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Assessing school leadership development

Improving the quality of school leadership has been a key priority for successive governments since 1997. This led to the establishment of the National College for School Leadership (NC) in 2000. Between 2004 and 2009 the NC commissioned six external evaluations of its programmes by Sheffield Hallam University, led by Professor Tim Simkins, totalling over £275,000. The studies have impacted on the range and quality of the NC’s provision and hence the quality of leadership in schools by enabling the NC to make key decisions about its individual courses and the programme as a whole.

The research

Prior to this, there was a considerable literature on leadership development and its effectiveness, but detailed work on impact and the factors that influenced it was patchy. The studies under taken involved 2,000 survey responses, 200 telephone interviews with participants and others as well as school case studies to offer a robust basis for the following findings.

Firstly, the studies indicated the overall effectiveness of NC programmes in terms of aggregated outcomes differentiated in relation to various characteristics of participants and schools. Only one programme was deemed unsuccessful and was discontinued soon after our evaluation.

The work all helped the NC understand what influences the effectiveness of leadership development activities. For example, the ways in which participants are selected and their consequent motivations are important, as is the role of the participant’s sponsor school or local authority. And their coach in the school-focused programmes is proven to be critical, yet coaching quality varied in testing, from one institution to another.

As these factors were identified, we developed a model for analysing the impact of professional development activities in general, and leadership development activities in particular. This model was refined over a number of studies and provided a robust basis for understanding not just whether impact had occurred but also the key variables determining this. It built on and modified earlier work by writers such as Kirkpatrick and Guskey.

The studies were led by Professor Tim Simkins, Professor of Education Management, with other main contributions made by Paul Close, Senior Lecturer in Education Leadership, Mike Coldwell, Head of Centre for Education and Inclusion Research and Ros Garrick, Principal Lecturer in Early Years Education, all working at the University during the studies.

The impact

The research insights achieved impact through their influence on the policies and programmes of the NC. Although this impact is limited to one organisation, the range and scope of indirect second-level impact on school leaders can be gauged from the size of the NC. By 2008/09 participants on evaluated programmes numbered more than 10,000. It is one of the largest bodies of sustained leadership development activity for education in the world.

There was an on-going relationship between commissioned studies and NC policy, which in turn led to further work for the organisation. For example, our early reviews of the NC’s programmes led to the decision to develop a new programme – Leadership Pathways. This was designed to meet the needs of more experienced leaders place a greater emphasis on on-line materials and support, and to be delivered on a commissioned basis rather than directly by the College. The University was closely engaged in the implementation of this course as it evolved. Similarly, earlier studies influenced evolving programme design as it developed towards a modular curriculum offering a blended learning approach, alongside more effective coaching models and practices.

Where evaluations showed that one programme the Multi Agency Team Development Programme was not successful, we demonstrated that this was due to a misunderstanding of the market rather than programme content or design. Our studies contributed to the decision to discontinue the programme in 2011. Beyond this, however, the studies informed the College’s general thinking about how to support leadership development across a range of service contexts, such as through its programme for Directors of Children’s Services.

The work also offered in-depth contributions to the NC’s understanding of factors impacting on leadership development outcomes, and to its strategic thinking as, in 2011, it expanded and moved from a centralised model to one where consortia of schools and others were licensed to provide leadership development on a commissioned basis. This approach required a new leadership development framework. The research informed this framework, by defining good leadership development and by feeding into the design of three of the five levels of the programme.

Based on some evidence indicating that the quality of support for leadership development provided by schools varied considerably, SHU was commissioned to undertake a comparative study of in-school components of three major core programmes: Leading from the Middle, the National Professional Qualification for Headship and the Leadership programme for serving headteachers. The study identified similarities and differences between the three programmes’ in-school components. This contributed to the implementation of the NC’s involvement in the broader national policy shift towards a school-led system. For example, our studies highlighted the key issue of coaching capacity, factors that affected this and how it needed to be developed. The research into this issue contributed to the NC’s evolving strategy to support coaching and coaches.

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