Murphy D (2013) Professional School Leadership: Dealing with Dilemmas, Second edition, London: Dunedin

Number of pages: 196

ISBN: 978-1-78046-018-5

Cost:  £17.95

Dilemma: (a solution involving choice between two unsatisfactory alternatives; (b) a problem seemingly incapable of a satisfactory solution. New Penguin English Dictionary (2000) (p.1)

This quote takes the reader on a journey of discovery that describes the day-to-day life of most school leaders. A role not easily compartmentalised into a preparation for school leadership programme but the reality that school leaders face in their plural school community. Dilemmas in Murphy’s words are a characteristic of school leadership (p.1)

This is the second edition of Professional School Leaders, which has been updated to draw upon new education legislation. It is simply written in two sections, which look at school leadership through dilemma’s and the perspectives of three disciplines psychology, politics and ethics. Section A looks at the theory and concepts behind dilemmas and what they tell us and Section B gives a structure to respond to dilemmas and a toolkit for dealing with future dilemmas.

The original edition was based on research undertaken by the author whilst a headteacher in Scotland. Following a period of work as a VSO adviser in Cambodia the author returned to a role at Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, Scotland and from his interactions with current school leaders he saw an opportunity to update and expand his original work. The public changes in education in Scotland, the introduction of the Scottish Headteacher Qualification; and OECD PISA reviews are all drawn on to support school leaders in their quest to understand the complexities of school leadership.

It is very much a practical guide for aspiring and practising school leaders. The book draws heavily on the Scottish education system with some references to education in England and other countries.

The first section of the book draws on a multitude of theories to underpin the approach taken. Chapter 1 gives an overview of the methodology and a case study vignette to demonstrate how each dilemma can be analysed from the three perspectives (Psychology, politics and ethics). The following three chapters in this section review the current theories underpinning each perspective with a final chapter to explore the wider implications of policies and practices.

As an example in chapter 2 it begins with the disciplines of cognitive psychology, social psychology, socio-linguistics, anthropology and neurobiology all support the development and operation of human cognitive processes. The author then uses the work of Chambers (2003), Levinson (2003), Reyna (2002), Savile-Troike (2003) and Aitchison (2002) on cognitive framing to explore the current information in their respective fields. It is through this analysis that conclusions are made about how humans interpret their world, which has relevance, to how we frame dilemmas (p16). Each of those conclusions are then discussed in terms of emotional responses and actions.

The realities of the role are expressed in an extract from Patrick Duigan’s work on ‘the managed heart’ (2001)

Leaders…are expected to invest more than their knowledge and skills to effectively discharge their responsibilities in contemporary organisations. (p35)

School leadership is not a simple organisation leadership role, and the subsequent chapters in this section give the realities of the task alongside an interpretation from academics and theorists to help explain some of those complexities.

The concepts explored in the book are interesting and worthy of note for those within the profession. It does beg the question for policy makers about the appropriateness of the content of our headteacher qualification and for those designing professional development programmes for school leaders.

It is a very practical, informative book that looks at the perspective of school leadership through a specific lens. It would be a useful addition to any booklist for those studying a Masters level and for any preparation for school leadership programme. Murphy states that school leadership is beyond a single figure and the author addresses his comments to all members of the school community who share in the challenges of distributed leadership. It would have been helpful to have expanded the number of vignettes that were not related to the role of headteacher to demonstrate how the toolkit could be used in practice across the school. However, good debate could be had regarding the theory behind dilemma’s, responses to the vignettes and how individuals would use the toolkit in practice.


OECD – Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment


Duigan, P. (2001) ‘The managed heart:the price of professional service in contemporary organsiations’, Improving Schools, Vol.4,No.3,pp33-9

Dr Coleen R Jackson, Consultant Principal, Waverley Abbey College