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Responding to External Context in Educational Organisation

Info: 9465 words (38 pages) Dissertation
Published: 10th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Education

This EMA constitutes 100% of the examinable component marks for this module.

Part 1

(2750 words)

How can educational leaders respond to their external context whilst fulfilling the educational purpose of their organisation?

Write a critical evaluation of various approaches to strategy, drawing on at least three readings from the module materials or guided readings and two readings from either independent or other wider academic readings.

11.4 External context

External context is separated here from culture, but in practice it can be difficult to treat the two separately. Changes in external context may (or may not), over a long period of time, impact on societal or local culture; but equally, in the short term, such changes might in fact be at odds with them. National governmental decisions are often taken in the light of the societal culture, but sometimes they are taken in an attempt to change that culture. In this latter case, the change might cause conflict, non-compliance or prolonged implementation.

The near ubiquitousness of the internet means that the rest of the world is readily accessible, communications are fast and direct, and knowledge is easily available. This has challenged many societal cultures that were previously closed to the wider world. There are concerns that much of this communication and knowledge is promoting one particular culture. The ‘global village’ implies a set of common practices and understandings that span national boundaries and may indicate that there are common international solutions to national problems. Both of these examples illustrate parts of the external context for educational organisations around the world, over which they have no control – much as the international banking crisis signalled a change in the external context for governments globally.

In thinking about external factors that influence the exercise of leadership and the art of leading in our own organisations, it is important to consider the national context in which an organisation is situated. It may seem to be comparatively straightforward to assume that national governments make policy and that organisations implement that policy, and so the transfer of policy into practice is a simple top-down model of organisational change. However, when we begin to think about this in more detail, we can see that everything is far more complex.

First, national policy is mediated through the locality as well as through the organisation. At each stage of the process, the policy is subject to interpretation and understanding. It will then have planned and unplanned outcomes, it may be differentially applied in different parts of the country, and so on. We also have to remember that organisations are not single institutions; they are linked as part of a professional system delivering a national service. In addition, organisations are increasingly linked in a variety of multi-agency, cross-sectoral partnerships. This has particular implications for leading, and the exercise of leadership, in the implementation of policy. For example, where leaders are skilled and knowledgeable in their own field, they may be leading partnerships of institutions where they have little skill and limited knowledge. The institutional goals, cultures and social norms may be significantly different in the partnership.

Activity 11.4 (Independent)

Approx. 30 minutes

This activity will involve thinking about the external context of your own organisation. Think about a change that happened in your organisation’s external context over a year ago, another that has happened in the past year and yet another that you have reason to believe will happen in the next year or so. Your examples could be at national or local level. Write them down as a list and then consider the following questions for each.

  • What was the impact, or is the likely impact, of the change in the external context on your organisation?
  • Were you, or will you be, able to mediate the change?
  • Did the culture, or might the culture, of the country or the locality mediate the change?
  • Has the outcome of the change been positive or negative, or is the outcome likely to be positive or negative, when measured against the purpose of your organisation or the outcomes for the learners?

Share your responses on the module forum. Is there a level of commonality across the responses from your fellow students?


Again, we have no idea what changes in external context you have decided to select, or your responses to the questions. What is important to note is the rapidly changing nature of the external context and, increasingly, how these changes might be the result of global trends or developments. Some might be predictable, and the organisation might be able to prepare to meet the challenge that results; but some might be unexpected. The last question is an important one to bear in mind. While change is usually unwelcome, its outcomes can be unexpectedly positive if the change is approached in an appropriate way.

As we have established, context is an important lens through which to view leadership and on one level it relates to the key question of where leadership takes place. However, context also relates to the ‘why’ question and invites comparisons. The readings and audio-visual materials included in Section 3 will prompt you to compare why leaders in different contexts may carry out key policies in different ways.

If you had to find a metaphor to sum up your leadership context at this point in time, what would you choose? Would it be a skydiving team holding hands under blue skies, or a captain steering a ship in stormy waters? What about a juggler trying to keep pace with fast and furious competing priorities? Any one of these images may reflect your role in your context at a given point in time.

Understanding context is important in strategic leadership as part of reading the external environment and adapting internal plans to policy changes, resources and values. As the material in this unit emphasises, context is no longer just about your immediate working environment, but about other influences too – global, national, local, economic and political. Although we need to guard against simplistic causalities, it is relevant to think about how global trends may create local ripples. For example, as leaders we may be finding new ways of data collection for quality assurance and improvement, and thinking about what this means for planning. As you work through the material in this unit, you should begin to see a link between this and ongoing debates around accountability, autonomy, and markets, which in turn are linked to policy.

