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Change leadership in education

Posted on: November 8, 2021

The rapid pace of change in our modern world requires flexibility, agility and adaptability of leadership. Within the education system, further issues – social, financial, ethical, cultural and technological – only add to this complexity.

Embedding a successful leadership model in an ever-changing educational landscape requires empowerment and autonomy. It requires a committed, passionate leadership team with the necessary skills to propel the school forwards. However, schools across England are set to face a leadership challenge over the next 5-7 years, with a risk of a shortage of up to 19,000 leaders by 2022.

A wealth of research studies draw a clear parallel between good leadership and good school performance, whether in primary/elementary schools, secondary/high schools, colleges or higher education environments. With the right person – or people – in a school’s leadership capacity, meaningful, transformational change can be enacted.


What is transformational leadership?

First introduced by James MacGregor Burns in 1978, transformational leadership is a process in which “leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation.” Although Burns initially used it in reference to political leaders, it’s now a concept widely used in the field of organisational psychology.

Burns noted that there are key differences between management and leadership, and that these divergences relate to certain characteristics and behaviours.

He divides leadership into two, mutually exclusive camps:

  • Transforming leadership – this approach can generate significant change in both people and organisations. It’s rooted in the leader’s personality, traits and ability to foster change through example, convey an energising, appealing vision, and set challenging, appropriate goals.
  • Transactional leadership – this leadership style is based on a give-and-take relationship, where the leader does not strive for organisational change but works within a setting’s existing culture and parameters.

Since the early to mid-1990s, transformational leadership has been used to indicate a type of school leadership that challenges ‘restructuring’ – a form of decentralisation and school-based management. Researchers including Bernard M. Bass, Bruce J. Avolio and Kenneth Leithwood have built on the work of Burns to unpack this concept in increasing detail.

Transformational leaders aim to reconfigure perceptions and values, changing the expectations and aspirations of staff members. A case study in leading by example, a head teacher or principal’s role is to work towards the shared benefit of the team, educational establishment and community.

This type of leadership will, no doubt, continue to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of school systems in the context of reform and educational accountability.


A deeper dive into leadership behaviours and leadership models

There are four key elements of transformational leadership: individualised consideration; intellectual stimulation; inspirational motivation; and idealised influence.

With individualised consideration, a leader is attuned to the intrinsic self-development of others, uses mentoring and coaching skills, and offers empathy and support. Open communication is key, appropriate challenges are set, and the individual contribution of a person to the overall team is celebrated. Intellectual stimulation calls on a leader to challenge assumptions, take risks and seek the ideas and opinions of others. In this context, a leader should focus on fostering creativity and independent thinking. Inspirational motivation requires a leader to articulate an appealing, inspiring vision. By setting high standards, communicating optimism about future goals and providing meaning for the work, others will be given a sense of purpose, be motivated to act and will believe in their own abilities. With idealised influence, a leader acts as a role model, working to instil pride, gain respect and demonstrate ethical, progressive behaviour.

Self-aware, self-regulating leaders, who can effectively wield the four elements of this leadership theory, are in a strong position to spearhead cultural shifts within their school settings. What’s more, their authenticity plays a key role in inspiring and mobilising other team members to work towards a shared goal.

Additionally, Leithwood and Catherine McCullough isolated nine characteristics of high-performing school districts – and the leadership practices that achieve them. In high-performing districts, they observed:

  • A broadly shared mission, vision and goals
  • A coherent instructional guidance system
  • A  job-embedded professional development for all members
  • Use of evidence to inform decision making
  • Learning-orientated improvement processes
  • A comprehensive approach to educational leadership development
  • A policy-orientated board of trustees
  • Alignment of policies and procedures with district mission, vision and goals
  • Productive relationships with stakeholders (e.g. internal system and school, parents, community groups, ministry)


The benefits of inspirational educational leadership

There are likely to be a multitude of development priorities for any given school setting. For example: a push for school reform; an uptick in student performance; new directions and ideas for student learning; cost-saving measures; or a need for intellectual stimulation and motivation for teachers and other staff. While the focus may be of school-wide interest, it can be difficult to enact meaningful, long-lasting change without the ongoing commitment and vision of school principals and others in leadership roles.

But what are the tangible outcomes for schools with forward-thinking leadership practices?

Research into the effects of transformational leadership in education, by Leithwood and Doris Jantzi, indicates that such practices contribute to the development of whole-school capacity and commitment to solving issues within their setting. The results of their survey also highlighted the significant effects that leadership can have on both organisational conditions and student engagement.

Educators who build nurturing, inclusive, progressive environments – underpinned by strong, holistic leadership skills which foster individual and whole-school performance and welfare – may also expect:

  • Enhanced problem-solving skills
  • Clearer teaching and learning outcomes
  • Better student achievement, student outcomes and routes to higher education
  • Motivated teaching staff and team members
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • The development of a more positive, collaborative school environment
  • A greater sense of school community
  • Opportunities and infrastructure to tackle school improvement
  • An embedded school culture of achievement, challenge and organisational learning

Spark change in your environment

If you’re interested in learning more about transformational leadership in education, pedagogy and the world of business, Keele University’s online MA Education Leadership and Management programme can equip you with the knowledge, skills and behaviours to succeed.

Designed by education professionals, the course develops leaders for public, private and not-for-profit organisations, preparing them to lead educational development in the modern world. An ideal stepping stone into careers such as school headships, heads of divisions, subject leaders, peer-mentors, policymakers and curriculum advisors, it’s also suitable for business development directors and project managers.

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