home Resources Distributed Leadership and Managerial Power in Schools

Distributed Leadership and Managerial Power in Schools

Richard Hatcher
University of Central England, Birmingham, UK

Paper presented at the Society for Educational Studies and BERA Social Justice SIG Annual Seminar ‘School Leadership and Social Justice’, London, 4 November 2004

One of the central themes of current academic school management and leadership discourse is the notion of distributed leadership. Alma Harris, for example, says that ‘Leadership is a shared and collective endeavour that engages all members of the organisation (Harris, 2003a, p75); ‘this mode of leadership challenges the conventional orthodoxy of the single, individualistic leader’ (Harris, 2003b, pp2-3). Distributed leadership is also central to the Leadership Development Framework adopted by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL, 2001). According to Peter Gronn, ‘distributed leadership is an idea whose time has come’ (Gronn, 2000, p333).

What is the problem to which distributed leadership is claimed to provide the solution? In brief it is this: the government is engaged in a profound transformation of the school system from a social democratic to a neoliberal system whose primary objective is the production of human capital for economic competitiveness. This in turn requires the replacement of the old bureaucratic-professional system of management by a regime of performativity. This is a difficult business. Schools have to be re-engineered and re-cultured. The minds and the hearts of teachers have to be won. Distributed leadership is a means to achieve both cognitive integration and cultural integration. Cognitive integration because the work process in schools has become much more complex and inter-dependent. Cultural integration because, it is argued, the compliance of teachers is most effectively accomplished by securing their commitment, and one means to achieving this is through forms of participation.

This conception of ‘the high commitment workplace based on dispersed, delegated authority’ (Warhurst and Thompson, 1998, p6) is widespread in business management theory. The extent to which there is a paradigm shift from Fordism, Taylorism, and command and control management in reality as well as in rhetoric is a matter of debate in critical management and labour process theory, and cognate developments in schools need to be situated in that wider context.

Headteachers as managers

In importing business management solutions into schools one significant difference is the nature of managers. The role of the headteacher as the relay of government policy is decisive. The problem for government is that heads cannot be relied on – or else replaced – as easily as managers in the private sector, for several reasons. Too many headteachers still display a regrettable attachment to an outdated liberal-humanist public service ethos. They are often too close to the workforce – primary schools especially are relatively small workplaces. Headteachers are strongly unionised, and in primary schools many of them are in the same union as their workforce.

The government has addressed this problem with a combination of three strategies. First, a battery of control mechanisms (targets, tests, Ofsted etc) to lock schools – heads and teachers – into the government agenda. Secondly, within that, a set of specific powers for heads to manage teachers – performance management. And thirdly the attempt to create a cadre of reliably ‘on-message’ managers through the National College for School Leadership.

How does this government-driven managerialism relate to the idea of distributed leadership. Some advocates of distributed leadership see a fundamental contradiction. For example, for Hopkins (2001) the concept of multi-level leadership ‘implies active participation at all levels, which can be termed ‘active democracy’’, and ‘top-down direction and institutional hierarchies are antithetical to democracy in action’ (p121). For Hopkins and Jackson (2003), ‘as leadership cannot be imposed, the conflation of power (managerial relationships) and empowerment (leadership relationships) proves problematic’ (p98).

Among education management theorists there are two responses to this problem. One is to attempt to separate managerial power and distributed leadership. The other is to claim that distributed leadership represents the transfer – the democratisation – of managerial power.

The separation of managerial power and distributed leadership

Hopkins and Jackson’s solution is to separate management and leadership into two parallel structures. The opportunity to exercise leadership can be made available to the body of teachers within a school by creating a non-hierarchical network of collaborative learning alongside and separate from the hierarchical structure of power. Similarly Gronn argues that, while authority resides with the headteacher, leadership – influence – can be exercised by any teacher whose ideas win the support of others. ‘Suddenly, the possibility opens up of all organization members becoming managers […] and of all followers becoming autonomous leaders’ (2000, p333).

