Democratic leadership for school improvement in challenging contexts

by Alma Harris and Chris Chapman


In this article Alma Harris and Chris Chapman (2001) outline the findings from a research study into successful practices and school improvement strategies in a group of secondary schools facing challenging circumstances (SFCC). The study was funded by the UK-based National College for School Leadership.

“Challenging circumstances” is an official designation from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) for schools where 25 percent or less of students achieve success at national examinations for 16-year-olds; or where 35 percent of students receive free school meals. Features of the schools tend to be urban and/or innercity, and with falling rolls. The UK has 8 percent of schools in this designation.

Ten schools took part in the research study. The aim of the researchers was to capture descriptions of the schools’ leadership practices.

Research findings

The three main findings from the research were that effective leaders in secondary schools facing challenging circumstances are:

  • constantly managing tensions and problems directly related to the particular circumstances and context of the school – the main leadership task facing them is one of coping with unpredictability, conflict, and dissent on a daily basis without discarding core values.
  • above all, people-centred – the leadership practice of principals in this study was underpinned by a set of personal and professional values that placed human needs before organisational needs.
  • able to combine a moral purpose with a willingness to be collaborative and to promote collaboration amongst colleagues, whether through teamwork, or extending the boundaries of participation in leadership and decision-making.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions can be used to guide your reading of this article.

  • Think about the principals you regard as being excellent leaders. What, in your opinion, are the features that make them excellent leaders?
  • Which features of democratic leadership do you think you exhibit?
  • Providing opportunities for teachers to innovate, develop, and learn together are essential in order to provide better learning for students. How would you balance the needs of teachers with the needs of students for maximum benefit?
  • What things do you do in your school that make a real difference to student achievement? This framework is a useful one to apply:

– In our school, what do we do already?

– What else could we do?

– What should we stop doing?

– Why are these changes important?

– What impact will they have on learning?

– How will we know?


Harris, A. and Chapman, C. (2002). Democratic Leadership for School Improvement in Challenging Contexts. International Electronic Journal For Leadership in Learning. Vol 6, No. 9.

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