From leadership bright spots to transformed school systems

By Kieran Cooke, Senior Development Consultant, Education Development Trust

In the middle of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, amongst the rubbish dumps of an impoverished community, there is a school, which, despite the collapsing roofs and dusty floors, is achieving high student outcomes. This school is led by Mary, a committed and outstanding head teacher who has high ambitions, provides focused support to her teachers and rigorously monitors their performance and progress. Mary and her school are a ‘bright spot’, however her impact is confined to her own school and the students within it. Her high-impact practices and solutions are not being shared with her fellow head teachers in neighbouring schools who are facing similar challenges.

In every education system, there are similar high performing school leaders who have the potential to act as powerful change agents to support their peers and drive rapid and sustainable improvement beyond their own school. These ‘system leaders’ have the will and, with adequate and appropriate support, can develop the capability to enable high-performing, self-improving school systems.

System leadership for rapid school improvement

This model of system leadership is a key component of many high-performing education systems globally such as England, Canada and New Zealand. For example, under the National Leaders of Education Programme in England, both the system leaders’ schools and the beneficiary schools improved faster than the national average of student progress for 11- and 16-year-olds.

However, such a model does not exist in developing countries and instead, too often, professional development courses for school principals are well-intentioned but fail to change practice on the ground. Yet we know from global evidence that the quality of school leadership has a major impact on student learning outcomes – second only to classroom teaching. Therefore, improving school leadership is integral to improving the quality of education in these countries and these ‘bright spots’ provide a  good starting point for achieving this.

System leadership in Nairobi and Mumbai

Photo by KarlKiili Photography (
Image: KarlKiili Photography

 Education Development Trust, where I work, a global charity transforming lives by improving education around the world, is using its deep knowledge of school reform in developing countries over 30 years to contextualise this system leadership model for low-income settings. Between April 2016 and January 2017, Education Development Trust piloted the system leadership model in 42 low-cost schools in Nairobi and 19 in Mumbai. Statistically similar schools were paired together. The high-performing school leaders were provided with high calibre training in being ‘leadership mentors’ and supported to codify their effective practice and understand how they could use this most effectively to support other school leaders. A powerful coaching relationship based on trust was formed between the paired leaders, with the ‘system leader’ meeting regularly with their peer to provide support and challenge against a defined and mutually agreed school improvement priority. For many of these leaders this was the first time they had spoken to another leader about their practice, and had the opportunity to visit another school to observe a peer in action.

Rapid improvement in leadership competence

IMG-20160820-WA0004These proof of concept pilots demonstrated the relevance and impact of system leadership models in these settings. In Nairobi and Mumbai, the evaluations found rapid improvements in the leadership competence of both the system leaders and beneficiary leaders; teaching quality at the beneficiary school; and the implementation of their chosen school improvement priority. Many of the leaders decided to focus on improving their instructional leadership, for example improving their skills of classroom observation, giving feedback, and providing targeted support to teachers. Whilst the key driver of this intervention was to enable the high-performing leader to support the raising of standards in a lower performing school, it also allowed the system leader to improve as well.

Why system leadership works

3Participant headteachers in Mumbai commented that, through participating, they “felt the need to do better, come out of complacency and equip ourselves with skills for improving our performance.” A headteacher from Nairobi found “being partnered with a high-performing school was very inspiring and fostered a desire to do better”. Behind these observations and evidence of impact are three core reasons why this model enables high-performing school leaders to improve the capabilities of other leaders:

  • It creates powerful coaching relationships between these leaders, where peer support brings credibility because peers can draw on the up-to-date insight and skills they have as serving leaders.
  • It enables high-impact contextualised school improvement solutions to be codified and shared making it easier for others to adopt them. It helps to articulate how they are using the same resources as peers, to better effect.
  • It promotes ‘learning on the job’ as the most powerful form of professional development, by leaders working together in context on real school improvement challenges.

System leadership has future potential as a high-impact, low-cost driver for school improvement

Some of the beneficiary leaders in Nairobi who rapidly improved are now interested in supporting other leaders and the best system leaders are now moving from providing support on a 1-1 basis to supporting networks and clusters of schools. This begins to create a self-generating momentum of change, a key step in enabling a self-improving school system.

Education Development Trust has introduced this model into their approach to improving literacy and numeracy outcomes in Rwanda under the DFID Building Learning Foundations programme. This will enable this innovative school improvement model to be delivered at scale, providing further valuable insights and learnings. Building upon these, it is hoped that this model can be applied elsewhere. This will enable many more leadership bright spots like Mary to be identified and supported to catalyse improvements across their education system.


Leave a Reply