people on both the local and the national stage, Neil believes in valuing the contribution of every individual, to bring about personal, organisational and system-wide success.

neil.birch@thebeacon.kent.sch.uk www.thebeacon.kent.sch.uk

Nick Burnett

Nick is a highly experienced workshop developer, coach and facilitator. He has coached leaders and teams at all levels; mainly within the public sector, from small environments, 5-10 people, to larger environments, over 100 people. He also has experience running a number of small businesses and working with small businesses through coaching and team development. Nick’s professional experience includes nearly 30 years of experience covering teaching, principalship, training, facilitation, coaching and consulting. He has presented at numerous conferences, written for a wide range of publications and has worked and delivered training in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, China, Hong Kong and Jamaica.