Leadership for learning: powerful professional development for school leaders in Spain

Anna Jolonch
Greg Ross
Núria Vives

The last twenty years have seen an increased international focus on school leadership as a driver of education system improvement. Many governments have become aware that leadership matters and have invested heavily in professional development for school leaders (Dimmock, 2012). There is now a weight of research evidence that school leaders have a direct influence on culture, values, organisational structures and teachers’ pedagogical practice, and consequently a significant influence on student learning outcomes(Day et al., 2016; Leithwood et al., 2009, 2020; Robinson et al., 2008). There is consensus that school leadership influences student outcomes more than any other factor, except for students’ socio-economic backgrounds and the quality of teaching (Earley, 2021). The Spanish school system faces serious challenges, with a high student drop-out rate and below average student performance compared to other OECD countries(Garcia-Rodriguez et al., 2020). In Spain, head teachers are commonly elected by staff and have historically received little training, serving short terms in a post with heavy administrative responsibilities (Ibid.). However, influenced by international trends, the expected role of the head teacher in Spain is beginning to change (Bolívar-Botoa & Bolívar-Ruano, 2011). In tension with inherited organisational cultures in Spanish schools, there are growing demands for educational leadership from those in school management roles (Bolívar, 2019). This is reflected by some recent regional legislation, for example the Catalan Education Act (2009), which sets out a detailed framework promoting pedagogical school leadership (Ibid.). In this context, in 2019 the “la Caixa” Foundation, in partnership with the UCL Centre for Educational Leadership, launched a leadership development programme to serve school leaders across Spain. This programme supports head teachers and senior leaders in leading evidence-informed, learning-focused improvement in their schools. The authors of this article were some of the architects of the programme. Here, we set out what we mean when we talk about leadership that has an impact on student outcomes in schools (the conceptual basis for our programme), describe our model for leadership development and share preliminary evidence that we have of the programme’s impact on participants and their schools. We conclude with some questions about the relevance of our programme to readers interested in leadership development in higher education settings.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘leadership’?

The conceptual basis for our programme is well expressed by its name, Liderazgo para el Aprendizaje (Leadership for Learning). The primary concern of this form of leadership is to improve student outcomes by focusing on learning and leading the professional development of teachers.  In support of this primary focus, leadership for learning also includes focusing on vision and culture (transformational leadership), as well as sharing and developing leadership widely amongst a staff body (distributed leadership). That leading professional learning should be seen as a main focus for school leaders is underlined by the influential findings of Robinson et al.'s (2008) often-cited meta-analysis, which found that school leaders’ promotion of and participation in teachers’ professional learning has a significant positive effect on student learning. Grissom et al.'s (2021) systematic synthesis of two decades of research into how head teachers affect students and schools similarly found that facilitating collaboration and professional learning are the most significant leadership behaviours in producing positive school outcomes. But what would a learning-focused school leader be doing in practice? Southworth (2009) in England offered a response to this question that shaped the development of our programme. He suggested that learning-centred leadership should include the following (adapted from Southworth, 2009):

  • Modelling: understanding that as a leader you are being closely observed by colleagues; leading by example with actions that demonstrate strong moral purpose; displaying a passion for and expertise in teaching and learning
  • Monitoring: focusing on evidence when developing strategies for improvement; visiting classrooms to observe teaching; analysing and acting on student progress and attainment data; tracking improvements and keeping people on track
  • Dialogue: engaging students and staff in powerful learning conversations with leaders and with each other; coaching, mentoring and developing practice, supporting and challenging.

For Southworth (2009), learning-centred leaders are expert in the ‘simultaneous use of these strategies in ways which mutually reinforce each other. It is their combined effect which creates powerful professional learning for teachers and leaders which, in turn, informs teachers’ actions in classrooms and leads to improved teaching and student learning’ (Earley, 2021).

What kind of organisations do we want schools to be?

