Nursery teachers as leaders and managers: A pedagogical and subsidiarity model of leadership

Lunn, Paul

Nursery teachers within primary schools are responsible for a distinctive phase in the education of young pupils. They also work within teams, including at least one other professional member: the nursery nurse. This potential leadership and management role is the area of interest for the research. In particular we focus upon the meaning of both management and leadership for each nursery teacher within her own nursery unit.

Interest in this area of study is a result of the growing literature on school effectiveness and school improvement, in particular those findings which point to the strong correlation between effective schools, the ability of schools to self-improve and effective leadership. HMCI (1999) has noticed that effective schools are schools that are well led. There is a realisation that leadership in effective schools does not reside solely in the head teacher.

Normative management theory views the collegial model as the one most likely to result in an effective school (Campbell, 1985; Mortimore, 1998). Nurseries have been acknowledged as the most effective phase with regard to management and leadership (HMCI, 1999), yet research into approaches and strategies with regard to leadership and management in nursery settings is extremely scarce (Rodd, 1998). There is currently a highly facilitative policy context for developing such approaches and strategies because of the priorities given to Early Years provision by the government. Yet this is an area where, we feel, there needs to be an extremely close articulation between policy, research and practice. In this article we elaborate a theoretical and critical basis for such an articulation, focusing in particular upon shared leadership within nursery units in primary schools. It is this sharedness that is seen as a strength, `the foundation of their work and corporate life is an acceptance of shared values’ (HMI, 1977, cited in Preedy, 1993).

We would also acknowledge a complementary interest in the notion of feminine leadership styles (Hall, 1996; Ozga, 1993; Rodd, 1998), which are seen as being characterised by the desire to empower and acknowledge expertise: using `power to empower rather than dominate’ (Hall, 1996). Furthermore the characteristics of feminine leadership styles are seen as being more effective in post-industrial society (ibid.) because they are facilitative rather than authoritarian (Kinney, cited in Hall, 1996). We would agree with Grant’s prediction that the future of management and leadership is ‘female’ because the attributes of feminine management and leadership are co-operation, diplomacy, communication and insight (Hall, 1996). Fullan (1992) goes even further to state, `As a group women are more likely to evidence behaviour associated with effective leadership.’ This is because `they are predicated on different values’ (Ozga, 1993).

We asked an LEA senior adviser, with responsibility for Early Years, to choose six nursery teachers for us to interview. Her selection was based upon our request that she should choose nursery teachers who were typical of a kind (Schofield, 1993), a kind who were leaders/managers, so that we could interview and analyse the phenomenon. She negotiated access for us with the head teachers, and through the head teachers we gained access to nursery teachers willing to take part in the project. All leaders and staff in the nurseries visited were women. All the teachers had worked in Early Years for many years and with the same local education authority, with the result that they were all very familiar with the High/Scope (Hohmann et al., 1979) approach to Early Years education.

The intention was to explore the nursery teachers’ understanding of the terms ‘leader’ and ‘manager’ and what meaning such terms had for them in how they see their role. The ideas would be examined by interviewing six nursery teachers in six separate primary schools, all within the same local education authority. All six nurseries are situated in a local authority’s county primary schools. But they could be some distance apart. The physical situation of the nurseries was interesting, in relation to the main buildings of the primary schools of which they were a part, as in most cases they were housed in a separate building. In one instance the nursery, although part of the primary school, was several miles away.

This isolation gave the units a unique quality. One of the nursery teachers spoke of the nursery unit as a `mini-school’. Sergiovanni (1998) talks about a `community of practice’ which, because of the need for a small community of like-minded professionals, is `more likely to emerge… [as a] school within a school’. Another nursery teacher commented, `It’s different for me because I’m over here.’ A recurring theme when explaining why they as nursery class teachers had greater leadership and management opportunities was because they were physically isolated from the main site of the primary school.

This physical isolation was often curricular too. One nursery teacher said the `working ethos’ (of the rest of the primary school) made her feel `like a leper … [in her] working ethos’. When questioned as to what it was about the working ethos that was different she said that she felt the main school was `setting them [the children] up to fail, because there is no understanding of child development and learning theory’. Concern with targets (or products) rather than processes (of learning) is a real worry of Early Years practitioners. This can be seen in the evidence given by Early Years practitioners in the QCA second report (1999) on the consultation exercise concerning Early Years goals. We would argue, therefore, that the expertise in child development should be acknowledged by the Teacher Training Agency in its work on standards for subject leaders and by OfStEd as a specialism which is crucial to school effectiveness.

