Substance over style is the key to great school leadership

11 May 2019, 5:00

Researchers’ shift in the consensus on school leadership is welcome, but the conversation doesn’t end here. A focus on the expertise of school leaders – rather than their individual traits or generic management competency – is a better route to improving education, argues Tom Rees

The renewed debate around school leadership is an important one. With one of the youngest teacher workforces in the world and a significant shortfall of school leaders, we need to think harder about how we help our leaders to keep getting better.

While we’ve managed to debunk several dubious classroom practices in the past decade, there remain a number of accepted truths about school leadership we should expose to the same scrutiny. There’s a lot of out-of-date and ill-informed stuff out there.

For a while now, I’ve been arguing we need to rethink our conception of school leadership, which has become rooted in the ideas and language of transformational leadership theory. This focus on the individual traits of leaders such as how motivational, dynamic or inspirational they are – alongside a focus on generic leadership activities such as setting a vision, implementing change or having a difficult conversation – has built a narrative around leadership more about style and signalling than competence or expertise.

These management practices undoubtedly have their place and form part of a capable leader’s repertoire, but evidence and insights that have emerged in recent years suggest that we shouldn’t prioritise these to the detriment of developing domain-specific expertise.

We have further to go in shifting our thinking around what school leadership is

With this in mind, I was encouraged to revisit “Seven claims of successful school leadership”, an influential study published as I was starting my first headship in 2008.

It made a series of claims that included proposing that successful school leadership could be attributed to “a small handful of personal traits”. It also claimed that leaders worked “most powerfully through their influence on staff motivation, commitment and working conditions” and that successful leaders predominately drew on the same “basic leadership practices”.

Eleven years on and the authors have made some welcome amendments. They have acknowledged that results of research about leadership traits by themselves have “quite limited value” and have added in a classroom focus to what previously read as generic influence on motivation, skills and working conditions.

It’s a step in the right direction, but we have further to go in shifting our thinking around what school leadership is and how we can make it more effective.

I became gradually more competent in my ability to run a school through my ten years of headship. In the early years I found myself making decisions about things I simply didn’t know enough about. Through more time in the job and opportunities to experience and learn more, I became better at many things; not through personal traits or because I perfected my management practices, but because I knew more about running a school and was able to respond better to the myriad and context-specific problems I faced. In short, I developed expertise.

The research exists to support this argument for expertise, suggesting school leaders who make the most difference have significant domain-specific knowledge (Sternberg, 2005) and get involved in the development of teaching and learning (Robinson, 2009).

The literature is clear that domain-specific knowledge is essential for the development of expertise (Berliner, 2004), an idea reinforced by Goodall & Baker (2015) who argue that – in knowledge-intensive organisations – leaders who have a positive effect on organisational performance have strong leadership skills and management experience, but also expert knowledge, “experience and expert ability in the core business activity”.

But an argument for expertise isn’t one for simply more academic knowledge, it’s one for more expert use of knowledge in action. This expertise is what I see personified in the most effective leaders I’m privileged to work with and visit.

As more research and opinion flows into the discussion around school leadership, I hope we will develop our approach to value the knowledge and expertise we see in our most competent leaders, often away from the limelight.

These are my leadership heroes: they know their stuff and inspire others through their substance, not just their style.


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