Who’d be a School Leader? Current and Future Challenges

Strong school leadership is viewed as especially important for the regeneration of failing schools. Below, Peter Earley draws upon recent research into school leadership in England to discuss some of the challenges faced now and in the future, and presents key messages about how school leaders should work to ensure improved school performance.

Colleagues at London’s Institute of Education and the National Foundation for Educational Research in England have recently completed a major research report on the current state of school leadership and how leaders have responded to the ever-changing policy landscape.1 Comparisons with a similar study into the leadership landscape conducted over ten years ago enable us to see how school leadership has changed over the first decade of the 21st century to meet the ever-growing and changing demands of policy-makers and other stakeholders.2 The constant factor over this time period, fuelled by policy makers’ love of international initiatives such as the OECD’s PISA reports, has been the need to raise standards and continuously improve in an attempt to raise performance scores and enhance the quality of pupils’ learning experiences. This last decade in education has been described by Cranston3 worldwide as ‘an era of standards-based agendas, enhanced centralized accountability systems where improved student learning, narrowly defined, becomes the mantra for school leaders, who themselves are subject to enhanced accountabilities’.

Readers of this journal will be aware that there are numerous studies from throughout the world, some methodologically strong, others less so, which claim that leadership is a crucial factor in organisational effectiveness. The education sector is no different. Strong school leadership is viewed as especially important for the regeneration of failing schools and in enabling them to become ‘world class’. Over the last decade the discourse about leadership has grown in importance both in the UK and globally and reflects the significance policy-makers accord to the notion of educational leaders as the key drivers of school improvement.

[ms-protect-content id=”9932″]

Wherever organisational success is found, good leadership is said to be behind it. An attempt to quantify the precise influence that school leaders have on student achievement has recently been undertaken by Branch, et al4 in the US who drew on matched data sets collected over many years by the Texas Schools Project. They found considerable variation in principal effectiveness, noting that ‘highly effective principals raise student achievement by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year’. They also note that ineffective principals lower student achievement by the same amount. Although the impact is smaller than that associated with highly effective teachers it is noted that ‘teachers have a direct impact on only those students in their classroom; differences in principal quality affect all students in a given school’.

In this article I examine the challenges and complexity of school leadership. I am writing about the situation in England which is currently implementing major reforms but many of the issues are relevant throughout Europe and more widely as schools become progressively autonomous, self-managing, more accountable and increasingly place responsibility for improvement in the hands of school leaders themselves.

I conclude by saying that the job of school leaders, especially headship, must be seen as do-able. The task must be seen as possible for ‘ordinary mortals’ – if we are to ensure a continuing succession of effective leaders. If it’s not, then the numbers putting themselves forward for headship, especially of the more challenging schools, will continue to decline.


The intensification of leadership roles

What it means to be a headteacher in the third millennium is often discussed in terms of a changing and challenging environment where schools are being given an even bigger job to do. MacBeath and colleagues in a study of Scottish headteachers’ workload talk of ‘increasing pressure to do more in less time, to be responsive to a greater range of demands from external sources and to meet a greater range of targets, accompanied by impatient deadlines to be met’.5 Fink summed it up well when he said headteachers are ‘overburdened, overworked and overwhelmed’.6 He might also have said they are over-assessed operating as they are in a high stakes accountability culture, a very different situation to ten years ago, which is reflected in the increasing difficulty for some headship posts to be filled.

Work intensification seems to have taken place over the last decade yet the data for England show that the hours headteachers work during term time – between 55 to 60 hours per week – have not changed that much, as shown by teacher workload diaries.7 Perhaps the key question we should ask here is how are heads spending their time – are they able to spend appropriate time on the things that matter most, focusing on key tasks and activities? Is too much time being spent on tasks that might be better delegated elsewhere? Many schools in England now deploy school business managers and other specialists to enable heads to focus on other more strategic activity, including leading teaching and learning. Yet research shows heads still report spending about half of their time ‘in the office’. Also, of course, it’s the quality of actions taken rather than the amount of time allocated to different actions per se that is important and ‘spending time on one issue or area in and of itself does not lead to success. A principal must choose to spend time on the right things and spend that time effectively’ (Burkhauser, et al).8