I want to argue that distributed leadership cannot be separated from managerial power exercised by and through the headteacher – on the contrary, it remains subordinated to it. I will offer four arguments.

1. The NCSL and distributed leadership

Although the NCSL recommends distributed leadership, it is clear that it sees leadership as embedded in the hierarchy of management, not separate from it. The NCSL’s Leadership Development Framework is heavily weighted to senior managers (NCSL, 2004). It comprises ‘five stages of school leadership’, of which stages 2 to 5 are assistant and deputy heads upwards. Speaking of ‘Emergent leadership’, the framework states that ‘The concept of distributed leadership (where leadership is encouraged at all levels in the school) has a significant part to play’. But it is defined in terms of taking on management responsibilities – managing a team, coordinating a group of teachers. Similarly, ‘Leading from the Middle’, a programme for subject and specialism leaders, is about developing ‘generic skills such as motivating people and organising the work of staff’ and ‘skills specific to the leader’s role e.g. using performance data, coaching, team-building, developing consistent standards of behaviour’. In other words, leadership is about lower-level management tasks within a strategic policy framework developed elsewhere.

2. Can heads mediate government power?

There is no doubt that many headteachers attempt to mediate and mitigate the negative elements of government policies. What evidence is there of the effectiveness of this as a strategy? Can it free up enough space for the exercise of distributed leadership as the ‘empowerment’ of teachers?

For example, Gold et al (2003) claim, on the basis of case studies of ten headteachers who they regard as demonstrating principled values-driven leadership, that these heads were ‘mediating government policy through their own value systems’ (p131). In a response, Wright (2003) points out that the examples which Gold and her co-authors provide are often second-order values such as teamwork and staff consultation which are not in themselves evidence of the assertion of an alternative agenda, and that Gold et al. provide no clear evidence of how the headteachers’ enactment of their values led to a significant reinterpretation of the government’s agenda. As Wright says, ‘heads know that their schools have to succeed in a target-based culture and in the end this will drive what is allowed and what is proscribed’ (2003, p142).

3. The performance management of teachers

The consensus in school management literature is that the way to achieve the compliance of teachers is to gain their commitment: In other words, not just to persuade teachers to do what you want, but to persuade them to want to do what you want. In business management it’s called ‘buying into the message‘. Critics have written about colonising the affective domain, changing the subjectivities of teachers. Both standpoints risk promoting a totalising discourse which under-estimates the importance of the directive powers of school management to achieve compliance even in the absence of commitment. By ‘directive’ I mean a range of powers from coercion to patronage. Coercive powers include the use, or threat, of disciplinary procedures, and managerial bullying. Patronage takes the form of processes of inclusion and exclusion in relation to, for example, the allocation of classes to teachers, or sponsorship to go on courses, or applications for promotion. Above all, it means the power of ‘performance management’ given to heads by government which governs progression up the salary scales. To cross the threshold and proceed up the scales teachers must demonstrate that they have ‘grown professionally’ and made ‘sustained and substantial progress’. Because there is no clear definition of these terms heads’ judgements are quite subjective and may be strongly influenced by management priorities and personal bias. It seems unlikely that the implications of performance management will not affect teachers’ investment in distributed leadership.

4. How headteachers limit distributed leadership

A number of research studies reveal how in practice headteachers tend to deal with the contradiction between authority and influence by circumscribing distributed leadership and subordinating it to managerial authority.

Moore et al (2002), in their study of eight headteachers, note that some of the headteachers adopted ‘essentially Taylorist forms and styles of management couched within some of the more ‘acceptable’ language and aspects of ‘TQM’ forms and styles’ (p. 181) to achieve staff compliance. They give the example of a headteacher

using her authority to coerce staff into her mode of thinking and operating within the school, and thereby implementing the cultural and structural reforms required by government at the local level. She masks this process, however, by couching it within a values-laden discourse of collegiality and ‘trust’ (p. 182).

