Leadership and context
Leadership and context

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Leadership and context

6.1 Social capital and trust

When you, as an educational leader, draw up your priorities, you may be faced with steering a path through a number of internal and external factors and different stakeholder groups, all with different priorities. The strategic approach of leaders at a given point in time is a very interesting aspect of the audio-visual stories, especially as we compare contexts. But how far can aspects of context be observed and measured in an educational context?

There are obvious outputs (such as exam results) and inputs (such as resources per capita); but although these make an enormous difference to success, failure and competitive position, these measures are still not enough to tell us about how context works or how resources are used. Social scientists working in educational settings have developed research tools for measuring organisational trust, an important variable which appears throughout this course especially in relation to collaboration or lack of it. You may be responsible for organising such surveys or aware of other measures of attitude such as pupil perceptions of safety. Other researchers might be interested in mapping friendship groups as an aspect of understanding culture and context.

These measures offer vital insight into what makes organisations work or not and the implications for understanding social relationships. An ongoing question is why attempts to improve, to change or to reform education rarely turn out as planned, and indeed they may fail or be subverted. This clearly has implications for leadership if we want our educational vision and values to be more than hollow promises and if we want the people involved to achieve their potential.

If your disciplinary background is sociology then you may have already come across the term social capital. This can be contrasted with the economic associations of human capital, since it goes beyond a resources model and focuses on how social relationships may enhance community. Studies of this have been varied and include looking at how groups, ties and networks may have positive or negative impact. In education the concept is used to explain how some teacher communities and networks may influence practice and ultimately student achievement.

Of course, social capital is not the only way of analysing the internal context; another way of looking at this is through consideration of the concepts of structure and agency. Structure consists of institutional, cultural and social elements. The last two of these we have already considered, but not the first. The institutional element is concerned with organisational characteristics, the allocation of power and resources, roles and responsibilities. Against this is the concept of agency, usually individual but sometimes seen in a group, which is the power to move against the structure. This is not necessarily a major movement; sometimes the use of agency can be slight, but over time the impact can be marked. Indeed, exercise of leadership today impacts on tomorrow’s structure (Woods et al., 2004).

Activity 8

You are now going to think about the contextual factors that you can change or that are amenable to manipulation. It may be possible to change some things immediately, but others will have to be subject to medium- or long-term considerations. In Table 1 below, Wallace and Tomlinson illustrate the extent to which leaders can manipulate contextual factors, and they consider policy agendas alongside local initiatives, resources and team influences.

Table 1 Variable engagement of leaders with readily manipulable contextual factors

Readily manipulable contextual factorDegree of agency … [in schools]
Strategic vision (promoting and culturally embedding organisational values and goals)Very high: School leaders are able proactively to articulate, develop and embed organisational values
Local initiatives (developing a range of initiatives outside the government agenda)High: Leaders are able to generate extensive independent change, contingent on their ‘earned autonomy’
Selective response to government policy (mediating and co-opting the government reform agenda)Very high: Leaders have substantial professional jurisdiction selectively to adapt the policy agenda
Allocation of resources (channelling resources towards organisational priorities)Very high: Leaders are able to channel resources effectively towards diverse school-based initiatives
Management arrangements (shaping senior and middle management teams, team building, distributive approaches)Very high: Leaders are able to shape the culture of their senior teams, and broker change agendas through their close colleagues
(Source: Wallace and Tomlinson, 2010, p. 32.)

Look at the things that a leader might be able to change (in the first column). Consider the degree of agency in schools (in the second column) in relation to each of the contextual factors. Then think about an educational establishment you know or work in. Make a note of the degree of agency in that organisation in relation to each of the contextual factors. Bear in mind that your own school or organisation might not have the same level of agency as Wallace and Tomlinson suggest.

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Discussion

You may have identified particular policy and or local organisational issues in your own context to illustrate the extent to which this model applies to your ‘individual organisational characteristics and sectoral history’ (Wallace and Tomlinson, 2010, p. 257).

We have included a completed Table 1 for a local authority youth service to illustrate how this can be applied to organisations other than schools. These organisations in England currently feel under increasingly tight restrictions; but, when considering the table, the person completing it realised she had more agency than she had thought at first.

Table 1 (with example annotations)

Readily manipulable contextual factorDegree of agency in schoolsDegree of agency in your organisation as a local authority youth service
Strategic vision (promoting and culturally embedding organizational values and goals)Very high: School leaders are able proactively to articulate, develop and embed organizational valuesHigh: Need to fit in with local authority strategic plans.
Local initiatives (developing a range of initiatives outside the government agenda)High: Leaders are able to generate extensive independent change, contingent on their ‘earned autonomy’High: Within the expectations of the inspection system.
Selective response to government policy (mediating and co-opting the government reform agenda)Very high: Leaders have substantial professional jurisdiction selectively to adapt the policy agendaVery high, but limited by finance: Government agenda has funding attached but little else does.
Allocation of resources (channelling resources towards organisational priorities)Very high: Leaders are able to channel resources effectively towards diverse school-based initiativesVery high: Can allocate resources to meet organisational priorities but mindful of inspection system that checks on targets being met.
Management arrangements (shaping senior and middle management teams, team building, distributive approaches)Very high: Leaders are able to shape the culture of their senior teams, and broker change agendas through their close colleaguesVery high.
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