Doing the right things

So what are ‘the right things’? This has been the subject of much debate over the years as headteachers become more like chief executives running businesses and less like leading professionals running a school, a trend first identified in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s as local management of schools was being piloted. Schools have increasingly been recognised as autonomous businesses yet their core business should be ‘learning’. The Canadian, Ben Levin, writing about ‘confident leadership’ suggests that school leaders are currently expected to have too many skills, ‘making the task seem impossible for ordinary mortals’. While many skills matter, he believes that:

‘to be truly confident about their work school leaders need to feel capable in two major areas: leading teaching and learning, and being able to manage the political environment in and outside the school in a way that sustains the organisation and builds community support for it’.

For Levin, leaders have to ‘identify the work of leading learning as a key responsibility, to which they devote a considerable amount of time and attention and which takes priority over other competing pressures’.9 What then does this look like?


Leading the learning

Leading the learning needs to take priority over other competing pressures on leaders’ time but this may be easier said than done. The nature and demands of current policy were often seen in our research as potentially disrupting the focus on teaching and learning and their improvement. In particular, among smaller schools there was considerable concern that additional managerial powers and duties would disrupt a leadership focus on learning at the same time when the normal channels of support from the local authority or district were missing or would be in the future.

Achieving real improvement requires a focus on learning-centred leadership with priority given to enhancing teaching and learning. The leadership of learning, for example, was seen as everybody’s responsibility and school leaders needed to help foster a culture of learning for all. The current emphasis in England on structural reform and new forms of schooling such as academies and free schools may be distracting from this key objective.

Research into headteachers’ work shows that much time is spent dealing with the administrative and managerial aspects of the job. Nearly six out of ten heads claimed they spent ‘too little time’ on the leadership of teaching and learning and only about four out of ten thought it was ‘about right’.2 Yet over the next decade it’s most likely that school leaders will be increasingly extolled to become leaders of learning. Interestingly, a recent OECD publication on the appraisal of school leaders makes reference to how headteachers need to be evaluated in terms of ‘fostering pedagogical leadership in schools’.10 School leaders play a key role in improving school outcomes by influencing the motivation and capacity of staff and affecting the culture and surroundings in which they work and learn. Can we detect a growing expectation that school leaders will maintain this focus – to concentrate their efforts on professional and pedagogic matters rather than administrative and financial concerns? As noted earlier, schools have made a number of efforts, including the growth and deployment of administrative staff, especially school business leaders, to help maintain this leadership focus on enhancing student outcomes. The evidence does suggest however that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the focus on the leadership of teaching and learning.

Real improvement requires a focus on learning-centred leadership with priority given to enhancing teaching and learning.

The biggest difference to school standards is related to the effective leadership of teaching and learning. The inspection agency Ofsted believes that the most important differences between highly effective schools and the rest is that they do things consistently well and that the leadership is closely involved in making teaching and learning as effective as possible.

Learning-centred leadership or leadership for learning is likely to continue to be the new paradigm for 21st century school leadership,11 yet just over half of headteachers’ time is spent in the office and just over one-third inside the school (but outside the office). It is reasonable to expect school leaders to adopt this model but it is difficult to fulfil if so much time is spent ‘office-bound’. Given its greater prominence in the inspection framework for English schools there is a good chance that it will happen (‘what gets inspected gets done’) but it will be a challenge given the intensification trend noted earlier and the growing number of competing pressures and demands on school leaders’ time.

The OECD (2009)12 leadership toolkit talks of strengthening practice through leadership development and that the broader distribution of leadership and headteachers’ changing roles and responsibilities require the development of new skills for the 21st century. These include:

Guiding teaching and learning by enhancing teacher quality that will lead to improved learning outcomes, managing resources, setting goals and measuring progress, and leading and collaborating beyond school borders.12

Leaders and their schools require continuing development and support to lead their schools into the 21st century. Training and development and effective systems of support for school leaders are essential but this is another area experiencing many changes, especially with the changing role of the local authority.


