Empowerment and school leadership: How empowered do you feel?

Written by: Jonathan Cordiner | Published:
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As we move through an age of empowerment, Jonathan Cordiner considers and challenges what empowerment is, what it really looks like, and what it means to and for headteachers

What does empowerment mean for schools? This is becoming an increasingly important question and one which is not as easy to answer as you might think.

In 2022, following the OECD review of Scottish education and as part of on-going education reform, Professor Ken Muir conducted a review and wrote the report Putting learners at the centre: Towards a future vision for Scottish education (2022).

In this, he identifies a challenge we face in Scotland in relation to empowerment, in that “the language of empowerment and autonomy is increasingly more apparent and subject to various interpretations and uncertainties”.

This is set against the backdrop of the government’s ambitious, collective endeavour to build an empowered, connected and self-improving system. Evidence of how this continues to shape the direction of travel for Scottish education can be found in the Empowered System – an online tool available through Education Scotland’s National Improvement Hub.

So, empowerment is considered crucial to education – but what does it look like? My intention in this article is simply to challenge our views on what we mean by empowerment, and also to submit that a collective understanding of the term is an essential ingredient of an empowered system.

What does empowerment mean?

The notion that there is a lack of clarity when it comes to what we mean by empowerment, particularly in education, is something of particular interest to me.

For the past two years, I have been part of a collaborative research project where we worked together as six headteachers from across Scotland, to get a better sense of where leaders felt we were nationally, and where we potentially needed to move next, in relation to empowerment.

Our research and recommendations would be presented to the Scottish government, alongside several other “think-pieces”, with the intention of headteachers across the country having the opportunity to “nudge the system”.

After two years of practical and academic research, one of our key observations was: “There is a lack of clarity around the term ‘Head Teacher Empowerment’ and consequently the systemic conditions required to establish a culture of empowerment. In practice, there is little by way of shared understanding of the term.”

We interviewed many headteachers and leaders across the country in coming to this observation. Time and time again, a commonly perceived view of empowerment related almost entirely to having the freedom and the autonomy to allow for local decision-making.

As well as exploring perceptions of empowerment, we also talked to professionals about how empowered they felt. But of course, how empowered one feels will hinge massively on the interpretation of empowerment.

If someone holds a view that empowerment is primarily about having the autonomy to allow for local decision-making, the extent to which they feel empowered will be largely determined by how that particular matter manifests in their local context.

The fact that there is little by way of a shared understanding of what empowerment means to us therefore makes it challenging, or almost impossible, to progress our efforts in terms of building an empowered system.

Empowerment goes beyond ‘having the power’

At the outset of this research, I recall vividly an opportunity that I had to spend an hour with our head of service and director of education and children’s services.

Both were passionate about our empowerment journey in Aberdeenshire, and both encouraged me to consider the fact that key to building an empowered system is understanding empowerment in a broader sense. For us, empowerment has to be so much more than the distribution or devolution of power.

There is no doubt that an important feature of an empowered system is that of school communities having the autonomy to make the right decisions for their local contexts. But this is only one part of an empowered system.

Indeed, I have come to consider this to be one of the many branches of the “empowerment tree”. I was encouraged to ensure we do not view empowerment as a transaction, as a process, or simply as means of devolving powers from one place to another, but instead to think of empowerment as “a way of being”.

If we want to build an empowered system, we need to look at the system as a whole, and the roles everyone plays, and the togetherness and strengths of the relationships across our system.

A key finding from our research was that a strong culture of empowerment can only be achieved through collective efficacy and the success of a system’s empowerment will be largely dependent on the strength of the relationships.

But as we consider empowerment in a wider way, there is a slight tension, or paradox even. Yes, in education a feature of empowerment is school communities having the keys to open the doors that are right for our individual contexts. But, alongside this, another feature of empowerment is our togetherness, our collaborative working and the strength of the relationships across schools, communities, local education authorities, governments, and the wider system.

Connected autonomy

As we unpack this paradox, I believe Professor Michael Fullan helps us with this tension. In Prof Fullan’s Right Drivers for Whole System Success (2021), he emphasises the importance of being “simultaneously connected but autonomous”.

He goes on to explore “connected autonomy” as a key theme of “systemness”. He defines systemness as a sense that all people at all levels are the system, and therefore all individuals have responsibility to contribute to the system.

This chimes strongly with the notion that being part of an empowered system is about a “way of being” and not as a result of transactional processes. All people working collectively together at all levels across all parts of the system is what will foster “connected autonomy”. So somehow, our journeys must be both independent and shared.

Prof Fullan further argues a system will never change by “a bunch of leaders leading the way” and that a truly empowered system has meaningful responsibility at all levels. This has important implications for headteachers and leaders in education.

As leaders in education, we of course heavily subscribe to promoting distributive leadership, and leadership at all levels. We would all have this leadership style in our toolkit, I am sure. But have we considered how important this approach is in terms of empowerment, and what a powerful lever this could be in terms of building an empowered system?

Empowering others

Once again, empowerment goes way beyond simply “having the power”. Perhaps another branch on the empowerment tree, and another important feature of an empowered system, is the extent to which we are all empowering others.

Education Scotland (2020) states: “Evidence from the OECD and elsewhere demonstrates that leaders, at all levels, who are empowered and collaborative, and who empower others, are well placed to ensure the highest quality of learning and teaching.”

So, empowerment is also very much about how we as leaders, empower others to build capacity in the system. Rushing (2016) states that empowerment is about “having a sense of oneself as someone with capacity”.

She argues empowerment is less about power and more about capacity. As leaders, we know our ability to build capacity in our communities is heavily dependent on the quality of the relationships that we harvest. Therefore, a key feature of an empowered system, and a key ingredient in order for a culture of empowerment to thrive, is high-quality relationships built within an ethos of trust and respect.

Empowerment is about so much more than the process of devolving power. It is about so much more than having the desired levels of autonomy. Being part of an empowered system is to contribute to a system that is self-improving, that invests in its stakeholders, that works collegiately and collectively on common goals, that combines expertise from across the system on account of the strong bonds that we continue to forge.

Empowerment is not the transaction between government and schools, or between local authorities and headteachers. Empowerment is about our togetherness and our systemness (Fullan, 2021).

Systemness is a fundamental attribute of an empowered system, and it is about all people, at all levels, being the system and not the system being led or dictated. An empowered system is one where everyone has the opportunity and responsibility to learn from each other.

What is your role?

So, as we consider how empowered we feel, let’s not only consider the powers and freedoms we have versus the ones we would like. Let’s consider the system as a whole and our role in it. Let’s consider the strengths of the links across the system, and the extent to which expertise from cross-sector relationships continues to impact positively on children and families.

Let’s consider how our relationships and opportunities within local authorities and governments continue to provide a “connected autonomy”. Let’s consider the extent to which we are investing in others, building leadership across the system and creating appropriate conditions for us all to learn from one another.

As it stands, I believe that as a profession we remain unclear in terms of our understanding and definition of empowerment, headteacher empowerment, and school empowerment.

It is clear that there is an extent to which the term empowerment will (rightly) remain open to interpretation, and I would not try and submit a specific definition. It will look and feel different in every context and in every system.

But if we are to succeed in our quest in terms of building an empowered system that provides equity and excellence for all, best we continue to work together to at least build a shared understanding, broadly speaking, of what we mean by empowerment. This starts with us.

  • Jonathan Cordiner is quality improvement officer at Aberdeenshire Council.

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