The 21st century is still in its first decade, yet many countries have already seen
dramatic shifts in the way schools and education systems are managed compared with
those of the end of the last century. A prime stimulus for these changes is a combination
of shifts in society, including greater migration, changes in social and family structures,
and the use (and misuse) of information and communications technologies. Also
influential is a greater emphasis on relative performance of different schools and
education systems, between schools, school systems and countries.
The strong focus on education by governments and society is entirely appropriate.
Only through education can we develop the knowledge and skills that are vital for our
countries’ economic growth, social development and political vitality. And most
importantly, for the success of the children who will be our future generations.
The challenge of system leadership
In this new environment, schools and schooling are being given an ever bigger job to
do. Greater decentralisation in many countries is being coupled with more school
autonomy, more accountability for school and student results, and a better use of the
knowledge base of education and pedagogical processes. It is also being coupled with
broader responsibility for contributing to and supporting the schools’ local communities,
other schools and other public services.
As a result, there is a need to redefine and broaden school leaders’ roles and
responsibilities. This means changing the way school leadership is developed and
supported. It implies improving incentives to make headship in particular more attractive
for existing heads and for those who will be taking up school leadership positions in the
future. And it implies strengthening training and development approaches to help leaders
face these new roles.
One of school leaders’ new roles is increasingly to work with other schools and other
school leaders, collaborating and developing relationships of interdependence and trust.
System leaders, as they are being called, care about and work for the success of other
schools as well as their own. Crucially they are willing to shoulder system leadership
roles because they believe that in order to change the larger system you have to engage
with it in a meaningful way.
This study’s approach
This study focuses on a set of innovative practices that provide good examples of
systemic approaches to school leadership. These are particular innovative approaches
adopted or developed in Austria, England, Finland, Flanders (Belgium) and Victoria (Australia) which are showing emerging evidence of positive results. Each of these cases
is developed in detail in the relevant chapter of this book.
The case studies result from research and visits by OECD staff and education experts
to each country. The visits included meetings and discussions with national and local
government representatives, and site visits to exemplary schools. The case studies are
complemented by articles by two authorities in education leadership: Richard Elmore of
the Harvard Graduate School of Education and David Hopkins of the Institute of
Education, University of London. The five countries visited were chosen because they
met two main criteria: they demonstrated models of school organisation and management
that distribute education leadership roles in innovative ways; and showed promising
practices for preparing and developing school leaders.
A companion report Improving School Leadership, Volume 1: Policy and Practice
(Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008), looks at 22 countries and regions and provides a set
of policy recommendations for improving school outcomes.
The benefits of system leadership
Throughout OECD countries, there is significant co-operation and collaboration on
school leadership. While every country participating in the OECD activity has some
arrangements for co-operation between schools, one group of jurisdictions has made
system leadership the centre of their school improvement strategies. In Flanders
(Belgium), England and Finland, they have done so by creating possibilities for cooperation
that promote going beyond leaders’ own schools to support local improvement.
In Victoria (Australia) and Austria, they have launched leadership development
programmes for system-wide school improvement.
These innovations focus on system-wide school improvement by encouraging and
developing school leaders to work together. Although the approaches were at early stages
of development, the researchers found a number of significant benefits emerging. These
included development of leadership capacity, rationalising of resources, increased cooperation,
leadership being distributed further into schools and across education systems,
and improving school outcomes.
The challenges to practice
Nevertheless, the study also found that there are considerable challenges to overcome
before the concept of system leadership can be widely implemented. Sustainability is
inevitably a critical factor, as is the quality of school leaders – because system leaders
must first be successful school leaders.
The key features identified were: in-school capacity to sustain high levels of student
learning; between-school capability (the “glue” that is necessary for schools to work
together effectively); mediating organisations to work flexibly with schools to help build
in-school capacity along with the skills necessary for effective collaboration; critical mass
to make system leadership a movement, not just the practice of a small number of elite
leaders; and cultural consensus across the system to give school leaders the space,
legitimacy and encouragement to engage in collaborative activities.
The authors note that these conditions for long-term success were not all in place in
any of the case studies, but all conditions were seen in some case studies. They add that
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IMPROVING SCHOOL LEADERSHIP, VOLUME 2: CASE STUDIES ON SYSTEM LEADERSHIP – ISBN: 978-92-64-03308-5 – © OECD 2008
the cases that demonstrate more of these conditions are more successful in implementing
system leadership. Other important factors for system leadership are: recognising and
supporting system leaders; identifying and recruiting them; providing professional
development; enabling school leaders to cooperate in an environment often still
dominated by competition; and scaling up the innovations so that they can influence the
whole education system.
Recommendations: Let school leaders lead
The report’s authors concluded that systemic leadership needs to come more from
principals themselves and from agencies committed to working with them. They suggest
that top-down approaches are not likely to work well. Developing ownership by
participants, as Victoria (Australia) or the Austrian Leadership Academy are doing, is
A more lateral approach may be to create mediating organisations (such as the
National College for School Leadership and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust
in England and the Leadership Academy in Austria) to promote system leadership and
collaborative activity. Another approach is to foster local education authorities and
municipalities in developing and spreading practice, as the Finnish have done. The
intention must be not to create a new bureaucracy but to facilitate relationships between
schools so that they can collaborate for the good of all students.
There is already significant system leadership activity in the five case study countries,
this report finds. System leadership can build capacity in education; share expertise,
facilities and resources; encourage innovation and creativity; improve leadership and
spread it more widely; and provide skills support.
The collective sharing of skills, expertise and experience will create much richer and
more sustainable opportunities for rigorous transformation than can ever be provided by
isolated institutions, say the authors. But attaining this future demands that we give
school leaders more possibilities in taking the lead.