2.3  Educational leadership: working with the key themes

The module is designed to help you examine and apply these key themes in the framework shown in Figure 2.2. Our exploration of the themes in the module is organised around four main questions, as follows.

  •     What is leadership? (Theories, models and perspectives, explored in Sections 2 and 4.)
  •     Why is leadership important? (Underpinning values, beliefs, personal organisational and societal, and educational purposes, also discussed in Section 2.)
  •     Where does leadership take place? (Key contextual factors and influences, external and internal, and temporal dimension, examined in Section 3.)
  •     How does leadership take place? (Key leadership tasks and processes, with leading change and strategy explored in Section 4 and collaboration and partnerships explored in Section 3.)

Start of Box

What is leadership?

This question calls for exploration of different theories, models and perspectives on what constitutes leadership. You will explore in more depth what leadership is about and how it is perceived and enacted. Theories of educational leadership draw on a diverse range of academic disciplines, and place differing degrees of emphasis on the role of individual and social constructions of leadership, cognitive and affective dimensions, internal and external contextual factors and the interrelationships between these variables. The nature of leadership is thus contested – different perspectives and contextual settings give rise to different ways leadership is interpreted and constructed, and by and with whom.

Why is leadership important?

Here we look at the underlying values and ethical dimensions of leadership, and the tricky dilemmas that can ensue for educational leaders who are confronted with conflicting moral imperatives – often stemming from competing individual, organisational and societal values and ideologies about educational means and ends. This has implications for educational leaders as they work to build an agreed view of the educational purposes and principles of their organisation which is broadly shared across different professional groups and constituencies. Again, these shared organisational views are continually and often vigorously contested as professional interpretations differ and relationships shift and change.

Where does leadership take place?

To address this question, we must look at key contextual factors and influences, and the internal, external and temporal dimensions of leadership. Internal organisational factors include issues of culture, structure, power and professionalism. Of course, these are greatly affected by time. Has the organisation recently been through a change? Is there a change in the pipeline? Has there been a change in leader or key personnel? The external environment for schools, colleges and other educational organisations is characterised by increasing turbulence and uncertainty, and by greater permeability of organisational boundaries, breaking down traditional, clear divisions between what is internal and what is external to the organisation. A key role for educational leaders in these circumstances is thus:

  •     negotiating the boundary
  •     reconciling internal priorities
  •     environmental demands and expectations, including mediating the impact of diverse policy initiatives
  •     negotiating public and market accountability demands
  •     balancing the tensions between evaluation for accountability and for improvement purposes.

How does leadership take place?

This question prompts an investigation of key leadership tasks and processes – with leading change and strategy, and collaboration and partnerships, as overarching themes. Much of the literature in this area is highly normative – claims are made about how things should or ought to be, and how we should value them. In this module you are encouraged to take a critical stance and to explore the tensions between what the literature claims ‘ought to happen’ and what happens in practice. We explore some of the major influences on successful change in educational organisations, including individual meanings and cultural factors, and different conceptualisations of the change process and the leadership challenges that arise. We then examine various approaches to leading strategy, prescriptive and descriptive, arguing that an understanding of strategic development is important for all organisational members.

End of Box

Start of Activity

Activity 2.3 (Guided)

Approx. 30 minutes

Start of Question

As a starting point for your work on the module, you are now asked to think about the leadership aspects of your own current post and responsibilities.

Make brief notes on your leadership role and what it entails. Then consider how your role relates to the contextual layers shown in Figure 2.2, and again note down your ideas.

Activity 2.3 (Guided)


Perhaps your thoughts on your leadership role include reference to an informal leadership role in influencing colleagues, as well as more formal aspects of leadership. Also, it is likely that, even if you do not have a designated leadership role, you will have some interaction with individuals and agencies in the local context ring, beyond organisational boundaries. A third point to note here is the temporal context and the importance of thinking about the future direction and development of your own role as well as that of the organisation.