Similarly, in Chapman’s (2003) case study of a comprehensive school he notes (approvingly) that

a more autocratic approach is used when the leadership team feels that it is necessary to move the school forward. In other situations the approach has been more democratic. (p. 101)

Why do heads act like this? Sharing leadership is risky. Distributed leadership may not succeed in reinforcing commitment to management agendas and it is headteachers who are held accountable for meeting government targets (Wallace 2001, p157). The strategy most commonly adopted by headteachers to minimise the risks of distributed leadership is to restrict its operation to a minority of staff, the Senior Management Team, where it is more amenable to authority through processes of external regulation by the headteacher and by internalised self-regulation by senior staff, as Wallace’s (2001, 2002) study of SMTs in primary schools shows.

The consequence is a division among teachers between ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ which is often justified in elitist and patronising terms. For example, Harris (2003c) uses the term ‘servant leadership’, which ‘is premised upon providing purpose for others and in giving certainty and direction for those who may have difficulty achieving it for themselves’ (p20. My italics).

The conclusion I draw is that distributed leadership cannot be separated from managerial authority: on the contrary, it is inevitably subordinated to it.1 Two defining features of distributed leadership, as it currently operates, follow.

The first is that officially sanctioned ‘distributed leadership’ is always delegated, licensed, exercised on behalf of and revocable by, authority – the headteacher. Gronn, arguing that power and leadership can operate independently, and drawing on activity theory, identifies five key substructural processes within organisations: authority (i.e. power), values, interests, personal factors and resources. But authority – power – is not simply one of a number of dimensions of activity in organisations, it is a different category of phenomenon, because it over-determines all the other dimensions. In the case of the school, the head occupies the dominant position in the power structure and therefore the privileged site of influence. Leadership ‘from below’ can only be translated from the sphere of ideas to that of action when it is sanctioned by the authority of the headteacher (or when the balance of micro-political relations of power is sufficiently favourable to allow that authority to be contested in practice).

The second defining feature of ‘actually existing’ distributed leadership concerns its scope. We need to make a sharp distinction between strategic decisions and operational decisions. Distributed leadership tends to be confined to lower-level operational decision-making. Strategic decision-making about school policy is not distributed: there may be consultation but it remains the property of the head. This is Ofsted’s view. For example, the Handbook for inspecting secondary schools (Ofsted, 2003), while advocating leadership at all levels, instructs inspectors to ‘Establish the extent to which the headteacher, governing body and members of the leadership team have a shared view of where they want the school to go’.

These two characteristics of distributed leadership in the school situation correspond to the wider business management context. A recent study of employee participation in companies in Europe (Poutsma, Hendrickx and Huijgen, 2003) found that ‘Higher levels of direct participation become more likely as the intensity of competition increases’ (p65), but ‘the phenomenon of high participation is very rare’ (p71 – my italics). Warhurst and Thompson (1998) refer to the dual structure of organisations in which horizontal forms of coordination – they call them ‘a shadow division of labour’ – supplement but are subordinate to the dominant vertical hierarchies (p17).

Distributed leadership as the transfer of power

In contrast to the attempt to separate distributed leadership and management power is the claim that the distribution of leadership equals the transfer of power, a claim advanced by a number of leading figures in the school leadership movement. For example, according to Harris (2003a), ‘This model of leadership implies a redistribution of power and a realignment of authority within the organisation’ (p75). ‘Teacher leadership is premised upon a power redistribution within the school, moving from hierarchical control to peer control. In this leadership model the power base is diffuse and the authority dispersed within the teaching community’ (p77). This leads to the claim, made by Harris and others, that distributed leadership represents schools operating ‘democratically’. For example, Halpin (2003) presents a case study of the ‘invitational’ leadership style of a secondary school headteacher which he regards as ‘a shift away from a leadership paradigm based on power and control’. ‘The effect is to divest the authority conventionally inscribed in the head’s role’ (p85). This he claims is ‘profoundly educational and democratic’. He goes further: it is an illustration of the ‘utopian’ in practice.

