Your school leadership matters
School leadership does matter, especially in these complex and uncertain times. Research shows that effective school leadership is essential to what education can achieve. Zhang and Brundrett (2010) already stated a decade ago that the empirical evidence for this key role is solid and growing. School leadership is also an important lever in the development of a school as a learning organisation (Smits & Larock, 2020). Furthermore, school leadership plays a crucial role in supporting a school team in dealing with adjustments to the curriculum, increased diversity in the pupil/student population, challenges involving the recruitment of new teachers, the learning gap due to corona, and so on. School leaders are the key to implementing effective policies (Pont et al., 2008).
Because it is such an influential variable in understanding the effectiveness of schools, there has been considerable international research interest in educational leadership for decades (Robinson et al., 2008; Hallinger & Heck, 2010; Day et al., 2014, Grissom et al., 2021…). Also in Flanders, very valuable conceptual and empirical studies on (the development of) school leadership have already been performed (check, amongst others, Hulpia, Devos, e.a., 2012; Daniëls, Hondeghem & Dochy, 2019).
At the same time, we note that just when the need for high-quality and flexible school leadership is greater than ever, various actors in the Flemish educational landscape are sounding the alarm. Vacancies are becoming more and more difficult to fill and management positions are falling vacant (Vancaeneghem, 2020). Furthermore, schools are confronted with an ageing leading working population (Pont et al., 2008). The shortage only threatens to increase in the coming years. Newspapers and other media outlets regularly report on this issue. Governments are taking supporting measures. Mainly thanks to the educational umbrella organisations, schools of advanced education and universities, directors can sign up for multi-annual director training courses and numerous one- or multiple-day post-graduate courses for further improving their professional knowledge and skills. TALIS, OECD’s international comparative education research, indicates that the vast majority of Flemish school leaders follows a director training before or after their appointment (basic education = 94.2%; secondary education 1st grade = 83.4%). More than three quarters of them also participate in training sessions or courses on leadership (basic education = 78.5%; secondary education 1st grade = 76.3%).
The search for effective ways to give substance and form to increasing the professional knowledge and skills of both current and prospective school leaders is obviously not limited to Flanders. According to Daniëls and colleagues (2019), there is a growing global concern about the availability of appropriate advanced training programmes for school leaders.
Effective school leadership
As to what prospective and current directors learn about school leadership, the level of convergence is rather low. For instance, what they learn about effective school leadership differs depending on the courses and training in which they take part. This observation prompted Schoolmakers in 2019 to develop a comprehensive, empirical view of school leadership, based on what educational research teaches us about which leadership behaviour contributes to effective school leadership (Larock, 2019). Based on scientific evidence, we’ve identified twenty assignments: activities that contribute to the realisation of effective school leadership. They have a positive impact right down to the performance level of pupils and students (Hallinger & Heck, 1996; Leithwood; Harris, & Hopkins, 2008; Yukl, 2013; Day et al., 2014). We have subdivided these twenty assignments in three aspects, which we regard as the three major process goals for every school leader: realising the school’s educational ambitions; cultivating a learning climate; strengthening the quality of the organisation.
How we name these aspects is very similar to the categories used in research on school leadership. Hallinger and Heck (1999), for instance, label categories of educational leadership as ‘purposes’, ‘people’ and ‘structures and social systems’. Conger and Kanungo (1998) refer to ‘visioning strategies’, ‘efficacy-building strategies’ and ‘context changing strategies’, while Leithwood (1996) talks about the categories ‘setting directions’, ‘developing people’ and ‘redesigning the organisation’. Hallinger and Heck’s model (1999) provided us with insight into which assignments have an impact on the learning outcomes of pupils/students. They concluded that influencing factors include ‘setting goals’, ‘being involved in teaching’, ‘challenging teachers intellectually’ and ‘clear procedures and structures’. In addition, the eight bearers of policy-making capacity (Vanhoof & Van Petegem, 2017) have been taken into account to formulate 20 assignments that lead to an effective school policy. From Jäppinen’s (2014) research on collaborative school leadership, the assignments ‘facilitating change’, ‘stimulating learning together’, ‘paying attention’ and ‘positivity’ were added to our framework.
Although we did not assume it, we’ve also identified part of the 20 assignments in what is referred to as transformational leadership. The authors who introduced the concept of transformational leadership into the management world in 1994 (Bass & Avolio, 1994) describe it as follows: “Transformational leaders are said to focus on inspiring employees to commit to a shared vision and to the goals of the organisation; on challenging them to be innovative problem solvers; and on developing the leadership skills of employees through coaching, mentoring and providing both challenges and support” (Bass & Riggo, 2006, p.4 – own translation). Meanwhile, quite a few academics are questioning the empirical foundations of transformational leadership (Berkovich, 2016). But as a framework for reflecting on contemporary school leadership, the concept of transformational leadership certainly remains valid.
We further refined all twenty assignments into a series of 81 behaviours that school leaders may exhibit to a greater or lesser extent. The effect of these behaviours on pupil/student performances is indirect, as the following diagram illustrates.
The creation of the list of 81 concrete behaviours is not only the result of a deep dive into state-of-the-art research on school leadership. The framework itself and its implementation were the subject matter of a validation study conducted in 2019-2020 (Debruyne, 2020 – led by J. Vanhoof, Edubron, UAntwerpen). This study has taught us that our model enables schools to validly collect perceptions about the functioning of school leaders.
Shared effective school leadership
The twenty assignments, which become visible in the 81 observable behaviours, obviously do not have to be taken up all and completely by one person in a school. On the contrary, a school benefits from a distribution of school leadership among directors, mid-level managers, teachers and other employees. Educational researchers refer in this context to ‘distributed and shared leadership‘ (Harris, 2002) and to the ‘policy-making capacity’ of a school (Van Hoof & Van Petegem, 2017). We ourselves like to talk about ‘co-creative leadership’ (Larock & De Weerdt, 2012). The leadership behaviour that directly contributes to this is incorporated in eight of the twenty assignments of effective school leadership, more in particular in the following assignments: ‘supported vision and goals’, ‘creating intellectual challenges’, ’empowerment’, ‘facilitating change’, ‘co-creating a stimulating learning environment’, ‘paying attention’, ‘promoting positivity’ and ‘supported communication rules’.
Schoolmakers also likes to link part of the 20 assignments to the roles attributed in literature and in practice to mid-level management positions and ‘teacher leaders’ (Harrisson & Killion, 2007), namely: the education expert, the curriculum expert, the provider of resources, the data coach, the classroom support worker, the mentor, the learning facilitator, the self-learner and the change catalyst. Furthermore, we’ve observed that school leaders easily relate the 20 assignments to the Reference Framework for Educational Quality..