5 Steps: Leadership for mental health in schools

30th September 2020  |  By: David Frost

The 5 Steps framework, just launched by the Anna Freud Centre, calls for change in the way schools and colleges support the mental health of their pupils and staff. This change requires leadership, and ‘Leading Change’ is the first of the five steps of the framework. In this blog, David Frost, founder of the HertsCam Network and an Emeritus Fellow at Wolfson College Cambridge, considers leadership in schools and colleges.

I’m keen to reflect on what this will mean for schools, and indeed how to enable this in what is already a highly pressured environment as we face ongoing uncertainty as a result of the pandemic. I would suggest that there are two major challenges to consider, namely how to enable change in school practices to take place and how to ensure that the school is an environment in which mental health can flourish. These two challenges are, of course, closely connected.

To help us to identify the strategies that might be necessary, let’s think about what we know about leadership. Leadership is commonly conceptualised as providing direction and exercising influence over other people, with the intention of guiding and facilitating activities and relationships in a group or organisation. It is more than simply a matter of taking decisions on behalf of others. We can learn from leadership figures through history but, in the context of schools, there is much more to be considered and there are a number of dimensions to educational leadership. 

Leadership and transformation
Research shows that leadership actually makes a difference to a school’s effectiveness, as measured by the assessment of learning outcomes.  This is helpful to know, but if we are interested in improving effectiveness, we need to focus on transformational leadership. This involves, for example, vision building, direction setting, organisational restructuring, culture building, staff and curriculum development, and engagement with the external community.  Transformational approaches focus on emotions and values, thereby fostering capacity development and higher levels of personal commitment to organisational goals (Leithwood & Jantzi, 2006).

Leadership as practice
The way we organise schools is influenced by assumptions about the value of bureaucracy. This was an approach promoted by the sociologist Max Weber in 1922, which features formal roles of responsibility and hierarchical lines of accountability. However, I would suggest that we need to see positions and titles merely as resources. They are sources of authority and status which legitimate the use of power. What really counts are leadership behaviours and activities, such as influencing and inspiring others, taking the initiative and setting direction, offering support, holding others to account, modelling learning behaviour, and encouraging helpful behaviour. I would challenge the idea that the capacity for leadership depends on personal traits, or is somehow innate. Actually, leadership practice depends on the context - and on skills and knowledge, which can be developed.

Leadership and learning
The link between leadership and learning is key. In the US, they talk about instructional leadership (Blase & Blase, 2000). However, in the UK, the term ‘instruction’ implies a rather narrow view of teaching and learning. In the ‘Leadership for Learning (LfL)’ group at the University of Cambridge, we offer a more sophisticated view of the link between leadership and learning. We suggest that practice should be based on principles such as ‘Maintaining a focus on learning as an activity’, ‘Creating a dialogue about LfL’, and ‘Sharing leadership’. We explore key concepts, like individuals having a sense of agency and moral purpose - which are common to both leadership and learning.

Leadership and culture building
Arguably, the most important task for any leader is culture building. In education, this is about cultivating particular values, norms and beliefs consistent with the core values of the school itself. Good headteachers have always acted strategically to change the professional culture in their schools. Organisational change is one lever for this, having the potential to impact on collaboration, commitment and coherence. Of course, everyone within a school community can contribute to culture building - and to be successful, it’s important that they do. After all, any professional culture is influenced by what all members of the community say and do.

Leadership as a distributed phenomenon
Nothing happens in schools without many people taking action, preferably collaboratively.  Headteachers can delegate authority and responsibility, but they can’t distribute leadership. However, what they can do is build the conditions that enable what is sometimes described as leaderful practice (Raelin, 2011). This means that they can enable others to exercise leadership, and they can orchestrate leadership to maximise its effect and achieve coherence. The result is, to an extent, multiple leaders. The burden of the headteacher is eased, or at least transformed, when the functions of leadership are shared.

Teacher leadership
In 1980’s USA, there was concern about flat organisational structures - with school principals seen largely as administrators, rather than leaders of learning, and nobody leading change. To inject the notion of leadership into the system, schools appointed ‘teacher leaders’. In the HertsCam Network, we found the term ‘teacher leadership’ to be a useful rhetorical device. We use it to refer to the exercise of leadership by teachers – and this can be any teacher, and all teachers (Hill, 2014). It can give everyone an enhanced sense of agency and moral purpose, thereby enabling them to contribute to leading change across the school.

In conclusion, for schools and colleges to successfully embrace the 5 Steps framework, we need to learn from each other and hear what works in various settings. The strategies which schools adopt will need to ensure that teachers and others work in a professional culture which is nurturing and healthy, but are also conducive to innovation and change. Teachers need to feel safe to engage in reflection and dialogue, so that they are able to share their expertise with each other and collaborate to develop good practice. Let’s achieve this by recognising the value of distributed leadership, and then take action to empower all members of the staff to contribute to the leadership of change.

When teachers have enhanced agency, they are naturally inclined to do everything they can to enhance the agency of their pupils – and this is crucial to the mental health of all.

On Thursday 1 October (4.30-6pm), David Frost will be speaking at a free online seminar hosted by the Anna Freud Centre and chaired by Professor Peter Fonagy. The seminar is the first of the series to focus on the 5 Steps framework. It will explore the link between leadership and mental health, and offer insights into how schools leaders can create a culture shift to embed whole-school or college approaches to mental health and wellbeing. 

Blase, J. and Blase J. (1998) Handbook of instructional leadership: How really good principals promote teaching and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hill, V. (2014) The HertsCam Teacher Led Development Work programme in D. Frost (ed.) Transforming Education Through Teacher Leadership. Cambridge: LfL.

Leithwood, K. and Jantzi, D. (2006) Transformational school leadership for large-scale reform: Effects on students, teachers, and their classroom practices. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 17 (2), 202-227.

Raelin, J. A. (2011) From leadership-as-practice to leaderful practice, Leadership 7 (2) 195–211.

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