In my view this demonstrates the seductive ideological character of the concept of distributed leadership: idealising managerialist practice as democratic disguises the reality of the ultimately coercive power of management. While participation is nominally inclusive, authority is exclusive.

This is the decisive issue for all proponents of distributed and democratic leadership: where does strategic power ultimately lie, with the headteacher, or with all those directly involved in the school? Participatory approaches to management which operate within a headteacher-dominated hierarchy can undoubtedly provide a much more congenial school regime than more authoritarian forms of managerialism. But the idea that such schools can be described as ‘democratic’ can only be sustained by divesting the concept of democracy of ‘the very quality which gives democracy its specific and literal meaning: ‘rule by the demos’’ (Wood, 1995, p232).

Distributed leadership, and claims for ‘democratic leadership’, can be seen as the translation into school management discourse of the idea, central to New Labour, that some concessions to participatory processes at the lower levels of a managerialist power structure represent popular democracy. As Wainwright (2003) comments, this has become a global discourse characterised by ‘the circumscribed patronising limits within which popular participation is encouraged’ (p192). ‘’I participate, we participate, but they decide over what kind of issue we can decide’ (p193).

Managers against managerialism?

I want to say something now about what one might call critical education management theorists. What they have in common is a rejection of neoliberal education and a critique of dominant education management theory. However, they also share the belief that school leaders, aided by critical management academics, are potentially agents of resistance to managerialism – in fact, apparently potentially the principal agents of resistance. For example, Michael Bottery (2001, 2002) argues for the possibility of mediation, mitigation and reinterpretation of government agendas by headteachers. He argues that if they understand the political and economic context and re-examine their own collusive professional cultures they can develop a ‘proactive resistance’ (p215) able to debate the aims and values of education and assert evidence-based alternative agendas. Martin Thrupp and Robert Willmott (2003) conclude their critique of education management theorists by urging that they engage with critical management texts and think about how school leaders ‘might work against, rather than support, managerialism’ (p239). Philip Woods (2004) argues that an adherence by headteachers to ethical values, embedded in the affective domain, can lead to their ‘transforming the dominant instrumental rationality’ (p21).

Of course many headteachers are unconvinced by New Labour’s education project, but given their structural role in implementing it it seems unlikely, to say the least, that they can be depended on as the principal agents of resistance to it, whatever their misgivings. I know of no evidence of their having played such a role. Where are the headteachers who have, for example, defied Ofsted, or refused to implement SATs? I would argue that we have to look elsewhere for the agents of resistance to neoliberal education – to the teaching force as a whole and beyond it, broader movements for change. In a study of ‘teacher leadership’ in the US, Little (2003) found that ‘teacher leadership displays a growing political orientation and links to social justice movements and debates’ (p411) while ‘administrators in the case study schools demonstrate little propensity to criticise state policy directives’ (p412). In the UK, the most significant demonstration of teacher leadership in the past year has been the campaign for a boycott of SATs, led by teachers, not heads. It is typical that it has been neglected by education management theorists, who, as Stevenson (2003) points out, tend to ignore collective agency by teachers.

I want to pursue this notion of distributed leadership as the collective agency of teachers. Philip Woods says that ‘Democracy adds to the emergent character of distributed leadership the notion that everyone, by virtue of their human status, should play a part in democratic agency’ (2004, p12). This is an important ethical principle, but it needs to be translated it into the institutional structures which would establish it as a right. It is often forgotten that one of the original themes of the comprehensive school movement in the 1960s and 70s was participatory decision-making in school policy. Participation was seen not as a management strategy, to be granted on licence as a privilege, but as a right, an entitlement, of the teaching staff. Its guarantee was the formal structure of participation which a number of innovative comprehensive schools established. The best-known and most radical example is Countesthorpe College in Leicestershire in the 1970s. This is how Brian Simon wrote about the school five years after it opened.

