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The Learning Crisis is a Leadership Crisis


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Across Asia, we are seeing countries making investments in improving the quality of their school systems. This transition from a focus on access to school to improving quality is a leadership challenge and requires education institutions to be led by motivated and qualified leaders, who are trained and supported for their roles, and held accountable for the learning of children in their schools.  While some countries have begun in investing in the training of their school leaders, we find they lack a more comprehensive approach to school leadership.  This article lays out a more comprehensive approach that governments can take to investing in school leadership.


Learning Crisis

In many Asian countries education systems need dramatic improvement, particularly for students from low-income communities. Less than half of Indian students in grade 5 can read a grade 2 text. In Malaysia, students score poorly on internationally benchmarked exams and according to the Malaysian Government’s Education Blueprint, 80% of schools are classified as poor-performing against international standards. Similarly in Indonesia, Stuart Patience writes that the 2015 PISA data shows that “that more than 86% of Indonesian 15 year-olds read at PISA Level 2 or below – that is, they are unable to consistently perform Level 3 skills such as ‘locat[ing] and… recognis[ing] the relationship between several pieces of information’ in a text.” These systems alone serve almost 400 million students. The motivation to improve the primary and secondary education performance could not be more urgent.  We believe that the crisis in learning is a crisis of leadership, and strengthening school leadership across the ASEAN region would be a key step on addressing this dire situation.

The Potential of School Leadership

Research on the importance of school leadership suggests it could be a key lever in transforming education systems. After studying headmasters in seven countries, including India, Nick Bloom and his colleagues find that a one point increase on their scoring of school management practices is associated with a ten percent increase in student performance. The World Bank’s 2017 World Development Report (WDR) states, “In countries ranging from Brazil and India to Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the management capacity of school principals significantly and robustly relates to student performance—even after controlling for a variety of student and school characteristics.” Furthermore, Eric Hanushek and his colleagues show evidence that suggests the ability of the principal matters most in schools serving the most underprivileged students.
We are encouraged that governments have started making improved school leadership a point of focus and have set up institutes such as Malaysia’s Institut Aminuddin Baki (IAB), Indonesia’s Lembaga Pengembangan dan Pemberdayaan Kepala Sekolah (LPPKS), and India’s National Centre for School Leadership (NCSL).  Additionally, in Malaysia, one of the key shifts in the Malaysian Education Blueprint focuses on high quality leadership and it has mandated that every principal completes the National Professional Qualification for Educational Leaders (NPQEL) at IAB. Through the aspirations in the National Education Blueprint, it is hoped that all school leaders (principals, assistant principals, department heads and subject heads) in Malaysia will be prepared to fully utilise the decision-making flexibilities accorded to them. This includes instructional leadership matters such as school improvement planning, curriculum and co-curricular planning, as well as administrative leadership matters such as allocation of school funds. To date, we have seen a number of schools thrive under the leadership of outstanding principals who are able to identify the needs of their students and teachers and drive them towards success.

However, in 2015, both UNESCO and OECD released reports still stating that lack of school leadership development in mid- and low-income countries has resulted in poor student performance. We believe school systems must adopt a comprehensive strategy for school leadership development to see investments in leadership lead to improved school quality.

Key Components to Leadership Development 

Global School Leaders (GSL) , is a not-for-profit organisation that is working to improve school leadership in India and Malaysia, and will begin work in Indonesia soon.  GSL believes 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. Autonomy with Accountability: Define the leader’s role and provide them the authority to implement systems to complete these goals. Use a system of results-based recognition, accountability, and career progression.

Much of GSL’s work to date has been supporting the continuous professional development for leaders. The GSL leadership model is based on the work done by the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI) and is comprised of three structures that each reinforce the other:

  1. Participatory Workshops: Leaders are more likely to adopt a theory if they know how they can apply it to their work and have had some time to contextualise and practice this in a low-stakes setting.
  2. On-site Support: A recent study showed that teachers are better able to improve student learning via on-the-job coaching as compared to the traditional forum workshops. Their study suggest that the effectiveness of coaching does not stem from increased effort, but that coached teachers are more likely to take on the more difficult, but seemingly important, teaching practices to improve learning.
    The same is true for school leaders that must adopt important management practices that drive student learning. Leaders who know they’ll have support if they initially struggle are more likely to take the risks required to succeed in the long-run.
  3. Peer Learning: School Leaders often work in isolation. Peer networks allow leaders to visit each other’s schools and share their innovations, successes, and challenges. These networks create a positive peer pressure for leaders to change the status quo and often lead to the implementation of ideas by principals that go beyond the scope of planned content.


Moving Forward

It is essential that school systems work to improve school leadership in a comprehensive manner. Governments, with support from civil society and private sector organisations, must ensure that systems to improve leadership pipelines, support, and accountability work together and reinforce each other. This will allow us to collectively unlock the leadership potential in our schools and improve the learning experiences for all of our students.


Sameer Sampat is the co-founder of Global School Leaders. Cheryl Ann Fernando is the Country Director of Global School Leaders Malaysia.

Sameer and Cheryl write about the potential for strong school leadership to substantially improve student learning. They outline the comprehensive reforms systems must undergo to improve school leadership as well as key lessons from their work supporting leaders.

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