Why school leadership matters
School leadership has become a priority in education policy agendas internationally.
It plays a key role in improving school outcomes by influencing the motivations and
capacities of teachers, as well as the school climate and environment. Effective school
leadership is essential to improve the efficiency and equity of schooling.
As countries are seeking to adapt their education systems to the needs of
contemporary society, expectations for schools and school leaders are changing. Many
countries have moved towards decentralisation, making schools more autonomous in their
decision making and holding them more accountable for results. At the same time, the
requirement to improve overall student performance while serving more diverse student
populations is putting schools under pressure to use more evidence-based teaching
practices. As a result of these trends, the function of school leadership across OECD countries is now increasingly defined by a demanding set of roles which include financial and human resource management and leadership for learning.
There are concerns across countries that the role of principal as conceived for needs
of the past is no longer appropriate. In many countries, principals have heavy workloads;
many are reaching retirement and it is getting harder to replace them. Potential candidates
often hesitate to apply, because of overburdened roles, insufficient preparation and
training, limited career prospects and inadequate support and rewards.
These developments have made school leadership a priority in education systems
across the world. Policy makers need to enhance the quality of school leadership and
make it sustainable.
The OECD has identified four main policy levers which, taken together, can improve
school leadership practice:
1. (Re)define school leadership responsibilities
Research has shown that school leaders can make a difference in school and student
performance if they are granted autonomy to make important decisions. However
autonomy alone does not automatically lead to improvements unless it is well supported.
In addition, it is important that the core responsibilities of school leaders be clearly
defined and delimited. School leadership responsibilities should be defined through an
understanding of the practices most likely to improve teaching and learning. Policy
makers need to:
Provide higher degrees of autonomy with appropriate support
School leaders need time, capacity and support to focus on the practices most
likely to improve student learning. Greater degrees of autonomy should be
coupled with new models of distributed leadership, new types of accountability
and training and development for school leadership.
• Redefine school leadership responsibilities for improved student learning
Policy makers and practitioners need to ensure that the roles and responsibilities
associated with improved learning outcomes are at the core of school leadership
practice. This study identifies four major domains of responsibility as key for
school leadership to improve student outcomes:
− Supporting, evaluating and developing teacher quality: School leaders have to
be able to adapt the teaching programme to local needs, promote teamwork
among teachers and engage in teacher monitoring, evaluation and professional
Goal-setting, assessment and accountability: Policy makers need to ensure
that school leaders have discretion in setting strategic direction and optimise
their capacity to develop school plans and goals and monitor progress, using
data to improve practice.
− Strategic financial and human resource management: Policy makers can
enhance the financial management skills of school leadership teams by
providing training to school leaders, establishing the role of a financial
manager within the leadership team, or providing financial support services to
schools. In addition, school leaders should be able to influence teacher
recruitment decisions to improve the match between candidates and their
− Collaborating with other schools: This new leadership dimension needs to be
recognised as a specific role for school leaders. It can bring benefits to school
systems as a whole rather than just the students of a single school. But school
leaders need to develop their skills to become involved in matters beyond
their school borders.
Develop school leadership frameworks for improved policy and practice
School leadership frameworks can help provide guidance on the main
characteristics, tasks and responsibilities of effective school leaders and signal the
essential character of school leadership as leadership for learning. They can be a
basis for consistent recruitment, training and appraisal of school leaders.
Frameworks should clearly define the major domains of responsibility for school
leaders and allow for contextualisation of local and school-level criteria. They
should be developed with involvement by the profession.
2. Distribute school leadership
The increased responsibilities and accountability of school leadership are creating the
need for distribution of leadership, both within schools and across schools. School boards
also face many new tasks. While practitioners consider middle-management
responsibilities vital for effective school leadership, these practices remain rare and often
unclear; and those involved are not always recognized for their tasks. Policy makers need
to broaden the concept of school leadership and adjust policy and working conditions
• Encourage distribution of leadership
Distribution of leadership can strengthen management and succession planning.
Distributing leadership across different people and organisational structures can
help to meet the challenges facing contemporary schools and improve school
effectiveness. This can be done in formal ways through team structures and other
bodies or more informally by developing ad hoc groups based on expertise and
• Support distribution of leadership
There is a need to reinforce the concept of leadership teams in national
frameworks, to develop incentive mechanisms to reward participation and
performance in these teams and to extend leadership training and development to
middle-level management and potential future leaders in the school. Finally,
policy makers need to reflect on modifying accountability mechanisms to match
distributed leadership structures.
