Leadership in the Hierarchical Culture of a School; An observation from the side-lines

Leadership in the Hierarchical Culture of a School; An observation from the side-lines

Leadership in the Hierarchical Culture of a School;  

An observation from the side-lines  


Educational leadership is the process of enlisting and guiding the talents and energies of teachers, pupils, and parents toward achieving common educational aims. This term is often used synonymously with School leadership in the United States and has supplanted educational management in the United Kingdom.” Wikipedia 

Educational management refers to the administration of the education system in which a group combines human and material resources to supervise, plan, strategize, and implement structures to execute an education system.” Wikipedia 

 Leadership training is big business. Seminars, workshops and coaching, interpersonal dynamics and transformational development harness employee potential. Appropriate management tools are designed to reflect organisational style and lead team members. Vision, communication, clear goals and a supportive environment to inspire creativity, learning and progress.  

How to Lead When Your Employees Don’t Have to Follow,’ is a thought-provoking article written by David Dye and focuses on mind-set. He claims that whoever we are and whether employees are paid or not, the following of any Leader is an entirely voluntary action where inspiration is key. 

 The world of commerce has realised huge cultural shifts over the last few decades; gone is ‘job for life’ with technology replacing traditional manufacturing skills. The advent of digital opportunity and go-get start-ups, be they Silicon Valley giants or Dragons Den entrepreneurs, demonstrate a face of business evolution and expectation. Creativity and innovation are valued commodities, rules of today are replaceable and Leadership is prized. 

 My current school operates through a hierarchical management structure where regulations, rules and information filters through (Government Policy), Governors, Senior Managers, Department Managers then Class Teachers to Students; a top-down structure where everyone has their place. A similar culture to governments,  the military, institutionalised businesses and organised religions and so very different from the contemporary commercial model.


With the assumption that Educational Leadership is a positive action, how can hierarchical structures accommodate this cultural change? 

With the assumption that Educational Leadership is a positive action, how can hierarchical structures accommodate this cultural change? 


The OEDCs’ 2016 report, What Makes a School a Learning Organization suggests:  

  • “School leaders model learning leadership, distribute leadership and help grow other leaders, including students 
  • School leaders are proactive and creative change agents 
  • School leaders develop the culture, structures and conditions to facilitate professional dialogue, collaboration and knowledge exchange 
  • School leaders ensure that the organisation’s actions are consistent with its vision, goals and values 
  • School leaders ensure the school is characterised by a ‘rhythm’ of learning, change and innovation 
  • School leaders promote and participate in strong collaboration with other schools, parents, the community, higher education institutions and other partners 
  • School leaders ensure an integrated approach to responding to students’ learning and other needs” 


 Indeed, UNESCO’s Regional Review of Policies and Practices (2020) corroborates research with developing countries report Leading Better Learning: School Leadership and Quality in The Education 2030 Agenda:  

“The current focus on school leadership is the result of a combination of three factors: evidence from research, change and complex expectations about the school system, and the imperative to improve quality. While the last EFA decade has witnessed notable progress in access to education, with most countries achieving universal basic education, a number of international reports and studies, including the GMR, PISA, SACMEQ, PASEC, etc., have raised concerns about the quality of education, particularly in developing countries. To address quality issues, countries have invested in teacher training, learning materials, equipment and facilities, but few have attempted to tap the potential of school leadership as a lever for improving teaching and learning outcomes.”  


“… international evidence suggests that successful school leaders can improve teaching and learning indirectly and most powerfully through their support and influence on teacher/staff motivation, commitment and working conditions (Leithwood et al., 2008). It also claims that school improvement rarely occurs in the absence of effective leadership and that school leadership accounts for up to 27 per cent of variation in students’ learning achievement, second only to classroom teaching (Leithwood et al., 2006; Robinson, 2007).”    

Connecting ‘how could’ with ‘how does’ a school demonstrate leadership? I honestly see few positive changes in the culture I have worked in for the past 3 decades. 

To provide context, my teaching experiences are largely international, span the statutory school age range to include head teacher proprietors, the inclusive values of Scandinavian education and, accountancy driven business practice. With the standardised curriculum for British education, content is comparable but that is where similarity ends. 

Educational Leadership wasn’t a hot-potato of conversation back in the early 1990’s, we ‘just did’; the International School of Oslo was my initial experience of a head teacher-proprietor where the headmistress, Miss Stark was natural leader through sheer energy, enthusiasm and passion for education; I guess this is evident given her long career, remaining at the helm when many would have been a distant memory. Fresh from Scotland, Miss Stark’s early days were teaching just a handful of students that evolved into a fully-fledged British international school; educating children infant school through to senior. With hindsight, I think Miss Stark’s management practice would leave any consultant scratching their head but it worked; as a newcomer, I quickly integrated as an active part of what felt like a family team – there was encouragement and opportunity, coupled with immediate feedback (good or not) in the direct way only a family could. There were clear goals for student outcomes and it was accepted that staff would meet challenges in the classroom; this was normal and non-threatening, where between Miss S’s words of wisdom and colleague support, professional development was ongoing and active. 

Jumping forward to the now not-so-new millennium and how things have changed; some changes can be classed as progress but others leave much to be desired. I observe positive progress in the classroom with measurable and assessed outcomes but the cost of holistic education – where is critical thinking and considered evaluation? Where is the time for this? The pressure of academic success?  

However, the striking question I ask is how do we innovate in a culture that prefers conformity over agency


However, the striking question I ask is how do we innovate in a culture that prefers conformity over agency


Educational Leadership is the grail yet managerial standardisation prevails? how can “enlisting and guiding talents” happen when management policy, accountancy and systems override people?  Time? Budget? Interest? 

Training for leadership skills focuses around middle and senior management positions, the ‘Head of’ roles where (cynically), I (can only) assume budgets are slashed. Management systems such as (innumerable) policies, timetabling, curriculum and marketing are the necessary backbone but how and where are the tangibles of leadership? Visible examples are the (now predictable) annual sermon with inspirational quotes from The Head; Carefully crafted, sterile words from battle-weary senior (and middle) managers and INSET speakers with targeted speeches?’  

Banging my head against a wall, how do we grow within this system? Where is Leadership? I requested mentorship. “Teachers don’t like change,” it was declared. 

The juxtaposition should be funny and sadly, it’s not.  

Today’s teachers lead tomorrow’s leaders and into a fast-paced world. ““School improvement rarely occurs in the absence of effective leadership”; how does hierarchical school culture need to change for this to happen? 






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