Communal Leadership and Social Justice

The absolute aim of this blog is to ignite debate and provoke interaction and conversation amongst those interested in its theme and content. I very much welcome, therefore, your thoughts, comments and challenges. Please post these as comments below or email me at

I have an ever growing interest in community organising and will begin by posting some of my collected thoughts and let this space evolve. I have extensive experience in school leadership and a particular interest in family engagement and home-school-community partnership. I am completing a doctorate at Manchester University. My research is on home-school partnership working through building relational trust and achieving a more equitable partnership

We live in a world in which social divisions are widening not lessening. It is my belief that community development and commitment to social justice and sustainability requires an understanding of how power works at every level. A few years ago my interest in this dynamic was sparked by Warren and Mapp’s brilliant work reported in A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform. The authors locate the problems of public education in the US as grounded in unequal power relations in a socially and economically stratified society. Contextually different to the UK, maybe, but what can we learn from descriptions and analysis of ‘active participation’ in works such as Warren and Mapp’s?

The focus of this particular blog post is communal and relational leadership and an understanding of how that might be exercised to impact home-school-community partnership building.

Writing in 1887, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies introduced the terms gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (society) in highlighting and examining the shift away from a vision of life as sacred community and toward a more secular society. The transition from a hunting and gathering society to an agricultural society, and then on to an industrial society, he says, have seen community values replaced by contractual ones. In 1992, Sergiovanni argued for a change in our theory of schooling and the extraction of modern day schools from the gesellschaft camp. Not advocating a polar swing, rather, ‘to build gemeinschaft within gesellschaft’. That, in order to revive a sense of common membership; community of kinship, of place, and of mind. A mutual binding to a common goal and shared set of values. My interest is how schools might cultivate relationships with families and local community in order that such an authentic sense of community be invoked.

Blau and Scott (1962) say that communities are socially organised around relationships and the felt interdependencies that nurture them. I have an interest in social interactions across the school community and how the building of relational trust might address issues around relational power. Bryk and Schneider (1996) task leaders with taking actions that reduce parents’ sense of vulnerability in social interactions that take place in and around school. They see trust very much as a precondition for authentic participation in partnerships. Relational trust is based on perceived respect, competence, integrity, and personal regard for others, and depends on reciprocity. Need we think then on the nature of social interactions taking place in and around the school community and problematize the case for authentic partnership?

Modern day schools operate in a high stakes, ‘standards’ driven domain. School leaders are held accountable in a way they never have been before. School leaders also have a direct influence on shaping a school climate of trust and belonging. What is it that relational leadership has to offer a vision that is based on empowerment of others? One in which leadership lies not in the position given, but in the position taken (Foster, 1986). Should we, therefore, focus on forms of communal leadership and how that might advance understanding of the position school leaders might take, accepting that school leaders do have a direct influence on shaping a school climate of trust and belonging through “boundary-spanning interactions” with families and local community (Adams et al.,2009).

Let us take a guiding definition for authentic partnership from Susan Auerbach’s work on conceptualising leadership for authentic partnerships:

Authentic partnerships are respectful alliances among educators, families and community groups that value relationship building, dialogue across difference, and sharing power in pursuit of a common purpose in socially just, democratic schools.

And a guiding definition for relational power as defined by Warren and Mapp (2011):

‘If unilateral power emphasises power “over”, relational power emphasises power “with” others, or building the power to accomplish common aims’.

What is meant by partnerships between parents and professionals? Carol Vincent problematizes the term partnership. In common parlance, a partnership means a relationship of cooperation, shared responsibility, mutual benefit, and voluntary participation. Vincent suggests that in education, it is a “diffuse concept” meant to “invoke a warm glow of equality and joint endeavor” (Vincent, 1996, p. 466), as seen in school mission statements that reference it.

How and why can a partnership between parents and professionals be set up to bring about change? During the taught part of the EdD programme at Manchester, I was privileged to attend a seminar in Manchester led by Etienne Wenger where he shared and we debated his research on Communities of Practice. Wenger identifies three dimensions that he says are the source of coherence of a community of practice: mutual engagement; a joint enterprise; and a shared repertoire. Thinking on a more authentic home-school-community partnership would benefit from the drawing of parallels with Wenger’s conceptualisation because, necessarily, group members are engaged in actions which meanings they negotiate with one another in actively participating. Wenger’s second characteristic of practice as a source of community coherence is the negotiation of a joint enterprise:

It is defined by the participants in the very process of pursuing it. It is their negotiated response to their situation and thus belongs to them in a profound sense, in spite of all the forces and influences that are beyond their control.

(Wenger, 1998, p. 77)

Wenger postulates that education in its deepest sense concerns the opening of identities, ‘exploring new ways of being that lie beyond our current state’. If professionals and parents are to bring about change then, I believe, a new way of being so far as home-school-community partnership is concerned must prevail.

What are the power dimensions in such a partnership, and how might relational trust be developed? We talk a lot about school culture but what do we actually mean by this? For sure, it is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. Smyth et al. (2014) say that in examining school culture we need to be especially mindful of relations of power – these can sometimes work collaboratively, or they can be coercive. They advocate a focus on school culture if we are to be serious about substantive school reform. They emphasise the crucial importance of inter-relationships between people in schools. They underscore the socially constructed nature of schools; suggesting we map the “cultural geography” of the school so as to have a clearer idea of where the school has come from and where it might be headed. Sergiovani (1992) distinguishes between what he calls the lifeworld of schools – values, beliefs, interactions – and the rules of the system world. He says:

Any attempt to thoughtfully reform schools will have to address the creation of schools as authentic social spaces in which students, their parents, school professionals, and the surrounding community are deeply understood, respected, and empowered” (p. 10)

I have quite deliberately weaved together a number of theories and thinking from those in the field. That, I hope, will challenge thinking.  Ultimately, a sharing of ideas, along with challenging and open debate may lead to our collective contribution; the offering of a new conceptual framework for communal and relational leadership in, around and of our schools. Also, a new way of activism for parent, community and professional partnerships. Let’s go… Let us debate and create…



Adams, C.M., Forsyth, P.B., & Mitchell, R.M. (2009) The formation of parent-trust: A multilevel analysis, Educational Administration Quarterly, 45(4). p.4-33.

Auerbach, S. (ed.) (2012) School Leadership for Authentic Family and Community Partnerships: Research Perspectives for Transforming Practice, New York: Routledge

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B. (2002) Trust in Schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B (1996) Social trust: A moral resource for school improvement. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Bryk, A. S., Bender Sebring, P., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S. and Eatson, J. Q. (2010) Organising Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Foster, W. (1986) Paradigms and Promises: New Approaches to Educational Administration: New York: Prometheus

Sergiovanni, T.J. (1994) Building Community in Schools, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smyth, J., Down, B., McInerney, P. (2014) The Socially Just School: Making Space for Youth to Speak Back, new York: Springer

Warren, M. R. and Mapp, K. L. (2011) A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform, Oxford: OUP.

Vincent, C. (1996) Parental empowerment? Collective action and inaction in education, Oxford Review of Education, 22(4), p.4656-4682.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: CUP.