Effective leadership in education

In a interview with AG, Dr Victoria Showunmi of UCL Institute of Education in London, sheds light of what an effective leader is, and why they are integral to the education system…

The school system has undergone vast reform over the last few years. The advent of academies, the overhaul of the curriculum, and performance related pay for teachers have proved controversial changes. For better or worse, the education system has had to adapt, and during these changes effective leadership is imperative.

Educational leaders play a pivotal role in the day-to-day running of schools. They are instrumental in ensuring children leave with the best education possible, but also in implementing policy changes and new government guidance.

But what qualities make a good and effective leader, and is leadership something that can be taught? Here, Dr Victoria Showunmi, of UCL Institute of Education, London explains why effective leadership is imperative.

“Firstly, because it will enable you to position the school in the community so that there is respect for that organisation. Secondly, being an effective leader will help staff to understand your vision, but also criticise aspects of your leadership,” she says. “And lastly it enables effective leaders to see what needs to be done within that vision, ensuring that the outcome for children’s learning enables each one to reach their full potential.

“An effective leader will know what is going on in the classroom, how the staff work together, and how the school positions itself politically,” she explains. “Effective is the crucial term here. You want someone who is able to lead, who is able to position the school locally, nationally (in some cases globally) in the political context, and what policies are coming down the central pipeline. At the same time, an effective leader needs to be able to interpret what is best for the school’s individual environment.”

Effective leadership undoubtedly has a significant impact on learning. Dr Showunmi explains that failure to lead sufficiently prevents a cohesive approach to education and says there certainly needs to be more focus on effective and good leadership within education.

If we focus on the need for transformational leaders, there does need to be a balance as the teaching profession has embraced school improvement, but the current approach to school improvement creates a risk aversion culture that discourages collaboration. There has to be recognition, and perhaps acceptance, that the continuous year on year improvements for a number of schools may not be possible in the short term due to financial, material and/other imposed constraints.

Events have had an impact on the development of effective leadership across the country. In 2013, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, the body responsible for promoting and creating effective educational leaders, was merged with the recruitment and training organisation, The Teaching Agency. The amalgamation of the 2 organisations was designed to lay the key building blocks needed to create a school-led system.

Furthermore, the introduction of the academy school has also had a significant impact on the way in which leadership is measured and monitored. Previously, local authorities had the jurisdiction to monitor failing leadership, but this is no longer the case with these autonomous schools.

“Local authorities did have a mandate to support and to monitor effective leadership in schools,” explains Dr Showunmi. “If local authorities felt a particular school had issues they could step in to help. Policy makers could knock on the door of the school and flag up any issues. The school would then be monitored to discern the effectiveness of its leadership.”

This inability to successfully monitor leadership practice does little service in the long term, as leaders that have been proved to be weak and effective may remain unchallenged.

So, what makes an effective leader? This in itself is a difficult question to answer. Leadership means different things to different people, and some organisations require different qualities in their leaders.

Interestingly when we explore effective leadership in more depth The Wallace Foundation (2012) regard and identify the following six characteristics on “Effective Leadership”:

  • Shaping a vision of academic success for all students based on high standards;
  • Creating a climate of cooperation among teachers and between teachers and students and everyone at schools;
  • Engaging parents and the community and ensuring students are safe at school;
  • Cultivating and distributing leadership in others so that staff and others assume their part in realising the school’s vision whilst building capacity in others;
  • Improving instruction to enable teachers to teach at their best and students to learn at their best by focusing much attention on the quality of teaching and learning;
  • Managing people, data and processes to drive school improvement.

When effective leaders put each of these elements in place, and if they can do so simultaneously, they stand a chance of making a real difference for students.

Within the education sector, however, Dr Showunmi says there are a few key elements that make the basis of an effective leader. “As I have previously stated, leaders need to have a vision and encourage people to believe the vision. An effective leader should also be reflective, and understand that they do not have all the answers. Members of their team can offer quality contributions. An effective good leader should also be self-critical, but also confident to follow through with an idea or direction. That is a quality in itself.

“Additionally an effective leader should be able to develop a team and progress their career. Everyone should feel as if they are part of a learning organisation. “Furthermore, a good leader understands how to get the best out of their team in order to deliver good education.”

Dr Showunmi added: “I think an effective leaders is only one aspect of the equation. There should also be assistance to ensure effective leaders stay effective, as well as support to allow their vision to be passed along to new effective leaders coming through chain.” However, the stereotypical view of what a leader looks like is an obstacle to overcome. Dr Showunmi says when asked in general if people tend to have the perception of a white male in leadership roles.

“That view is in itself problematic, as people’s perception of what makes a leader is crucial to their success.

“We have been talking about this issue for some time, but the current political arena, which touches on migrant immigration, does not help when schools and or organisations seek to select and recruit potential ‘new’ leaders that represent difference.

As Dr Susan Craig, the eminent Trinidadian sociologist argues: ‘it takes consciousness to inform action to change the world’ Using Gus John’s words ‘Leadership in learning is clearly not the preserve of school leaders and managers alone. It is also the responsibility of classroom teachers and of students’.

If we are to develop and embed new leadership paradigms and empower both teachers and students to act with ‘moral purpose’, the onus of responsibility must lie with those that educate future teachers.

Dr Showunmi explains that her research currently examines the notions of identity in leadership and the impact this may have on one’s own leadership style.

“I think it is a unique area which needs to be examined. If you look at Barack Obama and how he came to be president it is very much grassroots leadership, and it is a leadership that is very inclusive. That idea has not really been explored in the industry, and so I’m very interested in that.”

Dr Showunmi also notes regional differences could affect the ability of leaders to be effective. Different schools have, after all, different issues and different tactics to tackle them. It is not a case of one size fits all and can be implemented across the board.

“It is important to learn from different settings,” she observes. “What does an effective leader look like in Wales or Scotland? Are there parts of Birmingham that have effective and diverse leaders?

“An effective leader could be effective in Cornwall, but if placed in a different context in another part of the UK they could fail because of a lack of experience in tackling diversity in their leadership journey.

Sharing knowledge from other schools and other areas is vital. Ongoing training is also important as there is always something to learn, as well as room for improvement.

Dr Paul Miller’s work on successful and effective leadership in the Caribbean is vital to this ongoing conversation as it enables us to use another lens to view what is meant by effective leadership “A leader might be identified as the best in that area, but challenges arise when that individual is taken out of that context and put in another area that is more diverse and challenging. Good and effective leaders should be able to transfer that skills base into a new context, and that is where we need to do more work, concludes Dr Showunmi.

Dr Victoria Showunmi

Department of Lifelong and Comparative Education

UCL Institute of Education, London





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