The following response to the activity is from a developmental tester on a similar module:

Start of Quote

I have two roles in Westshire Youth Service. My principal role is Youth Development Worker (YDW) for the Southtown locality. This involves the development and management of various youth projects across this locality, including managing a team of 17 sessional youth workers and a trainee YDW. Furthermore, I am currently on a half-time secondment from the above position (hence the presence of the trainee YDW who supports the day-to-day running in my absence). My secondment position is Staff Development and Training Coordinator. This is a county-wide post whereby I support the Training Officer to design and deliver the training offer for the youth service as a whole. My specific responsibilities are leading the Vocationally Related Training Level 3 and Child Protection and Sexual Health Training.

My role as YDW links most closely with the team I manage and organisational and local need. It is, of course, affected by national and global issues, although this is normally fed down through the organisation plans and priorities and thus can feel detached from this. Key drivers for the work in this role are values and perspectives, influencing the workforce and young people we directly work with.

My role as staff development coordinator has much more connection with the outer rings, taking active involvement in strategy building and a greater insight into the wider context in which internal discussions are made and the national and global issues and how we incorporate initiatives to day-to-day practice.

Experiencing both roles has helped me understand the feelings of some front-line workers feeling ‘done to’: that the lack of connection with the broader youth work agendas can lead to a lack of ownership over particular policies or initiatives.


Leadership in educational settings is a crowded and busy terrain both in terms of policy texts that seek to redefine roles and tasks in schools as leadership (e.g. DfEE 1998) and the growing amount of literature that tends to be concerned with presenting and testing models of effective transformational leadership functions and behaviours. This article begins by examining the varied positions evident in the leadership literature before going on to focus on the work of critical knowledge workers in both critiquing this model and in providing alternatives to it.

Knowledge and knowing in leadership studies

Investigating the literature reveals four main positions taken by those who research and write about leadership in educational settings (see Figure 1).

Position Description Illustration
Critical Concerned to reveal and emancipate leaders and followers from social injustice and the oppression of established power structures. Ball 1994 Blackmore 1999 Grace 1995 Smyth 1989
Humanistic Gathers and theorises from the experiences and biographies of those who are leaders and managers. Day et al. 2000 Gronn 1999 Ribbins 1997 Southworth 1995
Instrumental Provides leaders with effective leadership strategies to deliver organisational outcomes. Caldwell and Spinks 1988, 1992, 1998.
Scientific Abstracts and measures the impact of leadership effectiveness on organisational outcomes. Leithwood et al. 1996 Leithwood et al. 1999 Sammons et al. 1997

Figure 1: Four main positions in leadership studies

In westernised democracies such as the UK, the preferred official policy positions are that of instrumental and scientific models of leadership for schools. The instrumental position provides models of effective systems and cultures designed to enable site-based performance management to be operationalised (Grace 1995). Post holders are defined as leaders and the behaviours of effective leaders are described, and this type of work has become very popular through ‘management by ringbinder’ publications (Halpin 1990).

The scientific position seeks to measure the causal impact of headteachers as leaders (and other post holders) on follower behaviours, functions, and emotions, and on student learning outcomes, and so enables statistical evidence to be generated about the link between policy and practice. This supports the abstraction of leadership attributes and skills that can be instrumentalised through bullet point listings of what is effective. This work has been extensively drawn upon in official policy making, and the model of transformational leadership dominates the preferred model of headship in England where the emphasis is on headteachers who have a vision and who can build follower commitment to this (TTA 1998). Pluralistic approaches to preparation and development are being replaced by centrally determined training courses (NPQH: National Professional Qualification for Headteachers; and LPSH: Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers) under the control of the new National College for School Leadership. The social sciences have already been stripped away from initial teacher training, and impatience with postgraduate study with its emphasis on both the use and production of knowledge, and theories for both action and understanding, has led to the promotion of research and models of leadership that are about what works. Knowledge production increasingly lies more with commercial consultancies than with professional researchers in universities or researching professionals in schools and colleges (Forde et al. 2000).

The humanistic position is based on a narrative biographical epistemology through which headteachers can tell their own stories of what it feels like to lead and to exercise leadership in particular settings over time (Ribbins 1997, Tomlinson et al. 1999). The perceived realities of doing the job, combined with how the tensions and dilemmas that are encountered and worked through in real time, can be revealed (Day et al. 2000). This approach is officially tolerated because it can be ‘cherry picked’ to provide case studies that can validate the National Standards. However, because the policy emphasis is on the immediacy of action then the longitudinal and contextual location of professional experiences is seen as too subjective and unmeasurable to be of major use in the drive to improve standards.

