C. Day and D. Gurr (eds)(2014) Leading Schools Successfully: Stories from the field London: Routledge

Number of pages: 214

Cost: £85.00

This edited book on leadership in schools derives from the longitudinal International Successful School Principalship project (ISSPP) which sought, over a period of more than ten years, to compare and analyse the processes of leadership in successful schools in over fifteen countries. It is the fourth book published from the project, along with numerous articles and case studies. The focus of the book is Stories from the field, following a series of in-depth conversations with principals in the project. The book, which begins with an effusive foreword by Brian Caldwell, comprises four main sections which are wrapped around with an introduction and, at the end of the final section, a plenary chapter both of which are written by the editors. The four sections are sustaining school turnaround, the early years of principalship, values and trust and social justice.

In one sense it is a qualitative research project in its own right, but it has been conceived and conceptualised within the framework of the wider project. The principals involved were selected by nomination as staff whose stories would exemplify key findings from the first three books. The stories thus offer extra meaning, depth and detail to the analysis presented elsewhere by the project team. Most academic accounts involve considerable abstraction and reduction, with some meaning being lost as key points are made. This book offers an alternative route to understanding successful principalship: it retains the complexity of individual contexts and offers a welcome contrast to the policy tendencies of ‘one size fits all’ solutions to complex problems and beliefs in the transcendence of the ‘right person for the job’, the hero leader. The stories reflect real diversity in the contexts and challenges encountered and in the strategies used to seek to take schools forward. In addition there are questions and suggestions to encourage reflection on the content offered and to support the reader in thinking beyond the text and to underline the need to develop strategies for different settings and concerns.

The text draws on a range of theory, much of which has been explored and developed in detail in the previous books, articles and case studies from the project and key ideas are laid out in chapter one.  The chapters that follow are individual accounts of choices made by successful principals, their varying perceptions of the challenges that faced them and their attempts to address these. These chapters are engaging and while there are common themes which may be identified (and this is done in part in the final chapter) there are also significant differences in people, in accounts and approaches, in attitudes and preferences and of course in contexts. Issues raised repeatedly include value-led leadership, building trust, working with and through colleagues and personal professional development.

One may question the extent to which this is a stand alone book. Taken as a set of stories the book is undoubtedly  interesting but its contribution is perhaps more fully appreciated if one sees it against the range and impressive scale of writings from the project. These are real stories which leave one impressed by the sheer commitment and effort the Principals have offered. There is a useful analysis of their experiences in the final chapter which brings the content together, but this sits a little incongruously alongside a clear emphasis on diverse challenges and individual practice. Alternative recent accounts exist, albeit less comparative ones, which have also presented detailed accounts of principals’ activities and motivations, successes and failures. In addition the dominant focus on principals, even with regular mentions of collaboration and teams, perhaps unintentionally adds weight to the concept of hero- rather than post-heroic leaders.

Yet read in isolation it remains an interesting book and the principals’ stories have much to offer students of leadership, teachers whether aspiring or non aspiring to principalship for exploring in depth of the complex roles of principals, those who seek to prepare staff for taking on this role and, perhaps especially, those who have unrealistically high expectations of what any human being in a principal role can do!

Janet Draper

(Adjunct)Professor of Education, Hong Kong Baptist University,  janetd@hkbu.edu.hk