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James Croft, author of the CMRE report

Role of leadership unclear, says education think tank

No 'leadership premium' until we know more about what makes a good leader, says CMRE research

Posted by Stephanie Broad | June 29, 2016 | People, policy, politics

A new report from CMRE, out today, argues that we don’t yet know enough about what makes for impactful leadership, to be able to develop effective strategy for identifying and developing leaders. 

The report argues that theories of leadership suggesting that organisational success and failure is directly attributed to individuals are based on virtually no evidence at all – calling into question continuing policy emphasis on ‘teleporting in experts’ whose experience and expertise may have been shaped in quite different contexts.

It also questions the rationale for investing in centralised professional development programmes, offering instead a headteacher shadowing scheme based on the observation of leaders in the school context, supported by course content oriented to improving research literacy and building and refreshing knowledge of what works. 

The study, authored by CMRE Director James Croft, says that despite a huge amount of literature on the subject, the studies around what leadership looks like, how to develop leadership and critically how it contributes to school improvement are not well-grounded. Assumptions made, without consideration of how they relate to context, have been mutually reinforced by those engaged in school effectiveness research. 

The report suggests focusing initially on detailed observations of leaders to identify patterns of decision-making and practice in key areas of potential leadership influence  

One such assumption, Croft says, is of leadership’s direct importance for academic outcomes. Few studies have tried to quantify the contribution of leadership, but of those that have leadership variables are only modestly to weakly related to pupil outcomes.

Attachment to the idea of direct effects has meant that of those engaged in leadership effectiveness research, only a minority have begun to factor in the potential importance of school-related factors as mediators, while still fewer have given serious attention to more complex interactions. It is likely that in addition to school environment, pupil outcomes themselves may strongly influence leadership decisions and behaviour. 

In policy terms, as a result, the paper argues that we should not expect that such strategies are easily learnable or transferable. To be confident of impact, more research, and research of a different nature, is needed. The report suggests focusing initially on detailed observations of leaders to identify patterns of decision-making and practice in key areas of potential leadership influence. These include changes to leadership and management structure and practices, motivating staff through mission and goal-setting and appropriate incentives in pay and conditions, and curriculum and pedagogy. 

The locus of leadership identification and development should be shifted to the school level, the report continues, with mentoring and peer-to-peer support provided by leaders of similar schools whom those in need of support believe might offer insight. This shift should be supported by course content oriented to improving research literacy and building and refreshing knowledge of what works. 

Read the Executive Summary here.

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