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What is school leadership?

In this blog series, we will put the concept of school leadership under the spotlight, explore what leaders do and why, and how we might develop their expertise further.

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Date published 18 June 2021

Schools are amazing places. Every day, a billion young people across the world spend their days in a school of some description (UNICEF 2019). Although schools have been in existence in some form since the early civilisations, mass formal education is still a relatively recent development. In England, for example, it is only in the last century that we have been addressing the complex challenge of educating every child in the country (Gillard, 2018).

Society demands a lot from schools, expecting them to ensure pupils develop academically and socially, as well as tackling wider challenges such as social disadvantage and public health. These demands, alongside pressures from regulatory bodies and public accountability, lead to a huge weight of responsibility resting on the shoulders of those who work in our schools.

Central to this story are those who hold responsibility for running schools: the decision makers with titles such as headteacher, head of department, SENCos or key stage co-ordinator. Over the years, this group of people has been referred to using different terminology: administrators, co-ordinators and managers.

Out of a total school workforce of almost a million staff, of which 450,000 are teachers, there are approximately 200,000 people working in leadership positions within England’s schools (DfE, 2018). The work these school leaders do is broad and varied. Although the discussion about school leadership often focuses on headteachers or CEOs of school trusts, the large majority of school leaders are ‘middle leaders’ – classroom teachers with additional responsibilities for subjects, phases or other aspects of school life such as behaviour or Special Educational Needs (Busher, 2005). This variation of role and remit is increased further as a result of the many different contexts in which school leaders work and means knowing how best to support school leaders is not always clear.

In recent years, alongside concerns regarding recruitment and retention to the wider teaching profession, a significant and growing shortage of school leaders has developed. It was estimated that this deficit could reach 19,000 by 2022, affecting almost one in four schools in England (Future Leaders, 2016). Ensuring that we have enough people who are prepared, confident and hold the relevant expertise to assume leadership responsibility is a significant challenge is likely to be exacerbated as a result of the pressure of coronavirus on the school system (EPI 2021).

"In the last 10 years, we have seen insights from research flowing more widely into professional discourse and practice."

In the last 10 years, we have seen insights from research flowing more widely into professional discourse and practice. This ‘evidence-informed’ movement in education has attempted to bring the relationship between evidence and practice closer together. An increasingly evidence-informed and intellectually-curious profession is reading, talking and debating more critically about concepts such as assessment, cognitive science and curricular thinking. But while we have made progress in developing a better collective understanding of what is going on in the classroom as a profession, there is more to do in understanding how evidence can inform our thinking about the work of school leaders.

In this blog series (this being the first), we plan to put the concept of school leadership under the spotlight, to explore what leaders do and why, and how we might develop their expertise further. Through the blogs that follow, we will attempt to answer the question: ‘What is expert school leadership and how can we develop it?’

  1. What is school leadership?
  2. Complexity, purpose and problems
  3. Generic approaches to leadership and domain specific expertise
  4. Beyond the generic/domain-specific dichotomy
  5. Organising a curriculum for leadership development
  6. Expertise, mental models and leadership knowledge
  7. From the 'what' to the 'how' of leadership development
  8. What is expert school leadership and how do we develop it?

What is school leadership?

‘It is important to be clear from the outset that what has been learned about leadership in schools over the century has not depended on any clear, agreed-upon definition of the concept, as essential as this would seem at first glance’ (Leithwood and Duke, 1999, p45).

This is inconvenient for those of us trying to understand how we can help school leaders to keep getting better. Many researchers have developed definitions of leadership: such as leadership as behaviours (Hallinger et al, 1983), as personality traits (Colbert et al, 2012), as influence (Connolly et al, 2017) or – instead of being linked to an individual – as something which resides within the systems, roles and networks of an organisation (Ogawa and Bossert, 1995). The variation in perspectives on what school leadership actually is appears to be significant – so much so that we might question whether school leadership is even a thing at all.

Labelling senior staff in schools as ‘leaders’ is relatively recent; the term being introduced within the span of our own teaching careers. When Tom first took on responsibility outside of the classroom in 2001, he was given the title of ‘Key Stage Coordinator’ and paid an allowance, known then as a management point. By the time Jen took on management responsibility in 2006, she was given the grander title of ‘Phase Leader’ as a KS1 Leader and paid a ‘TLR’ (Teaching & Learning Responsibility).

There are multiple reasons for the growth in leader roles and the associated practice of leadership. Leaders and leadership have been positioned as integral to school reform (Gronn, 2003) and the school improvement movement (Bush, 2008). Education has been subject to the influences of other sectors, notably business, industry and commerce (Bell, 1991) and to political or policy decisions, such as the influence of the Teacher Training Agency's creation of NPQH. The National College for School Leadership undoubtedly played a significant role between 2000 and 2013 in advancing the concept of school leadership and was predicated on the idea that leadership is important in securing improved school and pupil outcomes (Bush, 2008).

