Distributed systemic leadership in Finland – the case of Tampere[1]


1. In the year 2005 the municipality of Tampere has introduced a pilot system of local management in education. Tampere is among the largest of the 416 municipalities[2] that operated in Finland at the beginning of 2007: at the time of our visit it maintained 50 schools of basic education[3], 14 general upper secondary schools and a number of vocational schools. The most important element of the new pilot system has been the creation of a new function of areal principal or district head in five school clusters (districts) around the city. Each of these districts comprises 10-12 schools with a three to four thousand pupil population. The district heads have been selected from among the principals leading larger schools of basic education in the five clusters, preferably from among those who had been the most innovative in the past. They – together with a sixth person who has a municipality-wide responsibility for special education and with some other people from the municipal administrative staff – have become members of the municipal leadership team for basic education, led by the head of the education department of the municipality. While undertaking new territorial responsibilities in their respective districts they also kept their original post of principal in their own schools. One third of their working time was shifted from school level tasks to the new district level ones. In order to assure the normal operation of management in their own schools, the municipality created a vice-manager post in all of the five of them (taken by a teacher whose teaching load has been halved).


2. The reform that Tampere introduced in its system of educational management and leadership can be interpreted as an answer to the challenges its schools and its broader community of inhabitants are facing, and it seems to mirror the way Finland as a country and as a nation tries to answer the question of how to survive and, what is more, how to move into a better position in a rapidly changing and turbulent global environment. The essence of this answer seems to be in a delicate and dynamic balance that Finns try to maintain between preserving safety and taking risks, being open to the vagueness of the future while standing stably on the ground of the well known past, accepting change while respecting stability. This balance has been deeply rooted in and has been reinforced by the way Finland has reformed its education system since the seventies, maintaining a strong reform drift and the consensus behind it even in deep economic and political crisis situations (Aho et al, 2006). The ideas behind the Tampere pilot initiative and the way it is implemented shows a mixture of radically new ideas and the desire of not to overturn things too quickly and too much. It is an example of quiet change using the improvement of leadership as a major drive.


3. The capacity of the Finnish education system to achieve a permanent improvement of teaching and learning in a climate of sustained “pedagogical conservativism” is seen by a few prominent Finnish analysers as one of the main keys to the success of Finland in international measurements of student achievement (see for example Sahlberg, 2006). The dynamic character of the balance characterising the Finish way to maintain stability while allowing, encouraging and introducing changes and innovations, which appears also in the Tampere’s management reform initiative, has to be stressed particularly. This feature appears, for instance, in the way the connection between leadership and organisation or between leaders and the people who are led is conceived. As one of the interviewed principals expressed: “if there is good leadership and strategy, people feel better, and if people feel better, leadership becomes better.” Leadership in this way of thinking is both determining the organisational processes and is determined by them. There is a dynamic of feedback loops that makes the whole system evolve and pushes it towards a continuous improvement. The system can change because it is stable, that is, because its members feel secured and therefore they are open to take more risks. People can find stability this way in the change process itself. Anxieties raised by the openness of the change process are treated by extraordinarily intensive and permanent communication pursued in the many networks, management teams and other forms of shared leadership.


4. The management reform introduced by the Tampere municipality is distributing school leadership at several levels and in several directions. First, leadership is redistributed between the municipal authority and the schools. Those principals who have been invited by the municipality to share their leadership activities and energies between their own schools and others operating in their areas are now, in fact, doing part of what the municipality used to do. Beyond leading their own schools they are now coordinating various district level functions, like planning, development or evaluation. The municipality has this way shared with them some leadership functions that are typically local or territorial, and go beyond the boundaries of the school unit. Second, leadership is distributed within the municipality education administration itself as the new district heads are now part of a municipal leadership team. The head of the municipal education department, is now, instead of managing alone, working in a group, sharing with it problems and elaborating solutions cooperatively. In principle this could have been done within the municipal administration, without involving external school level actors, but the Tampere municipality decided to realise team management through opening its own organisation boundaries. Third, the district heads are now distributing their leadership energies, experiences and knowledge between their own school and other schools. While coordinating activities like curriculum planning, professional development of teachers or provision of special need education in their area, they exercise leadership at both institutional and local (district or area) level. In this way they distribute their personal leadership capacities and energies. Fourth, leadership within the schools led by the district heads, that is the largest schools with particularly complex sets of pedagogical tasks, has been redistributed between the principal and other staff in the same school. This became inevitable as the time the principal can now spent on leading and managing his own school has been reduced. All these forms of distribution mutually reinforce each other, and they together are transforming the leadership system of Tampere and its schools.


