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Transforming the downward spiral of school development - 6 steps to effective school leadership

Effective school management and leadership can positively influence the quality of schools and student learning outcomes in a number of essential areas. However, many schools suffer from a lack of clear management and leadership, leading to a downward spiral in school development. Early Childhood Education Specialist Sheldon Shaeffer outlines six steps to reverse this downward spiral and improve the quality of educational.


Effective school management and leadership impact on school quality and student outcomes. Credit: DFAT.

Imagine two scenarios:

A. A good quality, well-resourced school is assigned a principal with little interest in administration, teacher and student discipline and school maintenance. They are also uninterested in (or not capable of) teacher assessment, distant from the local community, and neglectful of the school committee. Soon teachers begin to demonstrate the same attitudes, students become less motivated, the push-out and failure rates increase, parents provide less moral and financial support and move their children to other schools – and the downward spiral continues. Note that the term “drop out” generally blames the victim, implying that a student suddenly wakes up one morning and decides to leave school. Rather, the process is usually more gradual and caused more often by failures of the system rather than simply those of the child or his/her family. The system and school, deliberately or not, “push” children out of school

B. In another scenario the opposite happens. A school of poor quality with few resources is assigned a motivated, disciplined, well-organised principal who cares about school maintenance, teacher improvement, parental satisfaction, community involvement, and ultimately student outcomes – and the spiral reverses. The difference between the two scenarios is clear – effective school management and leadership.

Effective school management and leadership impact on school quality and student outcomes in the following areas:

  • curriculum, instruction, and learning focusing on key aspects in the management of teaching and learning processes;
  • planning, administration, and budgeting including development of a school vision and mission, strategic and operational planning, and management of resources;
  • personnel management and professional development including induction, ongoing assessment and further development;
  • community engagement and local governance including working effectively with parents, any existing school-parent-community entity, other community stakeholders, and local governance structures.
  • Few education systems clearly define and systematically develop the knowledge, skills, and values required for these tasks. So what can be done to promote more effective school management and leadership?

1. Performance standards and capacity building for school principals

It is crucial that ministries establish clear standards and competencies for practicing principals – and for the certification of potential or newly appointed principals – and also develop long term comprehensive training and support.

In many countries, principals are not appointed on merit and have little or no preparation and support for their role. This is especially problematic when decentralisation processes give principals more authority, resources, and accountability, and as parents and communities become more active in schools. In addition, in response to increasingly public comparative assessments of student achievement, governments want to see improvements in test scores. This adds further to the burden on principals. Note that 'Principals' in this instance is used to cover the range of other terms found in various education systems around the world such as head teacher and director.

2. Appointment and career progression of principals

Transparent, merit-based mechanisms and procedures are essential to ensure that new principals are appointed – and practicing principals, promoted – on the basis of competence rather than connections.

If this is not done, it can have a negative impact on the continuity of school improvement. In this regard, Indonesia is implementing two policies to improve the preparation, selection and monitoring of principals:

  • pre-qualifying and then certifying senior teachers to be considered for appointment as principals;
  • establishing limited terms for serving principals with formal assessments required before extension.
  • However, even these policies can be derailed by appointments, rotations, and promotions based on factors other than merit.
Transparent, merit-based mechanisms and procedures are essential to ensure that new principals are appointed. Credit: DFAT.

3. Accountability of principals

Principals must recognize that their accountability is not just up the system but also out to parents and the local community.

Many principals prioritize their local education office and the provincial and national bureaucracies ahead of parents and local community, especially if they are not from that community.

A sense of local accountability is strengthened when the community has some ability to monitor, assess, and reward or sanction principal performance. This concept is reflected in global trends in school-based management (e.g., formal guidelines on the composition, authority, and training of school-community committees in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Cambodia).

4. Transparency in school management

To help ensure better school leadership and management and stronger community oversight, daily school routines and information about teachers and students should be readily available to families and the local community.

Such information could include: the school’s accreditation status, teacher qualifications, student achievement scores, absenteeism rates (students and teachers), and school budgets and expenditures.

Transparency is especially important in decentralised systems. For example , in Indonesia a massive program of providing operational budgets to schools requires approval of these budgets by individual school committees, and proposed development plans and budgets must be publically posted. This helps to establish a genuine partnership with the community.

5. Parent and community involvement in school–based management

The challenges of accountability and transparency can only be resolved through the ongoing and genuine involvement of parents and the local community.

While many countries now require community involvement in school affairs, principals don’t always welcome this and parents may consider it culturally inappropriate. The result can be a lack of moral and financial support to the school. Principals need to be encouraged to welcome involvement, they need training in how to promote it, and the regulations around school-community committees need to be both clear and enforced.

Local accountability can provide a check on the power of the principal and the quality of the school. This can be seen, for example, in the role of some School Support Committees in Cambodia in auditing the punctuality and attendance of teachers.

6. The influence of “cultures” on school management and leadership

There are many “cultures” which influence school management and leadership styles including:

  • a country’s “Culture”, including the power relationships among substrata in the population and who has influence;
  • the nature of the government’s (and the ministry’s) culture, including the level of decentralization, management styles and established ways of working;
  • the culture(s) of the community surrounding the school, especially the extent to which they want to be and can be engaged with the school;
  • the micro-culture of the school itself, ever changing in response to changing personnel, student cohorts and local circumstances.

“Culture” underpins many weaknesses and strengths in areas such as teacher supervision and management, maintenance, transparency, honesty, and the enforcement of ministry regulations. A considered understanding of how culture influences and enables (or indeed hinders) better school management and leadership is essential.

The quality of school leadership is critical in reversing the downward spiral of school development. To ensure an upward trajectory of educational quality, education systems must work with purpose to ensure the provision of effective school managers and leaders.

Did you miss the first and second education specialist blogs in this series by Sheldon? 



Sheldon Shaeffer was Director of UNESCO's Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok for over seven years. He worked previously as a research fellow at the International Institute for Education Planning (UNESCO) and as Chief of the Education Section of UNICEF in New York. His professional focus for over 30 years has been on education systems and reforms in Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Timor Leste, and Myanmar. Sheldon is currently an Early Childhood Education Specialist with Palladium.