It has almost become a truism that our schools face an urgent challenge in preparing students to thrive personally and professionally in an era of rapid economic, societal and environmental change and unprecedented speed of technological advancement (OECD, 2020). New approaches to curricula and pedagogy are needed and this requires new learning for everyone - including teachers and other stakeholders in schools (Sinnema & Stoll, 2020). In conceptualising the kind of school we hope our programme participants might develop to meet this challenge, we have been influenced by the literature on schools as ‘learning organisations.’ Kools & Stoll (2016) defined a school as a learning organisation (SLO) as one ‘that has the capacity to change and adapt routinely to new environments and circumstances as its members, individually and together, learn their way to realising their vision.’ According to Kools et al. (2020), there are seven priorities for leaders and teachers in a school aiming to transform itself into a ‘learning organisation’:

Figure 1: SLO dimensions:

Image 1

Source: Kools et al., 2020.

Each of these dimensions serves the central purpose of enhancing learning for all students, with equity objectives at the heart of the model. The model is not limited to learning within the school, but also emphasises connections with wider school networks, parents, local community, local government and Ministries of Education, NGOs and companies. The cross-cutting themes of trust, time, technology and thinking together are seen as crucial to the realisation of each dimension. For example, trust provides a foundation for the kind of relationships between teachers, leaders and external partners that will allow collaborative learning and working to take place (Kools & Stoll, 2016).

What principles underpin our model of leadership development?

For some time, there has been alignment in much of the research literature about professional learning for leaders and teachers that has an impact on practice and, ultimately, on outcomes for students. This is reflected in a synthesis of the literature set out by Cordingley et al. (2012), describing what professional learning should be like:

  •  collaborative – involves staff working together, identifying starting points, sharing evidence of practice and trying out new approaches;
  • supported by specialist expertise, usually drawn from beyond the learning setting;
  • focused on aspirations for students – which provides the moral imperative and shared focus;
  • sustained over time – professional development sustained over months had substantially more impact on practice benefiting students than shorter engagement;
  • exploring evidence from trying new things to connect practice to theory, enabling practitioners to transfer new approaches and practices and the concepts underpinning them to practice multiple contexts.

Cordingley et al.’s list provides a neat summary of the characteristics of our professional development programme for school leaders in Spain. Missing from this list are two important features of our programme, which are given prominence in the seminal work of Timperley et al. (2007): that professional learning needs to challenge thinking as part of changing practice, and that it involves a process of inquiry. Many accounts of effective professional learning now pay particular attention to approaches such as coaching that have the potential to engage with leaders and teachers’ beliefs and assumptions, as part of changing practice (Stoll et al., 2012; Timperley et al., 2007). Reflecting the messages in Cordingley et al.’s synthesis, an international comparison of school leadership development in seven different countries by the consulting firm McKinsey found that professional development for leaders was most effective when it was applied and embedded within the contexts where leaders work, and that leaders benefit when learning from each other.

How and by whom was our programme designed?

Intended to meet Spanish school leaders’ needs and priorities, our programme is a product of an in-depth co-design process led by specialists from the UCL Centre for Educational Leadership[1] (CEL), in collaboration with Spanish educational consultants, school leaders, teacher inspectors, policymakers and academics from different universities and autonomous regions. The process included:

  1. school visits and semi-structured interviews with head teachers leading fully state-funded and state-subsidised schools in different regions of Spain (Catalonia and Madrid)
  2. focus groups of academics, system leaders and school leaders from the same regions of Spain, testing key concepts and tools for use in the programme and developing the overall learning model
  3. co-design workshops with the same group

submission of programme materials to an Advisory Board of academics from seven Spanish universities (UAB, UB, UCM, Deusto, UGR, UPV / EHU, UVic-UCC)[2] and system leaders for feedback and refinement.

[1] The UCL Centre for Educational Leadership is a “world-leading centre for knowledge creation, exchange and application to promote high quality leadership, management and learning in education in London, the UK and internationally”.

