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A Decade of School Leadership Research

A Decade of School Leadership Research

Insights, Implications, Applications

In this review charting a decade of research on school leadership in Ireland, spanning primary and post-primary sectors, six themes emerge. These are summarised, and the insights, implications, and applications are put forward. Direct citations from current school leaders are also provided from the author’s ongoing research on contemporary school leadership.


Over the past ten years, we have witnessed significant educational reform in the school leadership policy context in Ireland, which has directly and indirectly affected school leaders at all levels: teacher, middle and senior leaders. Reforms include school self-evaluation (SSE); teacher induction and mentoring (Droichead), as well as a new approach to initial teacher education; curriculum and assessment reform, including the Primary Language Curriculum and Junior Cycle reform; technology (Digital Strategy for Schools); Special Education Teaching Allocation; and GDPR. Other reviews of curricular areas are ongoing. One thing is certain: change has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. But how we shape and lead that change, collectively and individually, is never quite as certain.

One of the most significant reforms affecting school leaders, both appointed and aspirant, is the new structure of leadership and management in schools. Circulars 0003/2018 and 0070/2018 – and, more recently, Circular 0044/2019 – note the central role that school leadership plays in determining a school’s improvement trajectory and ensuring its achievement. They have set out the framework which influences how a school’s leadership needs and priorities are to be determined. They have also detailed the processes leading up to and upon appointment of school leaders. In some ways, these have contributed to somewhat demystifying and levelling the playing field for those who wish to develop their expertise and gain the relevant experience to become formal school leaders.

Importantly, the circulars mentioned are set against a primary or post-primary iteration of ‘Looking at Our School 2016’, which is conceptualised by the DES as the framework against which the SSE process for school improvement is implemented through the distributed leadership model. Modelling the collective work of leadership by embedding it in the process of SSE is evident in other countries too, such as Sweden and the Netherlands. The implementation of a distributed leadership model also reflects a global policy turn concerning the configuration of leadership in schools. As I tackle below, this comes with distinct challenges in the Irish context that cannot be overestimated for leaders on the ground and are well documented in research.

In this article, I first introduce six thematic findings from a paper to be published in the Journal of Educational Administration, conducted as part of my broader research on school leadership preparation and development in Ireland and in Victoria, Australia. I add to the review of research by including further insights from principals I interviewed during 2018 and 2019 in a range of school contexts in Ireland. By weaving together the insights from research findings and principals’ voices, I consider some implications from each theme presented, as well as potential applications from this learning for school leadership policy and practice to inform future debate and development.

The themes in the last decade of research

  1. Leadership preparation and development

‘You do really need a preparation time before you pick up such an important role as this.’ (Claire, post-primary school deputy principal)

‘There is an element of the formal that is necessary as well to help people broaden their horizons.’ (Max, post-primary school principal)

Scope to improve the preparation and development of school leaders, both formally and informally, is clear from research. Many researchers conclude that only a minority of those who become school leaders – at both middle and senior levels – have felt well prepared for the role. Those who have engaged in formal preparation and development report an easier transition into the role of school leader than those who have not, especially in managing the complexity associated with the role and assuming the identity of school leader. Pressing challenges associated with participation in formal preparation include financial and time constraints, as well as how generic or specific preparatory and developmental activities must be relative to career stage.

This reminds us that we always need to review how we educate school leaders. Research shows that there is a need to provide a greater breadth of more targeted, practice-focused, school-based, and context-specific school leadership development opportunities after appointment, particularly in (i) administrative and financial duties, (ii) conflict management and resolution, (iii) the management of challenging behaviours, and (iv) the distribution of leadership roles and responsibilities.

  1. Teacher, middle, and distributed leadership

A fantastic circular, it really has been a game-changer in how we appoint middle leaders in schools, but now we need to put in the support for them, and it can fall back to ourselves [principals] but it also needs another voice.’ (Fiona, post-primary school principal)

Teacher and middle leadership reflect the continuum of leadership practice towards senior school leadership. They also underpin school improvement activities given the policy context of distributed leadership. They view that all teachers can have leadership influence; leadership is not exclusively formal and positional. Teacher leadership therefore can include student teachers on placement, newly qualified teachers, and those teachers who do not wish to progress to formal positions of school leadership. Middle leadership includes those in positional AP2 and AP1 roles, but not the most senior school leaders like deputies and principals.

How certain challenges involved in implementing distributed leadership in Irish schools are overcome to create optimal conditions for these kinds of leadership to thrive demands further research. One barrier identified in research was a need for more professional development for senior school leaders concerning how best to implement distributed leadership. Supports are required particularly in school cultures that may, in the past, have tended to hierarchise, script, or license leadership for ‘the some’ rather than ‘the many’. Another barrier concerns the kinds of activities that might tend to be distributed. Research has found a tendency towards the distribution of bureaucratic management activities rather than the leadership of school improvement.