…the school was to be run by the staff as a whole, through discussion and joint decisions arrived at by consensus. The head would participate in the discussions, but would carry out decisions so reached. In other words the head or principal would act, as it were, as chief executive, deliberately subordinating himself to the staff as a whole as regards decision-making. (Simon, 1977, p21)

First, there can be no doubt whatever that teacher participation in the running of the school has resulted in a strikingly high level of involvement by the great bulk of the staff. In some cases this has meant total involvement – a constant ongoing discussion of new approaches and of the optimal organisational forms felt necessary to realise the school’s objectives. Since every member of the staff, including young probationary teachers, is fully involved in these discussions, this has meant that alongside the actual process of teaching and learning which goes on daily in the College, there goes on analysis and interpretation involving educational issues of first importance, the constant objective being to relate the theoretical discussion, which itself arises from practice, back to the practice of structuring learning. (p22)

For me this is authentic distributed leadership, involving all teachers equally in strategic decision-making about school policy. This tradition of collective democratic self-management has been extinguished in Britain but it can be found in the United States, often extending to other school workers, school students, parents and the local community (Apple and Beane, 1999; Casey, 2000. See also Hatcher, 2002, for examples from Brazil).

There is both a philosophical and a political basis for school self-management. The former is provided by Carol Gould (1985) who argues that democratic workplace self-management is a requirement of economic justice. Her argument is that ‘equal positive freedom’ requires equal rights to the social and material conditions of self-development, including rights relating to economic production as well as distribution. Central among these is the right to equal participation in decisions, based on the concept of reciprocity, which she defines as an intentional social relationship in which each recognises the equal rights of others, that is, of their status as agents.

The political argument for democratic school self-management is that it has the potential to create more favourable conditions to challenge the government’s neoliberal agenda and revive and reinvigorate the emancipatory role of the school. I say ‘potential’ because such a school would still be subject to the dictates of government education policies, and there is no guarantee that it would respond to them by embracing radical alternatives. But the evidence from existing democratic schools is that the risk of self-managed incorporation is greatly outweighed by the possibility of creating a genuinely participatory educational culture and contributing to the self-creation of a new collective agency in education.

It is utopian to believe that such initiatives would be permitted by the present government in this country. However, the existence of successful democratically-run schools in other countries, and in our own under a previous Labour government, means that the exclusion from school leadership and management discourses of this alternative to hierarchical management models can no longer be justified. These schools demonstrate that authentic distributed leadership requires distributed power, and that the stronger the argument made for the benefits of distributed leadership, the stronger the case for collective democratic self-management by teachers and other participants as the best means of realising them.

Correspondence: Richard.Hatcher@uce.ac.uk
Another version of this paper appears as Hatcher, R (2005) The distribution of leadership and power in schools. British Journal of Sociology of Education 26 (2).


1. Another aspect of the contradiction between school managerialism and distributed leadership relates to the control of information provided by Management Information Systems. According to Alan Strickley (2004), Nolan and Ayres said in 1996 that the impact of an integrated MIS in a school depends on whether it is used ‘as a means to retain administrative and managerial decision making in the hands of the school hierarchy and office staff, serving mainly administrative purposes, or as a tool to which the whole staff have access and use for shared decision making’ (1996, p308, quoted in Strickley, 2004, p49). Now, 8 years later, in his study of primary schools, Strickley concludes that the latter is not happening for several reasons, among which are ‘The desire of the senior staff to hold onto the power base that is the MIS, in particular finance and more recently assessment data’, and ‘The importance of evidence as an audit as required for OFSTED, Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the LEA, parents, pupils and governors and the consequential desire to control this evidence (particularly in terms of league tables, inspections and value added calculations for extra funding and prestige.) (p49).


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