Education policy, distributed leadership and socio-cultural theory

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Colleges, School and Institutes


A current characteristic of governance in the public services in England is the advocacy of a permeation of once-discrete organizational and professional structures. New configurations are being called for. Examples are extended schools, workforce re-modelling, and multi-agency working. At issue here is a further indication of this loosening of hitherto discrete roles and structures: that of distributed leadership. When formulated, all of these policies lacked an evidence-base which justified them. To some extent this was due to a weak theoretical base. Emerging as a prominent theoretical position to inform distributed leadership is socio-cultural theory, which includes distributed cognition and activity theory. Two conclusions are drawn from the study here. First, an analysis of the most important contribution to this research - that generated by Spillane and his colleagues in the US - points up some important discontinuities between the socio-cultural approach adopted and its empirical endeavours. That is to say, whilst adhering to a socio-cultural position which regards only process as having any ontological status, Spillane's research nevertheless appears to assign ontological status also to individual agents. Second, in contrast to Engestrom's socio-cultural activity theory, Spillane's socio-cultural approach under-theorizes the question of power in distributed leadership.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-150
Number of pages12
JournalEducational Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2009


  • education policy, socio-cultural theory, distributed leadership