[2]Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB); University of Barcelona (UB); Complutense University of Madrid (UCM); University of Deusto (Deusto); University of Granada (UGR);  University of the Basque Country (UPV / EHU);  University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC).

What is the content of the programme?

Though the co-design process, and drawing on the leadership models and empirical foundations referenced above, it was decided that the programme should cover the following key themes:

  1. learning about leadership (including leadership identity and developing a language to reflect on your leadership)
  2. leading learning: pedagogy and professional development
  3. leading innovation
  4. leading learning organisations
  5. leading people and teams.

Key texts for the programme included, amongst others: Kools & Stoll (2016), Leithwood et al. (2020), Robinson (2017), Guskey (2000), Stoll et al. (2006) and Dumont et al. (2010).

What is the learning model for the programme?

The learning model draws on the principles for effective professional learning set out by Cordingley et al. (2012), Stoll et al. (2012) and Timperley et al. (2007) above and intends to encourage critical reflection that allows participants to connect theory and practice. As Figure 1 illustrates, this is a year-long programme that combines face-to-face sessions delivered over three phases of three days each, with geographically organised learning group coaching between sessions. As they progress, using the knowledge gained from the programme, participants are expected to carry out school-based leadership for change projects, using CEL’s impact for change model (Earley & Porritt, 2014) and Guskey’s (2000) impact evaluation model to ensure a focus on evidence and improved outcomes for their students. 

Figure 2: The programme learning model

Image 2

 Source: produced by authors.

Face-to-face sessions are led by CEL specialists, alongside a team of Spanish facilitators trained by the same institution. Building the capacity of local facilitators to co-deliver the face-to-face sessions with CEL specialists and facilitate regional learning groups is a core element of the preparation and design process.

The geographically organised learning groups – composed of 3-4 school pairs each – provide interphase peer support for parti­cipants and develop learning-focused collaborative leadership networks across Spain. Based on a coaching approach, they are intended to help leaders in the programme find solutions to challenges related to their leadership for change projects; supporting non-hierarchical critical and constructive peer challenge; creating space for collective and individual reflection; and encouraging leaders to commit to action, while being held to account by their peers.

Who are our participants?

A first edition of the programme has been fully completed (from July 2019 to December 2020) and a second one, which started in July 2021, is currently running and expected to be finished in July 2022[1]. Each edition has been opened up to a cohort of 100 head teachers and senior leaders from 50 schools (participants are asked to attend in school pairs), which were selected considering the following criteria: capacity for change; capacity to sustain potential improvements; school context and characteristics. The first cohort was composed of school leaders from 13 Spanish autonomous regions, 74% of them belonging to fully state-funded schools and 26% to state-subsidised schools. The second cohort brings together school leaders from 9 Spanish autonomous regions, 72% coming from fully state-funded schools and 28% from state-subsidised schools. 

[1] Each programme edition is intended to have a length of 12 months. However, COVID pandemic restrictions prevented face-to-face delivery of the third phase of the first edition as planned in month 12.  Instead, it was delivered online in month 17. 

Evidence of the impact of the programme on participants and their schools

Before, during and after the first edition of the programme, we gathered evidence of participants’ perceptions of their learning and the development of their leadership practice. The main instruments for this were an anonymised questionnaire completed by all participants at the beginning and end of the programme, and a series of 3 anonymised evaluation forms completed by participants at the end of each programme phase. The questionnaire elicited participants’ perceptions of their practice across a range of empirically based dimensions of leadership using closed questions, whilst the evaluation forms included a more explicit focus on participants’ perceptions of their leadership learning and development in the programme. Taken together, these provide a rich data set from which to draw preliminary conclusions about the early impact of the programme.

Headline findings: participant evaluations

97% of participants in the programme reported a perception of positive changes in their schools because of their participation in the programme. The same percentage perceived positive changes in their teaching staff. 83% of participants perceived their learning in the programme to have led to a positive impact on students.

