Contextualizing our Understanding of Educational Leadership within the Kenyan System:Nathern Okilwa’s Perspective

Nathern Okilwa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In the current blog, he shares how research brought him back to his home country of Kenya and how this experience sheds light on the need to develop educational leadership perspectives from a non-western lens.

As a native Kenyan born scholar, I have always been interested in addressing the dearth of East African perspectives in educational leadership discourse and literature. In Kenya in particular, this is exacerbated by a lack of institutional resources for scholars to pursue educational research; they are often given heavy class loads and the pursuit of research is not incentivized. Without this scholarly base, I have often found myself employing Western grounded frameworks such as the effective and successful leadership models (see Day et al., 2011; Hitt & Tucker, 2016; Leithwood & Day, 2007; Louis et al., 2010), to describe leadership dynamics as this literature continues to be what is most commonly available, cited, and discussed. In 2014 however, a door opened for me to be involved in my first research project with school leaders in Kenya; I took this as a timely and relevant opportunity to shed light on the importance of contextualizing educational leadership within broader global frameworks.

Brief Context

It is important to note that in Kenya we have 40+ tribes which were heavily fragmented and divided under British Colonial rule. Establishing a strong educational system to achieve the national goal of self-fulfillment and collective national development, now enshrined in the Kenyan Constitution, was fundamental for post-independence (i.e., post 1963) Kenya. Part of the strategy was to create national schools, contrived as centers for academic excellence and national cohesion. Shortly after independence, 18 national schools were founded, however, the number has increased to the current 103 schools across the country. One unique feature of these schools is that they follow a quota system for enrollment as a way to remain true to the original purpose of national cohesion and promoting equity and access particularly for students from under resourced regions. For example, the North Eastern part of the country is more impoverished and families practice a nomadic lifestyle; the quota system gives students a more equitable chance to access these schools compared to, for example, students from Central Kenya where there are more resources and often higher educational quality.

Another important contextual element is that while most primary K-8 schools are co-ed, there is often a shift toward single-sex boarding high schools. This practice has long been effective from a cultural point of view, especially for girls, because it provides opportunities for them to not have to fight for the attention and resources with boys who historically have had advantaged educational opportunities in Kenya. Moreover due to the cultural beliefs of some communities, having girls move out of their home settings to be in a boarding school helps ensure that they are not distracted by other responsibilities at home that would take away from their ability to concentrate on education.

About the Study

This two year study was conducted in an all-girls national boarding school in Kenya serving about 1300 students in Form 1-4 (equivalent of grades 9-12). I chose this school because it forms part of the top 10% of these public national schools in terms of academic excellence. I was curious to understand how schools that have stayed within this top percentage for a long time have managed to do so and the role of leadership in this process.Despite this being the first research conducted at this particular girls high school, the reception was extremely positive. The leadership and staff seemed excited that someone had come to provide them with a platform to tell their stories—likely a result of the fact that I was highlighting their school as a success story. They were so enthusiastic that many of the staff even wanted to be named in research reports, breaking with traditional researcher anonymity practices. Over two summers, I engaged with the school leadership, staff, and students in the form of semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and observations. Here are a few of the key findings that emerged:

  • The tenure/longevity of the school leaders plays a key role in maintaining the success and vision and mission of the school. For example, when I started the study in 2014, the current school leader had served as principal for 15 years. She had started there as a teacher and risen through the ranks to become a principal. She had a well developed understanding of the context and was well endeared by the teachers and students that we interviewed. Yet this longevity was not unique to this specific principal; since the school was transferred from British to Kenyan management in the 1970’s, the school had only had 2 leaders.
  • Setting direction. The principal provided strong direction through clear vision and mission of the school.The school’s vision is “to be a center for educational excellence and training”, and the mission is “to provide a holistic and quality education for service to God and humanity.” Students and staff seemed to have fully bought-in and it was clear that was well received and followed through by the school community. While I did not ask my participants to specifically tell me how the mission and vision was worded, it did come up often in interviews how it was operationalized.
  • People across the school felt empowered. Talking to students and teachers, it was evident that they felt supported and given the opportunity by the principal to exercise their leadership potential. Therefore, distributed leadership was an approach utilized to empower different individuals within the school to lead in different capacities – ranging from deputy principals to department heads to committee heads of different initiatives. Talking to members of the student council, they were clear about how their ideas were integrated in the school management. The students appreciated that their voices were respected by the school leadership, which is not a common practice in many Kenyan schools. Most importantly, the leadership demonstrated and modeled what effective leadership looks like.
  • Managing instruction. The principal and her two deputy principals were actively engaged in monitoring classroom instruction and performance. These administrators held themselves, teachers, and students to the highest standard of performance. In a heightened accountability educational system, such as the one that exists in Kenya, performance on the national exam (i.e., KCSE) is often used to make conclusive judgment about the kind of instruction that students receive. The administrative team managed high instructional expectations through leading by example (e.g., teaching at least one class on top of their busy administrative responsibilities) and empowering teachers to be instructional leaders themselves.

An important aspect of this research, beyond building leadership research within a relatively understudied area, is to put these findings in discourse with the more commonly employed leadership frameworks as I mentioned prior. I belong to the International School Leadership Development Network, a consortium of international researchers within the University Council of Educational Administration (UCEA). I have taken what I have learned from this study to this venue in order to share some of the commonalities and differences I have encountered between leadership frameworks across cultural and geographic contexts. I have used this particular study to emphasize why context matters, because there are some differences that might not be nuanced when using frameworks designed primarily from Western settings. When I published my first piece (Okilwa & Duarte, 2019) there were a lot of questions and critiques raised about my choice to employ the effective principal framework as it was not necessarily a great fit; my response was that this was probably the closest that I could utilize to highlight certain elements of leadership but I acknowledged its limitations. My hope is that  as we continue to study school leadership within the African setting, I believe that new frameworks might emerge that acknowledge and expand our understanding of Afrocentric school leadership.

Nathern hopes to continue this dialogue and expand upon his leadership research in Kenya in the near future. We look forward to seeing how this work evolves and following his trajectory. If you are interested in learning more please feel free to reach out to him here.


Nathern Okilwa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Texas as San Antonio (UTSA). Okilwa earned his PhD in Educational Policy and Planning from the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the ranks of higher education, Okilwa’s experience and commitment to education spans 13 years of general and special education teaching in K12 settings across a variety of sociocultural contexts. Dr. Okilwa’s research interests include issues of equity and access for underserved and underrepresented student groups; preparing school leaders that support diverse learners; influences of school, home, and community contexts on student outcomes; sociocultural contexts of education; educational policy and politics; and international organization of schooling.


Day, C., Sammons, P., Leithwood, K., Hopkins, D., Gu, Q., Brown, E., & Ahtaridou, E. (2011). School leadership and student outcomes: Building and sustaining success. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Hitt, D. H., & Tucker, P. D. (2016). Systematic review of key leader practices found to influence student achievement: A unified framework. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 531–569.

Leithwood, K., & Day, C. (Eds.). (2007). Successful school principals: International perspectives. Toronto, ON: Springer.

Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K. L., & Anderson, S. E. (2010). Learning from leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning, center for applied research and educational improvement. St Paul: University of Minnesota.

Okilwa, N. S. & Duarte, B. (2019): Examining the role of leadership at an academically successful girls-only national high school in Kenya. Leadership and Policy in Schools, DOI: 10.1080/15700763.2019.1637901

3 thoughts on “Contextualizing our Understanding of Educational Leadership within the Kenyan System:Nathern Okilwa’s Perspective”

  1. I would like to receive more information on school leadership in marginalized communities.

    1. Hello Rose–you may want to subscribe to receive the weekly, free blogs from the website– since we have lots of information about this topic.

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