An exploration of factors impacting on the ability of leaders of schools in challenging circumstances to create sustainable change

By Judith Nash: Independent Educational Consultant


This article explores factors impacting on the ability of leaders of schools in challenging circumstances to create sustainable change.  Interviews with headteachers are used to support a critique of theoretical propositions. Emerging themes include the impact of the socio-economic context, the national education agenda and leadership approaches. The article questions leaders’ ability to create sustainable change and reflects on the potential impact of a new inspection regime.

This article explores factors impacting on the ability of leaders of schools in challenging circumstances to create sustainable change. The phrase ‘challenging circumstances’ here refers to schools placed in ‘special measures’ or ‘notice to improve’ by The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), the statutory body for inspecting schools in England, because less than 40% of their students gained 5 grades A* to C at GCSE including English and Maths (DfE 2012). In my role as an independent consultant, I chose to work in challenging secondary schools and developed views on what made it so difficult for leaders to create sustainable change. In my masters’ research at the University of Hertfordshire, I explored secondary headteachers’ understanding of this aspect of their school leadership.

My experience suggests sustainable change is dynamic rather than static, relying on a school’s capacity to respond to challenges in changing contexts and unique circumstances.

Gronn (2000) and Hargreaves and Fink (2004) define sustainable change as that which lasts when a given leader has moved on. The challenge of creating such long-term change forms the central focus of this article.

Key factors my experience suggests impact on the ability of leaders of challenging schools to create sustainable change are shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Key factors impacting on the ability of leaders of challenging schools to create sustainable change

I use this as an organising framework in my exploration of the literature below.

Capacities and attributes of school leaders and teachers

Leadership of the headteacher and teacher capacity are widely acknowledged as key to creating sustainable change. The Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), for example, gives prominence to good quality teaching and strong leadership (Rudd 2002), emphasising the importance of creating a school ethos based on the headteacher’s moral values which set a clear sense of direction. Both Gronn (2000) and Hargreaves and Fink (2004) critique ‘heroic’ change depending on charismatic leadership, emphasising, like Fullan (2002), the valuing of leaders for what they leave behind not who they were. Hargreaves and Fink (2004) develop this argument, highlighting specific capacities key to creating long-term change whilst Hargreaves (2003) points out the dilemma of having to effect rapid change to move out of a poor OFSTED category, while striving to create long-term change.

Leithwood et al. (2004) indicate that school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning, while Sadker and Zittleman (2007) identify a set of criteria for leaders and teachers to work towards. The interdependence of good leadership and good teaching emphasised in the reading was, therefore, a significant area to consider in my empirical research.

The socio-economic context of a school

Gray and Hopkins (1999) highlight the turbulence students, parents and teachers experience in schools in disadvantaged communities.  Hopkins (2001) points out the paradox that all schools are expected to reach national standards yet there is a wide variety of school contexts that present challenges to school leaders. However, research shows even in schools where the socio-economic demographic is poor but where good quality teaching creates a climate conducive to learning, students can succeed (OECD 2012). Whilst MacBeath et al. (2005) paint a powerful picture of the background of students living in poor quality housing with few amenities to support learning, Clifton and Cook (2013) underline the extent to which socio-economic issues can affect both academic and social aspects of school life, with MacBeath and Dempster (2008) pointing out the importance of engaging with parents to raise standards of teaching and learning.

The national agenda for education

A fundamental change to the national agenda for schools began with the introduction of a neo-liberal agenda of raised levels of accountability in 1976 (Fisher 2011).  Greater centralisation followed (Philips 2001, Lightman 2015), such as the introduction of the OFSTED inspection framework (DfES 1992).  Further changes to the OFSTED Framework (2012, 2015) placed greater weight on the marketisation and performativity principles of data and target setting (Ball 2015), stressing the importance of reaching high academic standards rather than the development of the whole child. Overall, the focus on data and target setting was restrictive for all schools but particularly for challenging schools, many of whom compensated for lack of social and cultural capital by including in their curriculum Fullan’s (2013) 6 Cs: character-education, citizenship, communication, collaboration, creativity and imagination.

