Smith P and Bell L (2014) Leading Schools in Challenging Circumstances: Strategies for Success London: Bloomsbury

171 pages

ISBN:  978 1 4411 8405 4

Although  the authors claim that the text is divided into two parts, this is not shown in the contents – which divides the text into chapters, but not parts.  In fact, the early chapters do provide a contextualisation and a conceptualist on of ‘challenging schools’  This includes a brief mention of the Black Papers and the now infamous television documentary about the William Tyndale School.  Consequently the writers provide coverage of aspects and perspectives related to underperformance – political dimensions, the place of OfSTED and also of the ‘academisation’ and central interventions.

The work proceeds to provide a theoretical analysis, identifying, in essence, two leadership approaches:  transactional and transformational.  This section highlights key factors which re-emerge throughout the text – that is their views on the features of each approach.  Transactional is presented as very task oriented and transformational as people centred.

The work is in essence a report of research into four schools in a socially deprived area, and schools clearly in need of improvement, to use OfSTED like terms.  Indeed the context of the schools (all of which are anonymised) is provided through frequent reference to OfSTED reports.  A fifth school constitutes a more detailed case study of how a school is tuned around.  The research into the four schools is based upon interviews with key staff and members of their communities.  It provides a lengthy, if not a little repetitive presentation of overall approaches and strategies head teachers have taken.  The research into practices in the four schools does provide a useful ‘lens’ through which closer scrutiny of the case study can take place.  The initial research is thematically organised, and is not a presentation school by school.  This helps the reader to build a framework for analysis of the later case study.  For example, the writers explain how the reactive and responsive approach to external factors, such as OfSTED judgments and performance indicators/metrics push the leader to a more transactional approach than they may have desired.  However, the need to draw on expertise and passion of human beings enables a more transformational approach to be adopted.  Interestingly too, the writer do note how the leader’s experience and confidence also appears to determine approaches adopted.

Transformational leadership prevails.  The research shows how the focus on people, a clarity of vision, empowerment of others and CPD all emerge as ways of driving change.  Indeed, the vision, and the placing of  pupils and their learning at the heart of action, along with effective communication with the community at large, show how an ethos and reputation can b quickly changed.  The successful leaders do not persevere regardless of external factors.  Through the earlier theoretical explanations, brief examples of actions taken are easily understood, and they do stimulate thought for the reader.

The desire to know more  is, at least in part, satisfied by the subsequent case study.  A fifth school, is led by a new Head, who had been a deputy in one of the other schools.  The speed of change is emphasised, and the need for radical as opposed to gradual change is emphasised.  Key principles emerge, and these are tabulated, with brief explanations late in the book.  Teamwork, respect and clarity of goals are matched to actions taken.  In this way the book does serve as useful CPD.  Concrete example appear transferable in that they are explained in a theoretical way, but the examples do illustrate the effect of their implementation.  Impact of certain strategies are explained, although the writers are clear that it is impossible to attribute successes to any single strategy.  Transformation, it is claimed relies on parallel activity, not single initiatives implemented on after another.

The writers themselves are interesting.  An eminent professor and a practitioner have joined together.  The practitioner, I sense, conducted the research, and was supported by the professor.  There is consequently an excellent blend of theory and practice.  I do not believe that  either writer is proposing a blue print for transformational leadership, and they do recognise the place for transactional leadership.  When one is applied and when the other is appropriate becomes clearer and clearer.  Consequently I do recommend this text for leaders facing challenging circumstances = it is a book that encourages the reader to consider his/her own attributes and how s/he can use (not copy) strategies which have clearly led to success

Professor Kit Field, University of Wolverhampton