Schools Call for Improvement through Strong Leadership

by Marie-Amélie Doring Serre
Trainee, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Every organisation needs a strong leader to get a sense of direction, to set and achieve specific goals. Howard Gardner defines a leader as “an individual (or, rarely, a set of individuals) who significantly affects the thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviours of a significant number of individuals”. Being a leader clearly involves a good understanding of human nature, no matter what the area of leadership.

School leaders are the connection between teachers, students and their parents or guardians, the education system and the wider community in which a school exists. Because their central role is combined with rising expectations of schools and schooling in a century characterised by technological innovation, migration and globalisation, we understand that school leaders can no longer be simple managers. The increasing demands of education stakeholders require that these leaders manage human and material resources, communicate and interact with a wide range of individuals, and make evidence-informed decisions.

The role of the school principal is changing: an effective school leader is an instructional leader. Harold Brewer defines a school principal as the “one that requires focusing on instruction; building a community of learners; sharing decision making; sustaining the basics; leveraging time; supporting ongoing professional development for all staff members; redirecting resources to support a multifaceted school plan; and creating a climate of integrity, inquiry, and continuous improvement”. That’s why many regard instructional leadership as the most important professional responsibility with which principals are entrusted. But are school leaders well-prepared to assume such responsibility? Do they feel they get enough support and have enough opportunities to do so?

The OECD Teaching and Learning Survey (TALIS) asked principals in over 34 countries about the leadership activities in which they engage most frequently. Depending on the country, the most frequently mentioned activities range from taking action to ensure that teachers take responsibility for improving their own teaching skills and for their students’ learning outcomes, to working with teachers to improve classroom discipline. Principals’ responsibilities do not end there. Principals also give information to parents about students’ performance, and they also have administrative duties, such as resolving conflicts in the lesson timetable in the school. Some of their other activities are also related to teaching, such as observing classroom instruction. The breadth of these activities shows that principals need sufficient preparation and continual training to be able to work effectively.

The latest Teaching in Focus brief, “School Improvement through Strong Leadership”, addresses the issue of how school leaders could benefit from more pre- and in-service training relevant to the core nature of their work. It is striking to see that although principals are highly -educated individuals with good professional experience, instructional leadership is often lacking in their preparation to become school leaders. As a result, their training does not match the diversity of their responsibilities.
It is even more worrying to see that this gap is not filled later on during their career. School leaders are not always able to benefit from instructional leadership training once in their role, even though they recognise their need for further development in this field. TALIS data show that many principals cite conflicts with their work schedule, insufficient opportunities and a lack of employer support as reasons why they do not participate in professional development activities.

Those findings are relevant to principals’ everyday work. One must not forget that strong school leadership can greatly facilitate school improvement and student achievement. But in order for strong school leadership to exert its influence, the concept of instructional leadership has to be fully understood and put in practice by all parties at the system and school levels. Principals should seek opportunities to further develop skills associated with those of instructional leaders. But for this to happen, the education system must provide such initiatives. Policy makers should thus help remove barriers by creating an effective initial education and training environment for school leaders. Only then will better student learning outcomes and school improvement follow.

The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey
A Teacher’s Guide to TALIS 2013
Teaching In Focus No. 7 : School Improvement through Strong Leadership by Marie-Amélie Doring Serre and Katarzyna Kubacka
Teaching in Focus No. 7: French version
International Summit on the Teaching Profession, Banff, Alberta, on March 29–30, 2015.

Photo credit:Group of People and Leadership Concepts / Shutterstock

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