The role of school heads and why they matter during the COVID pandemic

Female school principal wearing face mask with arms crossed standing outside school building with children sitting behind

By Choyi Whang

Statistician, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Nowhere has the role of school heads been more visible than during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, with generalised lockdowns and school closures in countries all over the world. Not only did they have to co-ordinate measures to maintain learning continuity during the lockdown and school closures, but they were also responsible for ensuring a safe learning environment when schools were allowed to reopen. The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief places the spotlight on the roles and salaries of school heads in public institutions, and takes a close look at how their responsibilities, working time and compensation vary across countries (based on data collected before the surge of the pandemic).

Good leadership in schools fosters nurturing learning environments that help children grow and develop.  To cultivate such an environment, school heads must navigate and promote collaboration across the often complex network of stakeholders: education authorities, teachers, students, parents and local communities. In a sense, school heads are the glue that holds everyone together.

During the COVID-19 crisis, school heads are expected to be more flexible in managing school resources to keep up with frequently changing guidelines and circumstances. Leadership and management have always been the main responsibilities of school heads: in two-thirds of OECD countries, official documents explicitly indicate so. School heads have various areas of responsibilities including human resources, financial resources, educational activities of students and teachers, external relations, well-being of students and teachers, and teaching students. During the COVID-19 crisis, they are also expected to make more complex decisions that were not needed before. For example, school heads in Chile have been responsible for various arrangements for school reopening which requires a closer collaboration with many stakeholders.

The area and extent of responsibilities of school heads defined in official documents vary across countries. For example, school heads are required to teach students in slightly less than half of OECD countries and economies at lower secondary level, though they teach less hours than teachers do. Within a country, individual school heads may teach even fewer hours or not at all depending on school characteristics such as size, geographical location and socio-economic status of the region. The pandemic has extended the actual scope of their responsibilities in some countries. For instance, school heads in Norway could decide how to use additional government funding targeted to help vulnerable students make up for learning loss, through initiatives such as homework assistance programmes, summer schools and more teacher hires.

The additional workload due to the unfamiliar circumstances brought on by the pandemic and the increased collaboration among stakeholders may require school heads to work longer hours than statutory regulations call for (seven to eight hours a day on average). Financial compensation for overtime is not always provided. At lower secondary level, only eight OECD and partner countries offer additional pay to school heads who work longer hours. Instead, school heads may receive an allowance for outstanding performance, as is the case in about half of OECD and partner countries. In many of these countries, eligibility for an outstanding performance allowance is based on students’ performance. However, it may be uncertain how eligibility for this type of allowance will be determined in the context of school closures, as disruptions in students’ learning may have deteriorated overall academic performance.

School heads have been under enormous pressure to put together the emergency response to schooling amidst a pandemic – they need time and energy to concentrate on the immediate challenges

Salaries are important to maintain the attractiveness of school leadership roles. In 2019, lower secondary level school heads earned 59% more than teachers did, and 38% more than full-time, full-year workers with tertiary qualification did on average in OECD countries, though there are variations across countries and across schools. School heads’ salaries are primarily defined within a range (there can be more than one range in a country based on qualifications) and their actual salaries vary depending on individual characteristics such as the number of years’ experience, duties performed, geographical location and socio-economic status of the region. However, school heads may not always feel their level of compensation matches their level of responsibilities. On average across the 30 OECD countries that participated in TALIS 2018, three out of five school heads in public institutions reported they were not satisfied with their salaries. At a time when school heads are being asked to take on more responsibilities, a level of financial compensation similar to previous years may make them feel that their work is less recognised.

School heads are at the heart of the education system, connecting education authorities, teachers, students and communities. Like in our own bodies, when the heart fails, the entire system breaks down. School heads have been under enormous pressure to put together the emergency response to schooling amidst a pandemic. In times of crisis, more than ever, they need time and energy to concentrate on the immediate challenges. This could be done through measures such as temporarily adjusting school heads’ administrative workloads or compensating them for the increased volume of work. During difficult times, it is important that school leaders are encouraged, supported and their efforts recognised as they play a crucial role in ensuring learning continues, even at a distance.

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