Harris is calling for further ‘fine-grained’ research into the positive influence of distributed leadership as a model for sustained school improvement. The author joins many educational theorists in claiming standardisation of practice is an inadequate means to improve performance in response to accountability driven by league tables and fails to produce sustained improvement in schools worldwide (Bottery, 2004). Instead, Harris would like to pursue the ‘long-term benefits to schools and students of teacher collaboration, investment in professional learning and in generating communities of practice that promote rather than stultify creativity and flexibility’ (p161). These characteristics of improvement are drawn together under the umbrella of distributed leadership about which Harris goes on to examine its theoretical perspectives, define the term and study the evidence that it actually has a positive impact on schools. Ultimately Harris expresses a desire that it is important for distributed leadership to be investigated further and is not usurped by a new buzz word. However, she is equally aware of the need for caution because the lack of evidence means ‘we do not know the impact of distributed leadership on schools, teachers or students’ (p170). It is apparent that Harris favours all (or at least some) teachers having leadership roles rather than confining leadership to a top-down model because the former is more likely to have ‘an effect on the positive achievement of student outcomes’ (p161).
By drawing on several leadership concepts, Harris invites us to believe there is great support for the idea that effective leadership involves the whole team and must acknowledge and support the part that many people have to play. It is not the job of one man or woman but the connections made between the many people that work in a school. Harris suggests it is these connections where the success of distributed leadership is evident because ‘a larger number of members of the organisation have a stake in the success of the school’ (p164). We can quite easily see how this makes sense and the more people in an organisation who feel engaged with and act upon a decision will help make the consequences of that decision positive. However, one is left in the dark somewhat by questions of where to draw the lines of inclusion into the leadership of a school. Harris goes on to state that distributed leadership is ‘characterised as a form of collective leadership in which teachers develop expertise by working together’ (p165). This introduces the reader to the real problem with distributed leadership: is it a model which schools can adopt to improve performance or is it simply a means of describing what everybody knows already? Harris concedes that for the work of Spillane et al. (2001) and Gronn (2000) it is exclusively an analytical tool which they use to assess how widespread decision making is, ‘distributed leadership is primarily a way of analysing leadership activity in schools rather than describing actual practice’ (p166). So, are we to believe distributed leadership is not a model for school improvement? Harris draws our attention to the evidence by highlighting a number of studies of successful schools that have shared leadership responsibility across the teaching staff. She also lists examples of how teachers might participate in leadership, which is a start if you are a headteacher looking to see how distributed leadership might improve your school. However, a similar and more thorough list appears under the strap-line of a ‘knowledge-creating school’ (Hargreaves, 1999: 227) which might lead us to question distributed leadership even further.
Harris is not making any great claims in this article. She only wants us to be aware that distributed leadership can answer a lot of the questions about sustained school improvement. There are no claims of eureka, here is the answer! It is more akin to someone seeing a crack of light in a darkened maze and encouraging us to head towards it, it might be our way out. Despite Harris only calling for more particular and intensive research, there is a danger that this crack of light has already been seen by everybody, and all distributed leadership does is give it a name. It doesn’t yet help us determine the necessary steps towards school improvement. All schools above a certain size have some form of distributed leadership whereby responsibility is shared amongst more than just the Headteachers’. Be it through delegation, distribution, charismatic energy or a sense of human duty, you will find teachers leading in schools. Therefore, distributed leadership still needs to be proven as something other than a means of describing what is going on in schools across the world. However, Harris’ concern that the research required to establish distributed leadership as a meaningful model of sustained improvement might not take place, coupled with the difficulty of pinning down the practice that it might prescribe, indicates we might have something good here. Harris might benefit from looking at the practical work of MacBeath et al (2005) closely studying eleven UK schools who seeking to develop their leadership landscape by applying the tenets of distributed leadership theory. The results are schools that have complex people with professional working relationships at the centre driving school improvement.
Bottery, M. (2004) ‘The Impact of Standardisation and Control’, in The Challenges of Educational Leadership. London: Sage.
Hargreaves, D. (1999) ‘The Knowledge-creating school’, Journal of Education Studies, 47 (2) June 1999.
Harris, A. (2005) ‘Distributed Leadership’, in Davies, B. (ed) (2005) The Essentials of School Leadership, London: Paul Chapman.
MacBeath, J. et al. (2005) ‘Distributed Leadership: A developmental process’. 18th International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement. Barcelona, 2-5 January.