The Question of Leadership in Schools


By Kieran McDermott
on 14 August, 2016

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Where does the Future of School Leadership Lie?

One Education recently sponsored a paper by the Centre for Market Reform in Education (CMRE) entitled Taking a lead: how to access the leadership premium, which reviewed the field of school leadership studies and the models of educational leadership that were supported by measurable evidence.

One of the most challenging findings of the paper was that when we discount the anecdotal and only look for the evidence, we find out we don’t know very much at all.

Does the Hero Leader Model Work?

The hero leader (super head) model, beloved of politicians and so long advocated, accurately reflects the career experience of a cadre of highly confident, strongly assertive individuals; but what works for a few doesn’t necessarily scale up across a whole system. The lesson from research for government and policy-makers is that we need to be much more transparent about the limitations of what we know, when the evidence base on which we are basing our assertions is so thin.

The Future of School Leadership?

Building on the outcomes of their research paper, CMRE is proposing a model of headship training and continuing professional development that is research-led, school-based, leader-and demand-led. This is to be welcomed. For some years One Education has been working with a number of schools on the adoption of a school improvement model which enables leaders to research and reflect on their own practice and that of their peers. School context is key to this, context doesn’t just mean the community demographics and similar statistical data but, critically, the particular story of the school’s maturity as a unique organisation. What is needed, and the only thing that is sustainable, is whole-school culture change and authentic self-improvement. The actions and resources required to achieve this are invariably bespoke to school context.

Autonomy vs Accountability

Questions which emerge from this shift to school-based and research-based improvement directly relate to how the balance between autonomy and accountability is played out in the education system. This is a particularly acute issue for multi-academy trusts (MATs). The respective roles of regional commissioners and Ofsted regional directors remain stubbornly unclear. The day-to-day experience of MATs, particularly those working in a number of regions, is one of overlap, dissonance and role confusion just at the very time that MATs are trying to evidence and optimise the school improvement benefits of organisational volume. MATs are questioning what they are being judged on (and by whom) and just how reliable is the evidence base being used for judgement.
MATs should be supported in evidencing what works and in expanding it. New MATs should not be put under pressure to comply with externally conceived and poorly evidenced operating models of school-to-school working, (based on the pyramid-shaped leadership structure being the optimum model) to the effective exclusion of anything else. This model may prove to be the right way to go but currently we lack the evidence to say so.

Our Commitment to School Support

CMRE’s paper advocates a greater level of professional humility from those entrusted with system change. It also calls for a renewed commitment to leaving behind the anecdotal and developing the teaching profession’s common body of knowledge based on the evidence we can show to be true. One Education has always supported groups of schools and MATs in evidencing what works and helping them to embed effective practice. From what we have seen and heard since we started to look at this question, we have now committed to making the case for a more evidence-based policy landscape and we ask for your support as we take this forward.

For more information about One Education School Improvement services, or our commitment to supporting and informing school development, send us an email.

Taking a lead: how to access the Leadership Premium


We are sponsoring a second piece of research from the CMRE entitled 'Optimising autonomy: a blueprint for education reform'

Optimising autonomy

Comments (2)

  • Ian White avatar

    Ian White

    Hello Kieran, have you read the good to great book by Jim.Collins and his take on level 5 leaders? Ties in well with what you are saying - also Laura McInery from school week did some excellent research on the success of superheated, also worth a read, great blog by the way!

  • Jenny McGarry  avatar

    Jenny McGarry

    This is a true shift in thinking in this area and hugely refreshing to hear. I believe that effective school leaders understand that situational leadership i.e.: leadership that takes account of and is immersed in, the dynamics, context and community of schools is what shapes schools for better or worse. "Heroic Heads" is not a sustainable model for lots of reasons (too many to go into!) Very welcome approach in a time that requires, more than ever, thinking of this sort.

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