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Research methods for educational leadership: a professional perspective

Kieran McGrane Stefan McElwee

This blog coincides with a special issue of Management in Education about research methods for educational leadership. This brings together six papers, resulting from two seminars jointly held by the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and BERA at Newcastle University in April 2016 and Leeds University in September 2016, about contemporary issues for educational leadership and novel approaches being used to examine these. This blog is an adapted version of a paper commissioned to reflect on the professional contribution of this collection of papers included in the special issue.

As educational leaders who draw on inquiry-based teaching and leadership in our school setting, we believe that an investigation into appropriate and effective methodologies for researching educational leadership complements the longstanding international debate around the knowledge and expertise of teachers and leaders. Boyd and Szplit (2017) draw our attention to the argument of Lawrence Stenhouse (1975), who highlights the outstanding characteristics of the extended professional as ‘a capacity for autonomous professional self-development through systematic self-study, through the study of the work of other teachers and through testing of ideas by classroom research procedures’ (ibid: 144). We take key principles underpinning pedagogical development touched on above and apply them to the development of leaders and leadership within our school context in order to rise above the pressures of a national ‘performativity’ culture and framework imposed on us.

A heartening observation in this special issue is the widening of research methodologies in the under-recorded area of educational leadership. It is encouraging to note a commitment to mixed research whereby authors refer to listening to stories or narratives as a means to really understand the individual context to complement methods which look at patterns or trends, such as by questionnaire. We also welcome more coherent and shared language regarding research into educational leadership and stress the importance of further improving the collaborative opportunities between school leaders and higher education researchers to create sustainable partnerships which improve education.

The papers highlight some key concerns for educational leadership research. The way Outhwaite (2018) had to amend the focus of her research highlights the fast pace of change within education as schools respond to external imperatives such as fluctuations in funding and/or government agendas. The research amendments enabled a focus on social structures and an exploration of the perspectives of school leaders as key decision-makers. This emphasis on understanding individual perceptions underpins many of the papers – including those by Moriah (2018), Reid and Koglbaue (2018), and Pulis (2018) – and it is essential for research in schools to acknowledge the importance of understanding the thinking that underpins individual perspectives.

The importance of underlying belief systems of school leaders in developing authentic leadership is highlighted by Moriah (2018). Interpretive approaches such as the outlined interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) are helpful as they develop insight into how leaders make sense of the key components of school improvement. Similar reflective processes are stimulated in Poultney and Fordham’s paper (2018) by completion of the Consciousness Quotient Inventory (CQ-i) as a precursor to deeper discussion, and in Pulis’s study (2018) through exposure to pupil voice in the role of assessors. Enabling other voices is a key element of the work of school leaders that is often overlooked – yet ascribing individuals’ views a higher profile, importance and authenticity can strengthen school culture and levels of commitment.

The importance of local context in developing authentic leadership is a further theme. The use of video is highlighted by Hidson (2018) as an innovative tool to capture contextual information about teaching for use in stimulating reflective discussion and associated change. Interestingly, the key use of this tool tends to be in securing evidence of policy in practice rather than for developing the classroom practice of teachers. We recognise the importance and real value of co-constructed conversations as both observer and observed work together to suggest solutions to pedagogical challenges raised.

We support the view that all schools should be engaging with and learning from research through informal and formal partnerships. We believe it is a vital part of school leaders’ roles to facilitate and support this to ensure that all members of a school are learners. Future research on the most effective approaches to promoting meaningful discussion at all levels within a school would be valuable, in addition to identifying the impact on school culture, commitment and expectations.


Boyd P and Szplit A (eds) (2017) Teachers and teacher educators learning through enquiry: international perspectives, Krakow, Poland: Wydawnictwo Attyka.

Hidson E (2018) ‘Video-enhanced lesson observation as a source of multiple modes of data for school leadership: A videographic approach’Management in Education 32(1): 26–31.

Moriah M P (2018) ‘Giving voice to headteachers using interpretative phenomenological analysis-IPA: Learning from a Caribbean experience’, Management in Education 32(1): 6–12.

Outhwaite D (2018) ‘Identifying the research process to analyse the adoption of the International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Programme in England’, Management in Education 32(1): 13–18.

Poultney V and Fordham J (2018) ‘Researching reciprocal leadership: Using the consciousness quotient inventory (CQ-i) as a pilot methodology to explore leadership with the context of a school–university partnership’, Management in Education 32(1): 6–12.

Pulis A (2018) ‘Mixed methods research on the role of pupils as assessors in quality assurance of schools in Malta’, Management in Education 32(1): 40–47.

Reid A and Koglbauer R (2018) ‘”I see what you mean”: Using visual data collection methods to explore leadership curriculum planning’, Management in Education 32(10): 19–25.

Stenhouse L (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, London: Heinemann Educational Books