5. The meaning of the Tampere municipal management reform project and its potential leadership implications can be understood only if we have a good sight of the role of municipalities in education in Finland. One of the main features of the context of school leadership in Finland, similarly to other Nordic countries, is the particularly strong role of local municipalities. The more than four hundred municipalities (or, in the case of upper secondary vocational education, their consortia) are the owners of the majority of schools, they finance their schools (in a significant part from their own revenues) and they are the employers of teachers (including school leaders). Furthermore, and this is particularly important from the point of view of school leadership, they play a key role also in the area of curriculum planning and development.


6. This strong role of municipalities in implementing curriculum deserves particular attention. Finland is currently implementing a curriculum reform that is meant to lead to further improvements of classroom level practices. One of the features of the current curriculum reform is that it provides a broad platform and framework in the education sector for the efforts to improve the country’s development perspectives and to prepare the country for broader economic and social challenges. This broad understanding of the curriculum encourages the participation in planning and implementing it of those who have a commitment to broader social and economic development, such as local communities and the municipalities representing them. In the Finnish system of curricular regulation, where the national authorities prescribe only a broad framework, and classroom teaching is regulated directly by local curricula, local responsibility for curriculum planning is shared between the schools and the municipalities. The role of the municipalities in the area of curriculum is enhanced by the curriculum itself as it requires schools to cooperate with each other, which broadens the scope of curriculum from school to local or territorial level. According to the background report for this study (Improving…, 2007) schools are obliged to present in their own curriculum document how they cooperate with other schools. The shift of focus from the institutional to the local or territorial level may go as far as in some cases there is only one detailed municipal level curriculum that is applied in all schools. In the city of Järvenpää, for example, all comprehensive schools follow the municipal level common curriculum which has been created in the framework of a city-wide cooperative effort with the participation of several hundreds of teachers, led by the municipal department of education. In other cases, like in Helsinki and Tampere, although the municipality plays a very active role in orienting and supporting the preparation of school level curricula and it encourages intensive cooperation in this area among schools, this does not go as far as to conceive a common city level curriculum.


7. Municipal education leaders – in particular, the heads of the departments of education of municipalities – may have extraordinary strong influence on educational development in Finland, in general, and on the development of school level leadership, in particular. They are, for instance, determining the criteria for the selection of principals. They may require that the candidates possess a qualification obtained in some kind of management training but they can also be satisfied with earlier professional experience. Some of them have explicit and well pronounced concepts about how school leadership should be organised and improved and they make effective steps in order to achieve these ideas. Tampere is not the only municipality being pro-active in this area. We saw, for instance, a very strong commitment by the head of the education department of Helsinki municipality in favour of school level collective leadership. She demands all schools to establish and operate executive teams. When meeting the leaders of the schools in order to discuss questions related with their work, she prefers to meet the whole team instead of meeting only the principal. As she is convinced that the quality of the leadership teams has a great impact on the quality of the work of the schools she creates possibilities for professional development not only for the principal but also for all members of the executive teams. The municipality of Helsinki which, similarly to other larger cities, is a major purchaser of management development programs, buys and organises training programs not only for principals, but also for entire executive teams.