We would note that the guidance documentation for Early Years development and childhood partnerships (DfEE, 1999) stresses the expectation that qualified teachers involved in Early Years settings will be Early Years specialists. The Teacher Training Agency expects to indicate how this will be achieved by June 2000 ( The Agency stresses that the recent decision to allow trainee teachers to have an Early Years rather than a subject specialism will aid this requirement. It is interesting that when providing a model for each subject leader to undertake monitoring and evaluation Gadsby and Harrison (1999) provide a separate model for Early Years. All the nursery teachers agreed about feeling separated from the rest of the primary school and therefore needing to act as a team leader for the nursery.

My colleague and I decided to adopt a life history approach. We asked the interviewees to tell us how they came to their present post. My colleague’s questions continued along these lines, whilst I, in categorising the interviewees’ responses, probed those comments which appeared to address concepts of leadership and management, asking for examples when the interviewee spoke in general terms.

All nursery teachers interviewed saw themselves as leaders and managers. It was equally clear that none had read widely, if at all, in the field of leadership and management. Nor had any received training. Yet it was equally clear that they had management responsibilities that were greater than those of the class teachers in their primary school: they managed budgets, including fund raising and the curriculum (for example, they had all written Early Years policies) for the nursery class. These responsibilities involved them in the management of physical resources: purchasing equipment, consumables and other needs of the team and planning their efficient and effective use. Their skills as leaders and managers were based upon their philosophy, which was embedded in child development theory and knowledge of Early Years practice. They acknowledged the value of working in teams, and through planning and evaluating their work they achieved their objects. The individual members of the team were equally valued by the nursery teachers, and all members were involved in giving the team feedback on how well the team was functioning. They were attempting, as Handy (1994) states, `to make teams, not individuals, the principal building blocks of [their] organisations’. They also acknowledged that as nursery class teachers they had more leadership and management responsibilities than other class teachers in the primary school.

It would appear from talking to the six nursery teachers that in all their work situations – that is, as a class within a primary school – the head teachers left the responsibility for teaching and learning with the nursery team. In doing so they acknowledged the expertise within the nursery team in the area of Early Years pedagogy. Peters (in Handy, 1994) acknowledges that this approach is seen to work where the unit is small and relations are close and where pride, mutual confidence and trust are explicit in practice. All of which becomes a powerful recipe for success when the centre (in the person of the head teacher) recognises what Handy (1994) refers to as `the well educated knowledge-worker [who] increasingly wants both freedom and structure’. One nursery teacher referred to herself as `the structure’ upon which the team depended. These interconnecting ideas describe the concept of subsidiarity, which, as a concept, `implies that the power properly belongs, in the first place, lower down or farther out’: in the nursery. This leaving the power where it should reside, a key concept of subsidiarity, is shown by the remark of one nursery teacher, when asked about the primary head teacher’s involvement in the nursery, that `He leaves it to me, really.’ One nursery teacher was also aware that her freedom to lead was based upon the increased status she enjoyed as a result of a successful OfStEd school inspection. She offered the comment `of course, we’ve got the ammunition of the OfStEd report’. Here she was referring to the report, in which her nursery was stated to be (she said) `the strength of the school’.

Nevertheless the freedom to work was limited by the head teacher’s perception of what power he should retain. He had retained the school budget, including the nursery. `He gives me 900 a year,’ she said, the key word being ‘gives’. `Oh yes, he’s the boss.’ But she did admit to being able to `lead him’ when she wanted something, referred to as `leading and managing upwards’ (Bell and Ritchie, 1999). She elaborated further: `It’s the strategies you use … it’s this knowing he likes the power, so he needs to feel in control … [So she says] It would be lovely if you could … [So he says] … I’ll do the best I can for you.’ She further explains his ultimate willingness to leave the decision making with her as due to the fact that `He trusts me.’

It was becoming increasingly clear as we interviewed the six nursery teachers that they had a clear idea of the importance of leadership to an organisation. Furthermore they viewed themselves as leaders/managers of the team. Other professional members were nursery nurses, supported further by volunteers, usually parents/carers. Certainly this leadership was collegial and visionary, but we felt that alone could not explain the success that the Early Years settings continually evidence, for example in OfStEd school inspections, in the area of teaching and learning.

Further questioning led us to suggest that their concepts of themselves as leaders were therefore embedded in the understanding of themselves first and foremost as teachers. This was clear to one nursery teacher when she was asked, `So what qualities do you think you need to be a good nursery leader/manager?’

`You’ve got to have a good understanding of – well, you’ve got to have, in my opinion, an understanding of Early Years development. It’s child development and learning.’

She also talked of the need for a philosophy on teaching and learning and the problems in training sessions with teachers who did not have a philosophy, or not one they could share with the rest of their team.

