Schools are complicated places pulling together swathes of people, old and young, in an ever-changing stasis. Distributed leadership provides a theoretical framework which aspires to channel this change toward school improvement. It is like a riverbed steering water to its destination, seemingly in charge, and yet shaped by every passing drop. In this critical reflection I will examine the theoretical concept of distributed leadership and analyse evidence both for and against it as a model for schools seeking to improve learning outcomes. I will assess the possibilities and pitfalls, and draw on my own experience to show that good intentions alone are not sufficient to facilitate the implementation of distributed leadership. In conclusion I will argue that, whereas distributed leadership provides schools with a theoretical structure to positively encourage and nurture the professional development of teachers, the evidence does not provide enough guidance as to how it might be successfully applied. It is this point, the lack of analysis of how distributed leadership might be managed, that ultimately renders it a theoretical and descriptive tool rather than a model for implementing good practice in modern schools.
The theory starts by emphasising people working together recognising their skills and expertise. This humanistic approach (Jay, 2006: 6) is given weight by empowering teachers to lead and develop their areas of specialism and/or interest. Cohesion is necessary, everyone acting together, as shown when Garrett (2005: 80) refers to Fullan (1993) in citing ‘the importance of the shared vision’. Here we begin the complex humanistic make-up of distributed leadership because this agreement of vision must be preceded by action (Garrett, 2005: 80). That means shared vision is not the starting place but it is a key ingredient to successful leadership. It demands that people work together, talk about and evaluate their work.
So, it is reasonable to assume that a shared vision must incorporate all active parties. In the case of distributed leadership we are ultimately referring to leading learning and therefore we are talking about all teachers within a school. What exactly do we mean by the term distributed leadership? An informative definition can be found in Serrat (2009) ‘ distributed leadership… views leadership as a social contract. It shifts the emphasis from developing leaders to developing “leaderful” organisations through concurrent, collective, and compassionate leadership with a collective responsibility for the latter.’ This definition is written for a central bank examining servant leadership, but nonetheless serves us well because it shifts the focus away from the individual leader and onto leaderful organisations. A similar focus is supported by Hargreaves (1999) identifying the need for schools to mirror successful high-tech firms in becoming knowledge-creating organisations. Hargreaves (2006) goes on to align knowledge-creation as a tool of sustainable leadership which is then equated to distributed leadership.
Bringing this into an education context we can stop thinking about what makes a good leader and start to envisage a school with leadership at its operational centre. As shown by Surrat and Hargreaves, distributed leadership is flawed because it is difficult to define. Many academics determine their own definition for the purposes of their work and, therefore, we will use the one provided by Surrat. However, it is important to note that distributed leadership is written about as the ultimate model that encompasses other attempts to explain good practice in modern schools. For example, Hargreaves (1999) with the knowledge creating school and the sustainable leadership model (Hargreaves & Fink, 2006) chronologically goes on to concede these are forms of distributive leadership. Our definition is supported by Harris (2005: 165) ‘distributed leadership is characterised as a form of collective leadership in which teachers develop expertise by working together’, as well as MacBeath (2003: 4) who defines it as ‘a value or ethic, residing in the organisational culture’.
Having established that distributed leadership is less about leaders and more about creating a leadership work ethic in all staff, we can begin to understand the relative advantages it might have over more hierarchical models. It is argued that distributed leadership empowers teachers, generates good CPD, optimises the talents and expertise of staff and leads to better work. Ultimately schools are aiming to implement sustained improvement which means having a positive impact on learning outcomes.
Teachers become empowered through a sense of professional acknowledgement of their actions and opinions. This is not necessarily meant to imply teachers need to be allocated responsibility or fight each other in the corridors for the next initiative the Headteacher is considering. It more subtly means every teacher taking their work seriously through a structure of engagement in the decision-making process. By participating in the decision, the individual teacher becomes a stakeholder in seeing the implementation of that decision succeed and applying it in a genuine fashion without sarcasm or undermining its integrity. If every individual acts upon a decision in this way, each time they communicate with pupils, the school becomes a united force for change. This is where the importance of the shared vision is realised because, without it, it is likely that some teachers will not have had their ideas acted upon which in turn might lead to negative behaviour, possibly because they feel unacknowledged. The shared vision serves as part of the agreed professional social contract (Serrat, 2009) that will support individuals through the inevitable negating of their thought.
Effective Continuous Professional Development (CPD) occurs when teachers agree on what the content of their training might be. In my experience, CPD works in two strains: one determined by the Headteacher and their school-wide objectives and the second determined by the teacher and approved by their line manager. The guiding principal in both these scenarios is that they should be explicitly linked to the school improvement plan. The reality is that CPD content is often a reactionary decision. For example, I have attended INSET (in-service training) on time management because a handful of teachers vocalised their struggle to get reports written on time. I have also spoken to several teachers about interactive whiteboard training courses they have attended which they had many good things to say about it but quip that they will never have the time to prepare the kind of resources they had learnt about. For CPD to be effective it must address the needs of the school, and to continue the analogy, the school is the teachers and pupils and the INSET could be teachers within the school meeting to talk to each other about how they manage their time when doing reports or creating digital learning resources. ‘Professional development in workshops and courses is only an input to continuous learning and precision in teaching. Successful growth itself is accomplished when the culture of the school supports day-to-day learning of teachers engaged in improving what they do in the classroom and school’ (Fullan, 2008: ?). Too often it seems CPD is linked to paperwork rather than meeting the immediate needs of the school. Fullan takes my thoughts a step further to suggest that effective professional development should be part of the daily fabric of teachers work.