  1. Leading for equality, inclusivity, and care

‘In this urban DEIS school we have generations of children who don’t always see the value of education. We also have unaccompanied minors, and their attitude to education is different. So I’m thinking about social justice when I think about leadership.’ (Anna, post-primary school deputy principal)

There are two interpretations of this title. One relates to the research conducted on being and becoming a leader. Research has shown that gendered ideas about senior school leadership persist in pockets. Research has argued that we ought to be intentional in our efforts to diversify the image of the school principal to attract more people to the role, and to more inclusively reflect our communities and their schools in contemporary Irish society. The other interpretation relates to research which has shown that striving to have equal, inclusive, and caring educational experiences for all pupils should underpin all successful school leaders’ core work and values.

The emotional ups and downs experienced when leaders are driven by the desire to effect deep change have been discussed, as well as the leadership of inclusive and special education and in multi-ethnic schools. How schools are led to be safe and happy places has also been explored in research. Contending with cyberbullying, homophobic bullying, and bullying among staff has been reported as being specifically challenging. A distinct lack of research concerning the educational leadership complexities encountered as a result of child poverty, which has drastically increased since 2008, sadly needs to continue to be filled.

  1. Leading with heart

‘The stress is off the charts … you don’t know until you do it. You get into the job and your head spins.’ (Jack, primary school principal)

‘Managing people is the most challenging.’ (Laura, post-primary school principal)

Unsurprisingly, research has found that there is a huge emotional dimension to the leadership of schools. The negative impact of the economic crash, particularities of each unique school context (for example Gaelscoileanna; small rural schools; or DEIS schools, which in and of themselves have different categorisations), and quality of the relationships between professionals working in the school have been found to especially affect leaders’ emotions. Research has found that school leaders have high stress levels owing to their work, extending to those in middle leadership, which raises questions about the implications and intensity of a charged reform agenda over the past decade. Even for leaders whose job satisfaction is high, researchers warn that this is not a protective factor against the negative impacts of high stress levels.

Teaching principals consistently report a lack of sustainability in their role. This is well documented in research and is an issue whose seriousness merits more discussion and action. To alleviate the negative impact of stress, some researchers have recommended that more administrative supports be given to teaching principals; that more professional development be offered to better manage conflict; that counselling psychology by adequately qualified professionals be offered regularly and confidentially to school leaders free of charge; and that boards of management support school leaders more formally and proactively, particularly in the period post-appointment.

  1. Leading educational reform

‘You can persuade people, you have different powers that way … the ethos of your school and the context of your school are really important when you’re interpreting these.’ (Laura, post-primary school principal)

The range of educational reforms over the past decade has generated a packed implementation checklist for leaders. Some researchers suggest this situation has negatively affected school leaders’ emotions. Nonetheless, research has found that school leaders play a key role in the ‘real’ leadership of educational reform at school level, pointing to the subtle but important difference between implementation and enactment.

Two major reforms at both levels are school evaluation and curriculum. School evaluation has focused particularly on SSE over the last decade across two iterations. Research has shown the key role that school leaders collectively play in pursuing school improvement and how they achieve this, for example, through fostering collaboration and judicious use of data. However, research exploring how school leaders pursue school improvement by consulting research and evidence beyond traditional data sources remains sparse. Given that significant curricular change is currently afoot in both primary and post-primary contexts, there is a great opportunity to explore more deeply how leadership at all levels of the school plays a role in curriculum reform and the professional supports they require to do this successfully while simultaneously ensuring their well-being.

  1. Religious influence on school leadership

‘I work in a voluntary secondary school; that is the school I choose to work in. So then, the Master’s in Christian Leadership is useful there because it informs how we do our work.’ (Lauren, post-primary school deputy principal)

‘I’ve been brought up with a Christian ethos at home, and when things get tough, I see myself going back to that.’ (Declan, primary school principal)

Several studies have focused on this theme, describing how school leaders create inclusive schools when the school’s vision and values typically tend to be singularly determined or heavily influenced by particular, mostly Catholic, religious influences. While ethos and spirituality have been reported in some studies to result in inclusive practices, in other studies they have been reported as legitimising exclusion. A key issue for school leaders on the ground, given the ongoing debate on the role and extent of religious influence on publicly managed schools, is feeling left in limbo about matters such as participation in religious instruction and ceremonies.

Another matter is enrolment policy, complicated by hurried or a lack of decisive policymaking on the matter, and a complex education system architecture – particularly at post-primary level – by international standards. As governance structures expand into new horizons, it nonetheless remains necessary to consider the place of religion on broad and balanced curricula. In an increasingly diverse society, how school and system leadership remains respectful of all faiths and none, while also shouldering the responsibility to educate the next generation to have mutual respect and tolerance, will require continued deliberation and being put into perspective alongside other policy priorities.

