Raising Standards Together

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MEP learning pack

Masters in Education Practice: Leadership


Leadership for improvement


Professional learning to enhance leadership

If, as we suggested at the beginning of this unit, leadership matters and the quality of leadership is crucial to school success, then how leaders are trained, developed and renewed is of great importance. This connection between school performance, the contribution of school leadership and the professional learning that supports leadership has been at the heart of much improvement policy and practice. So, for instance Moorosi and Bush (2011) argue explicitly that:

... if school leadership does make a difference in the outcomes of schooling ... it follows that researchers should continually be asking critical questions about how school leaders are prepared for the role, what type of leadership development they receive and what impact training has (p59).

Preparation for new leaders and the ongoing development of established leaders have been very much influenced by the increasing demands on school leadership, the highly charged accountability environment, and the considerable stakes now involved. In Wales, and in education systems across the world, it is seen as imperative that leaders have the professional learning that is needed to ensure schools improve to become good and outstanding. Reviews of international leadership literature over the last 20 years reveal that the role of school principals (headteachers) has become increasingly complex, alongside the educational changes they are expected to lead. This complexity has become entangled with various forms of accountability policies and practice such as the emphasis on student achievement and standardised testing. There is also a high expectation that leadership training can and should prepare leaders to meet these challenges. ‘In other words, leadership preparation programmes are the cornerstone of successful school leadership’ (Bryant, Walker and Lee, 2013; p.222).

In its international comparison of school leadership, McKinsey and Co. concluded that good education systems find leaders for today, whereas the best systems grow them for tomorrow (Barber, Whelan, and Clark, 2010). The strong message coming from this research conducted across seven countries was that:

leaders are grown through experience and support and that actively cultivating them can increase the leadership capacity of the system.

So what kind of professional learning is most effective in enhancing leadership? There are a number of inter-related elements. The development that appears to be most effective is when it is applied and embedded within the context where leaders work. This echoes what we know is effective in professional development of teachers generally, i.e. where it is school-led, classroom-based and focused on the core business of learning and teaching. Similarly, effective professional learning of leaders has a clear focus on their role in leading learning or ‘instructional leadership’. Associated with this, another key element is that leaders benefit by learning from each other and by exploring and sharing each other’s approaches and successful practice.  

Like all learners, leaders also gain from having a variety of learning opportunities and stimuli. So, in addition to the crucial element of learning from their peers, this is effectively enriched by high quality experiences and inputs from elsewhere:

... leaders learn best in context and from a diverse range of sources, including peers, superiors, online resources, and formal training.

(Barber, Whelan, and Clark, 2010; p28).

These particularly provide learning that enables leaders to take a wider perspective and to develop transformational leadership which inspires their colleagues to:

... new levels of energy, commitment, and moral purpose ... and to work collaboratively to overcome challenges and reach ambitious goals.

(Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe, 2008; p6).

Activity 1.4.1

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