The critical position draws on the social sciences to map and analyse the interplay between the agency of the role incumbent and the structures that enhance or limit that agency. Providing practitioners with opportunities to reflect on what they do, are told to do, and would like to do, enables them to link their work with the bigger picture outside of the immediacy of action. Thinking through the power issues underpinning their professional practice gives scope for interpretation, refusal, and the generation of alternatives to government prescribed ways of working. Given the current marginalisation and often ridicule of this approach, this article intends to ask questions about what doing critical work has to offer the teacher and the headteacher.

Exploring the critical terrain

Popkewitz (1999) provides the metaphor of a room, and this enables position and positioning on the leadership terrain to be revealed. At one end of the room are ‘pragmatic-empiricists’ who focus on ‘… the internal logic and order of things being discussed, or whether ‘concepts’ are clear and precise’. At the other end of the room knowledge workers are concerned with issues of power and they focus on how schools work by investigating ‘… problems of social inequity and injustice produced through the practices of schooling’ (pp 2-3). The knowledge claims in this part of the ‘room’ are the focus of this article in which doing critical work is about the inter-relationship between organisational behaviour, tasks, and structures with broader social and democratic processes. The potential contribution from this part of the room is to:

Question the common sense view within the literature that organisations are objective realities that can be controlled towards particular goals;

  • Emancipate those who are disciplined through objective power structures by questioning the power base of those located within privileged elite positions;
  • Problematise language, practice, beliefs and what are current and taken for granted assumptions about organisational realities and structures;
  • Reveal the existence of contradictions and dilemmas within organisations and the productive contribution of conflict;
  • Provide alternative ways of understanding organisational reality as a means of supporting critical evaluation;
  • Support practice through moving beyond tasks and techniques by conceptualising action within a social and political context. (Alvesson and Willmott 1992)

Through challenging the positivist ontology and epistemology that has led to behaviourist and functional models of leadership, critical theorists argue that leadership ‘is and must be socially critical, it does not reside in an individual but in the relationship between individuals, and it is oriented towards social vision and change, not simply, or only organizational goals’ (Foster 1989 p 46). This is more than just an oppositional stance, and as Alvesson and Willmott (1996) have argued, there is a tendency to characterise this as ‘knocking’ management ‘rather than to stimulate debate about its role and legitimacy’ (p 4).

I cannot hope to comprehensively map the critical terrain, but it is clear that those who locate their work on the critical terrain are explicit in distinguishing it from Popkewitz’s pragmatic-empiricists. They make this distinction by locating their work within the social sciences (eg Bates 1989, 1993, Smyth 1989), or as Ryan (1998) has done by showing how the theory and practice of emancipatory action can be developed through the interplay between empirical research and the writings of Marx, Habermas, Baudrillard and Foucault. This approach opens up possibilities for exploring the critical territory by focusing on the intellectual resources that develop over time and make up the ‘the lacework of meanings and significations which shape action and inquiry’ (Seddon 1996 p 211). I intend to develop this approach by exploring critical work on the generic model of effective transformational leadership.

Transforming leadership

Transformational leadership has been globalised as the means by which headteachers and principals can respond to the demands of reform to achieve appropriate and effective learning outcomes through turning the school into a ‘high reliability learning community’ (Leithwood et al. 1999 p 223). The model has its origins in non-educational settings (Burns 1978) where the emphasis is put on leader agency:

  • Inspiration: motivating the subordinate through charisma;
  • Individualism: focusing on the individual needs of subordinates;

Intellectual stimulation: influencing thinking and imagination of subordinates;

Idealized influence: the communication and building of an emotional commitment to the vision (Gronn 1996).

A central feature of transformational leadership is direction setting through the building and communicating of a commitment to a shared vision, and a positive response to high performance expectations (Leithwood et al 1999). This is to be achieved not just through structures and systems, but by enabling the follower to ‘feel’ the leadership:

Charismatic school leaders are perceived to exercise power in socially positive ways. They create trust among colleagues in their ability to overcome any obstacle and are a source of pride to have as associates. Colleagues consider these leaders to be symbols of success and accomplishment, and to have unusual insights about what is really important to attend to; they are highly respected by colleagues. (Leithwood et al 1999 p 57)

Transformational leadership is the subject of a range of important critiques (Gronn 1996, Smyth 1989, 1993), and as Foster (1989) argues:

