Environmental Change and Challenge

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Evolution or Extinction? Reflections on the Future of Research in Educational Leadership and Management

Nick Foskett, Jacky Lumby and Brian Fidler

Environmental Change and Challenge

Reflecting on the current state of research in any academic discipline is an important part of its evolution and development. A consideration of the relevance and utility of research and the added value that accrues to society from its products provides key benchmarks for all in the research community. For those of us who work in 'second order fields’ (Murray, 2004) such as educational research where we are researching activity in 'first order fields’ (e.g. the professional world of education) these considerations become of especial significance. Without a clear payoff for our research in terms of enhancing policy and practice, however measured, educational leadership and management (ELM) researchers will surely be doomed to an existence that is marginal both in academic and professional arenas.

The community of academics, practitioners, policy makers and commentators that constitutes the world of research in ELM represents a spectrum of perspectives on what that world is like or should be like (Gunter, 2005). There is limited unanimity in the critical reflection on our current location. There is even less shared perspective on what the most appropriate future directions might be. There is agreement though that the environment in which we operate is one of rapid change and that the status quo is not an option for us.

This paper seeks to identify responses to some of the key questions about research in ELM and its future and to identify some of the ways forward. Specifically we shall address the following questions:

What are the key criticisms of ELM approaches to research?

Who are the key audiences for research in ELM?

How do we identify high quality research?

What should be the future methodological priorities in ELM research?

What are the key criticisms of ELM approaches to research?

Mulford (2005) and Gorard (2005) have provided a detailed reflection on the current issues facing researchers in ELM. During the 1990s there has been much interest in concerns about the quality of research and calls for more relevant research of value to schools and school teachers (Hargreaves, 1996; Tooley & Darby,1998; Hillage et al, 1998). The issues raised are those that underpin the concerns that have led to the government emphasis on evidence-based policy making in the United States and, more recently, in the UK (Slavin, 2004). In particular, the dominance of qualitative methodologies, single or limited multi-site case studies, and reflective critique of policy, rather than large scale quantitative studies underpinned by robust statistical analysis has led to the accusation that educational research is a fashion not a science. The emphasis on policy espousal rather than on policy in action in research has been identified for example by the United States Department of Education (USDE) in their funding of the What Works Clearing House (Slavin, 2004), which has sought to give credence only to research using consistent, rigorous, quantitative studies providing evidence about policy in action. The range of methodologies employed by most researchers in ELM (and, in fairness, in most other areas of educational research!) provides a depth of understanding but rarely a breadth of picture that will meet the current political demands on methodology. Similarly it is rare for ELM researchers to engage in multi-disciplinary work, for example with those in other social sciences, in management, in psychology or in statistics.

Such criticisms, whatever their acceptability to the community of ELM researchers, risk compromising the future viability of the field. If we do not listen to the demands of our key audiences then we can expect to be allowed a declining share of research funding. We need to reflect carefully therefore on who we are researching for and what constitutes ‘good’ research for those audiences.

Who are the key audiences for research in ELM?

The three groups most commonly designated as direct audiences for research are practitioners, policy makers and the academic research community. Of course individuals may not neatly fit into only one group. For example, many academics are also practitioners in their own right and practitioners may also make policy as advisors or members of boards. However, by examining their primary perspectives, it is possible to explore the nature of the 'audience' formed by each group.


The extent to which practitioners are consumers of education leadership and management research is still questionable. Galton's (2000) survey of schools found that 96% of respondents had seriously considered research since qualifying. Much of the research was received through the filters of training courses and via government departments, but nearly two thirds of respondents had consulted journals. Of this group, 69 per cent appeared to have been influenced in their practice. However, of the 523 research areas of influence listed only 39 concerned ELM, despite the fact that the majority of the 302 respondents, 84 per cent, were heads or deputy headteachers and, therefore, one might assume, leaders. As indicated by this survey, the extent to which practitioners could be considered a direct audience for research on ELM is somewhat doubtful.

Many commentators have explored the process of practitioners acquiring knowledge and building their practice, suggesting that the knowledge used is significantly different to that produced through research. Such knowledge is highly context specific and created through the practice of activity (Hiebert et al, 2002). Teachers seek practical solutions rather than the creation of ideas and knowledge that are widely and publicly shared (Burkhardt & Schoenfeld, 2003). They are generally not a direct audience for research. Practitioners rarely view research and then consciously use it to adjust their leadership.

