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3 reasons why school leadership is vital for teacher success

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School improvement rarely occurs without effective leadership, and school leadership is only second to classroom teaching in its influence on student achievement. A new evidence review report from Global School Leaders paints a complex and ever-changing picture of school leaders, with their roles, responsibilities, and impact varying around the world.

In the lead up to World Teacher’s Day (5 October), we’ve outlined three ways that school leaders are vital for teacher success and student outcomes:

1. School leaders establish great teaching practices

School leaders can support educators and their pupils by establishing effective teaching practices. They can harness the talents and motivations of teachers, students, and parents; develop inclusive and inspiring learning cultures for the whole school; and provide intensive, individualised, and sustainable teacher training.

The impact of strong school leadership on education is clear; a recent study spanning 65 countries found that students led by the top 25 per cent of school leaders receive the equivalent of three extra months of learning every year compared to those led by the bottom 25 per cent. There is considerable interest in targeting school leaders amid efforts to improve outcomes for students in a cost-effective manner, with one study finding that a one-point increase in scoring on school management practices is associated with a 10 per cent increase in student performance.

In order for leaders to develop the best teaching practices for their schools, it is essential that they are not burdened by unnecessary administrative responsibilities (they commonly spend less than 25 per cent of their time managing student learning activities), and that they receive appropriate training. 

Where training for school leaders is limited, there are a number of free resources available online.  For example, the UNESCO Institute for International Capacity Building in Africa’s training manuals for school leaders – which were deployed in Guinea, Lesotho, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone – can help plug these gaps in training. We have also published this Toolkit to help school leaders support and protect teachers and education support staff in the return to school following COVID-19.

2. A good school leader understands the needs of their school

Since the 1980s, decentralisation efforts have shifted decision-making powers to the lower levels of education systems in many countries. This transition is based on the premise that school leaders are familiar with the specific needs of their school, and are therefore better placed to make and execute decisions about how they are run.

Autonomous school leaders may make their own decisions about budgets, curricula, and personnel, rather than being overly restricted to implement government policies. This freedom can allow schools to adjust quickly to changing educational expectations and the particular needs and interests of their students. A study of schools in South Korea found that school leader autonomy over curricula and assessment had a positive association with achievement in mathematics, particularly for lower-performing pupils.

At present, however, some school leaders are appointed based on seniority or political considerations rather than on skills and experience. In order to ensure that decentralisation benefits teaching and learning, increasingly-autonomous school leaders should also be held accountable and armed with necessary skills and resources. According to the Global School Leaders report, this should include training on interpreting and utilising learning data.

3. School leaders show the way through troubling times

When schools are facing adverse circumstances, strong leadership is critical for resilience, adaptation, and recovery. Natural disasters, conflicts, and health crises like the coronavirus pandemic severely disrupt education and force educators to adapt to challenging circumstances.

The best educators may seize opportunities in the midst of a crisis. Dr Sara Ruto, chair of the Kenyan Ministry of Education’s Covid-19 response, has said that the current COVID-19 crisis “is giving energy to some of the pillars of the curriculum that had not found a voice before - for example, parental engagement, empowerment, and values-based education.” He advised school leaders to use this opportunity to engage parents to help them enrich the student experience.

Evidence points to strong leadership as a critical factor in seeing school communities through crises. For instance, preliminary evidence from Puerto Rico appears to suggest that strong school leaders were better placed to utilise remote learning tools and retain student engagement throughout Covid-19 school closures. And an analysis of school closures during Hurricane Matthew in Haiti in 2016 showed that despite devastating infrastructure damage, schools with strong management still improved the reading grades of early year students.

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This blog is part of a series of stories addressing the importance of the work of, and the challenges faced by teachers in the lead up to this year’s World Teachers’ Day celebrations.

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Cover photo credit: GPE/Ludovica Pellicioli