…the concept has been denuded of its original power; transformational leaders are now those who can lead a company to greater profits, who can satisfy the material cravings of employees, who can achieve better performance through providing the illusion of power to subordinates. Transformational leadership has gone from a concept of power to a how-to manual for aspiring managers. (pp 45-46)

Transformational leaders exercise a disciplinary function which is overlain by optimistic ‘aerosol’ words (Smyth and Shacklock 1998 p 21) such as commitment, consensus, empowerment, quality, standards, excellence, and performance control, underpinned by a discourse about what can and cannot be said and done. Performativity demands ICT, human, and evidence-based auditing and communications systems that alter the meaning of teaching from professional ethics to statistical calculations about a teacher’s worth. Hartley (1999) argues that through a process of ‘reculturing’ there is an integration of the emotional self with the organisation that prevents commitments to inconvenient and disruptive belief systems. In this way leadership is a form of seduction, and as Burrell (1992) argues pleasure ‘is seen as a reservoir of potential energy to be channelled, shaped and directed in the service of corporate goals’ (p 66).

It seems that transformational leadership is less about educational leadership than leadership in educational settings. The particular demands of teaching and learning do not seem to shape its purpose, and the practice of it is not educative for leaders and led. Transformational leadership isn’t really transformational at all but is a ‘top-dog theory’ that meets the needs of management control (Allix 2000, Ball 1987, Watkins 1989). As Grace (2000) states in his critique of headteacher training and preparation in England:

The discourse and understanding of management must be matched by a discourse and understanding of ethics, morality and spirituality, of humane educative principles, of the praxis of democratic education, of the power relations of class, race and gender in education and some historical sense of the place of schooling in the wider formation of society. (p 244)

In taking inspiration from Grace’s argument it is clear that this approach to leadership studies and practice requires knowledge production that is democratic and hence the reader of a research text needs to know the place of the author within it. This has the advantage of enabling the reader to critically evaluate what is being presented as known and what is worth knowing about. The pragmatic empiricists who write about transformational leadership do not usually declare their place or show the struggles over intellectual work that ordinarily takes place. Models are presented as givens to be received in total and to be used to measure practice against. Providing an analysis of Blackmore’s Troubling Women (1999) enables the position taken by critical knowledge workers on this model of leadership to be further opened up to scrutiny and alternatives to be explored.

Critical knowledge workers are more open about the origins of their research questions. For example, Blackmore (1999) states:

So ironically, after many years rankling against those with formal status and seniority, I find myself researching leadership. I am highly aware that I am perceived within my institution, as a senior female academic, to be in a privileged position, with all the expectations that go with being one of a few. I am writing this book at the point in my life when some colleagues are challenging me to apply for ‘formal’ leadership positions but when all academic work, both teaching and research, is under threat, being made subject to market forces and reduced government funding. At the same time, my research data is full of the stories of women in formal positions of leadership who find the contradictions too great, the emotional labour and physical work too demanding. They express the need for some time and space for pleasure, leisure and self-indulgence. I also have stories of women who do not seek formal leadership positions because they see the price women pay for ‘doing the emotional management work of a system in crisis’ (Blackmore 1996), either for being a feminist or not feminist, too caring or not caring enough, who have decided they ‘do not want to be like that’ or that their familial responsibilities reduce their ‘choices’. Just as many women in schools express the desire to stay in teaching because it still gives them pleasure, I am likewise attracted to research and teaching at this moment in my life in preference to an administrative role, particularly when the latter may further detract from time spent with my 8 year old son, Jesse. (p 2)

These dilemmas and contradictions in the author’s biography illustrate that there is a lot which does and should ‘trouble women’. Blackmore sets her own story within the context of three issues for ‘troubling women in new hard times’, and so positions herself through a critical review of boundaries:

Women are absent from leadership positions: this is no longer acceptable because denying women a role may undermine productivity as feminine ways of working will deliver efficiency and effectiveness. What is troublesome is that women’s role in the workplace is connected to economic issues rather than concerns about equity.

