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Taking a lead: how to access the leadership premium

As plans for whole system structural reform have developed, much of the government’s education reform strategy has come to turn on its being able to capitalise a leadership premium.
Yet despite a massive literature that has built up around the subject, the studies around what leadership looks like, how to develop leadership and critically how it contributes to school improvement, are not well-grounded.  Assumptions made, without consideration of how they relate to context, have been mutually reinforced by those engaged in school effectiveness research.
Download a .pdf copy of the research report here.
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One such assumption is of leadership’s direct impact on academic outcomes. Few studies have tried to quantify the contribution of leadership, but of those that have leadership variables are only modestly to weakly related to pupil outcomes. Attachment to the idea of direct effects has meant that of those engaged in leadership effectiveness research, only a minority have begun to factor in the potential importance of school-related factors as mediators, while still fewer have given serious attention to more complex interactions. It is likely that in addition to school environment, pupil outcomes themselves may strongly influence leadership decisions and behaviour. This assertion has clear resonance with ‘contingency’ theories of how leadership works: strategies are developed in context according to the challenges and opportunities that present themselves.
In policy terms, as a result, the paper argues that we should not expect that such strategies are easily learnable or transferable. To be confident of impact, more research, and research of a different nature to the bulk of that which has thus far been undertaken, is needed. This should focus initially on detailed observations of leaders aimed at identifying patterns of decision-making and practice in key areas of potential leadership influence suggested by the best research that we have. These include changes to leadership and management structure and practices, motivating staff through mission and goal-setting and appropriate incentives in pay and conditions, and curriculum and pedagogy.
At the same time, we should align efforts towards leadership development accordingly. The locus of leadership identification and development should be shifted to the school level, with mentoring and peer to peer support provided by leaders of similar schools whom those in need of support believe might offer insight. As well as being a more realistic approach, this would also get around the misleading sense that an intervening ‘hero head’ is in some way taking responsibility for the outcomes of the advice he/she has given. This shift should be supported by course content oriented to improving research literacy and building and refreshing knowledge of what works.
Download a .pdf copy of the research report here.
Speaking about the report, Kieran McDermott, Chief Executive of One Education, sponsor of the report, said:

The field of school leadership studies is characterised by a prevalence of committed and competing theories about the contribution of leadership to student outcomes. What, if anything, do we know that is supported by quantitative evidence rather than faddish assumption?

James Croft’s review of the literature on school leadership provides a probing and insightful analysis of the state of the evidence base and a clear indication of the where the future of leadership studies, policy, and effective practice, lies.

Effective education system design and policy formation can and should be built on hard, high quality evidence from research. Where such evidence is lacking, we need to be transparent about the limitations of what we know. Research internationally suggests that mission and goal setting, decisions related to the setting of the curriculum and pedagogy, and the provision of instructional guidance for teachers, are important means by which leaders exercise their influence. How leaders motivate staff, including through the use of appropriate pay and conditions incentives, also appears important for raising academic achievement. And in more autonomous school contexts the importance of leadership in these areas is accentuated.

But researchers have a long way to go before clarity is achieved about what specific decisions and practices are impactful, and in what contexts. In this connection, Croft’s proposals for a model of headship training and continuing professional development that is research-informed, school-based, and leader- and demand-led offers a promising way forward for policy.

Download a .pdf copy of the Executive Summary here.
Download a .pdf copy of the research report here.
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About the author
James Croft is Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education. He has authored or co-authored a number of reports for the Centre and its partners, including most recently, ‘Collaborative overreach: why collaboration probably isn’t key to the next phase of school reform’ (2015).