By Professor David Gurr, University of Melbourne
During 2020 I had the opportunity to edit four special issues of International Studies in Educational Administration focused on educational responses to the pandemic. I published 59 papers covering 29 countries. These papers clearly showed the importance of a more collaborative, relational and adaptive leadership style, focused on both learning and wellbeing. They reinforced my belief in the importance of continuing to understand and develop educational leadership as a critical input for improving learning outcomes around the world. I compiled some of these theories in a think-piece to help frame the concept note for the 2024/5 Global Education Monitoring Report on leadership and education. This blog contains a summary of the key ideas.
Several factors important for learning are controlled by schools. The most important element with the greatest impact on student and school outcomes is the teaching and learning process. This is why it is essential to focus on developing great teachers and providing them with the resources they need. However, it is the work of educational leaders that facilitates the teaching and learning process, and so it is now agreed that educational leadership has the second strongest impact on learning, which includes senior leaders as well as middle and teacher leaders. If educational leadership is so important, we need to be clear about what educational leadership is. Fortunately, there is much that we know about this.
There are four major areas on research in leadership
Research in educational leadership has recently focused on four major areas important for leadership: instructional leadership, transformational leadership, distributed leadership and teacher or middle leaders.
This means that we have research on how to improve teaching and learning (instructional leadership) and to set worthy directions – and motivate, inspire and support people to work at high levels to achieve these directions (transformational leadership).
Much of the research on instructional and transformational has focused on the work of school principals. Whilst principals remain important, schools are becoming too complex for a single leader, and so in the past three decades there has been research on collaborative views of how teachers and educational leaders work together, such as professional learning communities (distributed leadership), and on the work of other leaders in schools (teacher and middle leaders).
There are many views of individual leadership, and, as some have said, perhaps as many views as those that write about it. But if we take a practice perspective, there is agreement on a few core leadership areas that seem to be applicable in most settings. These are:
- setting widely shared goals and directions and galvanising people to work to achieve them;
- developing people;
- redesigning organisations for a supportive, collaborative, safe and community-focused culture;
- improving teaching and learning.
Findings from major international educational leadership projects provide evidence that these core leadership areas can be usefully applied to the work of educational leaders in most contexts. Whilst these can be considered core areas of practice, individuals and educational organisations need to contextualise their work and modify and/or add to these. For example, in teaching I use a conceptual framework that has these four, and then adds three other areas: leadership as influence; reciprocal response to context; and self development.
To further clarify leadership understanding, in many jurisdictions there will be statements about leadership standards, competencies and capabilities. Often, they will include aspects related to the four core leadership practices. However, they will almost certainly be contextualised and include other elements, with the personal, collectivist and community dimensions evident, for instance, in Indigenous perspectives becoming important in some contexts.
A few leadership truths
What is clear is that there is no single view of educational leadership that works for all people in all situations. Those working in education need to understand the educational leadership literature and develop a view of leadership that works for them in the current context they are in.
Equally clear is that in many jurisdictions there is increasing expectation placed on leadership. Early career teachers may be asked to take on formal leadership roles from their first year of teaching, and certainly by mid-career the expectation is that they will be doing more than teaching. Hence the increase in research about teacher and middle-leaders and the finding that educational organisations need to support the leadership development of these people. This involves identifying them early, providing appropriate professional learning, providing support from more senior leaders, and being clear about role expectations and role supports (such as time release).
There is a final complexity to mention. Educational institutions are often in systems, and they are always subject to the demands of different layers of government. There is, therefore, a need to also reflect on governance structures, the work of systems and political leaders, and systemic tensions such as the tension between organisational autonomy and government control.
I concluded the think-piece for the 2024/5 GEM Report by making seven declarative statements, which I paraphrase here:
- There is not one leadership view
There is not a single leadership view that is sufficient to describe the work of educational leaders. Whilst transformational, instructional and distributed leadership were noted, views that combine these and other elements are probably a better representation of the complexity of leadership work. Leadership views that better account for complexity and crisis are emerging.
- But there are leadership views that work in many contexts
There are some ideas that seem to be applicable widely and the framework of setting direction, developing people, developing the organization and improving teaching and learning, seems to be particularly helpful in understanding leadership actions in a wide variety of contexts.
- Leadership from many is needed
Leading schools successfully is increasingly complex and leadership from many is needed. This means including teachers and middle leaders as well as senior leaders and principals. Depending on context, it can also include school boards/councils and system leaders. Student, parent and community leadership are emerging areas for consideration.
- Leadership matters
Leadership can impact substantially on student and school outcomes; indeed, there is recent evidence that impact is higher than previously believed. Deliberately leveraging leadership is important – leadership that makes a difference becomes an expectation, obligation and opportunity.
- Leadership practices matter
All the ideas about educational leadership mean nothing if they are not evident in practice. Much is known about this, as is evident in the various leadership frameworks and standards, and in listings of leadership competencies and capabilities. Through understanding and describing good practice, we can support leaders to adopt practices that are known to help.
- Leadership preparation and development matter
Whilst we know the features of good leadership preparation and development programs, helping schools and school systems identify and support people to be educational leaders needs improvement. Although quality preparation and development are resource intensive, they also should be seen as a right (for the individual), obligation (on the part of schools and systems) and necessity (to foster quality education).
- Context matters
Educational leaders work in environments that have many contexts. External to educational organizations are system, institutional, educational, political, economic, technological and socio-cultural forces. Internally, there are multiple contexts to do with the nature of the organization, the staff and the students/families. This complex environment requires contextually relevant and sensitive educational leadership.