Policy makers

There have been recent espousals by policy makers to make use of research, or more explicitly the evidence created by research. Both the UK and the USA governments for example have implied a commitment to evidence based policy but deplored that this intention is baulked by the unsuitability of available research (Blunkett, 2000; US Department of Education, 2002). Hillage et al (1998) while criticising the nature of educational research in the UK, acknowledged that research was only one influence on policy making, and its transmission and transmutation into policy is complex. Sebba (2003) points out that civil servants and politicians are judged by their failures, so research that points out flaws may be unwelcome. Therefore, as Stanton (2000) argues, many policy makers may not want to know the negatives, while researchers may be overly eager to find them. A direct relationship between research and policy making is difficult to discern. Policy makers then may be equally suspect as an 'audience' for research.


The relationship of the academic research community to research is as complex as that of the previous two groups. The community uses research as part of a learning process, creating knowledge through activity just as practitioners do. Equally, the political aspects of what is allowed to enter the field as a valued contribution to knowledge is influenced by political factors as it is for policy makers (Hodkinson, 2004). While researchers most clearly directly access research through journals and books, and use it as part of their ongoing work, their response in adjusting their own leadership practice may be no more discernable than with education leaders who are not researchers. Their more prevalent use of research is to influence thinking, ideas, models to shape their own research and writing. Practitioner researchers from outside higher education straddle the academic and practitioner communities and may use research in ways that are distinctive (Middlewood et al, 1999).

The degree to which the three primary groups outlined above form a direct audience for research differs. Researchers are mainly a direct audience (although not always), while policy makers and practitioners are indirect audiences that absorb prevailing and developing ideas by mediated and indirect routes. While it is acknowledged that assessing the direct impact of research is very difficult, assessing the indirect impact not only on practitioners, policy makers and researchers, but also the wider community of parents, learners, governors, citizens, funders, is far more challenging. Yet it is here, in the indirect osmosis of ideas, frames of thinking, and accepted values, that research needs to find a wider audience. One challenge for the future may be to redirect attention and energy away from the mirage of an engineering model for research that assumes users read about research and react to the pressure of evidence and ideas. Instead, those assessing the use of research could employ more complex formulations of how it influences multiple users by multiple direct and indirect means. This would move both creators and users of research away from a narrow focus on evidence and its impact, towards a more constructivist notion of the ways in which ideas created through research are metamorphosed and integrated through varied channels into the thinking and practice of the education community, which in its widest sense involves all those with a stake in education.

How do we identify high quality research?

There are many perspectives about what the focus of research should be, and the priorities and emphases have changed as ELM research has evolved in the last three decades. Gunter and Ribbins (2003a; 2003b) have provided a cogent and clear analysis and critique of the evolution of ELM and of the influences on its shape and form. It is clear that the focus of research is determined by the interplay of three constituencies: those who fund it; those who provide the principal audiences for it; and those who carry out the research.

The balance of power between these three has shifted in recent years. The autonomy of researchers to identify their own priorities has been displaced by an increasing prioritisation on funded research in all accountability measures, accompanied by a narrowing of the range of potential funders and their almost unanimous emphasis on the contribution of research to practice. This has implications for the judgement of quality, for there is a danger that those who judge the quality of research do so from an ideological position reflecting either their own values stance or their methodological preferences. Such public differences can discredit educational research, and are frequently exploited by those who wish to direct its future priorities, for they contend that there is no unanimity about the quality of research amongst those within the research profession. This view however fails to recognise fundamental points of agreement amongst researchers - that the choice of methodology must always be appropriate to the research questions, the methodologies must be applied with rigour and objectivity and results must be presented free from the shackles of political expediency and the selection biases of those seeking post hoc evidence (the ‘policy half truth’) of the virtue of their political or ideological stance.

We can illustrate the degree to which existing value stances and interests shape research this by identifying one of the striking omissions in much of the debate about ELM research – the discussion of diversity in relation to the background and personal characteristics of educational leaders. This is, we believe, in large part the product of the shaping of the research agenda by the funders, and the pursuit by researchers of topics that will meet the potential funders’ priorities. It has been alleged for over a decade that theory on leadership has been created by the dominant group, white males, and as such, it has multiple weaknesses in reflecting the experience and supporting the development of a more diverse group of leaders (Shakeshaft, 1989; Irby et al, 2002). The opening of articles, books, research reports generally carefully delineates the parameters, the phase of education, the focus of enquiry, the time span in question. There is rarely, though, any acknowledgement of the parameters in terms of the characteristics of those leaders studied in terms of, for example, ethnicity, disability, social class. The description of the gender of those participating in the research is the most one can generally expect in terms of communicating awareness of the diversity, or lack of it, in the leaders/managers and therefore in the research. There is an extensive literature on 'leadership' and a small parallel literature on aspects of diversity within leadership (Carrington & Tomlin, 2000; Coleman, 2002; Shields et al, 2002). This small subset of literature is more often concerned with achieving a range of people as leaders, rather than with retheorising leadership to reflect a diverse leadership. Put differently, the small body of literature which tackles diversity does not touch the hegemony of 'leadership' theory reflected in the thousands of outputs worldwide. By its silent acceptance of homogeneity, the leadership literature assumes a norm that plays a part in maintaining the dominance of the group in power. The perpetuation of this body of work purportedly on 'leadership' is one example of how research is a reflection of the limitations which are both self-imposed by researchers and externally imposed by funders. The assessment of research quality and utility needs increased awareness of the underpinning value base and interest group.