8. In this context of leadership shared between the school and the local level the quality of local (municipal) leadership has a major influence of the way teaching and learning is organised in schools. Leadership at municipal level is shared, among others, between professional administrators (e.g. the head of the educational section of the mayor’s office) and elected politicians (e.g. the head of the municipal education committee). Through this linkage education is connected to broader local community affaires. This connection is reinforced by the fact that the administration of education is integrated into overall local administration (this latter including areas such as urban planning, local economic development, health and social care, housing or cultural animation). Educational leadership in this context is strongly influenced by the broader reforms of state administration or municipal governance. During our visits to local municipalities we could see the direct impacts of ongoing governance reforms led by the Ministry of the Interior. Tampere, for example is introducing its new management model in a framework that is apparently influenced by business management approaches. The municipal leadership, for instance, defined the role of the local community (or its elected delegates) as the purchaser of services that may be offered either by either public or private providers, depending on which is more efficient. In the case of schools the Tampere city management reform recognises, on the one hand, that there is no significant costumer demand for alternative providers, but stresses, on the other hand, that service contracts with the providers will include both cost and learning outcome indicators. In this framework the leading of the reform of local school management seems to be more in the hands of the educational development manager, working on the implementation of municipal governance reform than in those of the director of the education department of the city municipality.


9. The municipal educational leaders we met in Helsinki, Järvenpää and Tampere all used notions and applied procedures coming from business management, for example the balanced score card approach. Their mental openness towards the world of business and the management approaches characterising this world seemed to be in harmony with their commitment to pupils’ welfare and to the improvement of learning. Being efficient public managers and playing the role of pedagogical leaders did not seem to cause role conflicts for them. This seems to be a key feature of the Finnish way of educational thinking which is positively reinforced by the national culture. Notions like efficiency or competitiveness are much less in conflict in this culture with notions like education, cooperation and creativity than in many other cultures. The very high esteem attributed to art education, for instance, is easily reconciled in this country with economic needs since art education is seen also as a source of creativity that is needed to produce innovations leading to marketable new products.


10. The city management reform pursued by the municipality of Tampere is part of a broader national reform process aiming at preparing the country to the challenges it will face due to foreseeable social and economic changes. A background document to the project of the Ministry of the Interior[4]to restructure municipalities and services”, entitled “Future challenges” (Ministry of Interior, 2006), stresses that due to demographic changes resources will have to be transferred form the education sector to health and social care. According to this document the expenditure on comprehensive schools in 2010 will be only 93% of what it was in 2005. This makes it necessary the reorganisation of local public services. The reform of management structures and the strengthening of leadership is strongly linked with this process. As the leader of the Tampere city management reform said when asked about municipal policies on school leadership: “good leadership is needed when we are changing things”. The Tampere school leadership reform – that is the redefinition of the role of some of the school leaders through giving them new district level coordination responsibilities and, at the same time, offering them new resources for building new managerial functions in their own school – is directly linked to the efforts to meet these challenges.


11. It is important to stress again that not only all mentioned levels and directions of leadership redistribution deserves attention but also their mutual interplay. Redistributing leadership within the municipality, between municipal authorities and schools, between schools and within schools at the same time significantly changes the way leadership functions all over the local system. All actors find themselves in a new space of more intensive communication; all receive new bits of information, and all meet and talk to new actors in new situations. This intensification of information exchanges and the new forms of interaction necessarily leads to changes in the behaviour of all actors. Municipal leaders start to depend more on the behaviour of district heads as their success in solving local problems is increasingly influenced by what the latter do. District heads also increasingly depend on other principal colleagues operating in their area as the evaluation of their work is not based any more only on what they achieve in their own school but also on what the community of the schools in the given area achieve. They also depend of the behaviour of those who, in their own school, take over parts of their earlier management functions. In this new web of increasing mutual dependences, both horizontal and vertical, new types of behaviour emerge. Principals are forced to start thinking in local dimensions, what leads to a better understanding by them of the broader community needs. They tend to be less inclined to entrench themselves into a position of fiercely defending the interest of their own organisation against that of others (what certainly makes things easier in a period of shrinking financial support and forced redistribution of existing resources). They also become more open to and can see deeper what happens in other schools which opens new windows for mutual learning. As they can devote less time and energy to their own school they are obliged to delegate various management tasks to other staff, which leads to a more open and more democratic institutional leadership.