  • Women in leadership positions are disruptive: this brings trouble as ‘strong women are difficult and dangerous because they trouble dominant masculinities and modes of management by being different’ (p3). Social justice issues are costly and interrupt the smooth management processes of problem solving.
  • Women need to be troubled: accepting that women are in deficit and need to be upgraded through training to take on the leadership role in newly restructured educational organisations is problematic and this should trouble women. In particular, we should not ignore ‘both the differences amongst women and the difficult political context in which leading women now work. (p 3)

Blackmore critiques the functionalist and behaviourist models that dominate the literature by showing how educational work is being gendered through individualising contracts and target setting. Consequently, the preferred leadership of an educational institution is one that is ‘strong and visionary but also good people managers’. Blackmore goes on to argue that:

It has meant the remaking of hegemonic masculinity away from the image of the rational bureaucrat to the multiskilled, flexible, service oriented, facilitative and entrepreneurial manager. Whereas the old modernist performance principles of the gender-neutral bureaucrat were about delayed gratification and the denial of pleasure for work, which separated preference from fact, human feeling from the intellect, the new performativities of postmodern ‘greedy’ organizations exploit the pleasure of the win and getting the job done, as well as the intimacy of social relations to achieve organizational goals. Strategic management seeks to exploit diversity (gender, multiculturalism) to channel individual desires, passion and energy for organizational ends. In so doing, however, interpersonal relations are supplanted by depersonalized or contrived forms of intimacy, which produce new forms of self-regulation such as team work. Management thus manipulates intimacy within social relations and reconstitutes it into purposive-rational action, and in so doing reworks gender relations. (pp 37-38)

In this way the development of performativity in education through new tasks such as development planning, appraisal, target setting, and action planning is troublesome not just because it increases workload and takes the teacher away from teaching, but the culture and values system becomes embodied through language, dress and physicality. Empowerment is sold to teachers as being emancipatory, but it is in reality a control mechanism as it is about the individual’s emotional connection with the leader’s vision and mission. Blackmore takes this further by arguing that women gaining promotion or the adoption of ‘women-friendly’ cultures, is more about enabling management to work better than about connecting the educational process to broader democratic and social justice issues. There is a lot of evidence from Blackmore’s research to illustrate these points, but one short extract shows the powerful aspect of how troubled women are by what is happening to their work within the performing school:

The rhetoric of gender-neutral discourses of procedure, performance indicators and the structures and practices camouflaged more hierarchical relationships with fewer opportunities in a performance-oriented profession.

‘A few years ago I thought about a career path…now everything has closed down…there is no mobility’. (Belinda)

Or ‘the doors are shutting’ as ‘the issue is just keeping your job each year’ (Ann). Many commented on how they had not applied for assessment (required for promotion) in their schools because ‘they didn’t like the people or the values of the administration’ and ‘did not see their chances as great in such a macho competitive culture’. Leading teachers now worked in a highly competitive environment that required teachers to be seen to perform outside as well as inside the classroom, increasing not decreasing the demands of time and energy for those seeking promotion. (p 80)

What is powerful here is the reflexive narrative and theorising because it raises fundamental questions about the current leadership imperative and so positioning is connected to a critical approach to policy intentions and how they are being worked through at local level. This is a serious challenge to the modernising project of New Labour in England because it makes visible authentic concerns that cannot just be written off as teacher conservatism that is undermining modernisation. It also holds out the possibility for educational professionals to develop a change agenda that relates better to their value systems than to meeting contrived political goals. In this way the current drive for more leadership by role incumbents can be turned on its head: ‘It also means problematizing leadership as a key concept in educational administration and policy – redefining it and even rejecting it – for perhaps the focus upon leadership is itself the biggest barrier to gender equality’ (Blackmore 1999 p 222).

This raises questions about how critical theorists engage with the realities of teachers working in real time settings riddled with contradictions about what can, could and should be done. Central to Blackmore’s project is to produce some guiding principles for a ‘feminist postmasculinist politics of educational leadership’ (p 218ff) which:

  • Recognizes difference and this raises questions about voice and who can speak for us;
  • Provides a theory of power which focuses on its ‘potency’ not just the capacity to oppress;
  • Alerts us to binaries (e.g. hard-soft, reason-emotion) that can separate what should be integrated, and can marginalise what should be recognised;
  • Theorises masculinity in ways that includes all men in raising questions about power and justice;
  • Develops our caring approach to teaching as one that is ‘mutually beneficial… without forgetting who benefits and who does not in any caring arrangement’.

Substitutes democratic and inclusive practices of self-governance for the current realities of the market and self interested consumerism involved in site-based management.

This connects with claims about the importance of emancipation amongst critical theorists, and the struggle seems to be around the question of whether we can have a postmodern emancipatory politics.

