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Do School Leaders have Agency over their School Contexts?


We often look to school leaders to make the best decisions to promote school development and improve student learning. Indeed, few would argue that school leaders are extremely busy professionals whose attention, ultimate support, and endorsement is needed in different facets of school operations.

However, this characterisation of school leaders raises a quintessential question: Can school leaders actually shape school contexts to develop effective schools or are they inexorably circumscribed by the contexts that their schools are operating in? In other words, how much agency do our school leaders actually have?

I address these this age-old questions in school leadership research in a recently published study that examines the relationships between principal leadership and their school contexts, and how principal leadership contributes to students’ science learning (Tan, 2023).

The data come from 248,620 15-year-old students in 9,370 schools in 35 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) who participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015.

School contexts are measured by the level of school socioeconomic status, availability of qualified science teachers, and availability of school science resources.

Principal leadership is measured by four practices, namely envisioning, instructional management, promoting teachers’ professional development, and empowering teachers in decision-making.

Students’ science learning is measured by their levels of science enjoyment, interest, and achievement.

The findings from the study are anything but straightforward: Principals neither shape nor are they circumscribed to their contexts; rather, they interact with their environments in very nuanced ways that can be more meaningfully described as being responsive to their contexts.

For example, in schools with more science resources, principals are able to exercise leadership responsibilities such as envisioning for student learning, conducting instructional management, promoting professional development for teachers, and empowering teachers to make the best decisions.

However, when principals lead lower-socioeconomic status schools (these are arguably schools with less resources and home support), they may be confronted with issues of lower teacher capacity (e.g., teachers with lower levels of qualifications). These principals then address teacher capacity issues by galvanising the school community through envisioning and promoting the professional development and empowerment of teachers.

These two sets of findings indicate that school leaders are unable to shape their contexts but they are not powerless in their school contexts too. Rather, they appear to exercise agency to leverage environmental opportunities when they present themselves and overcome environmental challenges if needed.

These findings present immense implications for school leadership development.

First, they remind us that school leaders have different needs depending on their school contexts, so leadership professional development must eschew a one-size-fits-all model.

Second, while it is important for leadership development programmes to look within - focusing on leaders’ personal motivations, preferences, and needs - it is equally, if not more, imperative for such programmes to start from without.

For example, leadership development programmes can sensitise school leaders to understand their school operating environments and identify external opportunities and threats and internal school strengths and weaknesses. School leaders must also be equipped with the knowhow to optimise available resources and secure needed resources.

Third, regardless of the school contexts, leaders have an arsenal of strategies to make their schools more effective.

For example, school leaders can lead in envisioning for their schools by framing and communicating shared school goals to galvanize the school community.

They can also promote research-based teaching practices, praising teachers whose students were learning actively, and emphasising to teachers the development of critical and social capacities in students in their instructional management.

Next, they can discuss problems encountered by teachers in classrooms, pay attention to disruptive behaviors among students, and collaboratively solve classroom problems with teachers to promote teachers’ professional development.

Lastly, they can empower teachers in decision-making by enabling teachers to participate in school decision-making, build a school culture of continuous improvement, and review school management practices.

In sum, the study highlights the colossal responsibility that school leaders have to maximise student learning.

If they are able to exercise their agency well to mobilise their teachers and cultivate teacher leadership (envisioning, professional development, empowering) to support their instructional plans (instructional management), they have a good chance of contributing to more equitable students’ learning outcomes, especially in poorly resourced school contexts.

Going back to the question I have posted at the start of this blog as to whether school leaders are context “shapers” or “takers”, my study suggests that both characterisations understate the complexity of school leadership. School leaders should be recognised for their agentic role in making the best out of their contexts. With that understanding, I cannot but continue to put my bets on our school leaders to take our schools forward regardless of their contexts. How about you?



Winnie Royden, Principal of Christ Church Kindergartens

Cheng Yong Tan is Associate Professor and Research Leader in the Academic Unit of Social Contexts and Policies of Education (SCAPE), Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong. He is also International Associate at Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, University of Glasgow and Associate Editor of Frontiers in Psychology. His research programme critically investigates how different influences give rise to educational inequality and other complex issues that require comprehensive educational solutions in the form of educational policy, leadership, and practice. It adopts an ecological perspective encompassing three strands involving sociocultural, home, and school factors to unravel this complexity.


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