Change and school improvement: An exploration of school leaders' perceptions and experiences of distributed leadership in three special school settings

Davis, Carolyn A. (2022). Change and school improvement: An exploration of school leaders' perceptions and experiences of distributed leadership in three special school settings. University of Birmingham. Ed.D.

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Whilst the literature around Distributed Leadership (DL) is immense, with some 720,000 articles being written between 2002 and 2013 (Tian, Risku and Collin, 2016), little research was found to have been carried out on DL in special education. Using data gathered through semi-structured interviews and observations, this multiple case study explores school leaders’ perceptions and experience of distributed leadership, against a background of change and school improvement, in three special schools.

The findings show DL to be a multi-faceted concept, which is manifested differently in each school. The research highlighted that the nature of distribution is determined by the interplay of four key themes. First, school context, which includes the career path of the Headteacher and other leaders, alongside ongoing change within the school, notably rising pupil numbers. Second, the role of the Headteacher as strategic and moral leader who empowers, supports and develops leadership in others whilst reserving the right to say ‘no’, is crucial. Third are school cultures, which are characterised by positive relationships, teamwork, collaboration, including multidisciplinary partnership and teacher leadership, and are shaped by the Headteacher and staff within the school context. However, a fourth factor, which runs across the above themes, is critical in determining the nature of DL, namely the growing number of pupils with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (CLDD). Pupil needs drive school improvement, underpin moral purpose, and leads to the internal recruitment and training of leaders, which ensures that leadership is founded on an understanding of this fourth factor. In meeting the needs of these pupils, for whom tried and tested strategies no longer work (Champion, 2005), collaborative practice and teacher leadership are fundamental. Thus, it is argued that DL has a significant role in underpinning this process in special education.

The research also highlights participants’ perceptions that DL has a positive impact on school improvement, through the building of leadership capacity, motivating teachers, reducing staff turnover, and improving teaching and learning by the creation and sharing of new knowledge. Most participants feel that this impacts positively on pupil outcomes, although they recognise that whole school data does not evidence these perceptions.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ed.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ed.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Social Sciences
School or Department: School of Education
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
L Education > LC Special aspects of education


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