12. Leadership in this local and institutional web of new mutual dependences becomes systemic in different senses. This happens, first, because the focus of the attention of several leaders is shifting from the school unit to the broader local system. Exercising leadership may have an increasing influence not only on the smaller part, that is the territory under their control but also on the larger system, that is on other territories. Second, it happens because boundaries separating, on the one hand, the various parts of the local educational system and, on the other, the various parts of the schools as subsystems become more permeable. The strengthening of mutual interdependences and the intensification of interactions push the system towards a new state of balance, and it starts behaving as an evolving system more than before. Leadership in this system has to become systemic as the actions of leaders is both influenced by and is influencing a growing number of factors. What the district head does in his/her own school has a growing impact on other schools, and what happens in one district has a growing impact on other districts. When, for example, as it happens in Tampere, one of the district heads develops, in the framework of a pilot district level project a new computerised system of information in order to see better the resources available in all the schools of his area, this inevitably leads to an increased need for transparency in the whole territory of the municipality. If one of the schools starts applying a new approach in dealing with pupils with particular learning difficulties, this may be transferred to other schools quickly by the mediation of the coordinator of special needs education who is member of the Tampere team of district heads.


13. The new web of mutual dependences created by the Tampere educational management reform project not only enhances the emergence of new types of leadership behaviour, but it also opens new possibilities for practical problem solving. This is clearly seen when one thinks of one of the key problems that schools are currently facing: the demographic loss and the need to transfer resources from education to other sectors, namely health and social care. This makes it necessary the revealing of hidden resources and also the creation of new mechanisms to redistribute them. Without the dense communication web created by the district head system, it would have probably been impossible for the municipal administration to reveal hidden resources (for example unused manpower) and it would have been very difficult to persuade those possessing them to share them with others. The intensive inter-institutional communication created by the Tampere reform project not only made it impossible for institutions to hide their resources form each other but it also created social or moral pressures to share them with those most in need of them. The improved potential for sharing resources (money, manpower, knowledge) will undoubtedly increase the capacity of the Tampere education system to adapt itself to the changing conditions without making significant harm to its current performance.


14. As already mentioned the new management model is also used as a coordination instrument in the process of implementing the new national curriculum. The increased cooperation and communication between schools achieved by the district head is used not only to communicate more effectively the national and local strategic goals of the new curriculum towards the schools but also to make it work better in daily practice. As we saw, Tampere municipality and its schools have decided not to have just one common municipal curriculum (as it is the case in Järvenpää) but to allow all schools to have their own: the municipality issued only guidelines for the preparation of school level curricula. As every school develops its own curriculum document, there is a risk of growing incoherence that may hamper the horizontal or vertical transfer of pupils between schools. Coordination has to be achieved, therefore, in a different way, using the new mechanism of district headship. According to their job description one of the functions of district heads is “guaranteeing an adequate coherence of the curriculum in the district” and “a smooth school path for the pupil.”


15. More frequent interactions, stronger mutual interdependence, intensified communication and more permeable organisational boundaries not only improve problem solving capacities but can also induce new energies for further development. It is expected that the new management model will “create new personal resources for basic education, which will also promote Tampere’s ability to take part in nationwide development work and policy discussions[5] in harmony with the ambitions of the region to be a flagship in the movement of Finland towards the knowledge economy. With the mobilisation of the new network of district heads the municipal leadership hopes to acquire better access to schools and to involve them better in the implementation of its future oriented strategy: as it was formulated by the municipal development manager: “This way we want to keep alive the future orientation of schools”. Accordingly, area principals have been assigned a number of key developmental tasks, for example helping the sharing of good practices, enhancing evaluation practices as sources for mutual learning and supporting the professional development of teachers who work in the schools of the districts.


16. It is important to stress that the cooperative management model behind the Tampere pilot project is not entirely new in Finland. There were consultation mechanisms operating before the project started, involving all school leaders in the region, although, according to municipal leaders, these were not effective enough due to the large number of participant principals which prevented a deeper and more substantial dialogue. Team management was also widely used at school level. Discussing the problems of teaching and learning or the problems of individual pupils presenting learning difficulties in multidisciplinary teams has long been an important feature of Finnish comprehensive schools, and many analysers attribute the high achievement of Finnish education among other factors to this, both in terms of student performance and equity, (Grubb, 2005; OECD, 2004; Aho et al, 2006).


