John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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3.Leadership is concerned with transformation – not improvement

Management is essentially about securing, improving and delivering the status quo. Part of that process of managing is engaging in incremental improvement – constantly looking for better ways to secure effectiveness. This is a vital element of any organisation’s culture but it might not be sufficient to secure equity, excellence and effectiveness. It is at this point that the emphasis has to shift from improvement to transformation from incremental adjustment to a radical rethinking of why, who what and how. For example school improvement, as a policy and strategy, has been the dominant orthodoxy for a generation yet equity remains elusive across the education systems.

It might therefore be appropriate to sustain school improvement but to also explore strategies that will really challenge the root causes of relatively poor performance, a lack of equity and a failure to acknowledge and engage with learning in the 21st century.  Transformation is not just about a greater level of improvement; in Marshall’s powerful image:

Adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies – it creates awkward and dysfunctional caterpillars. Butterflies are created through transformation. (Marshall, 1995: 1)

Unfortunately in education we sometimes become so focused on developing the caterpillar that we forget that its primary purpose is to become a butterfly, not a better caterpillar. Transformation is about the moral courage to question and challenge the status quo and to develop alternative ways forward often going against a culture that can be self-referential and self-legitimating.

             . . . transformation attacks both the current and the known world and the future. It is concerned with the creation of new opportunities, with the ability to junk conventional wisdom and destroy old (often cherished) advantages, to violate established business practice, compete in different ways, shut down competitors’ angle of attack and behave in counterintuitive and, indeed, unpredictable ways. (Taffinder 1998: 36)


Transformation is the movement from horse drawn to petrol driven transport, from electric telegraph to email, from the Cutty Sark to the container ship carrying 18,000 containers. The core purpose remains the same – the means of delivery radically different. This view requires leadership to be creative, innovative and willing to take risks to move away from ‘doing what we have always done’ to radically reengineering what is done and how it is done. Management is about conservation leadership is about innovation. Examples of the sorts of themes that might be addressed in the context of transformation could include:

·         Securing equity in education particularly for the most vulnerable

·         Focusing on the development of oracy and literacy in the family and community before formal schooling starts

·         Moving from automatic cohort chronological progression to a culture of ‘stage not age’ - developing a personalized learning experience.

·         A curriculum focused on the strategies and competencies necessary to live a successful life in the 21st century, personal well-being and the social and moral awareness.

·         Getting rid of the artificial divide between primary and secondary education and developing a model of education from cradle to 18 and beyond.

·         Using ICT to rethink what people learn, where they learn, whom they learn with and how they learn.

·         Developing schools as communities working collaboratively with other communities.



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