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

  • Leadership can fix poor schooling

    In 2019, Dr Vusumzi Chuta, the district director of the Fezile Dabi district at the Free State Department of Education, asserted that it is important that school principals receive the support of their districts in order to improve learning outcomes. As poor learning outcomes persist despite the ongoing supervision of schools, he argued that it is clear that the support of district officers is crucial to foster an environment conducive to learning and improving the performance of pupils. He noted that district resources have been disproportionately used for secondary schools rather than primary schools.

  • Training school principals in Whole Brain® thinking

    In 2018, 11 school principals in Gauteng completed a programme for school principals introducing them to the concept of Whole Brain® thinking. This flagship CSI project of the Enterprises University of Pretoria (Enterprises UP), which was introduced in 2013, has trained a total of 64 school principals. According to Hermien Dorfling, Enterprises UP Executive Manager: Training Solutions, the programme allowed the institution to “equip educators with the tools to function in the new educational landscape, which has become challenging”. 

  • Primary school principals as instructional leaders

    In 2015, researchers Parvathy Naidoo and Nadine Petersen argued that many South African school principals were operating without the necessary skills to lead and manage schools. They also argued that sustainable strategies for training and supporting school principals were generally inadequate throughout Africa. They asserted that there was little consensus regarding how best to prepare school principals for effective instructional leaderships in schools.

  • Defeatism in school leadership

    In 2013, researcher Cariana Fouche asserted that a culture of defeatism in our school system is a legacy of the post-1994 South African Schools Act (84/1996) (SASA), the National Education Policy Act (27/1996) (NEPA). This culture of defeatism diminishes the capacity of principals to think and lead creatively. She argued that top-down enforcement of rather obsolete policies, together with demand-and-control managerialist leadership styles and a lack of autonomy, have led to despondency among principals. She suggested that resilience can play a key role in improving outcomes.

  • Poor school leadership failing South African pupils

    Dr Nick Taylor, former CEO of JET Education Services – now Head of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) – asserted in 2016 that poor school leadership is failing South African pupils. “Many school leaders and teachers are failing our pupils, but in the majority of cases this is not their fault. The problem is that they themselves are poorly educated,” he explained to writer Leanne Jansen.

  • Leadership styles and the adversity quotient

    The 2019 paper Relationship Between Principals’ Adversity Quotient and Leadership Styles in Secondary Schools in Delta State, Nigeria, contends that having a high adversity quotient (an ability to deal with adversities in life, demonstrating resilience) facilitates the adoption of appropriate leadership styles. Leaders with a low adversity quotient are in need of leadership training and development.

  • Principal’s leadership skills turn rural school around (Learning World)

     In this video, the headmaster of Mpondombini Secondary School in the Eastern Cape explains how he has taken the Grade 12 pass rate from 23% in 2001, when he took up the reins, to 96% in 2014. With the slogan ‘Learners first’, the school says management is responsible for motivating educators and learners alike. “My vision is that this school remains on top,” says Gabada.

  • Kanyisa Diamond, Senior Project Manager at the Old Mutual Foundation, explains the importance of school leadership

    In 2012, Old Mutual committed to educational interventions that deepen leadership and governance within the context of basic education. Kanyisa Diamond, Senior Project Manager at the Old Mutual Foundation, explains that the company has worked not only with principals but with circuit managers, who are critical to school district leadership.  Their support enables principals to drive ecosystemic change within schools. Diamond asserts that capable principals who are capacitated by circuit managers tend to stay in their positions for many years, providing a stable environment and making sure that interventions are sustainable.

  • Binding constraints to improved educational outcomes for the poor

    The 2016 South African report Identifying Binding Constraints in Education, from the University of Stellenbosch, set out to understand the root causes of our poor education system and identified leadership as a key issue affecting outcomes at school. The research highlights four binding constraints to improved educational outcomes for the poor, all of which can be mitigated by effective leadership.

  • School leadership drives learner outcomes

    Partners for Possibility, which runs a principal mentorship programme in South African schools, has identified key South African and international research findings that show a link between school leadership and learner outcomes. A number of the studies indicate that school leadership is the second-most important factor, after classroom practice, in influencing learner outcomes. Partners for Possibility’s case for principal development cites a number of these studies.  

  • Effective heads lead with values

    In this 2009 report The Impact of School Leadership on Pupil Outcomes, from the University of Nottingham, it was asserted that there are statistically significant associations between principals’ educational values, qualities and strategic actions, and improvement in school conditions leading to improvements in pupil outcomes. “There is no single model of practice of effective leadership, but it is possible to identify a common repertoire of broad educational values, personal and interpersonal qualities, dispositions, competencies, decision-making processes and a range of internal and external strategic actions which all effective heads in the study possess and use,” the report says.  

  • Leadership in high-performing schools

    This 2012 report The Importance of Leadership in High-Performing Schools indicated that there is a growing body of evidence to show that school leadership has an impact on student outcomes, second only to the influence of teachers in the classroom. 

  • Key competencies for principalship

    In his 2014 paper Policy on the South African Standard for Principalship, James, Ndlebe, Director for Education Management and Governance Development at the Department of Basic Education, outlined eight key competencies for principalship, as defined by the DBE. The paper was presented at the EMASA Conference.


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