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Why is School Leadership so important?

By Laurence Lien 

“Why would you start a programme to train principals?  Isn’t that the government’s job?”

This is a common response from private donors or even nonprofits focused on education interventions, when asked if they would support a school leadership development programme.

Education is the most popular social cause.  The social sector would spend millions on student scholarships, school infrastructure and teacher training programmes.

Yet it would strike few to start or support a programme that has been shown to be cost effective, and with concrete and positive results from multiple studies.

We believe increased attention to this area can be accomplished through two inputs: research and risk-taking.  We will explain each of these in turn, and then give an example of how a promising new school leadership programme was established from idea to launch, aiming to take catalyse this movement.

First, research.  While we don’t often think of the principal as key to student learning, we do know leadership matters to student outcomes.  A 2004 review[1], commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, in a 180-school study of the links between student achievement and educational leadership practices, showed that leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school.

After studying principals in eight countries around the world, Stanford University Professor Nick Bloom and his colleagues write, in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, that a one point increase on their scoring of school management practices is associated with a 10% increase in student performance.

In addition, leadership is even more critical where the more in trouble the school is and where the school serves the most underprivileged kids[2].

This in fact, should be quite intuitive. We always say leadership is critical in government and private sector companies; so why not in schools? And just because a principal is a good teacher, does not make him naturally a good principal. The skillsets are completely different.

The school leader is required to set directions, by being the instructional leader that sets expectations and raising the bar. S/He develops people, particularly the teachers, by training and supporting them to succeed. S/he makes the organisation work, by engaging all stakeholders, parents and community included, and makes the whole much great than the sum of its parts.

Second, risk-taking. Many do not wish to be involved in a domain where few others had ventured before, and which as first sight appears an uncertain endeavour.

It is not often clear that a programme pitched at leaders would be welcomed either by the government bodies responsible for it or even by the leaders themselves. Moreover, school leaders commonly have close links to political leaders, and may in fact also be a key node in the supply chain of corrupt ventures. This is unsurprising given how education spending as a percentage of GDP typically exceeds 5% in many countries.

It is hence understandable to avoid this potentially politically sensitive space, with its impact uncertain outcomes. And even if one is willing and well informed, many do not know how to go about designing and implementing an effective programme. In emerging economies, especially, there are few role models for one to learn from and emulate.

Given the challenging realities, it is a bit of a wonder that something like Global School Leaders (GSL) has emerged strongly to catalyse school leadership training. On 17 January 2018, its first initiative, GSL Malaysia (GSLM) was launched by the then Deputy Education Minister of Malaysia for 25 schools in Kuala Lumpur. In 2019, similar efforts would commence in Indonesia and Kenya. This unique cross-border collaboration, that brought together a diverse group of stakeholders and donors, holds some valuable lessons for those considering similar partnership efforts.

The GSLM journey started in December 2015, Laurence Lien, Co-Founder and CEO of the Asia Philanthropy Circle (APC) contacted Sameer Sampat, the first CEO of the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI). APC is a membership-based platform for Asian philanthropists to exchange and collaborate. APC members were not ignorant about the criticality of effective school leadership as their own ground experience had surfaced a strong link between their existing education intervention efforts paying off and the quality of school leadership.

The APC Secretariat’s short search of school leadership programme brought them to ISLI and it did not take long to be impressed by ISLI. A visit via the back streets of New Delhi to see and hear first-hand the testimonies of ISLI’s success, gave the needed confirmation that they could adapt and export the programme to Southeast Asia.

One of the key success factors is clearly a willing and able implementing partner with a strong track record. ISLI’s model demonstrated validated impact, replicability and scalability. And serendipitously, APC caught Sampat and Azad Oommen, one of ISLI’s founding board member, just as they were founding GSL to bring effective school leadership to underserved communities around the world, drawing from their ISLI success. GSL, as the mothership, is both the knowledge database providing the GSL curriculum and training methodology and the leadership coach for the young GSLM team.

A second element is a local champion with the interest and capability to drive an initiative from idea to implementation. For GSLM, Kathleen Chew, Programme Director of the YTL Foundation, was this key person. Chew, through YTL Foundation, was not only the anchor funder, but also the activator of interested principals for the pilot and experts for the advisory council, and the incubator of GSLM from inception to becoming an independent entity.

A third factor is to mobilise the diverse stakeholders early. For GSLM, APC played an important catalytic role as “deal maker” to bring three funders and the implementing partner together, aligning vision and objectives. Having more than one initial funder is important to show the need for the future involvement of many. Additionally, early engagement of government agencies is often necessary. GSLM, together with Chew, approached the Malaysian Ministry of Education and later secured an official letter giving explicit support to GSLM. This was critical for enrolling schools and for follow-up fundraising.

A fourth component is to hire well. The first employee, the CEO or Executive Head, is the most difficult to fill as it requires diverse skillsets apart from education experience. Above all, the role requires an entrepreneurial leader, who is adaptable and resilient in the face of multiple challenges. GSLM was fortunate to be able to tap into a rich Teach for Malaysia (TFM) network. Today the entire team is made up of TFM alumni.

Finally, glocalise and start small.  While the ISLI model was proven in India, GSLM needed to adapt it to fit the Malaysian context.  The GSLM team surveyed more than 50 Malaysian school leaders to understand their professional development needs, and then tailored the training programme from India to meet this need.  The team also has revised the training from India to ensure it is cultural and policy-relevant.  In addition, it is important to start small through a pilot, in an accessible location, to show a proof of concept so that it can be a visible demonstration for future funders and for government officials.

It is early days still, but GSLM already holds much promise and valuable learning points.  The key learning points are that re-inventing the wheel is wasteful and unnecessary, that cross-border partnerships can be highly beneficial if not indispensable, and that collective action helps to address the ignorance and inertia.  Join us in this movement to transform schools through better leadership.


[1] Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S. & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning.  New York: Wallace Foundation. Retrieved, 26 November 2018, from



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YTL Foundation was founded in 1997 on the belief that education is the basis on which every society progresses. By improving education, empowering future generations and building tomorrow’s leaders, YTL Foundation aims to empower individuals and communities to be catalysts of change.

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