An analysis of which school leadership styles are most effective at primary level for headteachers, deputy heads, and SLT, including how transactional, transformative, and trust-central methods of leadership can help you to lead a school in need of improvement.

In an age where an increasing number of headteachers are paid in excess of £200,000 a year to improve and maintain standards, there is an understandably strong focus on school leadership.

Leadership styles are often contextual, varying depending on the needs of each specific school. Yet one rule always holds hard and fast: regardless of the leadership style your school adopts, in order to be sustainable and effective the initial drive for improvement should come from school leaders.

In fulfilling the responsibilities of monitoring and motivating in a school, headteachers have an enormous responsibility to ensure the best possible education for their pupils, or as Robin Precey puts it  – ‘leaders do make a difference – for better or worse’.

Subsequently, we’ve brought together three key leadership styles that you can adopt in your school, with an emphasis on understanding how to lead a school in need of improvement.

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School leadership styles: transactional approach

Often leaders are drawn to a transactional approach as it is known to help achieve short-term impact when required. A transactional approach to leadership is characterised as direct and hierarchical, often most effective when faced with a crisis such as an unsatisfactory Ofsted review.

In this instance, transactional approaches often see leaders doing ‘whatever is necessary’ to ensure their schools’ survival, with a high focus on results, attainment, and cost effectiveness.

Or as Head of Harris Academy chain, Dan Moynihan states: ‘[if] we invest in staff to get them to improve […] we want results to go up at the end of the first year […] in the end, if people can’t or won’t do a good job, they are not going to stand in front of our kids.’

Yet, in driving up standards in this way, many figures argue that school leaders have no choice but to manage their school through ever-changing political ‘hoops’.

Having trained through the Teach First programme, myself & a large number of my colleagues are working in schools that have employed the transactional approach to leadership and these schools can often be in ‘crisis’ mode.

Evidence suggests that while a transactional approach to leadership can help kick start a turnaround in a crisis, it’s unlikely to produce lasting impact. Research published in the Harvard Business Review indicates that transactional leaders were damaging in the long term, with systems often falling apart when leaders eventually depart.

Research also suggests that to achieve more sustainable changes, leaders should look at other approaches once they emerge from a crisis scenario.

School leadership styles: transformative/transformational approach

Daniel Goleman describes leadership styles as an array of clubs in a golf pro’s bag: ‘over the course of the game, the pro picks and chooses the clubs based on the demands of the shot’.

In a fast paced, and ever changing era of education, school leaders should adopt a similar mindset. Sticking with the same leadership style because it worked in the past, does not ensure it will be successful in the future. Indeed as suggested above, sometimes sticking to the same style can have negative ramifications.

Moving out of a crisis, transformational or transformative styles are two options that deserve consideration. Both frameworks view schools as communities of learners, encouraging the best possible conditions for individuals to relate to one another.

In this approach, leaders encourage expertise and experience to be shared within the organisation. Leadership is distributed more among staff members, allowing a headteacher and others to push for improvement in a more cooperative way.

As one headteacher argues: [transformative & transactional approaches to leadership] are about enabling other people to take over [and] allowing other people to lead [without] controlling everything yourself.’

An essential component to this ethos is building and maintaining trust between staff.

School leadership styles: centrality of trust

Moving forward, research has shown that trust is often an indicator of how successful a school is performing, with good schools displaying higher levels of trust.

Without trust, it becomes increasingly difficult for headteachers to fulfil their core responsibilities of monitoring and motivating effectively. Even well-intentioned actions can lead to the wrong kind of outcome where mistrust has taken hold; discouraging staff loyalty & stifling pupil progress.

Monitoring performance naturally involves an element of criticality, of being openly able to give and receive criticism. Yet, this must be framed as a developmental tool, rather than a way to discourage or discard the importance of the practice and ideas of others.

Often, conceptualising a school’s staff as a community of learners, and framing conceptualising schools as communities of learners helps to frame this criticality as a development tool. Competent leaders have empathic understanding, encouraging teachers to reflect deeply.

Through the prism of transformational or transformative leadership, these supportive relationships flow more naturally. Individuals are motivated by the framing of improvement in a spirit of continual learning. Without this relational trust, individuals can become hostile to the feedback that is at the centre of any approach to school improvement.

When such hostility is avoided, leaders can move beyond being at the apex of a pyramidal structure. Leadership can then be distributed among staff, allowing teachers to engage creatively in problem solving. This will ensure that practice continues to improve beyond the tenure of the current leadership.

This is not an easy feat to achieve. A change in school culture takes persistence, particularly where mistrust has festered for years. However, the cultivation of relational trust is essential.

Implementing initiatives to improve outcomes without the bedrock of trust is like building on sand. Organisational routines and structures will not last and pupil outcomes will be stifled in the long term. When considering what leadership approach is most appropriate, spare a thought for the significance of trust in school communities. The prioritisation of trust will ensure that the real losers from a lack of trust, the pupils, are provided with the education they deserve.

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David Leighton , Content Team , Third Space Learning

A former secondary teacher, David keeps a weather eye on the educational horizon. He's responsible for making sure our blog posts and Maths resources reach teachers far & wide.