It is often said that the impact of school leadership, on pupil outcomes, is second only to the impact of classroom teachers. There is good evidence that a school’s professional environment affects pupils’ learning, in a range of ways. Hence it is critical that school leaders view their primary responsibility as creating and maintaining the most conducive professional environment they can. Therein lies a problem.
The best current, scientifically meaningful evidence that school environment and leadership matter led to five key claims within the recently published reports by Evidence Based Education. These are:
Claim 1: Individual school headteachers may have significantly different outcomes.
Claim 2: Retention of both teachers and headteachers matters.
Claim 3: Individual teacher effects are only part of the story.
Claim 4: Some school-level characteristics are associated with student outcomes.
Claim 5: Some school-level characteristics predict school and teacher growth.
A sixth and final “claim” identified some key issues that are currently unknown:
- The malleable, well-defined behaviours of headteachers that make a difference.
- The size and nature of the contribution of school leaders who are not headteachers (e.g., assistant heads).
- How to train and support headteachers and school leaders to be more effective.
- Anything about the size and distribution of teacher or headteacher effects from different contexts (e.g., UK).
- The extent to which teacher or headteacher effects depend on interactions with key factors.
“Despite the undoubted importance of school leadership, existing research tells us little that is trustworthy about what skills and knowledge school leaders should have, what they should do in any given situation, how we should train and support them, or exactly how their actions may be expected to benefit students, in terms of both attainment and equity. Many leadership researchers and trainers offer plentiful advice and make strong claims, but we judge that little of this is well-defined, actionable and grounded in robust evidence.”
(Coe et al., (2022), School Environment & Leadership: Evidence Review, Evidence Based Education)
Evidence Based Education, in partnership with Cambridge Assessment International Education, has sought to address this void by identifying a number of characteristics of a school’s environment and leadership that seem to be important enablers of, or barriers to, effective learning.
The three characteristics, each consisting of several factors, are:
- Learning Time
- Learning Support – Factors that affect the teaching-learning interaction but are (largely) outside the control of an individual classroom teacher. On first reading, the factors within these first two characteristics appear to be domain-specific and focussed on schools/ educational establishments.
- Management Factors – School-level (or team-level) factors that are necessary for effective functioning of any organisation. On first reading these factors appear to be more generic leadership factors; applicable across many different varied organisations.
These three characteristics, and their component factors, are our current best bets for the things that school leaders should pay attention to. The recommendations to school leaders are:
- Understand how/when/why each factor can enable or prevent effective learning from happening. This requires study, reflection and expertise. Reading the evidence review provides a good start, ideally followed by further reading, reflection and study.
- Monitor each factor in your context. The reports provide a survey tool that any school leader can use to collect the perceptions of their staff. It is good to include a range of sources of evidence in this process. Monitoring means tracking these indicators in a systematic way over time.
- Prioritise one factor to address, that is both a ‘barrier’ and a ‘lever’
- Contribute to the collection of better evidence and generation of stronger recommendations by using the Great Teaching Toolkit to share data about the status, progress and impact in your school.