A sense of rejection: why distributed leadership may no longer be the model of choice in innovative schools

Year: 2021

Author: Theobald, Katy

Type of paper: Individual Paper

COVID-19 has highlighted the issues inherent in mainstream models of schooling and provided a catalyst for re-imagining education. Policy-makers and practitioners now face a choice between embracing innovation or reverting to the pre-COVID status quo. Models of leadership are not immune to this re-imagining; they too should be subject to questioning and consideration. Distributed leadership is a widely recognised concept within education research and amongst educators. Distributed leadership is commonly portrayed as an effective mode of school leadership and empirical links have been drawn between its adoption and improved student outcomes (Leithwood et al., 2020). However, the literature on distributed leadership faces ongoing critique for a lack of conceptual clarity, perhaps perpetuated by reviews which, for the purpose of selecting papers, directly align distributed leadership with related concepts such as collaborative and delegated leadership (Bennett et al., 2003; Spillane, 2005; Tian et al., 2016). This paper draws on semi-structured interviews with school leaders from 20 schools in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore and a small-scale survey of 12 principals within this group, conducted from November 2018 to May 2019 as part of a broader research project investigating the leadership of innovative, future-focused schools. The leaders included in this project serve (or served) lower socioeconomic status communities and their schools were performing in line with or above average on national metrics. The paper foregrounds the voice of interviewees as they described leadership in their schools. Some actively emphasised that this leadership was something other than ‘distributed’, preferring terms such as ‘collaborative’ or ‘contributive’. However, within even a small range of interviews, varied and overlapping conceptualisations of these terms emerged. As some education research moves to portray distributed leadership as a normatively ‘good’ or ‘effective’ mode of school leadership (Leithwood et al., 2020), this paper highlights two issues for debate. First, if school leaders are to pursue distributed leadership on the premise that it is ‘effective’, the conceptual ambiguity acknowledged by researchers takes on a problematic edge. It becomes incumbent upon education researchers to specify and agree on the critical characteristics of the concept. Second, as the pandemic creates an opportunity to re-imagine education, innovative schools can be a source of practical inspiration. Hearing some leaders in these schools actively avoid describing their leadership as distributed, we must ask whether models of leadership that have been considered ‘effective’ in the dominant Western education paradigm need re-evaluation at this moment of change.