However, some initiatives impacted positively on challenging schools. ‘Every Child Matters’ (2003), for example, set out a framework involving all agencies working with families with the aim of reducing the number of children experiencing educational failure through deprivation. Engaging with parents addressed one of the major difficulties for leaders of schools in challenging circumstances discussed above.

School strategies to support sustainable change

Headteachers found the development of a form of shared leadership supported their change agenda. Disparate names are given to this form of shared leadership. Sergiovanni (1992) refers to it as leadership density, MacBeath (2006) as shared leadership and Yukl (2013) as distributed leadership. Frost (2013) refers to it as teacher leadership. Woods (Woods and Woods 2013) is helpful in drawing together the various understandings, pointing out the significant theme connecting them is leadership emerging from the interaction of people within the school community rather than one single person.

Headteachers with whom I have worked have been innovative in creating a range of personalised professional development programmes to empower teachers. Alongside these, headteachers introduced student voice programmes giving students the opportunity to contribute to their school’s improvement agenda (Fielding and Bragg 2003: Roberts and Nash 2009)

My reading highlighted two key areas in Figure 1; school context and the national agenda for education as presenting major difficulties for headteachers. In addition it highlighted the importance of sharing with staff a school ethos based on a clear vision and sense of direction in order to build capacity. This guided the design of my empirical work.

My research design

I invited a small group of four leaders, who lead in challenging circumstances, to participate in my research. Following Creswell (2014), I took a social-constructivist position to explore the lived experiences of my participants. I considered a quantitative or qualitative research approach to exploring the data (Cohen et al. 2007). Lather’s (1991) view that a qualitative approach allows the exploration of motivations and insights into issues, rather than the more scientific quantitative approach, was persuasive.

I recognised, having worked closely with my participants, I was an ‘insider-researcher’ in the ‘learning from experience’ section of Kolb’s cycle (Kolb 1984). I was aware of the importance of not imposing my professional views and assumptions on the interviews or allowing my personal values and beliefs as a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman to influence the research.  I attempted to address this by using a reflexive process (Creswell 2014) in order for my research to be considered reliable and not unduly biased (Kvale 2007).

I followed BERA’s Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (2011) to ensure my educational research processes were valid and ethically secure. These guidelines supported my research protocols and processes while gathering, analysing and interpreting my research data. I obtained written agreement from my interviewees to participate, anonymised the data and deleted the interviews once analysed. Moreover, based on my moral integrity, I treated the information they shared with honesty, respect and confidentiality.

I analysed my data both inductively and deductively. Whilst focusing particularly on data relating to the key themes proposed in Figure 1, I was conscious of being transparent about the data selected, the significance to the themes (Reason 2006) and impact on leaders’ ability to create sustainable change.

Theme 1: the impact of socio-economic context

The school’s socio-economic context was seen by all headteachers as a major influence on students’ learning and achievement.

Sarah, Emma and Liz’s schools were in white working class communities. Liz and Sarah emphasised the cycle of failure in which headteachers of schools in deprived areas are blamed for failure which is systemic, echoing MacBeath et al. (2005) and Thrupp and Lupton (2006).  Sarah, summarising the views of all participants, commented:

Home and education was a challenge…parents had not had a positive experience of education, particularly if they had grown up in the same area so the whole cycle just repeats itself.

Sarah: extract from interview transcript 04.05.2017

In contrast, the demographic in Lisa’s school was a mixed white and multi-ethnic community where racism was an acknowledged problem, and where:

Parents didn’t generally see the value of education.

Lisa: extract from interview transcript 08.05.2017

Theme 2: The impact of the National Agenda for education

Liz and Sarah’s schools were situated in deprived areas and their headships coincided with the change in the national agenda. Initially they had been able to provide a curriculum that educated the whole child to compensate for socio-economic issues. However, as the focus on reaching national standards increased this became more difficult. As Sarah expressed it:

We just lost what those schools do very well, the pastoral care, the provision of stability which enable children, who often come from very unstable backgrounds, to find almost a haven and therefore to make progress..

Sarah: extract from interview transcript 04.05.20

In 2012 OFSTED judgements on schools changed from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘requires improvement’ highlighting those schools not working to an acceptable OFSTED standard. The framework created further pressure, as headteachers could be summarily dismissed if their leadership was not satisfactory. The threat of losing their jobs that overshadowed my participants’ experience of headship was articulated by Lisa:

I just think when you’re in a vocational role, the worst way of motivating someone is by fear or threat to their role…..

