By Jason Spedding and Dr Amy Hawkes, School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University
Jason Spedding and Dr Amy Hawkes are part of a research team at Griffith University working with QELi and the Department of Education on projects in 2019-2020.
The impact of effective school leadership can be far-reaching. In this short article, we would like to share with you some research on leadership within school settings. School leadership is fundamental in the continuous improvement of educational policies, processes, and practices. A review of school leadership research found variation in the quality of school leadership explains up to a quarter of the between-school differences observed in student achievement scores (Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2008). Indeed, school leadership was found to be the second largest contributor to overall student success (after instructional quality; Wallace Foundation, 2004). Building on Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe’s (2008) insights, Leithwood and colleagues (2019) outlined four facets of school leadership that were related to student outcomes:
- Setting goals and direction,
- Building relationships and developing people,
- Developing organisational supports, and
- Improving instructional programs.
For decades, conventional logic held these leadership dimensions are the role of principals or other high-ranking school administrators. However, this paradigm of ‘leadership from the top’ has been challenged in the wake of more holistic distributed forms of leadership. A distributed leadership approach recognises that leadership is about influence and that this influence does not require a formal management position.
The evolution of school leadership theory and practice supports this decentralised perspective, with teachers, mentors, and administrative staff being asked to take a more participative role in leadership responsibilities across all levels of the school environment. This movement was driven by Spillane’s (2005) work conceptualising school leadership as a practice rather than a specific role. Broadly speaking, distributed leadership attempts to empower individuals at all levels to exert positive influence over school change and development. Perceptions of a distributed leadership climate in schools has been linked to increased job satisfaction (Hulpia et al., 2009; Torres, 2018), promotes information sharing (Muijs & Harris, 2006), and overall school improvement (Liljenberg, 2015). Leadership practice has not remained agnostic to the benefits of distributed leadership, with contemporary frameworks seeking to stimulate more collective, innovative, and agile leadership processes.
Mentoring is one strategy for encouraging distributed leadership capability in schools. Recent research conducted by our research team at Griffith University found that mentoring had a positive impact on beginning teachers’ well-being, the ability to manage work demands, and reduced beginning teachers’ turnover intentions. Additionally, mentoring is likely to have positive impacts on the mentors and on the school climate. Current research conducted by Griffith University is seeking to explore these mentoring relationships to better understand how these processes support the mental health and wellbeing of new and existing teachers.
There are other strategies that can be employed by schools to move towards a distributed school leadership model. These strategies include professional learning communities, providing opportunities to pursue innovative ideas, encouraging shared responsibility, providing opportunities for staff input in school direction and decision making. The choice of which strategy, or combination of strategies, will be unique to each school. Principals and the school management teams play a vital role in the success of these initiatives, through encouraging input, collaboration, reflection, and developing shared values (Murphy, Smylie, Mayrowetz, & Louis, 2009). As with any workplace initiative, staff should be involved in the decision-making process, and the aims need to be communicated clearly and early for the best outcomes.
Despite the benefits of a more distributed approach there are risks to both the implementation and maintenance of such practices. Holloway, Nielson, and Saltmarsh (2018) explored mentoring teachers’ perceptions of distributed leadership. They found negative attitudes developed when leadership responsibilities were delegated without commensurate support. This further increased the already excessive burdens on teacher’s time and resources. Bolden (2011) argued that although leadership responsibilities may be distributed broadly without also empowering teachers to make positive changes, such practices would only lead to heightened stress and potential burnout. As outlined by Alma Harris ‘distributed leadership has to be carefully planned and deliberately orchestrated… Letting a thousand flowers bloom is not distributed leadership’. The idea of distributed leadership may be viewed as ‘easy fix’ or even as a platitude in some organisations; however, to work well this approach requires considered intervention and planning as well as staff support to initiate. Moreover, evidence suggests that once set up, staff and students will benefit from a distributed leadership culture.
Bolden, R. (2011). Distributed leadership in organizations: A review of theory and research. International Journal of Management Reviews, 13(3), 251-269.
Holloway, J., Nielsen, A., & Saltmarsh, S. (2018). Prescribed distributed leadership in the era of accountability: The experiences of mentor teachers. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 46(4), 538-555.
Hulpia, H., Devos, G., & Rosseel, Y. (2009). The relationship between the perception of distributed leadership in secondary schools and teachers’ and teacher leaders’ job satisfaction and organizational commitment. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 20(3), 291-317.
Leithwood, K., Harris, A., & Hopkins, D. (2008). Seven strong claims about successful school leadership. School leadership and management, 28(1), 27-42.
Leithwood, K., Harris, A., & Hopkins, D. (2019) Seven strong claims about successful school leadership revisited. School Leadership & Management, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2019.1596077
Liljenberg, M. (2015). Distributing leadership to establish developing and learning school organisations in the Swedish context. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 43(1), 152-170.
Muijs, D., & Harris, A. (2006). Teacher led school improvement: Teacher leadership in the UK. Teaching and teacher education, 22(8), 961-972.
Murphy, J., Smylie, M., Mayrowetz, D., & Louis, K. S. (2009). The role of the principal in fostering the development of distributed leadership. School Leadership and Management, 29(2), 181-214, DOI: 10.1080/13632430902775699
Robinson, V. M., Lloyd, C. A., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational administration quarterly, 44(5), 635-674.
Spillane, J. P. (2005, June). Distributed leadership. In The educational forum (Vol. 69, No. 2, pp. 143-150). Taylor & Francis Group.