17. We saw a strong commitment to team leadership not only in Tappere but also elsewhere. The approach of Helsinki municipality has already been mentioned. In Järvenpää all comprehensive schools operate advanced forms of team management. The leadership team of schools, led by the principal, consists of the heads of various lower level groups called learning and improvement teams. These are organised according to certain grades or to various subject groups. The learning and improvement teams are the places where daily pedagogical problems are discussed by teachers and solutions are searched for. One of the teams, the student welfare team, has a special status. According to the municipal guidelines it is led in every comprehensive school directly by the principal. In larger institutions it has among its members the school nurse, the special need education teacher, the school psychologist, the social worker and a doctor. This is an organisational framework that allows teachers to discuss the cases of pupils in need of assistance and this way it is a key factor of providing individualised support to pupils. The fact that the principal is charged to lead directly the student welfare team has as a consequence, that he or she is has to be involved in solving daily pedagogical problems. He or she knows all problematic cases and can take those appropriate measures which require the cooperation of various actors. This organisational form assures that the director cannot neglect pedagogical leadership in favour of managerial tasks.


18. Leading through teams is present also in upper secondary schools although other forms of collegial leadership may be more important here. The general upper secondary school we visited in Järvenpää introduced, as a school level management innovation, interdisciplinary teams discussing whole school issues. The members of these teams are selected in this school on a random basis and the teacher they elect as their leader becomes automatically member of the school level leadership team led directly by the principal. The example of this school shows also that shifting communication and cooperation from disciplinary groups to teams dealing with whole school issues is not always simple in upper secondary schools. Many subject teachers seem not to be sufficiently motivated to take part in discussions that go beyond their own specific area. However, at this (ISCED3) level new opportunities are opened for the involvement of students in dealing with whole school affairs. Distributing leadership, as we saw in the Järvenpää upper secondary school we visited, has reached students. The school is operating an efficient network of student tutors, which has a key role in managing the increasing complexity of the organisation of learning. As learning in this school is organised on a course basis, with a great autonomy of students to determine their own learning paths through composing specific mixes of courses according to their individual interest – including even courses provided by other upper secondary schools – a high level of complexity arises that could probably not be managed without involving students in managing it. The operation of tutoring by well prepared and highly motivated students in this school is what allows for the organisation to maintain a high level diversity and complexity – that is, organisational features that are favourable for change and adaptation.


19. Coming back to Tampere: one of the most interesting, probably unintended, consequences of the creation of the function of the district head – and of the situation in which the principal have to spend a significant part of his time far away from his own school – is that the distribution of leadership even further becomes almost inevitable in the organisations concerned. In the absence of the principal the staff has to take things into its hands. The creation of the post of the vice-manager (called also assistant director) has, in fact, doubled the management posts at the level below the principal (the previous function of the deputy principal was not significantly altered by the changes). In a comprehensive school we visited in Tampere the new vice-manager, the old deputy principal and the principal charged with district affaires composed the management team of the school. At the meeting of the group which presented us the school the vice-manager played the leading role: he was much more active than his principal (assuming the function of the district head) who was also present. The school has operated several teams and every teacher has been the member of one of them. All the teams have been dealing with whole school affaires, focusing on one of the areas that have been perceived as crucial for the pedagogical development of the school (see text in box)


Teams in Linnainmaa School


- Team of development of education

- Recreational team

- Team of special education

- Team of immigrant education

- Team of information and communication

- Team of the operational culture

- Team of the theme “Multicultural education and continuous development”


20. The distribution of leadership and the creation of an expanding web of communication through the operation of various thematic teams with the involvement of each staff member allow schools to manage a higher level complexity. By intensifying communication and cooperation through the operation of teams the perceptive capacity of the organisation is probably increasing significantly. This is strongly needed in an organisation which – as Finnish schools do – supports the individualisation or personalisation of teaching. Cultivating an individualised approach which recognises the specific needs of each pupil necessarily leads to a higher level organisational complexity. If the richness of information that comes to the organisation from every pupil is to be heard, the organisation has to increase its perceptive capacity. New communication channels have to be created and continuously operated which inevitably increases organisational complexity and raises serious management and leadership challenges. The value attributed to sharing leadership functions, to team leadership and to the involvement of as many staff members as possible in various leadership related functions in Finnish schools seems to be not only a sign of commitment to democratic ideals but probably it is also an instrument to organise learning effectively in an increasingly complex teaching and learning environment. One of the interesting instruments used by Finnish schools to enhance their capacity to deal with increased pupil diversity seems to be the particular role attributed to special needs education, to teachers specialised in this area and to organisational facilities created to deal with this area. This appears not only at school level but also at the level of municipalities. In Tampere, as mentioned earlier, beyond the five district heads a sixth head-teacher, responsible for special needs education, was also appointed and invited to be the member of the municipal level management team.