In responding to the question, ‘what is school leadership?’, a reasonable answer might be, ‘it’s complicated’. But this would make for a short and unsatisfactory blog series and so, in an attempt to do better, we have broken this question down into more manageable questions.

What can literature tell us about school leadership?

Key idea: There are many different competing theoretical perspectives of school leadership.

A review of studies into educational leadership models from 1980 to 2014 by Gumus et al (2018) reveals how models of leadership developed over thirty years by tracking the use of different leadership-related terms during this period. The table below shows almost a thousand papers were written about fourteen different school leadership models between 1980 and 2014.


The authors report that distributed leadership, instructional leadership, teacher leadership and transformational leadership are – and continue to be - the most studied models. We consider three of these below.

Transformational leadership focuses on how leaders influence people through their use of ‘inspiration, vision and the ability to motivate followers to transcend their self-interests for a collective purpose’ (Warrick, 2011). Ken Leithwood, in Canada in the 1980s, adapted the construct of transformational leadership taken from business and applied this to schools. Transformational leadership seeks to generate ‘second-order’ effects, i.e. transformational leaders aim to increase the capacity of others in order to create first-order effects on pupil learning. As such, it has been credited with supporting teacher autonomy and professionalism (Hendricks and Scheerens, 2013).

The extent to which transformational leadership results in direct engagement with teaching and learning is not always clear. Some literature suggests that effective transformational leaders still emphasise the importance and use of instructional (or pedagogical) leadership as being important for pupil outcomes (Day and Sammons, 2016).

The transformational leader has been associated with a ‘hero paradigm’ (Gronn, 2003, p25) which has arguably been damaging in a multitude of ways for our education system, increasing performance expectations beyond what can be considered realistic. Transformational leadership is often recognised as the ‘accepted orthodoxy’ in school leadership (Gunter, 2016) with concepts such as vision, change and inspiration featuring prominently in the discourse.

Instructional Leadership (sometimes called pedagogical leadership) is based on the idea that leaders should seek ‘to influence conditions that directly impact the quality of curriculum and instruction delivered to students in classrooms’ (Hallinger, 2003, p338). Broadly, the actions an instructional leader might take include defining the school mission, managing the instructional programme (teaching and learning) and developing a positive school learning climate (Hallinger and Murphy, 1985).

At its core, it seeks to understand the link between school leadership and learning and it has ‘demonstrated the strongest empirically-verified impact on student learning outcomes’ (Hallinger and Wang, 2015, p2). Robinson et al (2009) found that, when it comes to pupil outcomes, the impact of instructional leadership was three to four times that of transformational leadership. Instructional leadership is not without criticism, however, and has, for example, been described as being ‘paternalistic and dependent on docile followers’ (Marks and Printy, 2003, p373).

Distributed Leadership: The idea of distributed leadership was first posed by CA Gibb in The Handbook of Social Psychology (Gibb, 1954) and is used to describe leadership ‘as something that takes place at different points within an organisation’ (MacBeath, 2003, p3), often including the extension of ‘leadership’ responsibilities beyond a senior leadership team and to include classroom teachers. Tian et al (2015) report that there is no universal definition of distributed leadership, and despite being written about so prolifically, the idea is both poorly conceptualised and empirically applied. A key argument within the concept is whether leadership can be actively distributed or whether its distribution occurs naturally according to ‘attributed influence’ (Gronn, 2002) that can be directed at any individual or group, not just those with a leadership title.

There are various criticisms of the theory, including a lack of clarity as to who leadership is distributed to, and for not acknowledging adequately those to whom leadership is not distributed (Lumby, 2016). It has also been criticised for its lack of empirical evidence as to its impact in schools both in relation to instructional improvement and student achievement (Spillane, 2005) interesting when one considers that distributed leadership is the most written about leadership model.


These different models are of interest in better understanding what school leadership is. However, the research also highlights the lack of conceptual clarity that exists around different models. This number of different leadership theories demonstrates a ‘need to be sceptical about the leadership by adjective literature’ (Leithwood et al., 2004, p8) – something that has become common in education.

The pursuit of attempting to conceptualise school leadership has led us to what John Macbeath describes as the ‘Alphabet Soup of Leadership’. Macbeath argues leadership is ‘a term full of ambiguity and a range of interpretations’ and goes on to call it a ‘Humpty Dumpty’ word that can mean ‘just what we want it to mean’ (Macbeath, 2003, p1).