At the end of the programme, we asked all participants the same open question: ‘what are you now doing differently as leaders, as a result of your participation in the programme?’ A thematic analysis of responses showed that participants reported substantial changes to their leadership in 3 fundamental thematic areas: 51% of participants reported that they were distributing leadership more widely in their schools; 43% reported a shift in their practice towards evidence-informed leadership and 30% reported a greater focus on leading professional learning. These dimensions of leadership can be understood in a range of ways. So how did our participants express them in their accounts?

  • Participants expressed distributed leadership as: sharing leadership more equally between members of the senior leadership team; in some cases expanding the senior leadership team; in most cases sharing or delegating decision-making (rather than just tasks); identifying potential leaders who are not in formal leadership positions, and developing and empowering them. ​
  • Participants understood evidence-informed leadership mainly in relation to the use of different kinds of evidence in decision-making, planning of new initiatives and evaluation of impact. Evidence for our participants was mainly internal evidence related to teacher practice and student outcomes – gathered formally and informally – although some participants also described drawing on external sources of evidence, such as educational research which might support the development of a school’s teaching and learning strategy. ​
  • Participants described collaborative approaches to leading professional learning, such as peer-observation, coaching and mentoring, as well as shared curriculum planning.​

These dimensions of leadership are clearly intertwined and co-dependent. It is therefore not surprising that many participants reported changes in their leadership in 2 out of 3 or all 3 areas. The authors would suggest that it may be the combined changes in participants’ leadership practice in these areas that has made the difference to schools, teachers and students that participants perceived.

Headline findings: questionnaire

Participants were asked a series of closed questions about their leadership identity and practice before their participation in the programme and then asked the same questions at the end of the programme. They responded using either a 4-point scale (never or rarely; sometimes; often; very often) or a 6-point scale (disagree strongly; disagree moderately; disagree slightly; agree slightly, agree moderately; agree strongly). They were asked to consider their practice over the previous 12 months when deciding their responses. Overall, questionnaire responses which related to the 3 dimensions of leadership mentioned above (distributed leadership, evidence-informed leadership, and leading professional learning) similarly indicate that participants made positive changes in these areas and provide some more detail on the nature of these changes.

Participants’ responses indicated that leadership was being distributed more widely amongst the staff body:

  • 89% either agreed moderately or strongly that they promote leadership development amongst teachers (compared to 73% prior to the programme)
  • Only 26% agreed moderately or strongly that most leadership tasks in their schools are carried out by the head teacher and leadership team (compared to 44% prior to the programme)
  • Only 17% agreed moderately or strongly that very few teachers take on leadership tasks (compared to 35% prior to the programme).

There was a strong sense that not only leadership activities, but also leadership decisions were being shared: 100% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that their school provided staff with opportunities to actively participate in school decisions.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of participants’ questionnaire responses was their engagement with evidence to improve teaching and learning:

  • 67% agreed moderately or strongly that they encourage staff to use evidence when planning for individual pupil needs (compared to 37% prior to the programme)
  • 84% agreed moderately or strongly that they use pupils’ academic achievement data to make most decisions about school improvement (compared to 64% prior to the programme)
  • 72% agreed moderately or strongly that they incorporate research evidence into their decision-making with regard to teachers’ practice (compared to 48% prior to the programme).