What are the applications of what we have learnt from the past decade?

Taking stock of a decade’s worth of knowledge has both benefits and disadvantages. The benefits are that we can take a bird’s-eye view of a broad range of topics and identify topics that have been neglected. The downside is that it can often raise more questions than it answers. With this limitation in mind, there are still some things that can be done to put the insights from research and principals’ voices into action.

Regarding leadership preparation and development, we need to continue to support leaders at all levels in creative, applied, and sustainable ways within and outside of schools. Principals say there is a need for continuous professional development for teacher leaders, but especially for formally appointed middle leaders to recognise their leadership capacities and to develop those capacities in themselves and others. Principals point out the need for principal-specific preparation, especially given the pattern of a clear priority expressed by many aspirant leaders to become deputy principal rather than principal, as evidenced in the volume of job applications for these roles. Some believe in the potential of specific principal preparation programmes to generate a pool of candidates for recruitment. Similarly to other sectors, the candidate profile and general image of school leaders, particularly as we continue to make strides to diversify the teaching profession in Ireland, needs to be modelled inclusively, with potential to introduce specific career supports for underrepresented cohorts.

School leadership is undeniably complex, and in the minutiae of the daily cut and thrust of school life, the infinite necessity for leadership at all levels can make it challenging to articulate the extent of its complexity. Faced with policy churn and associated, expansive new accountabilities, as well as tensions between centralised expectations and contextual realities, the professional and personal challenges this brings to those formally responsible for school leadership are huge.

There is the potential for great satisfaction in the role. But we must be conscious, as we continue to add to the expectations to which we hold school leaders, that we also have the responsibility to adequately support and check in with leaders about the sustainability of their experiences and what can be done to achieve this. Two principal cohorts voiced their need for particular support: teaching principals, and founding principals charged with a plethora of responsibilities associated with opening schools on green field sites.

Furthermore, from an educational leadership perspective, the imperative on us all – at system, network, and school levels – should be leaning towards a developmental rather than a managerial approach when our expectations may come up short. Focusing on relationships, communication, and teamwork founded in professional learning and development potentially holds more promise than a worldview heralding performance management alone, which can quickly lead to ‘dark side’ or toxic leadership.

This points to the fact that both expertise and moral purpose or values must be juggled in determining professionally responsible approaches to situations, whatever these may be. And in an era of distributed leadership, this applies to leadership at all levels. Therefore, spending time on determining core values as a leadership team and sharing these with the school community could be a useful exercise, using those values not only to interpret how evidence-informed leadership practices will be enacted optimally in a school context, but also to promote trust when change is implemented.

The final word

The dynamism required of contemporary leadership is infinite, demanding continued reconception of its configuration from solo to distributed leadership, as well as consideration of the values that underpin it and the sources that inform its expertise. Therefore, continuing to unmask school leadership is crucial so that we better understand it theoretically and practically. Although attempts have been made in the iterations of ‘Looking at Our School 2016’ to reflect and articulate school leadership practices, the extent to which the framework–process–model approach achieves this or has been successful at scale in an embedded and sustainable way remains to be seen.

Furthermore, while national policy priorities and circular letters are important and frequent considerations for school leaders, equally important – if not more pressing – are more local and contextually relevant priorities, given that schools do not operate in vacuums from the communities they serve. We must appreciate the policy brokerage that leaders are engaged in daily. In pursuing reform, attempts to capture these perspectives must be made, and in research, understandings of policy need to be broadened.

The review reminds us of the importance not only of taking care of how we support leaders at all levels, but also of acknowledging that leadership on the ground involves hearts as well as minds, especially in the leadership of change, whether instructional or transformational. To lead successfully is to do so collaboratively, inclusively, equitably, and democratically; what is less clear is how this can be achieved at all times and whatever the odds.

Based on the last decade’s accumulation of expectations of school leaders, it is reasonable to assume the next decade will bring along more. By continuing to support a sustained research agenda on, with, and by school leaders themselves, dialogue and debate can be more reflective of their realities, and more complex, joined-up, and sustainable policy responses can be advocated for in lieu of initiative overload. To counteract the continuously expanding contours of school leaders’ professional responsibilities, this is a crucial task which will require the participation and collaboration of teachers, school and system leaders, policymakers, and researchers.


Murphy, G. (2019) ‘A systematic review and thematic synthesis of research on school leadership in the Republic of Ireland: 2008–2018’, Journal of Educational Administration. doi: 10.1108/JEA-11-2018-0211

Sugrue, C. (2015) Unmasking School Leadership: A Longitudinal Life History of School Leaders. New York: Springer.

Gavin Murphy is Teaching Fellow in Educational Leadership, School of Education, University College Dublin

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