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Putting Education (Back) in Educational Leadership?

Editorial introduction:

I am thrilled to share Stephen and Elke’s blog with you, which is a really timely read. They raise a very pertinent point about how the education in educational leadership seems to have slipped off the radar. The language we use matters and so there is a clear difference between ‘school leadership’ rather than ‘educational leadership’. Indeed, the leadership of a school feels like a completely different role from the leadership of education. Stephen and Elke put forward an argument for educative leadership, an argument I certainly found convincing. If you’d like to read more on this, then do check out their recent (2022) MiE article, which is listed in the references. Thanks again to Stephen and Elke for this thought-provoking blog. If you’d like to respond or comments to the points they raise, then do get in touch and/or tweet using #BELMASblog

– Suzanne Culshaw

Stephen Chatelier and Elke Van Dermijnsbrugge

Putting education (back) in educational leadership?

In current times, school leaders are often leading communities marked by significant differences of opinion and worldview. While schools have always involved people with different ideas and beliefs, under the conditions of globalisation and with the proliferation of social media, such relations of difference have intensified. Human social life is increasingly complicated and subject to conflict and tensions.

School leaders and their communities thus have the challenging task of navigating these tensions responsibly through education.

Yet, it is curious that in the field of school leadership, it often seems that one is hard-pressed to find the language of education. It is far more common to read about transformational leadership, middle leadership, and distributed leadership (Gumus et al., 2018).

Even the term ‘teacher leadership’ refers to who is leading, rather than denoting the nature of the leadership being practised. And while ‘instructional leadership’ may suggest something to do with education, the term conjures the image of an expert imparting their knowledge rather than a process of learning.

In our view, there are numerous problems with the managerialism, business models, and measurable outcomes common to contemporary educational leadership discourses, as they avoid the complexity of contemporary societal dynamics. If anything, these models aim to simplify and flatten through standardization and measurement, reducing education to an outcome evidenced through limited metrics such as PISA or TIMMS.

Not only is the notion of education flattened and simplified, it is also too often sidelined in thinking and writing about school leadership. Strange as it should seem, as Gunter and Courtney (2021) argue, ‘much of what is labelled as educational leaders, leading and leadership is designed to do non-educational work’ (p. 196), serving instead ‘neoliberal and neoconservative economic and social requirements’ (Gunter, 2016, p. 99).

How might we imagine educational leadership differently?

We argue for greater attention to a rarely considered concept in the field: educative leadership. Not only does educative leadership question the cult of the individual, it re-orients the concerns for educational leadership around questions of purpose and value. It is a process involving people rather than a position held by a person, and it is facilitated by an organisational structure rather than made into a model (Chatelier & Van dermijnsbrugge, 2022).

Similar to Gunter & Courtney’s (2021) earlier argument on the value of educative leadership, we see this kind of leadership involving an analysis of organisations in order to reveal that which is ‘taken-for-granted’ within the life of an institution, as well as ‘the use of narratives to promote a vision or idea about possibilities’ for how things could be otherwise (pp.194-195).

It is a form of leadership oriented towards socially just change. For Brian Fay (1989), who coined the notion of educative leadership, it is important that the desirability of just social outcomes does not justify an instrumental process to achieve this. Rather than a manipulative social engineering for “good” outcomes, genuine social change requires an educative process that is more likely to bring about a deep change in individuals and communities as a condition for broader social change.

We take inspiration from anarchist philosophy and the organisational form of anarcho-syndicates to illustrate how educative leadership can be approached practically.  We describe how, despite the often presumed idea that anarchism is akin to structurelessness, anarcho-syndicates represent an ‘alternative form of organisation that is centred around relationality, interconnectedness, and solidarity’ (Chatelier & Van dermijnsbruggem, 2022, p.3).

Educative leadership, as opposed to the prevalent education policies and practices centered around accountability to standards and measurable outcomes, may draw on anarcho-syndicates which are about being accountable to each other – students, parents, and colleagues. Bureaucratic demands of school systems are not ignored so much as negotiated; they become secondary concerns, considered in relation to the primary concern of moral, ethical, and political matters for the school community and, by extension, society.

Anarcho-syndicates start from the premise that nothing can be standardized and that matters of right and wrong, what is just, and what is of value, are approached as questions that do not necessarily lead to straightforward answers. It is the task of an educative school leader to allow for these negotiations, but also to be part of it.

Educative leadership is more about negotiating values and the place and process of education itself than it is about determining the answers to the questions first and then working towards achieving prescribed outcomes.

In times marked by often intensified relations of cultural and ideological differences, schools might do well to do what should seem obvious: re-center education. To re-center education means to prioritise people over policies and to work towards an open, rather than a predetermined, future aimed at the common good. This future starts in the present, with supporting school communities in being comfortable with negotiation, complexity, and openness. Rather than the bureaucratic and managerialist approaches so common today, educative leadership, we argue, supported by anarcho-syndicalist values, helps to facilitate such an alternative future.


Chatelier, S., & Van Dermijnsbrugge, E. (2022). Beyond instrumentalist leadership in schools: Educative leadership and anarcho-syndicates. Management in Education, 1-7.

Fay, B. (1989). How people change themselves: The relationship between critical theory and its audience. In: T. Ball (Ed.), Political theory and praxis: New perspectives (pp. 200-233). University of Minnesota Press

Gumus, S., Bellibas, M. S., Esen, M., & Gumus, E. (2018). A systematic review of studies on leadership models in educational research from 1980 to 2014. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 46(1), 25-48.

Gunter HM (2016) An Intellectual History of School Leadership Practice and Research. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Gunter HM and Courtney SJ (2021) A new public educative leadership? Management in Education, 35(4): 194–198.