John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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4.The core purpose of leadership in education is learning


There are numerous formulations as to the purpose of education and the nature of schools that is entailed by the various alternatives. What has emerged in recent years is a growing consensus that the fundamental purpose of a school is to enable everyone in the community to learn – that serves as the basis for every other possible outcome – well-being and improved life chances, academic success, moral development or vocational education – what they all have in common is the ability to learn.

In this context leadership is seen as creating the environment in which learning is possible for every member of the school community and, potentially, the wider community that the school serves. Leadership is thus concerned with the resources and opportunities that facilitate learning, however, and more importantly perhaps, it is about creating a culture that enables and secures engagement in learning for all i.e. learning as a process, not an outcome. Schooling often focuses on the content of education – the curriculum or the delivery of that content teaching and the work of teachers. It might be part of the transformation of schools to argue for the primacy of the learning process of itself – the strategies, skills and relationships that enable learning for all. Such learning leads to understanding that in turn leads to the ability to apply that learning in practice and also to question and challenge.

It might well be that leaders are at their most effective when they are supporting and developing the learning of their colleagues and this in turn provides a model of effective leadership in the classroom through the facilitation of learning for all. It does seem to be the case that certain learning strategies are more likely to lead to change than others, notably action learning approaches, collaborative strategies and coaching and mentoring. These strategies seem to work whether the learner is five or 50.

Of equal importance is the extent to which leaders are actually engaged in their own learning both in terms of their personal growth and acting as a model for their colleagues and the school community. Investing in leadership development is one of the key components of any strategy to secure improvement, improve teaching and learning and embed sustainable change.  Leadership development seems to be most likely to make an impact on the quality of teaching and learning and developing sustainable high performance if it focuses on the following principles:

1.    It focuses on learning for understanding rather than the transmission of information (training) or engagement with abstract theory. Learning for understanding involves developing the confidence to apply and act through certain key behaviours.

2.    Probably the most effective form of leadership learning is found in coaching and mentoring. It is the one-to-one that really does seem to greatest potential to translate theory into consistent and effective practice.

3.    After coaching leadership learning and development seems to be most effective when it is based in experiential learning i.e. learning to lead by actually leading. The use of real-time genuine leadership projects, internships, job-swaps and similar activities seem to have the greatest impact in terms of confidence and the ability to act with confidence.

4.    Collaborative learning projects, particularly in the team, between teams and across schools have significant potential for accelerating leadership learning as well as developing confidence in working in different environments.

Two key learning processes seem to be central to leadership development. Firstly there is a need for challenge; learning activities need to be challenging of themselves and facilitators needs to be challenging in order to encourage deep engagement with the learning process. The second element is reflection; there is very powerful evidence that successful professionals are highly reflective about their work. This is where coaches and mentors can play a significant role but leadership development means that individuals become reflective in every aspect of their work and are comfortable and confident in reviewing their practice.

All of these approaches assume an underpinning of knowledge of the theory and practice of school leadership. This implies a working knowledge of, for example, research into the most effective deployment of resources to secure student achievement; the current research on classroom practice and the evidence base for high impact leadership of teaching and learning. One very practical example of how research can inform leadership practice is the regular sharing of reading in leadership team meetings i.e. actually putting reading and discussion on the agenda. These strategies are essentially the warp of leadership development – the weft is dialogue. Fundamental to every leadership development activity, but more importantly fundamental to the daily routines of every leader is a commitment to engaging in learning conversations with other leaders, colleagues, pupils and their parents. For Robinson (2011) the centrality of learning to leadership is absolutely fundamental:

The main conclusion to be drawn from the present analyses is that particular types of school leadership have substantial impacts on student outcomes. The more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their likely influence on student outcomes.


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