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Tropes and Tall Tales: Leadership in the neoliberalised world of English academies

Clarke, Matthew and Hammersley-Fletcher, Linda (2020) Tropes and Tall Tales: Leadership in the neoliberalised world of English academies. In: Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research. Critical Studies in Educational Leadership, Management and Administration . Routledge. ISBN 9780367145293

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Abstract

Tropes and tales of heroic leadership are a common feature of media analyses and discussions of education. In the UK, for example, we see this phenomenon in reports of the so-called ‘superheads’, who are parachuted in to ‘turn around’ what are deemed to be ‘failing’ schools and more latterly, in cases of schools that are forced into academisation and taken into an Academy Trust to be ‘managed’ towards improved performance. These instances reflect a cult of leadership and embody a widespread faith in the potential of 'transformational' or 'visionary' leaders to redeem our institutions and our society. In other words, the discourses surrounding leadership speak to our deeply cherished, if potentially conflicting, desires for knowledge, power, purpose, security, freedom and a better world. At the same time, however, a growing body of literature questions the existence of leadership as a phenomenon (Lakomski, Eacott, & Evers, 2016; Samier, 2016), insisting on its imaginary and rhetorical, rather than ‘real’, status. Against this background, the current chapter is based on an analysis of interviews conducted with the senior leadership of a medium-sized multi-academy trust (MAT) comprising a group of schools that have been forced by Government to join an academy as a result of being judged as poorly performing through inspection processes. The academy trust at the centre of this chapter explicitly seeks to offer a rounded form of education to those from backgrounds traditionally excluded from such circles. The MAT thus advocates a strong social justice agenda, seeking to attract schools judged to be problematic in terms of of performance, typically located in areas of socio-economic deprivation, the tensions between this agenda and the competitive logics underpinning government policy notwithstanding. Our analysis is based on interviews with three members of the trust leadership and explores the imaginary constructions of leadership identity generated by participants during the interviews. In particular, we highlight how the hierarchical, competitive symbolic regime of the current neoliberal education policy context inevitably intrudes into these leadership identities. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the implications of these insights for leadership studies and practices, as well as for educational policy at a time of neoliberal intensification.

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