The relationship of pupil leadership, teacher attitudes and distributed leadership: barriers and potential solutions

By Kamil Trzebiatowski (2013)

for the University of the West of Scotland

John Smyth (2006) is one many who call for the form of school leadership that listens and acts upon the voices of pupils. He claims that due to the pressures of accountability and measurement placed on schools and the increasing numbers of pupils from diverse backgrounds, many learners find schools to be hostile environments. In this short statement, I am going to examine both the potential and barriers to pupil leadership and how they might be influenced by school leadership and teacher attitudes. I will conclude with suggestions for improvement in this area.

The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (in Whitty and Wisby, 2007) states that children have the right to have their views on matters affecting them taken into account. Neigel (2006) insists that empowering pupils to be participants in decision-making processes will allow schools to model democratic principles and prepare pupils for life as active citizens. Ryan (2006), however, provides a reminder that whilst pupils have certain opportunities to influence decisions about curricula, textbooks, school rules and assessments, their role is usually advisory. Hulme et al. (2011) assert that being consulted is not the same as having an influence, which is a view that concurs with Roger Hart’s Ladder of Young People Participation (1992, in Funk et al., 2012), where young people are manipulated and tokenised at the lower rungs, but share decision-making with adults, lead and initiate action on the upper ones. Ryan observes that pupils have the first-hand knowledge of their schools and, therefore, their input can improve them.

The way schools are managed will affect what type of leadership opportunities their pupils are afforded. Harris’s (2008) study of several English schools where the distributed type of leadership is practised shows that their leadership extends to pupils and encourages pupil voice. Collaborated leadership practice (Spillane et al., 2005) involves various school leaders working together, which already reflects a change from the traditional hierarchical leadership structures and can lead to the change of school staff culture to one of true collaboration and adaptability, as advocated by Harris. It might be argued that such spirit of collaboration is only a step away from the person-centred community that Fielding (2006) would like to see: one where relationships are central, role boundaries are flexible and where pupil engagement is genuinely invited and their voice is not used as a means of achieving higher measurable school performance. Such school culture can be argued to be sustainable – as Hargreaves (2005) states, sustainable leadership is about social justice and responsibility to the pupils.

However, some teachers are against pupil leadership, believing that pupils cannot make correct educational decisions. These teachers often cannot cope with the amount of work required and lacking the knowledge of how pupils can become a part of policy-changing procedures (Ryan, 2006). In Hulme et al.’s study (2011) of pupil participation in Scottish schools, none of 168 responses identified barriers to pupil participation caused by teacher behaviour – yet the same study found that some teachers were unsettled by greater pupil participation. Foster’s study (2004) in two secondary schools in Canada revealed that most pupils and parents saw themselves as consultants and considered teachers and principals as teaching and learning decision-makers – even though staff believed that pupils and parents had been included. However, in Czerniawski et al.’s (2009) study of London secondary school pupils, most interviewees did not feel their input was tokenistic and felt they were being taken seriously.

Despite some staff’s opposition to accepting pupil leadership, there is evidence in the literature of pupil initiative in schools across the globe. Ryan (2006) describes a Japanese school where pupils organized school graduation, were involved in changing school rules and had a place on the school council. At Millburn High School in the USA, pupils engage in a year-long study of an issue important to them and the school, gaining leadership skills. This is followed by presentations to the school board and members of the community, sometimes resulting in the change of school policies (Neigel, 2006). At The Sir Frederic Osborn School in England, 17 pupils conducted research into Improving Sixth Form Consortium Induction, advantages and disadvantages of KS4 courses after national Year 9 tests and into what makes a good lesson. Their reports informed school improvement plans, were presented at the school’s training day and at an international conference (Roberts and Nash, 2007, in Frost, 2008).

I know certain teachers who do not believe that any pupils should hold leadership positions within schools. However, since school leaders influence their staff and teachers work directly with their pupils, the existence of distributed leadership across school is key to the success of pupil leadership in mainstream schools. Teachers involved in collaborative distributed leadership practices will benefit from the expertise of others; in turn, the school’s culture will change, allowing for greater flexibility required for our pupils to be able to influence their own education and become more than simply advisors.



Czerniawski, G., Garlick, S., Hudson, T. and Peters, P. (2009) Listening to Learners. Available at: <> [Accessed March 3, 2013]

Fielding, M. (2006) ‘Leadership, radical student engagement and the necessity of person-centred education’, International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice. Vol. 9 (4), pp. 299-131

Foster, R. (2005) ‘Leadership and secondary school improvement: case studies of tensions and possibilities’, International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice. Vol. 8 (1), pp. 35-52

Frost, R. (2008) ‘Developing student participation, research and leadership: the HCD Student Partnership’, School Leadership & Management: Formerly School Organization. Vol. 28 (4), pp. 353-368

Funk, A., Van Borek, N., Taylor, D., Grewal, P., Tzemis, D. and Buxton, J.A. (2012) ‘Climbing the “Ladder of Participation”: Engaging Experiential Youth in a Participatory Research Project’, Revue Canadienne de Sante Publique, Vol. 103 (4), pp. 288-292

Hargreaves, A. (2005) ‘Sustainable leadership’. In: Davies, B. (ed.) The essentials of school leadership. London: Paul Chapman Publishing

Harris, A. (2008) Distributed school leadership: developing tomorrow’s leaders. London: Routledge

Hulme, M., McKinney, S.J., Hall, S. and Cross, B. (2011) ‘Pupil participation in Scottish schools: how far have we come?’ Improving Schools, Vol. 14 (2), pp. 130-144

Neigel, K.A. (2006) Building Leadership Capacity in Students. Available at: <> [Accessed March 3, 2013]

Ryan, J. (2006) Inclusive leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Smyth, J. (2006) ‘Educational leadership that fosters ‘student voice’’, International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, Vol. 9 (4), pp. 279-284

Spillane, J.P., Diamond, J.B., Sherer, J.Z. and Coldren, A.F. (2005) ‘Distributing leadership’. In: Coles, M.J. and Southworth, G. (eds.) Developing leadership: creating the schools of tomorrow. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Whitty, G. and Wisby, E. (2007) Real Decision Making? School Councils in Action. Available at: <> [Accessed March 3, 2013]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email