Profiling Style Differences in the Management of Special Education:

leadership in the special school


Steve Rayner, University of Birmingham, UK.


Paul Hallam (Research Student)



The role of leadership and management in determining the nature and quality of education at all levels is widely acknowledged. Similarly, the individual characteristics of the school head teacher, for example, leadership personality, ability, personal qualities and management style are often identified as key factors to school effectiveness. It is surprising, then, to realise that very little attention has been paid to leadership or management of special education in the educational world.

The current research is aimed at exploring the question of individual differences in the activity of special education management and the task of leadership in a special school. The researchers have set out of develop a working profile of style differences in educational management which would arguably have implications for head teachers' personal development and professional performance. The question of generalising the findings of the research project beyond the special school presents both an interesting and potentially far reaching set of issues for the field of educational management.

The contribution made to the symposium would take the form of firstly, presenting a model for profiling management style, and secondly, reporting phase 1 findings in the investigation of inter-relationships between cognitive style and management approaches associated with or preferred by the individual head teacher.

Theoretical background

Although it seems self-evident that individual differences will undoubtedly effect personal performance as a manager, there is relatively little attention given to the notions of leadership personality or individual variables affecting the success or failure of managers in the task of management. Simons and Thompson's (1998) review of the literature on factors affecting managerial decision-making, for example, reflected this view. They found that research into the characteristics of leadership as a process was widespread, but that research into the role of the individual manager's characteristics and values was not forthcoming.

Similarly, Rayner and Ribbins (1999) argued that while headship is universally acknowledged as a key factor in school effectiveness, it is the characteristics of leadership rather than the leaders themselves which have commanded the attention and interest of educational researchers. This neglect has been further compounded in the area of special education by the general blight of activity looking at leadership or management.

There are a number of possible approaches to investigating individual difference in leaders and managers, but the one adopted here reflects the research into cognitive style and learning strategies described by Riding and Rayner (1998). The significance of the style construct is reflected in the claim made by these authors that 'cognitive style may well turn out to be the missing element in the study of individual differences'. Of interest here, however, is the extension of this approach to the area of educational management.

The implications of cognitive style and learning strategies, as part of an individual's general approach to dealing with information and the social world is fascinating. It is, for example, evident to most practitioners that the personal qualities of a manager so obviously determine outcomes and influence processes or activity. The idea that personal behaviour, no matter what the context, will reflect cognitive style, as well as knowledge, skill and experience, is similarly easy to imagine and supported in the literature (Schroder, 1989; Hayes and Allinson, 1994; Kirton, 1994; Driver, 1999).

There is, moreover, every indication, as pointed out by Streufert and Nogami (1989) that management performance is consistently affected by stable variables such as cognitive and action tendencies that are applied across tasks. Such variables might include attitudes, abilities (specific knowledge or practical skills), but also a relatively stable style profile of response patterns to the task of leadership and management. Such an interaction of psychological dimensions forms an intriguing possibility - the profiling of individual differences which make up the individual's consistently preferred approach to management.


The study

The first phase of the research will take the form of a study examining the personal characteristics of approximately 200 head teachers of special schools in the Midlands (UK). The special schools will reflect a range of type reflected in the continuum of Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision. This provision will represent the special school phase maintained by 12 Local Education Authorities.

The participants will be invited to respond to a questionnaire about their personal approach to management and leadership; to complete the cognitive styles analysis (Riding, 1991); and a selected sample will be invited to take part in a series of follow-up interviews aimed at eliciting case study material.

Data collected will be analysed to provide information on:

evidence of individual difference variables forming a person's general approach to the task of leadership and management;

the inter-action between factors identified as forming a consistent set of management strategies and an individual's cognitive style;

the development of a construct for management style.

The information gathered in Phase 1 will be used in the subsequent development of profiling style differences in leadership and management of special schools. It is anticipated that further studies will seek to explore the implications and utility of such a profile in the selection and continuing professional development of Headteachers in special education.




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