This is a key statement confirming our view that Early Years leaders are pedagogical leaders. One nursery teacher explicitly stated that the success of good Early Years practice, especially when contrasted with OfStEd data (OfStEd, 1999) on other key stages, was due to the fact that Early Years practitioners `work through observation… and we’re not tasked and targeting all the time’ by others. Any targeting is by the children. The children work to targets `they’ve set themselves’. Children working to their own targets was crucial to the nursery teachers. They felt that their colleagues’ concern with targets meant that they didn’t `want to know how children learn … [they] … just want to know about the end product and… test results … and I [get] very depressed about it … so it’s very frustrating, but I’ve passed the stage of being angry.’

This nursery teacher’s understanding of her role as a leader reinforces Sergiovanni’s (1998) understanding of some of the characteristics of pedagogical leadership:

[There is a] deep culture of teaching and learning … Teaching and learning provide the basis for making school decisions … leaders are committed that `form should follow function ….. teachers’ personal concern for student success … students to create knowledge for themselves … Schools with a strong and deep culture of teaching and learning know what they are about and communicate this to students.

Indeed, they often had difficulty in defining themselves as leaders: they kept returning to their perception of themselves as teachers interested in the learning of their children. Asked why they were successful leaders, they said it was because they had a curriculum that was successful. Sergiovanni (1998) refers to this as pedagogical leadership.

Owing to historical circumstances the local education authority in which these nursery classes were situated has a strong High/Scope tradition, adding to their strength in pedagogic matters. This strength in terms of children’s teaching and learning is well illustrated by the following comments made by one nursery teacher (talking about the pupils):

They don’t have the strategies, the problem-solving strategies …. it’s hard at the beginning [but] it works and so it’s lovely as the year goes on. So really that’s a big part of our management and the organisation of resources in areas where the children know where everything is … and they know they have got independence.

The concepts of pedagogical leadership and subsidiarity would appear to be two ideas with a common thread which can be used as a model to aid understanding of what the nursery teachers were saying about their leadership and management styles. Further, our understanding of these two concepts may help to explain the reasons why the Early Years curriculum is so effective in the area of teaching and learning.

Sergiovanni (1998) suggests that the key strength of pedagogical leadership is the fact that it `adds value to human capital’. To the nursery teacher it is the child’s learning and the valuing of this which is the crucial concern of her pedagogical model of leadership. It is interesting, given the concern of Early Years practitioners to create a caring ethos, that Sergiovanni continues, `Pedagogical leadership develops capital by helping schools become caring.’ One nursery teacher was keen to emphasise that her motivation was `listening, being involved, caring, being a leader.’

One nursery teacher saw this notion of human capital as `the knowledge’. The knowledge she was referring to was the knowledge of how Early Years children learn. This need for adults working with Early Years children to understand how they learn was the key opportunity for her to adopt the role of leader:

Q. Do all the professionals, including the students [from college] have the same understanding [of teaching and learning]?

A. Oh, well, obviously not, they don’t have the knowledge that we’ve got, but when they role-model it from us [the teachers] as well and we’ll say, watch us, watch what we do … get involved in the children’s play … we put great importance in actually getting involved in children’s play and then we talk about developing it.

This reveals the pedagogical style of leadership where leading and learning go together and leaders and followers reflect together (Bell and Ritchie, 1999). The sophistication level of leadership crucially depends upon the level of sophistication of the followers (Hersey and Blanchard, 1982, cited in Beare et al., 1993). The nursery teacher who emphasised her strong role as a trainer of nursery nurses identified this need for `sophisticated followers’ – indeed, she had an LEA-wide remit. `I’ve trained all the nursery nurses … [and] … made sure that the staff have got the curriculum implementation course.’ We noted from all the interviews the powerful level of reciprocal influence and shared purpose. We also noted that this pedagogy is very explicitly understood: it is concerned with teaching and learning practices being matched to the child’s level of development, and the process of learning is through play.

