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Persuading an Octopus into a Jar – Undertaking a Systematic Literature Review

I have recently completed my first year of studying for my Ed D (Doctor of Education) at University of Strathclyde.  I am finding this level of study utterly fascinating, undoubtedly challenging  and highly  addictive all at the same time. Earlier this year I undertook a Systematic  Review  of the literature related to the focus of my studies. Though the findings were hugely informative and ultimately very satisfying , the complexity and multifaceted nature of this kind of  research felt at times like attempting to persuade a fairly unco-operative octopus into a very small jar (Kamler and Thomson, 2014).

In relation to the focus of my studies, I have been involved in  developing professional learning for teachers for a number of years. I have regularly grappled how we might evidence  the impact of professional learning, often being expected to be able to account directly  and specifically for how participants who have engaged in programmes  I have led have benefited, how their practice has changed and how ultimately this leads to positive impact on learners. This complex relationship between professional learning, professional development and learners’ outcomes is  I have come to believe not a simplistic, formulaic or didactic transaction; far  from it.  There are many factors which need to be considered such as  the complex contexts and differences between each participant, their own practice, values, dispositions and the professional judgement they use  to apply new learning in their own contexts. The notion of being able to provide concrete data and direct evidence of this has always felt to me as being  at odds with how learning actually takes place and indeed who that learning actually “belongs to”. An exit pass or even a post-programme survey simply cannot provide  the data which elucidates these aspects; deeper research is required. In deeply considering these issues, I have now moved from thinking about direct impact to a more nuanced notion of influence instead.

This is not to say that we should not or indeed cannot explore what influences PL has on participants,  there are many benefits afforded by doing so however  I remain unpersuaded that we can be completely definitive about our findings and believe that this perceived influence may also change or develop for a number of reasons over time.

In exploring the issues around the influence of PL naturally I am curious to find out more about how the programme I currently teach on (Into Headship ) influences our participants, not only during their time studying, but importantly, over time post-programme in their own contexts.

In order to learn more about the history and development of the programme and to scope out the field of literature which has already studied headship preparation programmes in Scotland  (there have been two previous iterations)  I conducted a Systematic Review of the literature field and my conclusion is shared below. The SR asked the following question:

“What is known about the impact of headship preparation programmes in Scotland since the introduction of the Scottish Qualification for Headship, SQH: Accelerated Route (from 1998), Flexible Routes to Headship (from 2007) and now the current Into Headship (from 2015) programme?”

This review found that school leadership in 2020 is undeniably complex and has become increasingly so over the years included in the review. There is a great deal of agreement that high quality preparation for aspirant leaders is required.

Many authors noted that it is challenging to robustly and fully ascertain the impact of headship preparation programmes however from what is reported in the review texts, the programmes in their various forms over time, are overwhelmingly felt by those involved, to be of high quality and impactful.  Participants repeatedly report that engaging in them is transformational, develops their critical skills and knowledge as a leader and leads to an overwhelming feeling of increased confidence. Self-identity as a leader is routinely and deeply explored and often re-imagined. Participants say they feel more equipped for the multi-faceted role of contemporary headship; the programmes are seen as challenging, but “worth it” (Forde et al, 2013).

Reviewing these texts affords me much to further consider in relation to headship preparation in Scotland such as the role that coaching can play in supporting leadership development and thinking creatively about alternative ways to gain the standard for headship, ensuring that opportunities to engage with the programmes are equitable for all aspirant leaders.

In the texts reviewed, a central and recurring tension was found in the persistently shifting conceptualisations and paradoxes of headship within the current system. The role, purpose and function of headteachers is continually being reinterpreted within policy and  in the review,  was found to often be contended by different stakeholders across the educational landscape. In Watt et al’s (2014)  text alone, conceptualisations of headship are expressed by the different groups he surveyed. He found that Heads of Education were more likely to see headteachers as senior officers of the council. HEIs were more likely to view school leaders as critical thinkers who are empowered, agentic, share leadership and have the confidence and professional voice to challenge the accepted norms and orthodoxies. Local politicians and parents were more likely to admire heads in terms of them being credible, likeable, approachable and knowledgeable with good interpersonal skills. It might be contended and from my own experience, that headteachers indeed require a complex mix of all three approaches.

In short; though there is convergence in many respects about the conceptualisation of headship in Scotland, there is significant divergence about what headteachers should be like and what they should do. The current debate surrounding the nature of the revision of the GTCS Standards  somewhat encapsulates these differing views. Headship preparation programmes undoubtedly serve to develop school leaders who go on to lead Scottish schools therefore the programmes are mostly reflective of the system. However there is a direct relationship of influence between how headteachers develop and how the system develops and as such, the part which headship programmes play emerges a key issue from this review.  In exploring the notion of impact we must consider to what extent does what participants learn about and are encouraged to critically consider in headship preparation programmes, directly influence how they lead their schools and in turn, how does their developing leadership influence the system during and after they engage in the programme?

This review suggests that if headship preparation programmes are deemed to be valuable and impactful, which was indeed a recurring finding of this review, then it follows that the part they play in impacting upon headship in Scotland can be said to be significant and that the values, positions, knowledge and understanding which headship programmes privilege and promote can be seen has highly influential on individuals, their schools and the wider system.

In conclusion, it is clear from this review that the programmes are widely valued across the system in Scotland. Should this be in any doubt, then it is significant to note that in order to be appointed as a permanent headteacher, it will become mandatory to hold the Standard for Headship from August 2020. At the moment, the only way to achieve this award is by successful completion of the Into Headship programme.

Undertaking  the systematic review has supported my thinking greatly and as I move into the research phase of my doctoral studies, from the understanding gained  I have been able to develop a  research proposal for a qualitative study currently titled:

“A longitudinal narrative case study of the influence of Into Headship on the leadership development of former University of Edinburgh participants post-programme.”


Forde, C., McMahon, M., & Gronn, P. (2013). Designing Individualised Leadership Development Programmes. School Leadership & Management, 33(5), 440-456.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. Routledge.

Watt, G., Bloomer, K., Christie, I., Finlayson, C., & Jaquet, S. (2014). Evaluation of routes to headship


Rosemary Grady

Senior Teaching Fellow Educational Leadership and Learning

August 2020


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