Distributed leadership in Scottish primary schools: myth or actualities?
Torrance, Deirdre Ann
This PhD study investigates distributed school leadership through small-scale empirical research using interpretative enquiry with aspects of a grounded approach, reaching a depth of understanding. More specifically, it explores the experiences and perceptions of early career primary headteachers as they take forward a distributed perspective on school leadership and management through three headteacher case studies. Each headteacher’s voice is heard through a sequence of in-depth, semistructured and narrative style interviews. The study extends beyond self-reporting as staff perceptions of school leadership and management are elicited through a 360° analysis, a semi-structured questionnaire incorporating a sociometric analysis of leadership relationships, used also to explore the extent to which leadership is distributed within each school. Definitions of leadership and of distributed leadership are contested. The problematic nature of each is discussed in relation to competing educational rhetoric, school leadership literature and policy discourses. Various complexities are found to exist in defining and identifying distributed leadership, acknowledged as multi-faceted, involving those in both formal and informal leadership positions, teaching and support staff. Distributed leadership is context specific, socially constructed, negotiated and hierarchical in nature. It is found to be ‘in the gift of the headteacher’ with each head showing a commitment to and central concern for developing effective processes for staff engagement in meaningful school improvement efforts. Regardless, a distributed perspective was not found to develop naturally nor easily. It was purposefully planned for and continuously supported. It involved the development of teacher professional identity. It required the balancing of multiple and competing accountabilities. Tension was found to relate to the headteachers’ intentions to engage staff, when they bordered on perceived ‘new managerialist’ strategies or manipulation. This study contributes to understandings of the problematic nature of a distributed perspective on leadership by surfacing a range of conceptual confusions. The main conclusion, that distributed leadership is still ‘in the gift of the headteacher’, contributes to a limited empirical knowledge base. How the headteachers made sense of a distributed perspective, along with their motivations to do so, adds to limited empirical data for which the role of headteachers is not well understood. There exists a dearth of studies into the experiences and perceptions of headteachers within a distributed perspective, even more so in terms of those within their early years of headship. The need for further empirical research is recommended to better conceptualise leadership generally and distributed leadership specifically, leading to a more sophisticated understanding of how agency and structure work in practice. Further studies could challenge five generally held assumptions identified within the distributed leadership paradigm: that every member of staff is able to lead; that every member of staff wishes to lead; that the leadership role of staff is legitimized simply by the headteacher’s endorsement; that a distributed perspective occurs naturally; and that a distributed perspective is unproblematic. This research is timely as the teacher role is nationally reviewed (Donaldson, 2010; McCormac, 2011) and the GTCS redevelops the suite of national professional standards, constituting workforce reform. The conclusion to this study argues for a re-examination of the teacher role to reach consensus in defining what is required of teachers at each level of the school hierarchy, recognising formal and informal leadership roles based on conceptual clarity and role definition. It calls for openness and transparency in relation to principles for practice. Key recommendations are offered for policy makers, school leaders at all levels, leadership development programmes, theoretical development and future research.