The future

More and more countries are moving towards decentralisation, schools are more autonomous in their decision making, and increasingly held to account for their results which are made public and widely available. As schools have gained more autonomy, the more important the role of school leaders has become. Our recent research found that the majority of school leaders viewed the move towards greater collaboration and autonomy in positive terms, however, realistically they did not anticipate gaining further autonomy in practice and collaboration presented its own challenges when competition for pupil admissions was still in existence.

A greater proportion of English heads could be defined as ‘confident’ than ‘concerned’ about current policy but there were some worrying trends: a combination of increasing site-level responsibilities, diminishing support from LAs and differential regulation of schools, largely through the inspection process, may be leading to the intensification of existing hierarchies between schools. Some developments, such as the growth of Teaching Schools (similar to Teaching Hospitals) may leave a significant number of schools, up to half according to some calculations, outside of any partnership or collaborative arrangements. There is a real danger that the gap between the outstanding and good schools and the rest could widen to the detriment of the education system as a whole.

School leaders continue to face many challenges – the need to raise standards, rising expectations from government, inspectors, parents and pupils, a highly diverse school population, a changing curriculum and so on – and these challenges are unlikely to go away! In this context of work intensification and the perceived impossibility of doing this increasingly expanding job, it is perhaps unsurprising that few people are putting themselves forward as the next generation of headteachers. However, headteachers themselves were still often of the view that it is the best job in education – and this has not changed very much over the years  – but some were less certain about the future direction headship was taking given recent policy developments.

The continuing challenge is to make heads’ work do-able, not harder and less attractive. Also leaders need to be enabled to concentrate their professional efforts on leading the learning. There is ample evidence that headship is regarded as immensely rewarding but is it surprising that there continues to be recruitment and retention difficulties? If headship is to be seen as attractive and manageable, then consideration must be given to reducing the demands of the job and providing more assistance, support and development. Headship needs to be within the reach of normal human beings!

About the Author
Formerly a school teacher, Professor Peter Earley, has since 2004 held the Chair of Educational Leadership and Management at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the Institute of Education, University of London, where he has responsibility for the Centre’s postgraduate and doctoral programmes. Peter’s research and consultancy interests are wide-ranging and cover the leadership and governance of schools, leadership development (especially accelerated leadership), impact evaluation of professional development, human resource management, and school inspection and evaluation. His latest book, Exploring the School Leadership Landscape: Changing demands, changing realities, published this autumn by Bloomsbury, looks at how the challenges of school leadership have changed (and remained the same).

1. Earley, P., Higham, R., Allen, R., Allen, T., Howson, J., Nelson, R., Rawal, S., Lynch, S., Morton, L., Mehta, P. and Sims, D. (2012). Review of the School Leadership Landscape, Nottingham: National College for School Leadership.

2. Earley, P. (2013). Exploring the School Leadership Landscape: Changing demands, changing realities, London: Bloomsbury.
3. Cranston, N. (2013). ‘School leaders leading: professional responsibility not accountability as the key focus’, Educational Management, Administration & Leadership, 41(2): 129-142.
4. Branch, G., Hanushek, E. and Rivkin. S. (2013). School leaders matter, Education Next, Winter, 63-69.
5. MacBeath, J., O’Brien, J. and Gronn, P. (2012). ‘Drowning or waving? Coping strategies among Scottish head teachers’, School Leadership and Management, 32(5): 421–38.
6. Fink, D. (2010). The Succession Challenge: Building and sustaining leadership capacity through succession management, London: Sage.
7. Deakin, G., James, N., Tickner, M. and Tidswell, J. (2010). Teachers’ workload diary survey 2010, DfE RR057, London: DfE.
8. Burkhauser, S., Gates, S., Hamilton, L. and Ikemoto, G. (2012). First Year Principals in Urban School Districts, NY: Rand Corporation.
9. Levin, B. (2013) Confident school leadership: a Canadian perspective, Nottingham: National College for School Leadership.
10. OECD (2013) Synergies for better learning: an international perspective on evaluation and assessment, Paris: OECD.
11. Hallinger, P. (2012). ‘Leadership for 21st Century schools: from instructional leadership to leadership for learning’, Presentation to Italian Ministry of Education, December.
12. OECD (2009) Improving School Leadership: the toolkit, Paris: OECD.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here