Leadership - The 'elixir' of delegation proves hard to swallow

24th January 2014 at 00:00
Leaders talk of teamwork but hidebound hierarchies still rule

The idea that every teacher in Scotland should be a leader has been espoused in numerous policy reports and talked up by headteachers around the country.

But University of Edinburgh research suggests that, for all the goodwill and rhetoric behind "distributed leadership", the rigid school hierarchies of old are very hard to dismantle.

The idea of distributed leadership - where power is delegated to numerous members of staff - has been hailed as an "elixir for the challenges besetting Scottish education", researcher Deirdre Torrance writes in an article for the Scottish Educational Review.

But when she followed three new and enthusiastic primary school leaders, all keen to nurture initiative in their colleagues, she came to a blunt conclusion: "Leadership was still top-down, despite the rhetoric of teams and empowerment."

The "unintended language of hierarchy" surfaced repeatedly, Dr Torrance found, with the school leaders making a "clear distinction" between senior management and other staff.

Approaches to distributed leadership focused "overwhelmingly" on the priorities of the schools' leaders or improvement plans, which "limited the scope for spontaneous leadership or for a grass-roots change agenda".

Teachers not in management roles "were still waiting for permission to act", Dr Torrance writes. But the fault lies elsewhere, she stresses. Policy around distributed leadership has been shaped by examples from abroad, without recognition of the important differences in Scottish teaching and society.

Such ideas are "aspirational" at best, "prescriptive and politically driven" at worst, writes Dr Torrance, who is co-director of teacher education partnerships and director of two postgraduate educational leadership programmes.

"For the most part, distributed leadership has served a political rather than an educational purpose," she writes. "Having become commonly accepted, it is seldom questioned despite its lack of empirical underpinning. Its unsteady foundations can lead to tensions in the field."

Dr Torrance, who cites other leadership research, finds that "conceptual confusion abounds" in schools, with Scottish educational policy using terms such as "collegiality", "distributed", "distributive" and "shared leadership" interchangeably.

"Without secure foundations, it is difficult to conceive how the policy drive to involve every teacher in school leadership can become a reality," Dr Torrance concludes.

The Scottish government believes that leadership at all levels of teaching will become more commonplace in years to come. A spokesman said: "The concept that all teachers are leaders is embedded within (the 2011 Donaldson report) Teaching Scotland's Future and also explicit in the General Teaching Council for Scotland's standard for leadership and management.

"The recently published framework for educational leadership illustrates leadership opportunities for all teachers and, from summer 2014, the Scottish College for Educational Leadership will also be open to all teachers, not just those in promoted posts."

Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders' body AHDS, said: "There are many different ways in which schools work, depending on the issues at hand and other competing pressures. Distributed leadership is not, and never will be, the only way of working.

"It is an important part of the approach within Scottish education, which could no doubt be developed further.

"Some school staff are more willing and able to embrace distributed leadership than others; similarly, some heads are more in tune with it than others. Its adoption needs to be at the right pace for all involved and on the right issues - easy to say, much harder to do."

Barbara van der Meulen, a Highland English teacher who has blogged about leadership on teacher website Pedagoo, said: "I do feel that Dr Torrance's observations ring true for many of us in secondaries."

The idea of more teachers taking on leadership duties should not be about delegation, she added, but "encouraging colleagues out of comfort zones and into new areas of professional work".

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