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Teaching remains arguably one of the most influential of all the professions for humanity – which makes educational leadership a vitally important role. Leaders in education have a unique responsibility and must have the intellectual capacity, vision and empathy to influence and empower those teachers who share a vocational commitment. While leadership styles and theories are generally dominated by those from business and focus on management efficiency and effectiveness, educational leadership is about understanding the power of knowledge and influence.

According to Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart, Programme Director of The University of Manchester’s part-time MA Educational Leadership in Practice (MA ELiP), education is a unique leadership environment and is quite different from business or other organisational forms of leadership. The MA ELiP is designed specifically for teachers, department heads, principals, and board members, working from nursery to tertiary education.

When experienced working educators think about what comes next in their careers, they will probably start thinking about leadership. This could be because they want more responsibility, may be good at administration and with people, or may need or want to earn more money. Others may be more interested in personal development and acquiring transferable skills to take into other sectors after teaching. But educational leadership is different and presents unique challenges.

Leadership is essentially about influencing others, but educational leaders must be led by educational needs and the responsibility for children with young, developing minds, personalities and characters, and who will become citizens of the world. The choices these children make, their values, politics, and how they choose to lead their lives will help form the world in which we live.

It’s important to remember that a school is not a factory or a business. Education develops children and adults and knowledge in specific areas but also facilitates skills, educates about ‘citizenship’ and helps form the essential social being, and therefore influences human development and humanity. It is not about teaching content but developing people. Education is a social practice because it’s all about people in society.

Schools are a reflection of society, and today, we are thinking more about our sustainable futures with greater awareness of the fragility of our civilization. Increasingly, we realise the value of people such as teachers, which raises the question of how we prepare young people to seek sustainable futures and lives.

At the Manchester Institute of Education, we work to understand educational leadership. In simple terms, it is all about influence – how we get people to do things together, based on the leader setting the direction and vision. There are different ways of exerting influence, but in education, it must fit the context.

Of course, people ‘do leadership’ all the time, in different ways and at different times. Educational leadership is not always about being ‘right’ or ‘strong’; getting things wrong and revealing weakness is all part of the learning process for leaders. Leadership in education is not about a dominant or assertive style, but there are trends in education, such as a focus on resilience, reflecting the uncertain world that children and young adults will face. But education is about nurturing and development.  If leadership is connected to power, should an educational leader be a thinker or a policy maker, or a manager? This is where we see knowledge as power – because the knowledge creators inform and therefore influence our practice of leadership; this is often influenced by a focus on leadership in business.

It is only relatively recently that we have started to understand that leadership is something you can learn – it is merit-based and not something you are born to. Educational leadership is also a skill that can be learned, developed and nurtured. In a school environment, we are moving from the autocratic style of the strong leader to a more collegial style of empowering leadership which is appropriate for leading intelligent and professional teachers with a vocational commitment to teaching. This empowering collegial style means leading by influencing with an emphasis on skills such as active listening to generate empathy and connect more effectively with people.

Welcoming the first cohort

The region’s first cohort of students on the blended learning part-time MA Educational Leadership in Practice programme comprised 19 students of nine nationalities who are all qualified working professionals and highly experienced in the field of education, with almost half bringing between 11-15 years of experience to the programme and more than 80% are female. The three-day course conferences provide the opportunity for students to meet their peers and course faculty.

This two-year part-time Master’s looks at theory and evidence, focusing on and developing the student’s practice. This includes models of educational leadership, educational research, leading educational change and development, educational leadership and policy, educational leadership as a social practice, research skills and a project, as well as optional modules such as leading in international schools.  The course is designed for educators looking to acquire the skills and knowledge to take the next career step and for those already in leadership positions in need of theoretical understanding and solid credentials.

The role of educational leaders is to build capacity and positive teams of educators while sharing leadership and nurturing the development of these teams and individuals. The programme is designed to empower educational leaders to face the challenges of globalising education and the increasing realities of financial pressures, resource constraints, and the rising expectations of stakeholders – from regulators to owners and parents – while balancing these with the core fundamental values of education, with competency and compassion.        

The MA ELiP was named winner of the Humanities Programme of the Year Award for 2021 as part of the University’s Outstanding Staff Awards for Teaching, Learning and the Student Experience.   

Student Spotlight

Diana Wilson is an experienced educator and a member of the first Middle East cohort of students on the part-time MA Educational Leadership in Practice programme.

“I selected The University of Manchester’s MA Educational Leadership in Practice (MA ELiP) programme because of the strong platform it offers to listen and enjoy, experience and learn directly from the University faculty, anywhere in the world. I have met very few leaders in my career with specific knowledge in leadership and so I was delighted to see that educators in positions of responsibility can make teaching and learning a more positive experience and create better workplaces for the people involved in this profession. The MA ELiP provides specific knowledge, which I believe leaders will find essential in making a positive change in education.

“The biggest questions I had about school leadership and leadership, in general, have been answered during the programme. It has provided me with a more reflective and thorough outlook on understanding the factors impeding progress and how to deal with issues that may have remained unresolved and ignored. The Manchester part-time MA ELiP is certainly not an academic programme that you follow in isolation. I had the opportunity to meet my fellow students and the faculty from Manchester during live lectures and webinars and face-to-face conferences in Dubai.”