This leads me on to making the most of teachers’ expertise. Teachers often have varied interests and specialisms from their subject as well as other areas of experience. It is always important to allow individuals to flourish in what they do well. By recognising and endorsing this, the individual becomes further empowered and morale is increased. Hargreaves refers to the power of the knowledge-creating organisation as one of the four essential seeds, ‘educational knowledge creation is likely to be explicit and effective when schools are engaged in school-based initial teacher-training and school-based research, where middle managers become knowledge engineers and professional tinkering of various kinds is encouraged and supported’ (Hargreaves, 1999: 233). Hargreaves neglects to assess the barriers to success of this approach in failing to address what happens when the teacher exercising their expertise is not as skilled or enthusiastic as might be required. However, what he is clearly driving at is the need for a training teacher to be mentored by a practising teacher, thereby acknowledging and exploiting the latter’s knowledge and capacity to teach.
In combining these factors we start to see how distributed leadership might be more than just another theory. It describes a method of opening the doors of leadership as a concept to inform all teachers in everything they do. It also dictates the creation of professional learning networks, both internal and external, that enable teachers to work with each other. To talk and share and feel recognised in their work leading to buoyant staff morale and job satisfaction from operating within a collegial environment with positive drive and the capacity to make mistakes and act upon them to implement change. The call to arms by those discussing distributed leadership as the answer to improving failing schools is illustrated in that it ‘is increasingly becoming the means by which schools are able to respond to emerging policies and challenging public demands’ (MacBeath et al, 2005: 16).
More research is being done to establish the authenticity and usability of distributed leadership. Slowly the puzzle is being pieced together. It has become a core agenda item at the National College of School Leadership (MacBeath et al, 2005: 1). This is emphasised by Professor Dame Pat Collarbone in a keynote address at St Mary’s College (2009) when she addressed the needs of the 21st Century pupil and summarised remodelling, change management theories and personal learning networks as just some of the facets of the modern school. So why the need for evidence? Headteachers decide which way to steer their ship. Even in a school where leadership is distributed, you are unlikely to find the organisation heading in a direction the top man or woman doesn’t like. And here is the rub. Harris, a great supporter of distributed leadership, concedes that it ‘is primarily a way of analysing leadership activity in schools rather than explaining actual practice’ (Harris, 2005: 166). A school is ultimately led by one person. That person must decide on the leadership model s/he considers suitable. To implement distributed leadership, a Headteacher must be brave enough to let go of the wheel; not to rely on their years of experience but trust her/his employees and not just the ones s/he appointed. The scientist
Jean-Martin Charcot said ‘la théorie c’est bon mais ça n’empêche pas d’exister’ which translates to the theory is all very well but it does not stop what is already there. The application of distributed leadership to schools is going to require solid evidence that puts doubters beyond doubt. Schools are their people. They are simultaneously simple and complex creatures who get happy and sad, laugh and cry, be gentle and aggressive. ‘Providing professional autonomy to groups of teachers who don’t have the commitment and wherewithal to conduct their work with disciplined knowledge inquiry and moral purpose will do no more than squander resources’ (Fullan, 2003: 7). If a Headteacher gets distributed leadership wrong they might just sink their ship. It is this reason that the evidence required is for how to manage distributive leadership.
Bennett et al. (2003) (on-line) Distributed Leadership (Full Report Spring 2003), National College for School Leadership, accessed: 30/11/09, from: www.nationalcollege.org.uk.
Collarbone, P. (2009) ‘Creating Tomorrow: The critical importance of leadership’ keynote address, St Mary’s University College, 10/10/09.
Fullan, M. (2003) ‘Changing the context’.
Fullan, M. (2008) (on-line) The Six Secrets of Change, accessed: 03/12/09 from http://www.michaelfullan.ca/handouts.htm
Garrett, V. (2005) ‘Leading and managing change’.
Hargreaves, D. (1999) ‘The Knowledge-creating school’, Journal of Education Studies, 47 (2) June 1999.
Hargreaves, A. & Fink, D. (2006) ‘Introduction: Sustainability and unsustainability. The choices for change’, in Sustainable Leadership. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.
Harris, A. (2005) ‘Distributed Leadership’, in Davies, B. (ed) (2005) The Essentials of School Leadership, Paul Chapman.
Harris, A. (2008) ‘Distributed Leadership: The Evidence’, in Distributed School Leadership: Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders, London: Routledge.
Jay, J. (2006) (on-line) The Dialectic of Distributed Leadership, accessed: 06/12/09, from: www.jasonjay.com/papers/Jay2006DistributedLeadership.pdf
MacBeath, J. (2003) ‘The alphabet soup of leadership’. Inform Leadership for Learning. The Cambridge Network. January, No.2.
MacBeath, J. et al. (2005) ‘Distributed leadership: A developmental process’. 18th International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement. Barcelona, 2-5 January.
Serrat, O. (2009) (on-line) Exercising Servant Leadership. Knowledge Solutions for the Asian Development Bank, accessed: 05/12/09, from: www.adb.org