Leadership is a critical determinant of school performance and success.
It doesn’t just matter, it really matters.
Knowing what effective leadership actually is and looks like is another thing as one size does not fit all schools.
Coe, Kime and Singleton (2022) argue that researchers and trainers make strong claims but with little or no evidence to support them.
Instead, Coe et al identify a set of characteristics and school-level factors for which there is good evidence and which leaders should focus their attention on.
They make clear that school leaders need specific skills to manage a complex organisation like a school and they highlight the particular management factors that are essential.
1. Supportive working relationships
What matters is that staff feel trusted towards school leadership and they feel trusted and valued by leaders.
This involves a belief that leaders are well-intentioned, competent, honest, caring, forgiving and consistent. It involves a willingness across staff to share or expose vulnerabilities and it is okay to take risks and make mistakes.
Enjoying positive working relationships boils down to the climate of the school where staff feel motivated, where they feel safe and where they feel connected. As Hart (2022) says, “Leaders can make a difference to how it feels for colleagues to be part of a team and to work in their school.”
When leaders nurture a climate that is based on trust and psychological safety then it makes innovation more likely, enables learning from mistakes and brings greater job satisfaction.
2. Improvement mindset
A number of factors mesh together that focus on developing a corporate mindset of development and upgrading.
This involves effective evaluation, monitoring and quality assurance, teachers’ beliefs that they can and need to be better than they are, teachers’ feelings of ownership and responsibility for student outcomes.
Effective evaluation gives leaders insights into areas that can be improved and informs strategy choices, increasing their chances of managing genuine improvements in things that matter. Innovation and problem-solving raise organisational performance.
Coe et al draw on the research of Grissom (2022) who states “Multiple studies demonstrate that students benefit academically from sophisticated teacher evaluation systems that marry structured classroom observations of a teacher’s performance with high-quality feedback.”
When the operational, administrative, logistical and organisational functions of a school are well managed then this can make a difference to the quality of learning that happens in it.
The practical support teachers receive from leaders really matters because when obstacles and barriers are cleared, teachers can get on with their business of teaching in a frictionless environment. This has a direct and immediate effect on teachers’ activity and therefore on student learning.
Another key aspect of delivery is the prioritising of instructional activity (pedagogy, curriculum and assessment) because it keeps the focus on what makes the most difference to learning.
Also highly relevant is the prioritisation of core aims, identifying feasible actions to deliver them and allocating time and resources to these strategic areas.
4. Strategic staffing
Managing personnel and resources strategically is key to the success of a school and a central leadership practice.
This involves being able to recruit high-quality staff, retain and reward high-quality staff, having the ability to hold challenging conversations about and address underperformance, ensuring time and budget are spent on things that deliver strategically important goals, managing workloads optimally and matching staff to their strengths, expertise an motivations.
Managing and developing staff is essential and effective leaders meaningfully involve staff in key decisions. They also ensure that staff have collective professional autonomy to make their own choices about pedagogy, curriculum and assessment. Staff should feel responsible for raising issues and generating solutions and be accountable for their success.
Effective leaders are those that can help their staff manage their workloads, they help staff feel their work is valued and contributes towards the goals of the school. Staff that are well supported are committed to their school and want to keep working there.
What is refreshing about the work of Coe et al is that they join leadership and management together rather than artificially separate them. They note that management is often seen as the poor relation of leadership which they argue isn’t healthy:
We see this distinction as not helpful, nor conceptually sustainable, nor supported by good evidence: ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ practices are inextricably linked. They are two similar skill sets that frequently overlap with each other and are equal partners in a school’s success.
Both leadership and management should be prized with no special value attached to either as they share an intimate connection and are central to motivating people and giving a sense of purpose to a school.
The work of Coe et al reflects the values of best-evidence education by focusing on learner outcomes and working responsibly in a sustained, sustainable and substantial way.
Two key areas in school leadership and the environment that Coe et al (2022) focus on relate to learning time and learning supports and these can be explored further in their report.
Miller (2022) reminds us that research evidence is not a silver bullet “But there is no doubt it can help us better understand problems and develop potential solutions.”
All school leaders are urged to read and digest these important findings to enhance and improve their own practice.