Participants’ responses in relation to leadership of professional learning should be seen in the context of national data on teacher participation in professional learning activities in Spain. The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is an international large-scale survey of teachers and school leaders in OECD countries. It provides information for national policymakers and allows for international comparisons between different education systems. The most recent survey in 2018 reported that attending courses and seminars is a very popular form of professional learning amongst teachers in Spain (72% of teachers participate in this kind of training). However, only 19% of teachers in Spain participate in training based on peer learning and coaching and only 24% report participating in a network of teachers, much lower than the OECD averages (44% and 40%) and amongst the lowest of all countries participating in the TALIS survey. The country report notes that ‘the results are particularly worrisome given the fact that across the OECD, teachers report that professional development based on collaboration and collaborative approaches to teaching is the most impactful for them’ (OECD, 2019). In participant questionnaires at the end of our programme:

  • 89% reported that they often or very often take action to support cooperation among teachers to develop new teaching practices (compared to 66% prior to the programme)
  • 79% agreed moderately or strongly that they promote a range of professional learning experiences among all staff (compared to 65% prior to the programme)
  • 51% agreed moderately or strongly that they use coaching and mentoring to improve the quality of teaching (compared to 24% prior to the programme)

These responses reinforce the conclusion that through their participation in the programme, school leaders not only gave greater priority to supporting the professional learning of their staff, but that the professional learning they now lead is collaborative in nature and focused on improving pedagogy. It is worth noting, however, that only 48% of our participants reported that they often or very often observe teaching in classrooms (compared to 35% prior to the programme). This suggests that there is still more to be done in engaging many participants directly with the classroom practice of their teachers and indicates that their schools are yet to develop a culture of classroom observation.

Limitations of the programme and the evidence of impact shared here

As Ritacco & Bolívar (2018) pointed out, there are limits to what professional development programmes can achieve where national and regional frameworks for school leadership roles that emphasise educational leadership are yet to be developed. Despite the progress noted in our introduction, Bolívar (2021) emphasised that Spain remains an international exception in not having developed a professionalised pathway for school leaders, focused on leading learning. As he puts it:

The possibilities of exercising pedagogical leadership, committed to improvement, requires both autonomy and the capacity of schools to make key pedagogical or management decisions, as well as professionalised school management.

The authors are clear that the early evidence of impact we present in this article should be seen in the context of Bolívar’s observations about the current tensions around the school leadership role in Spain.

In addition, we share our evidence of impact tentatively here. Further qualitative research is needed to understand the different ways in which programme participants are applying their learning from the programme. For example, we know that a significant proportion of our first cohort of participants perceive themselves to be distributing leadership more widely in their schools. But what exactly does this look like in practice and what impact is this distribution of leadership having? Another limitation of the findings presented here is that they are drawn from an evaluation of the short-term impact of the programme. We know that improvement in schools takes time and changing leaders’ and teachers’ practice does not happen overnight. Longitudinal evaluation of the impact of the programme, including case studies of participants’ leadership over time, might enable more confident claims about the impacts of the programme on participants and the schools they serve.

Relevance to higher education settings: questions to consider

We understand that many readers of this article will be working in higher education institutions or policy roles related to higher education, rather than in primary or secondary schools. We therefore conclude with some questions to prompt reflection on leadership and leadership development in university settings. If you work in a university, we invite you to consider these in relation to your own institution. Otherwise, we invite you to consider the questions in relation to universities in your national system.

  • What might a model of ‘leadership for learning’ look like in universities?
  • Is the Schools as Learning Organisations (SLO) model relevant to universities? If so, how?
  • To what extent could your university be described as a ‘learning organisation’, using the definition in this article? Which of the 7 dimensions are present and which might be priorities for development?
  • To what extent is leadership of pedagogy in universities typically ‘evidence-informed’? How is evidence of academic teaching and student learning / academic attainment used to improve teaching and learning in universities?
  • To what extent and how do those with leadership roles in universities prioritise the professional learning of academic staff in relation to pedagogy?
  • What networks are university leaders part of and how do these support their development?
  • What does peer learning and coaching look like in the university context? Could it be used more to develop the pedagogy of academics?
  • To what extent and how is leadership distributed in universities? Is there potential for a more distributed model, and what might the impact of this be?
  • How are potential leaders identified, grown and supported in universities? Does our programme offer any perspectives that might be helpful in developing new leaders?

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