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Beyond the school gates: reciprocal academic leadership

Val Poultney

One of the features of the school improvement landscape over the past two decades has been a focus on developing school leadership and how this leadership is used to empower teachers in the quest for better student outcomes (Stoll, 2015). Much of this improvement work is centred on teachers researching into their own practice and providing an empirical evidence base to support and sustain changes to teacher pedagogy as a result. Research conducted in 2014-15 across an East Midlands Teaching School Alliance into perceptions and experiences of secondary school teachers already using inquiry in their practice (Poultney et al. 2015) and (Fox et al. 2015) found that leadership of this work was crucial to its success.

Opportunities and threats to the inquiry process

At a departmental and classroom level inquiry is valued for the impact it can have on raising standards. The outcomes of inquiry can influence learning, raise the morale of teaching staff and extend their professionalism. Our data reveals that researching teachers come from (mainly) newly qualified teachers, those undertaking Masters’ level programmes, or those in middle leadership posts (Heads of subject departments).

Competing priorities between senior and middle leadership groups as related to departmental and whole school foci often diminish the importance given to researching practitioners. Challenges arise around resource issues such as lack of cover to observe a colleague or time to undertake inquiry during the normal school day. One middle leader, while seeing his senior leader colleague ‘as an advocate for inquiry’ also understood that lesson study could not be prioritized over other school commitments. Other leaders felt isolated, particularly those in small or single departments, and little sense of how strategically the outcomes of this work might be used.

The perspectives from the senior leadership focused particularly on inquiry as a means for leadership development and gaining knowledge about how to evaluate the performance of teaching staff. This group wanted to see impact of inquiry leading to a growing evidence-base. They saw its importance in performance management structures and better so if achieved as a whole-school initiative rather than individual teacher inquiries. Interestingly they had scant notions of how they might be involved with any ethical procedures related to inquiry, modes of dissemination of the outcomes or how they might strategically plan for inquiry to happen on this scale.

What role for academics?

As advocates of teachers as researchers academics have to convince senior school leaders of the worth of teacher inquiry in order to gain access into schools. They need to build a trusting relationship with senior leaders initially and sustain this over time (Stoll, 2010). Our data shows that much of an academic’s impact on learning is more keenly felt at department level yet in order to embed inquiry as a normal part of teacher practice senior leaders need to be convinced of the worth of inquiry and how it links to other leadership roles such as performance management and target setting. This cannot be ignored.  While acting as ‘supporters’, ‘critical friends’, ‘dialogic critical friends’, ‘knowledgeable others’  academics need to understand and appreciate the competing priorities leadership teams face and be flexible to work with them in planning and resourcing teacher inquiry. This reciprocal leadership approach to teacher research will help to build collective responsibility for learning throughout the school. We need to better understand how school leaders understand our role as academics and work to re-shape our approach so that leadership is extended beyond the school gates.


Fox, A., Poultney, V., Brown, A., Rawes, N. and Silverthorne, J. (2015) ‘I see inquiry as a normal part of my professional practice’: A critical examination of practitioners’ experiences from one Midlands Teaching School Alliance. Paper 104 presented at BERA annual conference, September 2015.

Poultney, V., Fox, A., Brown, A., Rawes, N. and Silverthorne, J. (2015) ‘The self-improving school’: how professional learning leadership supports teacher inquiry’. Paper 288 presented at BERA annual conference, September 2015.

Stoll, L. (2010) ‘Connecting Learning Communities: Capacity Building for Systemic Change’ in Hargreaves A., Lieberman, A., Fullan, M. and Hopkins, D. (eds) Second International Handbook of Educational Change (Part 1), Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer, pp. 469-484.

Stoll, L. (2015) ‘10 tips for successful school-led research projects’ A blog for the National College of Teaching and Leadership. Available at: (Accessed: 26 March 2015).