It is clear that if we are to make progress in training and professional development for school leaders, we have to first be able to better identify and define what we mean by the concept.

The challenge of conceptualising school leadership may be, in part, explained by understanding the complex nature of schools and problems that school leaders attend to.

Our next blog explores the complexity, purpose and problems of school leaders’ work. Read it here.


UNICEF (2020) ‘UNESCO Institute for Statistics’. Retrieved from: www.data.uis.unesco.org/

Gillard, D. (2018) ‘Education in England: a history’, Education in England [Online] May. Retrieved from: www.bit.ly/33t4VQM

Department for Education (2018) School leadership in England 2010 to 2016: characteristics and trends. London: The Stationery Office.

Busher, H. (2005) ‘Being a middle leader: Exploring professional identities’, School Leadership and Management 25 (2) pp. 137-153.

Future Leaders, (2016) The school leadership challenge: 2022

Leithwood, K. and Duke, D. L. (1999) ‘A century’s quest to understand school leadership’ in Louis, K. S. and Murphy, J. (eds) Handbook of research on educational administration (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 45-72.

Hallinger, P., Murphy, J., Well, M., Mesa, R. P. and Mitman, A. (1983) ‘Identifying the Specific Practices, Behaviors For Principals’, NASSP Bulletin 67 (463) pp. 83-91.

Colbert, A., Judge, T., Choi, D. and Wang, G. (2012) ‘Assessing the trait theory of leadership using self and observer ratings of personality: The mediating role of contributions to group success’, Leadership Quarterly 23 (4) pp. 670-685.

Connolly, M., James, C. and Fertig, M. (2019) ‘The difference between educational management and educational leadership and the importance of educational responsibility’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership 47 (4) pp. 504-519.

Ogawa, R. and Bossert, S. (1995) ‘Leadership as an Organizational Quality’, Educational Administration Quarterly 31 (2) pp. 224-243.

Gronn, P. (2003) The new work of educational leaders: changing leadership practice in an era of school reform. London: P. Chapman Pub.

Bush, T. (2008) ‘From Management to Leadership: Semantic or Meaningful Change?’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership 36 (2) pp. 271-288.

Bell, L. (1991) ‘Educational Management: An Agenda for the 1990s’, Educational Management and Administration 19 (3) pp. 136-140.

Gumus, S., Bellibas, M., Esen, M. and Gumus, E., (2018) ‘A Systematic Review of Studies on Leadership Models in Educational Research from 1980 to 2014’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership 46 (1) pp. 25-48.

Warrick, D. D. (2011) ‘The urgent need for skilled transformational leaders: Integrating transformational leadership and organization development’, Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics 8 (5) pp. 11-26.

Hendricks, M. and Scheerens, J. (2013) ‘School leadership effects revisited: a review of empirical studies guided by indirect-effect models’, School Leadership and Management 33 (4) pp. 373-394.

Day, C. and Sammons, P. (2016) Successful School Leadership, Education Development Trust [Online]. Available from: www.bit.ly/3kwKMjV

Gunter, H., (2016) An Intellectual History of School Leadership Practice and Research, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Hallinger, P. (2003) ‘Leading Educational Change: reflections on the practice of instructional and transformational leadership’, Cambridge Journal of Education 33 (3) pp. 329-352.

Hallinger, P. and Wang, W. (2015) Assessing instructional leadership with the Principal Instructional Management Rating Scale. Dordrecht: Springer.

Robinson, V., Lloyd, C. and Rowe, K. (2009) ‘The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types’, Educational Administration Quarterly 44 (5) pp. 635-674

Marks, H. and Printy, S. (2003) ‘Principal Leadership and School Performance: An Integration of Transformational and Instructional Leadership’, Educational Administration Quarterly 39 (3) pp. 370-397.

Gibb, C. A. (1954) ‘Leadership’ in Lindzey, G. (ed) Handbook of social psychology (Vol. 2). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, pp. 877-917.

Macbeath, J. (2003) The Alphabet Soup of Leadership (no. 2). The Cambridge Network: Leadership for Learning.

Tian, M., Risku, M. and Collin, K. (2016) ‘A meta-analysis of distributed leadership from 2002 to 2013: Theory development, empirical evidence and future research focus’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership 44 (1) pp. 146-164.

Gronn, P. (2002) ‘Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis’, The Leadership Quarterly 13 (4) pp. 423-451.

Spillane, J. (2005) ‘Distributed Leadership’, The Educational Forum 69 (2) pp. 143-150.

Lumby, J. (2016) ‘Distributed leadership as fashion or fad’, Management in Education 30 (4) pp. 161-167.

Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S. and Wahlstrom, K. (2004) How Leadership Affects Student Learning. University of Minnesota and University of Toronto.

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