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Leading Schools in Challenging Circumstances: Strategies for Success

reviewed by Sonya Douglass Horsford & Keyona Powell - January 16, 2015

coverTitle: Leading Schools in Challenging Circumstances: Strategies for Success
Author(s): Philip Smith & Les Bell
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1441184058, Pages: 184, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Today’s public schools remain under great pressure to improve educational outcomes with greater mandates and fewer resources. Teachers, arguably, have suffered the greatest brunt of this high-stakes, performance-based accountability burden. Yet, the effect of such demands on the daily work of school leaders invites further examination of how successful principals of struggling schools navigate this policy landscape, in ways that result in increased student achievement and overall school performance.

In their book, Leading Schools in Challenging Circumstances: Strategies for Success, authors Philip Smith and Les Bell study leadership practices in five schools located in one of the most deprived areas in the north of England. The authors conceptualize “schools in challenging circumstances” (p. 3) as those located in economically distressed communities; high unemployment and crime rates, coupled with low rates of parental involvement and educational attainment, to “create a community where aspirations are low and education is undervalued” (p. 3). For instance, schools in the urban, ex-mining community of Coalborough (a pseudonym) serve a greater share of students with special educational needs and receive free school meals, when compared to the district average.

The schools also struggle with low student attendance, behavior problems, teacher shortages, and low staff morale—a collection of within- and beyond-school factors requiring effective leadership. The British brand of high-stakes accountability over the last forty years has also led these schools to be “criticized and even vilified for perceived or alleged underperformance” (p. 3). As such, the challenging circumstances of Coalborough’s deprived schools seem similar to those facing underserved schools in rural and urban communities throughout the U.S. The demand for headteachers and principals who have what it takes to improve serves largely as the rationale for the study featured in this book.

According to Smith and Bell, “the impact that poor headship can have on a school and its community all reveal the importance of good leadership in today’s schools” (p. 6). Thus, the purpose of their research was to better understand how school leaders in these contexts lead successfully. The findings of self-reported leadership practices in four Coalborough authority schools—and their implementation in a fifth underperforming school in a nearby system—are framed conceptually by transactional and transformational leadership theories; the study contributes additional perspectives on leadership to the literature, but little else in terms of new knowledge, theory, or practice.

Given the title and aims of the text, the absence of a rigorous theoretical discussion of the structural, economic, and political forces that created the challenging circumstances for the study’s participants is surprising. The volume’s focus on the transactional and transformational leadership behaviors deployed by the study’s five headteachers fail to examine how top-down, high-stakes, market-based accountability reforms have shaped their everyday practice as leaders. This is where Smith and Bell missed an opportunity to assess leader perceptions concerning the causes of deprivation and challenge in places like Coalborough—and how these realities informed their leadership actions whether transactional, transformational, or otherwise.

The authors sought to bridge leadership theory and practice in order to “enable new headteachers to accelerate their development, avoid pitfalls and build on the experiences of others to move the schools forward” (p. 7), but their book delivers little to equip school leaders—new or experienced—with strategies for navigating today’s education policy landscape. Rather, it restates much of what we already know: that headteachers and principals often engage a blend of transactional and transformational strategies to manage, motivate, direct, and inspire staff to improve student outcomes and school performance. Somehow, the book also manages to leave out any meaningful discussion of school culture and the role school leaders play in shaping it (Deal & Peterson, 1990).

Nearly twenty-five years ago, the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement published The Principal’s Role in Shaping School Culture (Deal & Peterson, 1990), which aimed to “identify the strategies for effective principalship” (p. 6) under the existing pressures of school reform. In it, the authors observed the centrality of principals in shaping norms, beliefs, and assumptions, and “identifying the link between the values and purposes in local schools and the larger needs national reform policies are attempting to address” (p. 88). But as they cautioned in the start of their book,

even the best guidelines are inadequate unless accompanied by an unquenchable desire to make things better, an unwavering commitment to do what one must to change, and an unstoppable will to try and try again to build school cultures that support and create excellence. (Deal & Peterson, 1990)

Indeed, the notion that the leadership styles featured in Leading Schools in Challenging Circumstances can or even should be deployed successfully in all schools is fraught with problems. What works in one school, under certain conditions, during a particular period of time, will not necessarily work when employed elsewhere. Context matters; the increasing demands placed on school leaders require more than self-reported perceptions of transactional or transformational leadership strategies.

While students of educational leadership are often eager to find a list of best practices and successful strategies to guide their leadership decisions and actions, this misguided demand undermines opportunities to engage in critical, inclusive, socially just (Scheurich, & Tillman, 2013; Theoharis, 2009), and culturally relevant leadership practices that consider the political, pedagogical, personal, and professional dimensions of school leadership (Horsford, Grosland, & Gunn, 2011). To frame the school leadership context as one of challenging circumstances—without interrogating the adverse social and economic conditions in which students and families are required to learn and live—is problematic. It further undermines the role of headteachers and principals who, through the power of instructional and transformational leadership, can shape school culture in ways that not only improve teaching and learning in the building, but also transform the out-of-school factors that reinforce economic inequality, reduced social mobility, and inequitable educational opportunities.

To be sure, Smith and Bell’s study of high-needs schools in England contributes an empirical, albeit traditional, analysis of leader perceptions of what works in these spaces. It is a perspective that could be of interest to education leadership researchers and practitioners in the U.S., given our shared experiences with top-down, neoliberal education reforms and their implications for underserved schools. Understanding the structural, political, and economic conditions that have changed the role and demands of the school leader and how to best navigate this policy landscape, however—perhaps that is the most challenging circumstance of all.




Deal, T., & Peterson, K. (1990). The principal’s role in shaping school culture. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.


Horsford, S. D., Grosland, T., & Gunn, K. M. (2011). Pedagogy of the personal and professional: Toward a framework for culturally relevant leadership. Journal of School Leadership, 21(4), 582–606.

Tillman, L. C., & Scheurich, J. J. (Eds.) (2013). Handbook of research on educational leadership for equity and diversity. New York: Routledge.

Theoharis (2009). The school leaders our children deserve: Seven keys to equity, social justice, and school reform. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 16, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17825, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 11:20:47 AM

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About the Author
  • Sonya Douglass Horsford
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    SONYA DOUGLASS HORSFORD is an associate professor of education in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. Her research interests include educational leadership and policy studies, educational equity and opportunity, and community-based school reform.
  • Keyona Powell
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    KEYONA POWELL is a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. Her research interests include alternative schools and educational leadership for social justice.
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