There is a contradiction at the centre of emancipatory claims within a postmodern world, and in particular how democratic institutions based on claims about rights actually exclude groups, and do so through and within these universalistic claims. Yeatman (1994) recognises this but argues that this contradiction does not invalidate an emancipatory project but instead makes the possibilities for it more real and urgent in which the goal is to ‘…develop contestatory political and public spaces, which open up in relation to existing systems of governance’ (p ix). Consequently, reality and truth do not exist outside or prior to how they are constructed through ‘a politics of representation’ (p31) in which questions are raised about: ‘Whose representations prevail? Who has the authority to represent reality? To put the question differently: Who must be silenced in order that these representations prevail? whose voice is deprived of authority so that they may prevail?’ (p 31)

These types of questions support Yeatman’s analysis of the positioning and repositioning of feminism and post-colonialism in its challenge to masculine and western assumptions about knowledge production and the university. She presents a ‘democratic politics of difference’ (p 53) as a means of recognising groups who are ‘othered’ (p 86) in western style democracies, and to make visible the historical neglect of race and class by feminism so that ‘it is accepted that the needs of differently positioned women are different’ (p 53). Realising this is through ‘interconnected polities’ (p 89) in which difference is not articulated through niche marketing and an economic liberalism of self-interest, but through new ways in which rights are talked about and worked through in the locality.

In talking about a racist school incident Ryan (1998) emphasises that the individual can make a difference in the struggle against injustice, and capacity can be built through and with others:

…leadership initiatives can originate with any of their members. They are not just the prerogative of administrators. Teachers, other staff members, students, parents and members of the public have much to offer in the way of leadership initiatives and contributions. Those with power, such as administrators, trustees, and to a degree, teachers, however, have an obligation to provide space for those less powerful in the school context, such as students or parents, so that they can contribute their thoughts, words and actions. (Ryan 1998 p 274)

This leads to a central aspect of how critical thinkers and writers conceptualise leadership as a relationship rather than behaviours or functions (Foster 1989), and can be illustrated by work that enables professional practice to be opened up in ways that do not just focus on problem solving but also problem posing (Hall 1996, Smulyan 2000, Strachan 1999). Nixon’s (1995) research across fifteen secondary schools shows how each is struggling with challenges to its educational purpose, but how there are common educational themes regarding the central role of the student in learning underpinned by positive working relationships. This is not seen as opposing the science and instrumentality of much school improvement and effectiveness, but is based on a ‘refusal’ because ‘it challenges the assumption that teaching can somehow be separated out into a series of technical operations. In so doing, it affirms those values that help define and shape teaching as a profession’. (p 222)

By conceptualising the school as an example of Yeatman’s interconnected polity, critical work creates possibilities for teacher and student leadership. While this type of leadership has a long history, it has recently been undermined by site- based performance management. Smyth et al. (1998) argue that ‘teacher leadership is … about teachers understanding the broader forces shaping their work, resisting domestication and not being dominated by outside authorities’ (p 99). They go on to state that teachers should not be ‘fearful of ‘confronting strangeness’’ (p 99) so that they can question action and inaction. While in the current context this approach might be seen to be politically naive, case study work shows teacher leadership in practice, not through their non-compliance, but through the creation and sustaining of what they value in their professional work. For example, Crowther (1997) has researched the work of 15 ‘unsung heroes’ (13 teachers and 2 paraprofessionals) who have worked in the community to challenge divisive structures and attitudes. Their work is a ‘process of culture struggle, consciousness-raising and emancipation’ (p 14). This may not be called leadership and management either by teachers or post holders, but it is a way of working that needs to be both encouraged and worked for if teaching and teachers are to have more than a technical role in curriculum implementation. Crowther (1997 p 15) concludes that ‘teacher leadership is essentially an ethical stance’ in which teachers are working for ‘a better world’ that is not just about the here and now, but about longer-term gains.

