Dynamic, emergent and ever evolving, the study of school leadership still presents a challenge to today’s school leaders in the UK. Educational leadership researchers have generated a plethora of vigorous academic reports and research papers over the past few decades. Nevertheless, we are still no nearer to a general consensus as to either defining what leadership means or how leadership can be harnessed and utilised effectively to bring about school improvement. At the time of writing, there are no less than ‘350 definitions of leadership but still no clear or unequivocal understanding of what distinguishes leaders from non leaders’ (Harris & Beatty, 2004).
School effectiveness and improvement remains an issue which has occupied researchers, school leaders and policy makers for nearly three decades and there is a general agreement that schools facing the demands of the 21st century can no longer be indifferent or opt out. The UK educational system is at a stage where school improvement is no longer an aspiration but consistently demanded by Government and policy makers (Harris & Hopkins, 2000). Political policy changes since the early 1990’s have ensured that schools are rigorously forced to conform to this national policy agenda via the stringent Ofsted inspection agenda and also through increasing local accountability via local education authorities or they risk being forced to pay the penalties. Socio-political and policy changes nationally show little sign of slowing down and there is a vehement expectation by Local Education Authorities (LEA’s) for school leaders to deliver dynamic results often within ‘tough’ and unrealistic timescales. However, as yet, we are still no nearer to translating what form effective educational leadership should take from relevant academic studies into everyday practice in UK schools.
A large number of research projects (Harris & Hopkins, 2000) have risen to meet the demand for models of strong effective school leadership and the Blair Government of the mid 1990’s paid for and championed a new National College of School Leadership (N.C.S.L.) to further enhance and develop both senior and middle leadership roles in schools. The National College, working with many leadership experts and partners, still continues to focus on and develop specialised leadership training based on renewal and change in a drive to assist school improvement. As a result, middle leaders have attracted the renewed attention of policy makers and educational researchers particularly those who interested in the theme of school improvement and effectiveness. This research paper will offer practical ways forward for non academic senior leaders in UK schools rather than merely pointing out what has been observed in the field. The findings will be reported in such a way that schools to be able to understand the research findings in a language that they can relate to easily and use them to develop middle leader practice within their own organisations.
At first glance, it soon becomes apparent that school leadership literature generates far more questions than it attempts to answer. Critically, it is worth noting, that the literature predominantly presents a very much ‘one size fits all’ leadership philosophy. Worryingly, there is an expectation that busy senior leadership teams and middle leaders will be able to internalise and adapt this knowledge to fit their own organisation and school culture. This appears to be irrespective of whether they have the appropriate leadership training or academic conceptual knowledge to be able to do so.
The focus has shifted nationally from managing to leading. Increasingly, middle leaders are called ‘middle leaders’ as opposed to ‘middle managers’. This important change in terminology, introduced by the National College for School Leadership, has helped clarify and reinforce that the middle leader role is no longer about managing stock cupboards but more about the leadership of people. More importantly, the leadership term has highlighted, that effective leadership can be possessed by others in the school apart from the Headteacher and the senior leadership team.
Challenges are being faced world-wide as the education system develop from hierarchical and bureaucratic leadership models to those that embrace a greater emphasis on distributing and sharing leadership, decision making responsibilities and working in a collaborative manner. Most educational leadership research has been about Headteachers and their link to school improvement but there has been little about the role middle leaders can play in this. Leask and Terrill (1997) take the stance that middle leaders are pivotal in the drive for school improvement and should, and must, be included in planning.
Despite this input, monitoring and training from the National College of School Leadership, research findings and Ofsted inspection evidence has shown that leadership roles of middle leaders still continue to be variable in practice but although pockets of good practice can be found, as a group, middle leaders are still said to be less effective that they could be (Jones and O’Sullivan, 1997).
Now more than ever, under the current climate, there is a real need in the UK for passionate and effective school leaders who can influence positively their schools’ futures. The introduction of the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) and the production of strategic school improvement action plans for Ofsted show that strategic leadership is critically important in steering schools towards school improvement and effectiveness. If this is to become a reality, then current reliance on rational managerial based leadership is no longer sufficient to lead schools forward into the 21st Century. Senior leadership teams may find themselves having to adapt less hierarchical leadership structures and consider sharing leadership amongst the middle leader skills resource within their schools as opposed to attempting to retain residual control and authority at solely senior leadership level.
This research paper will explore the concept that there is a need for further research into effective school leadership which both balances the highly prescriptive external standards and accountability but which can also develop leadership capacity of middle leaders through a more transformational model of leadership.
Doctoral Researcher - Educatonal Leadership
Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology
The Open University
HARRIS, A. & BEATTY, B. (2004) ‘EDITORIAL: Leadership Research and Theory: into Unknown Territory’ in Journal of School Leadership and Management, vol 24, no 3, August 2004.
HARRIS, A. & HOPKINS, D. (2000) ‘Introduction to Special Feature: alternative perspectives on School Improvement’ in Journal of School Leadership and Management, vol 20, no 1, pp9-14, 2000.
JONES, J. & O’SULLIVAN, F. (1997) ‘Energising Middle Management’ in Tomlinson, H., (ed) ‘Managing Continuing Professional Development in Schools’. London: Paul Chapman.
LEASK, M. & TERRELL, I. (1997) ‘Development Planning and School Improvement for Middle Managers’. Kogan Page, London.