Following from this, we suggest a very modest three stage framework to apply more rigour to quality assessments. Firstly there needs to be an explicit recognition of the variety of purposes for which research is undertaken and to make judgements about quality within these types of research – is it good of its kind and with whose values in mind? This will need to distinguish clearly between a search for generalisation or a study of singularities (Bassey 1995). Secondly there should be an assessment of the methodology used. This will need a list of aspects to be assessed. Such criteria have been implicit in the assessment of quantitative research but the variety of qualitative research types has made this more difficult. Recently, an ESRC project in the social sciences, EPPI systematic reviews, and a Cabinet Office study (www.policyhub.gov.uk/evalpolicy/qual_eval.asp) have begun to open up this issue. Finally, a judgement is required about the worthwhileness of the findings and outcomes from the research. All too often it is this final judgement alone that has held sway leading to challenging outcomes receiving much publicity despite methodological weaknesses.

What should be the future methodological priorities in ELM research?

Our reflection on current research in ELM would seek to stress the value and contribution of the existing methodologies and approaches. To critically appraise existing and recent practices emphasises the necessity for change and new approaches but this does not mean that we should draw a line under the past and dispense with the wisdom that has emerged from that substantial body of work. However, we must recognise that if we do what we have always done we shall simply get what we have always got – and it is clear from the reflections within the ELM research community, from the professional arenas we work with and to, and from the politicians who are the fundholders for future research that some new approaches are important. In conclusion we would identify four important areas for development:

  1. Inter-disciplinarity. Research issues in ELM are multi-faceted, and the perspective of a range of disciplines is important in providing insights into them. This is well-exemplified by the insights that can emerge from within Management Sciences and also from within the fields of neuroscience and cognitive science, which is currently largely the preserve of Psychology (Allix and Gronn, 2005).

  2. The expansion of quantitative studies in the context of the evidence-based movement. The shift to an emphasis on robust quantitative studies using RCT methodologies has underpinned the growth in scale and respectability of research in medicine and in agriculture in the last half century (Slavin, 2004) and has been a critical step in the transformation of these arenas into professions where practice is fundamentally underpinned by research evidence. The big picture, whole population perspective that such approaches provide is invaluable, and there must clearly be a shift in this direction. At the same time we must recognise the richness and insight that is then contributed from qualitative studies looking at process and human interaction within ELM environments. Quantitative studies and RCT are not an alternative to our current range of approaches, they are a valuable addition to them.

  3. Linked to the first two developments we must seek to employ a wider range of methodologies, both within the qualitative and quantitative domains, and also seek to use mixed methodologies where appropriate. RCT provides one example, but the evolution of approaches from psychology and neuroscience, for example, may provide other directions. At the strongly qualitative end of the methodological spectrum the role of reflective diaries provides an example of innovation. The key advantage of diversity and mixed methods is in the ability more appropriately to match method to research problem, and also to provide suitable approaches to the triangulation of findings. Difficult issues like causality can be investigated using these means (Levacic, 2005; Teddlie, 2005). Further advances could also follow greater knowledge of developments in research in other social sciences such as psychology and sociology. Such possibilities, however, can only follow a greater emphasis on comprehensive methodological research training. Mixed methods require competence in quantitative and qualitative research techniques so that choices can be made which are not limited by the knowledge and skills of the researcher.

  4. Scale of study has traditionally been an issue in ELM research, in that constraints on funding have frequently been a constraint on study size. Reliability is always enhanced by an increase in the study population size, whether through increasing the numbers surveyed or increasing the number or extent of case study sites. Our problem here, though, is that the funding of large scale studies is dependent upon confidence from funders that the investment is worthwhile – and we do not yet have the track record to demonstrate this. Slavin (2004) contends, for example, that a concern in the United States is that the commitment to evidence –based policy in education may founder on the lack of existing evidence from acceptably robust studies and the long period before studies currently being commissioned can deliver evidence which meets the criteria for acceptability.

The challenge for those in the ELM research community is to convince the professional arena and the political arena that their research is not just a way of keeping academics busy but has reliable, transferable outcomes that can influence policy and practice in a way that is fundamental and not just a matter of current fashion and taste. Both in the nature of our research bids and in the training of upcoming researchers we must be strongly aware of this priority (Heck & Hallinger, 2005). Without it, however confident we are of the intellectual worth of our endeavours, our future in the academic arena is unsure.


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