We were receiving a very strong picture of a pedagogy that was delivered collegially, as the team was very valued: it, not the individual, was the building block. We enquired whether there were any occasions when the nursery nurse felt, or the teacher felt, issues were the prerogative of the teacher. All nursery teachers affirmed that there were and they were all clear what the issues involved. They revolved around the issue of accountability and in particular the recording of planning and relations with parents, where disputes might arise. All the nursery teachers were quick to make it clear that it was not a matter of lack of confidence in the nursery nurse. It was an issue of pay differentials, and it was felt that areas such as writing planning documents and dealing with troublesome parents were for the teacher to deal with. The nursery teachers acknowledged that their extra pay was for dealing with difficult areas such as these. The nursery teachers were personal friends of their nursery nurses: they knew each other socially and had known each other for a long time. This knowing each other and having worked together for many years is seen as a vital ingredient of successful pedagogic leadership. Many nursery teachers talked about having ‘a sharing time’ and `like, we talk at the end of the day’. This is further evidence of the ‘feminine’ style of leadership: `[the] principal is sensitive and caring about personal needs (feminine stereotype)’ (Preedy, 1993). The teachers acknowledged that they needed time during the day just to be together and talk, because they wanted to `spend time on fostering an integrative culture’ (Ozga, 1993). They were friends and they shared personal problems.

Close as they are, the nursery teachers were aware that whilst working as a team the nursery nurse and nursery teacher do have different roles. One nursery teacher stated, but did not explain or elaborate, this in the following manner: ‘I do think nursery nurses have their quality, and I think teachers have their quality.’

There is clear evidence of ‘A social covenant … maintained by loyalty, fidelity, kinship, a sense of identity, obligation, duty, responsibility and reciprocity’ (Sergiovanni, 1998). The evidence of reciprocity comes where the nursery teacher says she is `learning all the time’, from nursery nurses, parents and children. What of her philosophy? ‘I think you learn more by doing it than you do by reading it.’

The nursery teachers had a clear idea of themselves as leaders of their team and two spoke of a responsibility beyond the nursery.

In two schools where this responsibility had not existed previously, the publication of the schools’ OfStEd inspection reports saw an attempt by the head teacher of each of the primary schools to broaden the leadership role of their nursery teacher. The nursery teacher was a pedagogical role model for the rest of the school. The schools’ concept of leadership was to lead the staff through in-service training to improve the teachers’ pedagogy. The nursery teachers were unanimous in the view that leadership is intrinsically interwoven within a curriculum model in the nursery. It wasn’t budgets or organisation or writing policies: `management I would think is writing policies’.

The nursery teachers who mentioned their involvement beyond the nursery were very negative when asked about any success they had achieved. They viewed their value to the school in terms of pedagogical leadership: a clear understanding that teaching and learning were at the centre of school leadership and management. Plus as pedagogical leaders they had a clear vision, supported by a good OfStEd inspection, of what was the most effective style of teaching and learning.

In deciding why their impact had been limited they had various answers. One was outlined above in terms of a totally different ethos of working between nursery and primary schools and a head teacher who lacked a clear understanding of teaching and learning. Another commented upon the fact that, to enact change, `they needed somebody who was willing to be open to ideas’. In this case that openness was missing among colleagues who had been in place for many years. This illustrates clearly the limitations of a collegial style of leadership. In addition, it reinforces the findings mentioned above that pedagogical leadership requires a team of like-minded members. One nursery teacher acknowledged that the issues surrounding leadership styles were different for her in a small nursery team and for leaders in the rest of the primary school. The difference was attributable to the size of the organisation and the increased difficulty therefore of coming to an agreed pedagogical understanding.

One nursery teacher with the support of an ‘excellent’ OfStEd inspection reported how she had had some influence beyond the nursery. Two colleagues in the main school, who were enthusiastic about High/Scope, had implemented it in their classrooms, plus another two teachers, from the rest of the primary school, were going to attend a High/Scope course. This clearly reflects the fact that the nursery teacher’s influence as a leader is through pedagogy. It illustrates the premise that successful pedagogical leadership is through the sharing of ideas and enthusiasm (‘I know they were keen as well’) in small teams. Small teams are important because of the need to work together. `So we tend to sort of have a consensus of opinion and then generally we all come together and decide.’ Perhaps this nursery teacher’s influence is assisted by her presence on the senior management team. The need to know each other is clearly important, and this was dramatically illustrated in the account above where the nursery teacher felt like a ‘leper’ when she visited the infant department because her ethos and practice were so different from her infant colleagues’ and theirs from their junior colleagues’. She felt the first step must be that `the infants should know the juniors’. This ‘knowing’ each other is repeatedly seen as an essential factor in successful pedagogical leadership. Hodgkinson talks of the leader’s need to `know thyself’, to know what they as nursery leaders value. They value children’s learning and they value their team members. Their leadership has a moral dimension. Hodgkinson (cited in Hall, 1996) refers to this as ‘authenticity’, which he sees as crucial feature of moral leadership. Whilst it is not the sole prerogative of women leaders, it is something women leaders are seen to value highly. This authenticity comes from `the quality of private commitment to a personal set of values … the leader’s relation to the led must at all times be authentic’. The connection with Sergiovanni’s pedagogical leadership is clear: `reciprocal influence … shared purposes … connected to moral obligations’.