Lisa: extract from interview transcript 08.05.2017

Participants also commented on the increased focus on autonomy for schools. In 2010 the Government extended its academies’ programme to a wider range of schools (DfE 2010) which became funded by the DfE independent of the local authority. However, Sarah points out the challenges inherent in using academisation as a school improvement initiative.

I don’t think it feels any different going into those schools as academies. They’ve still got the same children coming through the door and it needs to be a much more long-term, more pervasive thing.

Sarah: extract from interview transcript 04.05.2017

Theme 3: Leadership capacity

Participants agreed with published research that a shared ethos and vision gives schools the momentum to move forward (Gronn 2000), as Liz reflects:

\You have to have a deep and constantly evaluative approach to learning because children’s learning is dramatically changing.

Liz: extract from interview transcript 16.05.2017

Liz emphasised the importance of being self-reflective and evaluative in order to build sustainability whilst Emma compared the performativity regime, allowing only one year to effect change, to building a house without firm foundations:

… it never was going to last because it was built on rocky ground.

Emma: extract from interview transcript 03.04.20

Emma’s comment underlines the importance of capacity building. Emma and Liz reflected on this challenge as, on appointment, they had no-one empowered to lead change and were forced into a hierarchical leadership style. This was diametrically opposed to their aim of building capacity underpinned by a vision of shared leadership.

Lisa and Liz, as leaders of faith schools, believed the Christian values underpinning their schools supported the establishment of a strong ethos:

With a faith school…you have a beautiful set of values just sitting there and all you’ve got to do is lift them, align them, discuss and debate them.

Liz: extract from interview transcript 16.05.2017

Although for Lisa a new school environment had a significant impact on moving the school to an OFSTED category ‘Good’, she understands this standard has to be maintained and change is dynamic:

It’s a bit like a spiral you just keep revisiting.

Lisa: extract from interview transcript 08.05.2017

Theme 4: The impact of school initiatives and leadership and development approaches

Participants emphasised the importance of developing professional development initiatives to build teachers’ self-efficacy. Liz and Sarah introduced Frost and Durrant’s (2003) TLDW (Teacher Led Development Work) Programmes, which they saw as empowering.

For some of the individuals this was a really empowering time…..

Sarah: extract from interview transcript 04.05.2017

The development initiatives were successful in building capacity, supporting the findings of Fullan (1991), Newman and Bruce (2000), Hargreaves (2003) and Frost (2008).

In addition, leaders developed learning approaches such as Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) programmes, programmes for overseas staff, middle and senior leaders and staff developing their practice with the purpose of empowering teachers so they could contribute to the change agenda (Mitchell and Sackney 2000). Leaders appreciated the importance of developing parent partnerships for, like Harris and Goodall (2008), they appreciated building relationships with parents is key to breaking the cycle of failure and overcoming the challenges presented by the socio-economic issues.


I conclude by reflecting on my initial impressions of how the factors, indicated in Figure 1, affected my participants’ ability to create sustainable change. The outcome of my discussions echoed the argument made by several authors (e.g. Macbeath et. al. 2005), illustrating the major challenge socio-economic disadvantage offers to school improvement. In addition, leaders placed significant weight on the challenge the national agenda for education placed on their change agenda.  The increased emphasis on data and target setting forced a curriculum often unsuitable for challenging schools (Ball (2015).  However, there is an indication in the OFSTED Framework (2019) of a renewed understanding by the government of the issues faced by challenging schools. From September 2019 inspections will focus on the extent to which the curriculum meets the needs of the whole child by looking at its intent, implementation and impact. Inspectors will base their judgement of a school’s success by observing lessons, focusing on progress seen in pupils’ books and talking to teachers, pupils and parents. Even though the revised government strategy considers how schools focus on the well-being of the whole child, the pressure on schools to perform and consistently improve academic results remains. Progress is still to be made by building trust between school leaders and the government. Nevertheless, the revised framework perhaps offers a glimpse of a new era of government understanding of the impact that a school’s context has on the ability of leaders working in challenging circumstances to create sustainable change.


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