Positioning critical leadership studies

There has always been a suspicion of intellectual work in England, but the current attack on educational research has seen academics ridiculed for ‘wacky theorising’ (Woodhead 2000 p 13) and for being too ready to engage in the ‘adulation of great thinkers’ (p 56) such as Bourdieu, Foucault, Lyotard, and Vygotsky (Tooley with Darby 1998). According to Milliband from the No. 10 Policy Unit, researchers need to stop being commentators and become ‘engaged in debate beyond the confines of academic journals’ (quoted in Lloyd 1999 p 13). Educational researchers recognise the need for the field to be self-reflexive about knowledge claims, but even if we get beyond the political rhetoric of government’s attempt to bring higher education research into line, there are deeper issues about the place of critical work in education. This is encapsulated by Carr and Hartnett (1996):

Properly understood, educational theory does not replace common sense so much as transform it, by subjecting its beliefs and justifications to systematic criticism. In this sense, educational theorizing is always a subversive activity, self-consciously aimed at challenging the irrationality of conventional thinking in order to make educational ideas and beliefs less dependent on myths, prejudices and ideological distortions that common sense fossilizes and preserves. (Carr and Hartnett 1996 p 3)

Nevertheless as Ball (1994) has shown with the current emphasis on common sense, through which instrumental and scientific models of leadership are being fabricated and consecrated in policy texts and the literature, it is difficult to argue against because to do so is ‘irrational, is destructive and mad’ (p 44). However, the drawing of boundaries that outlaw feminist (and other critical approaches) is dangerous because not going to certain parts of Popkewitz’s room means that gendered theory and practice is not productively problematised. The emphasis on positivist knowledge claims remains an enduring feature of leadership studies, and the problematic nature of this is located in claims about neutrality. Hartley (1998) sheds light on this in his analysis of how the field remains essentially modernist in its knowledge claims, but absorbs the language and rhetoric of challenges, such as postmodernism, in what he regards as a ‘modernist makeover’ (p 154). An important contribution of critical studies is in its challenge to the imaging of headteachers/principals as visionary leaders combined with work that seeks to understand experiences in a contested policy space. This isn’t ivory tower work but is based on engaging with real life real time practice, so that the experiences of practice are both captured and theorised.

The politics of modernisation has huge implications for the place of educational studies in higher education, and our disposition towards declaring our own position and how this interacts with the positioning of others. Perhaps asking and debating questions which challenge rather than resolve will recapture the complexity of human relationships underpinning words such as leadership, mission, empowerment, and relevance, as being about power and structures that go beyond the organisation. Nevertheless, this remains dangerous territory, as it could be argued that such debates deflect attention away from sites of knowledge production outside the academy (Ladwig 1996). Connell (1983) makes the following observations:

Intellectuals’ ability to talk to themselves is one of the conditions of intellectual work in general, one of the ways of distancing thought from the demands of immediate practice. But it also invites the intellectuals’ primal political sin, which is talking only to themselves. The effect is not so much to radicalise or help other people as to exclude them, make them feel stupid and put down. (p 249)

Connell goes on to say that not only does this undermine intellectual work but also leaves a vacuum, and this has been filled by the New Right, and more recently, New Labour. Problematising knowledge claims, and foregrounding the orientation taken by different people to the work that interests them, is a way in which the position of the knowledge worker can be open to scrutiny. This is beginning to take place through debates about field purposes and boundaries in relation to both instrumental and scientific approaches (Clarke 2000, Gunter 1997, 2001, MacBeath and Mortimore 2001, Thrupp 1999). Talking about knowledge with users and producers such as headteachers and teachers means that research cannot just be ‘cherry picked’ in ways to support a particular policy imperative but instead is presented as contested and developmental. Research continues to show that policy is rarely implemented in a strict laboratory way but is always open to interpretation and change, and is over lain on top of existing and often entrenched micro policy values and practices (Ozga 2000). Practitioners continue to demand, and often pay from their own resources, for the opportunity to develop through post graduate study the ways of thinking necessary to ask not only what the problem is but who says it is a problem and why.

In this way we can see the places where researchers and practitioners do and do not go, and so we can ask how this is related to the aims of the researcher or the structuring impact of a policy context that is determining what is and what should be known. This is not about intellectual indulgence but the means through which epistemology is central to understanding the questions that are or are not asked. This requires additional and longitudinal research into the professional biographies of knowledge workers in leadership studies, in order to ask questions about the choices that impact on knowledge production. Work on gender shows that models of leadership are not neutral but are the product of enduring power structures in which there are attempts in different economic, historical, political, and social contexts to settle what is and is not effective leadership. The contribution made by critical theorists, in collaboration with educational professionals, is not only to reveal this but also to show how, through intellectual dialogue and reflexivity, alternative understandings and practices can be generated.


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