Distributed Leadership for Equity & Learning Toolset

Successful organisations recognise the wealth of leadership capacity across the organisation and make sure to tap into this. DLE can help schools respond to major policy challenges they face - being accountable for learning, enabling innovation and promoting democratic citizenship.


Why do we need distributed leadership for equity and learning (DLE)?

Much research challenges the idea that organisations can rely on the 'one great leader' to solve problems. For sustained success, organisations cannot depend on one person, or even a small group of people, to provide ideas, inspiration, a sense of direction and innovation for improvement.

Research studies have been carried out in recent years that throw light on the benefits of distributed leadership and what helps it to work well. It is difficult to identify the effects of a complex process like distributed leadership in organisations that are affected by a variety of factors and changes. It is possible, nevertheless, to conclude from research findings that distributed leadership, in the right conditions, can help in meeting the challenges of learning, innovation and citizenship.

A video by Amanda Roberts and Philip Woods (University of Hertfordshire, UK).

Major policy challenges
Challenge #1: Learning

The most fundamental challenge for schools is to be as effective as possible in terms of supporting students' learning. Integral to distributed leadership for equity and learning is a commitment to facilitating deep and holistic learning.

Much of the pressure on schools is due to the accountability agenda which focuses on improving measurable achievement.

The real challenge for schools in relation to learning is more complex than the accountability agenda, however. Learning is not equivalent to measurable achievement through tests and examinations. The challenge for schools is to enable learning that is deep and promotes the growth of the whole person.


This type of learning can take place at the level of students, of staff, the school and the system. In other words, it is helpful to see it as multi-level learning.

Distributed leadership for equity and learning can promote multi-level learning, at the student, staff, school and system levels.

Where distributed leadership for equity and learning works well, it increases:
Accountability pressures

Schools systems are being held more accountable than ever before. As a result, intense pressure is placed on those who make, implement and interpret policy at all levels of these systems. The politicians and civil servants in national ministries are under pressure, because of international assessments such as PISA, and feel the need to make sure that schools are held accountable for students' learning and achievement.

Those at regional and the middle levels of national education systems experience the pressures of being held to account and being responsible for the success of their schools. School leaders, teachers and other staff - as well as students and parents - feel the force of national and regional expectations and interpret policy on the ground, translating it into everyday practice.

Capacity - mobilizing knowledge, expertise and energy

Capacity - mobilizing knowledge, expertise & energy

Capacity is increased, i.e. more people at all levels are actively engaged in improving learning and more people are involved in improving their skills.
  • Distributed leadership means that the leadership capabilities of staff not in senior positions and of students are developed and can be harnessed to improve learning
  • Distributed leadership also helps develop the senior leaders of tomorrow. Teachers and other staff can develop their leadership skills, increasing the pool of potential senior leaders
  • Co-operative learning

    Co-operative learning

    People are enabled to work together and to share experience and ideas. Research finds that co-operative learning, where it is organised well, is the most effective form of learning.

    Motivation and commitment

    Motivation and commitment

    Staff and students are more enthusiastic and committed to the school and the activities undertaken to achieve its core purpose
    Challenge #2: Innovation
    People are more likely to be innovative where there is distributed leadership for equity and learning, sharing new ideas and working together to test and learn from new practices.

    Research suggests that staff and students are more likely to be innovative where distributed leadership operates. This is because in a distributed leadership culture, people are encouraged to:
    Share and develop new ideas and knowledge

    Share and develop new ideas and knowledge

    New ideas can be discussed from differing perspectives and new knowledge can be more easily diffused across the school system.
    Try out new practices and learn from these

    Try out new practices and learn from these

    Distributed leadership can result in more ideas being tested in practice and more lessons learned about what works well in what school contexts.
    Involve a range of people in developing and evaluating new practices

    Involve a range of people in developing and evaluating new practices

    Collaboration and the involvement of people from different organizational levels and contexts (in the case if school - students, teachers, support staff, senior leaders, etc.) are integral to creating innovative cultures in all kinds of organizations.
    High expectations to innovate

    Schools are expected to be innovative as organizations and to educate students so they will become the creators and innovators of the future.

    Promoting creativity and innovation is a driving aim on the policy agendas
    of nations, the European Union and global bodies. This results in the second challenge for schools, that is, high expectations to innovate.

    Challenge #3: Democratic citizenship
    DLE gives experience of living in a way that advances equity and puts into practice the values of democratic citizenship.

    DLE provides opportunities for active learning about democratic citizenship. It can make practices such as collaboration, participation, discussion and learning from others' viewpoints part of the everyday life of the school for staff and students.

    Hence, where it works well, DLE encourages democratic citizenship through:
    Experiential learning about social justice & democracy

    Experiential learning about social justice & democracy

    DLE allows students to experience in practice what democratic citizenship is like. Through this, students can learn is what it means to respect in day-to-day life values such as justice, tolerance, mutual understanding and a concern for the welfare of others, and to ensure that no-one is excluded from opportunities to participate and learn.

    Involve a range of people in developing and evaluating new practices

    Transparency in decision-making

    Distributed leadership can ensure greater transparency in decision-making as compared to rigid hierarchical leadership. Hence it can greatly promote democratic ethos and a culture of accountability in schools.
    High expectations about participation and transparency in decision-making

    Democratic citizenship is especially important as communities change and become more diverse, as people's expectations rise about participation and transparency in decision-making and as they become more prepared to challenge injustices and the decisions of the powerful.

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    © 2014 EPNoSL Project