Importance of School Leadership

According to The Wallace Foundation in the US, school leadership is second only to teaching in terms of the impact it has on student learning. School principals shape the conditions for good-quality teaching and determine whether teachers are likely to stay in high-needs schools.

In the report ‘How Leadership Influences Student Learning’, The Wallace Foundation points out that the success of any intervention depends largely on the capacity and motivation of a school’s leaders.

An analysis by the RAND Corporation, an American non-profit global policy think-thank, indicates that almost 60% of a school’s impact on student achievement can be attributed to effective leadership, with principals accounting for 25% and teachers 33% of a school’s total impact on achievement. For meaningful gains year after year, whole schools must be highly functional, run by effective principals and demonstrating school-wide teaching expertise. Multiple sources make it clear that leadership is absolutely critical and has a far greater impact than previously realised.

School leadership typically involves:

  • Supporting, evaluating and developing teacher quality.
  • Goal-setting, assessment and accountability.
  • Strategic financial and HR management.
  • Collaborating with other schools.

Policymakers often fail to pay enough attention to the way good school leadership can improve the quality of education, despite the fact that the National Development Plan (NDP) of 2012 explicitly identified strengthening school leadership as a national priority.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) and Provincial Education Departments have implemented a number of strategies to support principals and teachers, but few of these interventions have been qualitatively evaluated to date.

Why do schools need leadership development?

David Newby, Organisational Development Consultant and Managing Trustee of SEED Educational Trust, discusses why schools need leadership development – particularly schools where significant socioeconomic and psychosocial challenges exist. Newby says the immediate aim is to foster greater organisational health, but the ultimate aim is to improve learner results. SEED Educational Trust’s academic partner is the University of Stellenbosch Business School Executive Development (USB-ED). Watch more below:

The role of school principals

According to education economist Gabrielle Wills, principals play a pivotal role in school functioning, upholding the operational management of schools, coordinating teachers, disciplining and motivating students, and providing instructional leadership. “A growing evidence-base using valued-added models provides convincing evidence that school principals matter for school effectiveness and student outcomes,” she writes.

Principals often remain in their positions for up to a decade or more, so having the right principals in place is essential.

For the most part, the performance of principals is still assessed in terms of the Integrated Quality Management System (IQMS) agreed to in 2003. Job security is generally guaranteed once a position has been obtained. The absence of performance contracts does not hold principals sufficiently accountable, or prompt them to improve their performance. Setting ‘professional standards’ for principals would help to change this – it has been suggested that principals should only be promoted upon acquiring an Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) in School Management and Leadership.

Changes to policy have been slow, but a national gazette of draft policy stipulating the Standard for Principalship was released for public comment in August 2014. The matter has become more urgent in light of the rising age profile of school principals. According to Wills, in a system of over 24 000 public schools, roughly 7 000 principals would have to be hired between 2012 and 2017 just to replace retiring principals.

Another issue is the fact that principals are unequally distributed across schools, with less qualified and experienced principals over-represented in poorer schools.

Recommended Resources: Context for School Leadership and Management