What difference do school leaders make to the outcomes achieved by their learners? Sometimes a teacher’s reaction to this question is to consider that the headteacher and other leaders are perhaps too far removed from the classroom to have a direct influence on learners. However there is a good deal of research evidence that indicates a positive link between effective leadership and outcomes for children. For instance in their study of the highest performing school systems internationally, Barber, Whelen, and Clark (2010) found that:
...school leadership is crucial to outcomes and has grown in importance over the last decade.
In fact there is now a clear emerging consensus that in terms of effects on learner outcomes, leadership is second only in significance to the quality of classroom teaching (Qian and Walker, 2012). This important impact of leadership on learner outcomes has been found to be particularly strong in schools facing challenging circumstances and is why a focus on leadership, and its development, is often placed at the heart of strategies to improve under-performing schools.
The emphasis has usually been on learning outcomes and academic attainment. However, it is interesting that effective leaders themselves often see their role in improving outcomes more broadly. For example, in one of the most comprehensive studies of the impact of leadership on learner outcomes, Day and others (2010) found that in addition to test results, successful leaders define success in terms of:
- personal and social outcomes
- learner and staff motivation
- engagement and well-being
- the quality of learning and teaching
- the school's contribution to its community.
How do headteachers and other school leaders achieve this influence and impact? Well the evidence shows that they do this largely indirectly through their ability to improve conditions for learning. They use a combination of approaches which are sometimes referred to as ‘leadership for learning’ or ‘instructional leadership’. In addition, the most effective leaders demonstrate flexibility in the way they use these approaches to ensure they are geared towards the specific needs and context of their particular school.
In their summary of a wide range of research investigations, Robinson, Lloyd and Rowe (2008) discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, that:
...the closer educational leaders get to the core business of teaching and learning, the more they are likely to have a positive impact on students' outcomes.
They looked at the following sets of leadership practices and found that Dimension 4 has by far the strongest effect.
Dimension 1: Establishing goals and expectations.
Dimension 2: Resourcing strategically.
Dimension 3: Planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum.
Dimension 4: Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development.
Dimension 5: Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment.
(Robinson, Lloyd and Rowe, 2008, pages 659-664).
Watch the following video of Viviane Robinson talking about leadership approaches which have an impact on student outcomes (external link).
Reflect on a school you know well and consider what difference it could it make to look at the effects of leadership in this way.