Support school boards in their tasks
Evidence shows that effective school boards may contribute to the success of their
schools. For this to happen, it is crucial to clarify the roles and responsibilities of
school boards and ensure consistency between their objectives and the skills and
experience of board members. Policy makers can help by providing guidelines for
improved recruitment and selection processes and by developing support
structures to ensure active participation in school boards, including opportunities
for skills development.
3. Develop skills for effective school leadership
Country practices and evidence from different sources show that school leaders need
specific training to respond to broadened roles and responsibilities. Strategies need to
focus on developing and strengthening skills related to improving school outcomes (as
listed above) and provide room for contextualisation.
• Treat leadership development as a continuum
Leadership development is broader than specific programmes of activity or
intervention. It requires a combination of formal and informal processes
throughout all stages and contexts of leadership practice. This implies coherently
supporting the school leadership career through these stages:
− Encourage initial leadership training: Whether initial training is voluntary or
mandatory can depend on national governance structures. Governments can
define national programmes, collaborate with local level governments and
develop incentives to ensure that school leaders participate. In countries
where the position is not tenured, a trade-off must be found to make it
worthwhile for principals to invest time in professional development. Efforts
also need to be made to find the right candidates.
Organise induction programmes: Induction programmes are particularly
valuable to prepare and shape initial school leadership practices and they
provide vital networks for principals to share concerns and explore
challenges. These programmes should provide a combination of theoretical
and practical knowledge and self-study.
− Ensure in-service training to cover need and context: In-service programmes
need to be seen in the context of prior learning opportunities for school
leadership. Where there are no other initial requirements, basic in-service
programmes should encourage development of leadership skills. In-service
training should be also offered periodically to principals and leadership teams
so they can update their skills and keep up with new developments. Networks
(virtual or real) also provide informal development for principals and
• Ensure consistency of provision by different institutions
A broad range of providers cater to school leadership training needs, but the
training they offer must be more consistent. In some countries, national school
leadership institutions have raised awareness and improved provision of
leadership development opportunities. In other countries, where there are many
providers but no national orientations, it is important to have clear standards and
ensure a focus on quality. Many governments have standards, evaluations and
other mechanisms to monitor and regulate programme quality.
• Ensure appropriate variety for effective training
A broad body of knowledge supported by practice has identified the content,
design and methods of effective programmes. It points to the following key
factors: curricular coherence, experience in real contexts, cohort grouping,
mentoring, coaching, peer learning and structures for collaborative activity
between the programme and schools.
4. Make school leadership an attractive profession
The challenge is to improve the quality of current leadership and build sustainable
leadership for the future. Evidence indicates that potential applicants are deterred by the
heavy workload of principals and the fact that the job does not seem to be adequately
remunerated or supported. Uncertain recruitment procedures and career development
prospects for principals may also deter potential candidates. Strategies to attract, recruit
and support high-performing school leaders include the following:
• Professionalise recruitment
Recruitment processes can have a strong impact on school leadership quality.
While school-level involvement is essential to contextualise recruitment practices,
action is necessary at the system level to ensure that recruitment procedures and
criteria are effective, transparent and consistent. Succession planning –
proactively identifying and developing potential leaders – can boost the quantity
and quality of future school leaders. Eligibility criteria should be broadened to
reduce the weight accorded to seniority and attract younger dynamic candidates
with different backgrounds. Recruitment procedures should go beyond traditional
job interviews to include an expanded set of tools and procedures to assess
candidates. Finally, those who are on the hiring side of recruitment panels also
need guidelines and training
Focus on the relative attractiveness of school leaders’ salaries
The relative attractiveness of salaries for school leaders can influence the supply
of high quality candidates. Policy makers need to monitor remuneration compared
to similar grades in the public and private sectors and make school leadership
more competitive. Establishing separate salary scales for teachers and principals
can attract more candidates from among the teaching staff. At the same time,
salary scales should reflect leadership structures and school-level factors in order
to attract high performing leaders to all schools.
• Acknowledge the role of professional organisations of school leaders
Professional organisations of school leaders provide a forum for dialogue,
knowledge sharing and dissemination of best practices among professionals and
between professionals and policy makers. Workforce reform is unlikely to
succeed unless school leaders are actively involved in its development and
implementation through their representative organisations.
• Provide options and support for career development
Providing career development prospects for school leaders can help avoid
principal burnout and make school leadership a more attractive career option.
There are many ways to make the profession more flexible and mobile, allowing
school leaders to move between schools as well as between leadership and
teaching and other professions. Current country practice provides some examples
to draw from, including alternatives to lifetime contracts through renewable fixedterm contracts and options for principals to step up to new opportunities such as
jobs in the educational administration, leadership of groups or federations of
schools and consultant leadership roles.