Evidence-based school leadership and management: are we missing a trick?


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Author: Gary Jones

Recently, an article in Educational Management Administration & Leadership (EMAL) discussed school leaders’ engagement with the concept of evidence-based practice as a management tool, describing a small enquiry to demonstrate a ‘proof-of-concept’ for evidence-informed practice. Unfortunately, the article has a number of serious limitations, including:

  • Ignoring the extensive literature on evidence-based management.
  • Overstating the importance of randomised control trials in evidence-based practice.
  • Making an unnecessary distinction between evidence-based practice and evidence-informed practice.
  • Focussing evidence-based management on teaching and learning, rather a broader conception which includes organisational behaviour and other aspects of leadership and management role.

As a result of these serious limitations, senior leaders within schools will find it more difficult to access the benefits of evidence-based management - which may result in a detrimental impact on pupils and/or staff.

Limitation 1: Ignoring the extensive literature on evidence-based management

In a systematic review on the volume, type and quality of evidence about evidence-based management Reay et al. identified 144 articles relating to evidence-based management, with the first article appearing as early in 1948.  However, evidence-based management began to come to prominence in the 1990s as a consequence of the development of evidence-based medicine. In 2005, Professor Denise M Rousseau gave the 2005 Presidential Address to the Academy entitled "Is there such a thing as ‘evidence-based management”. 2006 saw the publication of Pfeffer and Sutton's work on the dangerous half-truths and total nonsense prevalent in much of the popular management literature. From that point forward there was as significant growth in the volume of literature on evidence-based management, for example.

Limitation 2: Overstating the importance of randomised control trials in evidence-based practice

Sheard and Sharples state: "The Evidence-Based Practice Model primarily values empirical evidence obtained through randomized control trials or match study designs." Unfortunately, this is not the case. In the much cited article by Sackett et al. explaining what evidence-based medicine is and what it isn’t, there is a clear statement about not over-emphasising the role of randomised control trials.  In addition,  there is agreement across all the major disciplines engaging in evidence-based practice that a synthesis of evidence from a range of studies is far more valuable than the evidence from a single randomised control trial or study. As such, systematic reviews sit at the apex of the external pyramid of evidence when reporting on the best evidence.

Furthermore, it should be emphasized that when searching for ‘the best available evidence’ evidence-based management practitioners do not restrict themselves to formal academic research evidence but also seek to gather reliable and valid organisational data; engage in critical and reflective judgment in order to make the most of practitioner expertise; and finally, gain feedback from stakeholders, whom may be affected by the decision.  As Briner et al. argue the influence of each source of evidence will depend upon the circumstances of each decision, and in some cases the views of stakeholders may be deemed more important than the scientific research evidence.

Limitation 3: Making an unnecessary distinction between evidence-based practice and evidence-informed practice

Barends, Rousseau & Briner have defined evidence-based in practice as:

Making decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources by:

  1. Asking: translating a practical issue or problem into answerable questions
  2. Acquiring: systematically searching for and retrieving the evidence
  3. Appraising: critically judging the trustworthiness of and relevance of the evidence
  4. Aggregating: weighing and pulling together the evidence
  5. Applying: incorporating the evidence into the decision-making process
  6. Assessing: evaluating the outcomes of the decision taken

to increase the likelihood of a favourable outcome.

In many ways, this definition of evidence-based practice echoes the work of Drucker who state:

His phraselogy was similar to that found in contemporary definitions of evidence-based management, where management science need to ‘arm the manager’s imagination’ and ‘supply hime with the vision needed to make rational decisions in respect to the business enterprsiese,’ and should not serve as a substitute for decision and judgment but ‘supply methods for making possible for more effective decisions and more informed judgement’. 

With the above in mind, it is difficult to see the need to transform evidence-based practice into evidence-informed practice. These explanations make clear the prominent role of practitioner expertise in evidence-based practice.

Limitation 4: Focusing evidence-based management on teaching and learning

The role of school leaders is not limited to leading teaching and learning. Many, many school leaders, especially in multi-academy trusts, have a wide range of responsibilities, which include strategy, finance, human resources and relationships with stakeholders with this now being reflected in job descriptions of CEOS of multi-academy trusts.  With this mind,  it is important that the conception of evidence-based management within schools, is extended to include external research evidence arising from other fields, for example, organisational behaviour.

Some final thoughts

If we are going to make the most of evidence-based practice within schools, I would like to suggest the following. Educational researchers in evidence-based practice should undertake inquiries which draw out the lessons from different disciplines, such as medicine and social work, and how evidence-based practice is operationalised within those settings.  Second, school leaders could well be advised to see evidence-based school leadership as involving more than being an expert in teaching and learning, and should broaden the research evidence base on which they make decisions, for example, recruitment, motivation and reward systems. Third, teachers should practice using the 6A’s articulated by Barends et al. to make good use of the discipline of evidence-based practice to improve their classroom practice and pupil learning.

Dr Gary Jones, @DrGaryJones, worked in post-compulsory education for over 25 years. Gary has a doctorate in educational management from the University of Bristol and is interested in evidence-based practice and the implications for school leadership and management. Gary is currently an associate of Expansive Education Network based at the University of Winchester, where he supports teachers engage in evidence-based practice. Gary is also involved in a research project investigating school research leads use of research evidence. Over the last last two years Gary has spoken at a range of conferences including ResearchED Sydney, Cambridge, New York, Glasgow , Goteborg and London. Gary has also spoken at conferences organised by UKFEchat, the Canons Park Teaching School Alliance, Expansive Education Network and the World Association of Lesson Study. His blog can be found at
Next article: Academisation and returning to governance: lessons from ECER 2016 >

BARENDS, E., ROUSSEAU, D. M. & BRINER, R. B. 2014. Evidence-Based Management : The Basic Principles. In: MANAGEMENT, C. F. E.-B. (ed.). Amsterdam.
BRINER, R. B., DENYER, D. & ROUSSEAU, D. M. 2009. Evidence-Based Management: Concept Cleanup Time? Academy of Management Perspectives., 23, 19-32.
ROUSSEAU, D. M. 2012. The Oxford handbook of evidence-based management, Oxford University Press


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