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What Works For Schools Should Work For Leadership

I am currently undertaking an investigation into leadership development, as part of my Fellowship of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL). I am focusing on the use of an enquiry based approach to professional development for school leaders. This is based on my experiences over the last four years where the schools I lead have been using professional, or practitioner, enquiry approaches to develop individuals and the schools. This work has led to positive impacts for learners, teachers and the schools. Teachers have found that their professional and personal identities have changed as a result of this approach. This is a key impact identified by Knudd Illeris in his book 'Transformative Learning and Identity' (2014) to demonstrate that learning has been truly transformative for learners. Given such positive impacts, it would seem to me that what has been shown to work so effectively with teachers can also have similar impacts for leaders and their professional development. I know I am a different leader to the one I was four years ago, my leadership identity has changed.

The question I plan to ask, and hopefully offer some answers to, is 'How can we use professional enquiry approaches to promote and develop leadership, at all levels, within schools and education?' A lot has been written on both school and leadership development and improvement, and I am currently looking at a lot of this to inform my own investigation and direction of travel. I have already shared some interesting and important aspects of this in previous posts, and I intend to carry on doing this as I go.

I have just been reading a paper by Christopher Chapman from the University of Glasgow, who I shall have the opportunity to talk to further next month. Chapman's paper, 'From within-to between-and beyond-school improvement: A case of rethinking roles and relationships?' considers school improvement and how this is perhaps best facilitated by looking within schools, between schools and beyond schools.

As far as within-school improvement is concerned, Chapman identifies consistent messages about what this looks like. Such improvement involves

  • The development of teaching, learning and leadership
  • The development of high expectations and strong cultural norms
  • The application of appropriate accountability and self review mechanisms
  • Relentless use of data to identify organisational strengths and weaknesses and inform decision making
  • Combining short-term tactical responses to change the 'here and now' with longer-term strategic responses that attend to medium and longer-term capacity building, all matched to context
  • Attention to detail to achieve consistent application of school policies
  • An unrelenting investment in individuals' personal professional development  
  • Protection from inappropriate local and national policy initiatives by filtration and adaptation or rejection of external interventions
Most of these chime very much with the observations of Michael Fullan, Graham Donaldson and Clive Dimmock I have talked about in previous posts. Indeed, the last bullet point is reflected in Fullan's request to schools and their leaders to 'exploit policy', by which he meant finding ways to keep doing what you need to do in the face local and national interventions that might otherwise prevent you from taking your desired course of action.

Regarding between-school improvement, Chapman points to a lot of evidence to support such collaboration and collective development. He cites Bell and colleagues (2005) as to the efficacy of such collaboration and this was further supported by Fullan speaking in Edinburgh recently who stated that 'we know that schools left to their own devices, don't improve'. Both Bell and Fullan saw cross school collaboration to be a key element of school development.

Chapman notes that 'between-school improvement is fertile ground for developing practitioner innovation and inquiry into their own practices.' It is interesting to note the number of studies that support such cross-school collaborations as having positive outcomes for individuals and the schools themselves. My own experiences of working with others would also support these results, but I would caution that this does not mean we should shoehorn  the 'one size fits all'  model into collaborating schools. Each will be in a different stage of development and this needs to be recognised.

Chapman then goes on to look at beyond-school improvement. This recognises that if we put all our focus into what goes on within schools, and across schools, we would still be guilty of ignoring all the other factors and influences that impact on variances in pupil performances. Therefore, it is vital that schools engage with other agencies and supports, political, economic and social, that impact on pupil performance if we are to ensure we are doing all we can to improve. This then becomes about equity of opportunity and how we can best facilitate this.

He argues that we have traditionally focused on the within-schools improvements with varying results. We are more recognising now the power and importance of collaboration within schools and across schools and this is becoming more commonplace. He sees the next step is the one focused on beyond-school improvements and goes on to propose three key aspects to consider in order to optimise future educational improvement

  • A renewed focus on professional development
  • A commitment to ownership over what 'works and why'
  • A dedication to joined-up public service provision
I thought Chapman's observations were worth sharing in their own right and they have helped me in the consideration of the leadership development issues I am investigating. I think his model works equally well for leadership development. Leaders need to start from themselves and where they are. What are their strengths and development needs and how are they addressing these within their roles? This will lead them only so far. Next they need to collaborate with other leaders to further develop their thinking understanding and practice. Then finally, they need to extend this beyond education and schools, they need to see leadership as career-long and holistically. My argument would be that at all stages they need to be looking closely at their own practice, the impacts this was having, and how they might develop this further, through an enquiry approach and disposition to everything they do. 

I would appreciate any further thoughts on this post or leadership development and my investigation, either here or via email or Twitter.

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