These nursery teachers were looking at `teaching, learning and managing through a different lens’ (Adler et al., 1993).


The nursery teachers were firmly of the opinion that if they were successful as leaders it was because they were interested in the children before their subject specialism: indeed, children, and child development theory, were their subject. Furthermore they saw their success in terms of a `practical action’ model (Hall, 1996) where `power for is preferred to power over’ and, more critically, `developmental goals are favoured over accountability’ (Hall, 1996). Their commitment as leaders lay in their commitment to the children. The children were not sacrificed to accountability. The strength they had as leaders was in seeing their success as rooted in their teaching. Such a feeling is not exclusive to nursery teachers (Lunn, 1998).

They used their powers as leaders to promote excellence in teaching and learning. They were pedagogical leaders, and it was their successful pedagogy which made others listen to them as leaders. This desire to influence singled them out as leaders in the Early Years (Rodd, 1998). Any influence they had in the rest of the primary school derived from respect for their successful pedagogy, which was undisputed by fellow class teachers, head teachers or, most important, by OfStEd.

They themselves recognised that their success was supported by, was perhaps only possible thanks to, working in small units. This enabled successful team work because they all knew each other, trusted each other professionally and used the expertise of the team to meet their goals.

They saw themselves as leaders rather than merely team members. They were, in common with the findings of other studies (Southworth and Grace, in Hall, 1996), willing to lead when appropriate, including having a personal vision. They saw themselves as key players: co-ordinating, developing and using others to develop the team’s efforts. They collaborated rather than directed, but as leaders they reminded team members of where they were going. They eschewed managerialism in order to achieve their prime object: young children’s learning and development. They encouraged a culture based upon caring and reciprocal relations.

The nursery teachers in this study were acknowledged by OfStEd, LEA advisers, head teachers and colleagues as being extremely effective managers and leaders. Their attempts to extend their practice to the rest of the primary school, however, were largely thwarted. This was in no small part due to lack of understanding and inability to acknowledge the effectiveness of a curriculum based upon pedagogical considerations.


Adler, S., Laney, J., and Packer, M. (1993), Managing Women, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Beare, H., Caldwell, B., and Milikan, R., ‘Leadership’ in M. Preedy (ed.), Managing the Effective School, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Bell, D., and Ritchie, R. (1999), Towards Subject Leadership in the Primary School, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Campbell, R. J. (1985), Developing the Primary School, London: Holt Rinehart & Winston.

DfEE (1998), Teachers meeting the Challenge, London: HMSO.

DfEE (1999), Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership Planning Guidance, 1999-2000, London: HMSO.

Fullan, M. (1992), The New Meaning of Educational Change, London: Cassell. Gadsby, P., and Harrison, M. (1999), The Primary Co-ordinator and the OfStEd Re-inspection, London: Falmer.

Hall, V. (1996), Dancing on the Ceiling, London: Chapman. Handy, C. (1994), The Empty Raincoat, London: Arrow. HMCI (1999), Annual Report, London: HMSO.

Hohmann, M., Banet, B., and Weikert, D. (1979), Young Children in Action, Ypsilanti MI: High/Scope Press.

Lunn, P. (1998), “I thought I was good but OfStEd says I’m not”: the enhanced role of the subject leader in the context of an impending OfStEd inspection’, paper for the BERA ’98 conference, Belfast.

MacBeath, J. (1998), Effective School Leadership: responding to change, London: Chapman.

Mortimore, P. (1998), The Road to School Improvement, Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Ouston, J., ed. (1993), Women in Education Management, London: Longman. Ozga, J. (1993), Women in Educational Management, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Preedy, M., ed. (1993), Managing the Effective School, Buckingham: Open University Press.

QCA (1999), Consultation Exercise on Early Years Goals, second report, London: HMSO.

Rodd, J. (1998), Leadership in Early Childhood, Buckingham: Open University. Schofield, J. (1993), `Increasing the generalizability of qualitative research’, in

M. Hammersley (ed.), Educational Research: current issues, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Sergiovanni, T. (1998), `Leadership as pedagogy, capital development and school effectiveness’, International Journal of Leadership in Education 1 (1), 37-46.

TTA (1998), National Standards for Subject Leaders, London: Teacher Training Agency.


Paul Lunn and Alison Bishop University of Northumbria at Newcastle

Address for correspondence

Paul Lunn, University of Northumbria at Newcastle, Faculty of Health Social Work and Education, Coach Lane campus, Benton, Newcastle upon Tyne NE7 7XA. E-mail

Copyright Manchester University Press May 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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