Strategic Directions for the Field of School Leadership – Lessons from the Ground

Guest bloggers Sameer Sampat and Azad Oommen, co-founders of Global School Leaders, discuss four key issues about school leaders that we all need to consider as we look at the education leadership ecosystem.

Over the past couple of years, we have been developing school leadership programs across the Global South. Our work on this issue

Sameer Sampat

began in India, where we led the creation of the India School Leadership Institute, which is now running continuous professional development programs for around 400 school leaders every year. Today, our organization, Global School Leaders, is working in Malaysia and in the process of starting up programs in Indonesia and Kenya.

As we have explored the spaces of school leadership, we find that there are a number of issues to be addressed to create a vibrant ecosystem.

Azad Oommen

This blog offers suggestions for measures on the issue of school leadership that would help advance this key lever of education.


Create integrated approaches to school leadership – Too often, countries are looking at school leadership merely from the standpoint of training school leaders. Of course, training is critical because being a school leader is a vastly different job than being a teacher, and too many existing leaders have not been trained for their position. However, introducing training without simultaneously addressing selection and accountability is not sufficient for a comprehensive investment in school leadership.

We believe that in order to improve leadership, school systems must simultaneously develop capacity in three areas:

  1. Pipeline: Develop systems to attract, identify, and select leaders.
  2. Support: Support leaders through pre-service and continuous professional development programs.
  3. Accountability: Define the leader’s role and have a system of results-based recognition, accountability, and career progression. 
School Leadership Training

Implement standards for school leaders competencies – We find wide variances in education system structures and the autonomy given to school leaders across countries. These range from the control teachers have to deliver curriculum in the classroom to school leaders’ ability to influence change in their schools. However, school leaders often do not have a clear sense of their role in the process and the competencies they must demonstrate to deliver against these expectations.

Many countries have been through extensive processes to create national qualification frameworks for school leaders, such as the United States, the UK, South Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia (see Bruce Barnett’s blog April 11, 2018 Principal Preparation and Development: Highly Regulated or Loosely Structured?). We believe that these competency frameworks are the starting point for improving school leadership, because they give concrete expression to a system’s ideals of the role of a school leader. From these frameworks, we can design recruitment pipelines, training methodologies and accountability measures for school leaders. However, many countries do not have such standards and this causes training to be delivered without the school leaders understanding what is expected of them.

One idea we have is to build on the commonalities in existing country frameworks to create an agreed upon international basic standard for school leaders that can then be adapted by individual countries for their specific needs. For instance, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is currently working on ISO/PC 288, which will create standards for the field of educational organizations management systems.

Use technology effectively to address shortages of high quality trainers – A key challenge to implementing scalable training programs for school leaders is the limited availability of high quality trainers and the high cost of in-person trainings. Online programs hold the promise of overcoming these limitations and creating learning opportunities that can deliver self-paced, continuous professional development programs. While there has been a lot of focus on online learning for teachers, there are few programs designed for school leaders.

The Harvard Business School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education are piloting a school leadership course. In addition, the National Centre for School Leadership, an Indian government institution, is launching on online school leadership training program. There are also less-structured professional learning opportunities such as the Global Schools Forum’s webinar series that has highlighted examples of school leader training programs in Uganda, India and Kenya.

Online learning encompasses a wide range of courses – from video-taped lectures to presentations to more interactive methods. For the developing world, we believe that as data access becomes more prevalent, we need to create mobile-centric learning systems that addresses school leader competencies. Based on our experience training school leaders in India and Malaysia, we believe that what would work best are short video-based courses, coupled with online coaching and virtual peer networks to support learning.

Use of data to improve support for school leaders – One surprising factor for us as we look at school leaders across countries is how little information is easily accessible about them. We know very little about average tenure, career progression, and even basic demographics to ensure adequate representation of various groups in the leadership ranks in schools.

For instance, we know that in many countries, women form a large proportion of primary school teachers, but a much lower proportion become school leaders. There is very little research on the systemic impact of female school leaders on schools and learning, but if we draw on widely accepted views from other industries, diversity in leadership ranks should lead to better schools.

With little research about demographics and career management, it is very difficult to understand systemic interventions that could improve school leadership.

Despite these large opportunities still to be addressed in school leadership, we are encouraged by initiatives around the world. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2018 highlighted the need for increased investment in leadership and management within school systems. At the WISE conference in Qatar in 2017, the Qatar Foundation announced the launch of ALL-IN, a global school leadership development network.   All of these initiatives point toward a growing global interest in school leadership. We must capitalize on this momentum to drive toward ecosystem-wide initiatives on this issue so that we can avoid fragmented efforts and leverage the limited resources being allocated to this sector.

In sum, we must think about school leadership beyond just the necessary measures to ensure that school heads receive adequate preparation for their role. The conversation in the field needs to be comprehensive, and policy makers, academics and practitioners must find ways to collaborate and strengthen this critical lever of education systems around the world.

Meet Sameer Sampat and Azad Oommen



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