21. The sixth member of the team of the district heads, that is the head-teacher who has municipality-wide responsible for special needs education seem to have a central role in this team. He is the only member of the team who supervises not only one district but all the five, which means that he has the broadest view about what happens in the whole municipal area: he knows all schools. He seems to be an engine of transfer of pedagogical solutions from school to school. As he expressed: “the knowledge of the special needs teachers and the specials needs class teachers should be used when planning and making special needs teaching in the district”. As special needs education has a broad meaning in Finland – the number of pupils receiving special education is here much higher than in most OECD countries and the number of those classified as having learning difficulties and disabilities is particularly high (OECD, 2000) – and as a great part of special education is conducted in integrated settings, this transfer reaches many spheres of teaching.


22. The multilevel distribution of leadership seen in Tampere would certainly not been possible without the high level trust that characterises the world of education and its social-political environment in Finland. Distributing leadership while it opens extraordinary opportunities for development, effective work and problem solving it also incurs risks. Sharing responsibilities may open the possibility of social games that leads to unequal sharing of burdens or escaping responsibility. We did not see signs of this. No one seems to abuse of the change of the rules of the game. Although the municipality is putting some of the burden of territorial coordination on the shoulders of school principals, who now have to deal with problems that used to be outside the boundaries of their responsibilities, by its action it also transfers much of its power to them, accepting the lost of monopoly of information, and letting local actors agree among themselves to solve problems on their own way. While the time principals can spend on managing their own schools was shortened, their employer, the municipality, also made extra resources available for the development new school level management structures that can compensate for this, and also accepted that other persons than the principal could be responsible for certain processes in the school (that is, it accepted the loosening of the principle of undivided personal responsibility). As the redistribution of leadership has been done in an atmosphere of mutual trust it was possible to do it so that everyone could feel himself in the position of winner.






Ministry of Interior (2006): Future challenges. A background document of the “Project to restructure municipalities and services”

Grubb, Norton et al. (2005): Finland country note. Equity in education thematic review. OECD

Improving school leadership in Finland (2007). Background report to the OECD thematic review of school leadership. Manuscript under revision.

OECD (2004): What makes school systems perform? Seeing school systems through the prism of PISA. Paris

OECD (2000): Special Needs Education. Statistics and Indicators. Paris

Aho, Erkki, Pitkänen, Kari and Sahlberg, Pasi (2006): Policy Development and Reform Principles of Basic and Secondary Education in Finland since 1968. The World Bank. Washington

Sahlberg, Pasi (2006): Raising Student Achievement: The Finnish approach. The Contexts, Configurations and Consequences of Differing Strategies. Paper presented at the AERA 2006 Symposium - SIG on Educational Change. San Francisco, 11 April, 2006


Helsinki, 2006 January


[1] This case analysis has been prepared in the framework of the OECD „Improving School Leadership” thematic review. It has been used in Pont, Beatriz – Nusche, Deborah – Moorman, Hunter (ed.) (2008): Improving School Leadership. Volume 2: Case studies on system leadership. OECD. Paris. pp 69-111.

[2] Due to a government policy of enhancing mergers the number of municipalities is continuously decreasing.

[3] Basic education lasts from grade 1 to grade 9. The policy of comprehensive reform started in the seventies has encouraged the creation of large comprehensive schools that comprise all grades from 1 to 9 but still a great proportion of schools operate with less than nine grades. Beyond the larger comprehensive schools there are schools comprising only ISCED1 level (1 to 6) and ISCED2 level (7 to 9) classes.

[4] The Ministry of Interior is responsible, among others, for local public management that is for municipalities.

[5] Quotation form the PowerPoint presentation by the educational development manager of Tampere municipality.