What makes school leadership effective?

International literature confirms the centrality of leadership to school improvement and student outcomes, and that it most effectively influences school outcomes indirectly through multiple variables (Day and Leithwood 2007[1]; Hallinger and Heck 1999[2]; Southworth 2005[3]). Academic research in this area informs us that "school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning"[4] Research also provides some evidence of how school leaders exert this influence: "A good principal is the single most important determinant of whether a school can attract and keep the high-quality teachers necessary to improve schooling" (Darling Hammond[5]). School leaders are the biggest single influence on teacher effectiveness (Dinham[6]) and organizational culture (McCall[7]).

On this page our focus of professional inquiry focuses on what makes school leadership effective?

Reflect: Credit cards and calendars!

How do you spend your time? How do you spend your money? What do your staff see you spending your time and the schools' money on?

It has been said that if you want to find out what an organization, a leader or a family really values find out how they spend their time and how they spend their money. It all comes down to credit cards and calendars! How do you spend your time and the money? If someone were to follow you throughout a school day what would they discover?

Strong claims about successful school leadership

On this page you will be introduced to pieces of academic research as a basis for you inquiring into what makes school leadership successful.

The following video forms a good discussion starter. As you watch it consider what resonates with you.

Activity 1: School system does not reward the best teachers

Use the See, Think, Wonder protocol as you watch the following video.

Watch the video and ask the following questions.

  • What do you see?
  • What do you think about what you see?
  • What do you wonder? What questions do you want to ask?

A summary of the research can be found by clicking here.

The full research is published in the Harvard Business Review article The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School, Hill, Mellon, Laker and Goddard, October 2016. Click here to access the article.

In 2006 a group of UK researchers published Seven strong claims about successful school leadership. This provided a summary of a literature review and the findings of an empirical review into what they termed as strong claims about successful school leadership.

Activity 2: What makes school leadership effective?

As a leadership team read Seven strong claims about successful school leadership, individuals reading and reporting back on one of the claims.

For each claim report back on:

  • THE BIG IDEA: Provide a short one paragraph summary of the big idea.
  • Sentence: Record a sentence that was meaningful to you and helped you gain a deeper understanding of the text.
  • Phrase: Record a phrase that moved, engaged, or provoked you.
  • Word: Record a word that captured your attention or struck you as powerful.

In 2010 the same researchers published 10 strong claims about successful school leadership. This report is the sequel to Seven strong claims and it confirms, qualifies and builds on those original claims. The research project investigated a national sample of UK schools which had improved pupil learning outcomes over at least three consecutive years under the leadership of the same headteacher. It included both a literature review and surveys completed by the heads and a range of other stakeholders. In addition, it also includes 20 case studies of primary and secondary schools which were conducted over 2 years. The research found that leaders of successful schools define success not only in terms of test and examination results, but also in terms of personal and social outcomes, pupil and staff motivation, engagement and wellbeing, the quality of teaching and learning and the school’s contribution to the community. Also, successful heads improve pupil outcomes through who they are – their values, virtues, dispositions, attributes and competencies – as well as what they do in terms of the strategies they select and the ways in which they adapt their leadership practices to their unique context.

Activity 3: Learning from other schools

This research was primarily put together for the National College of School Leadership in the UK. In the following activity you are going to look at this research and reflect how applicable it is to your own school. As a leadership group read this report.

  • Individually identify FIVE ideas that resonated with you.
  • Share these with the leadership group.
  • Draw out common themes and collate them on a flip chart.
  • What challenges does this present your team with?

Activity 4: Reflecting on the 8 dimensions

In groups discuss the 8 dimensions of successful leadership contained in 10 strong claims about successful school leadership.

  • Is there anything missing from this research?
  • Would you add other claims?

A teacher's perspective

In her Open Letter to a New Principal Heather Wolpert-Gawron, a middle school teacher in San Gabriel (CA), provides a teacher’s perspective on what she expects of a new principal. It might underscore the multiple demands – the DNA of the job – that principals in the U.S. face.  

Activity 5: Reflecting on what teachers expect of you as a leader

As you read her letter consider the following questions:

  • Which of the roles that principals must play does Wolpert-Gawron urge the newcomer to perform?
  • Are these expectations similar for principals in other nations?

Dear Sir:

You are the latest in a list of accomplished and energetic principals we have had over the course of this decade. As you know, we've had 5 principals in 9 years. The nomadic ebb and flow of our administration has taken its toll as green principals are let go for not knowing what to do and veteran leaders are lured to the higher rungs of the district office before follow through of their vision had been implemented.

I want this to be your forever school. I want this to be the place that you settle into. Not because I know you so well or know what you bring to the table, but because we have all seen what the culture of temporary leadership looks like and the damage that it can do to our educational goals. We are ready to make a commitment to helping you help us.

So here is a list of five things to keep in mind as you brush off your nameplate and put your own family's portrait on your desk:

#1. Remember that its dedicated teachers have held this school together. We're still bruised and battered from the recent pink slip season, having lost many of our bright stars in our ranks. Nevertheless, the miraculous troops that have been left behind are those who have been the brick and mortar of this site for years keeping it afloat. Regardless of who our principal was, the drama of a fluctuating leadership, or the unease outside our walls, our teachers have always worked to do the best job they could with the resources they have. We formed our own leaders amongst us in lieu of administration's lack of leadership, and we need to be treated as problem solvers, not problem cases.

#2. Keep in mind that with every new principal, there's been a silver bullet offered: PLCs, grade level meetings, instructional cabinet meetings, and setting up norms. Be prepared for an eye roll or two when you ask if we've ever gone through setting up norms as a means to set up more efficient communication. With every new principal, we've set up norms. We've taken PD days and faculty meetings to "break the ice." We've done everything short of an outward-bound trust fall from a tree stump. We don't need gimmicks or to go over rules. We can show you the constitutions that have been created year after year. What we need is someone to see us through the establishment of rules into the enforcement of them.

#3. Recognize that our staff is made up of individuals. Get to know us all professionally and personally. You are walking into a family; and with a family comes the good and the bad. Don't listen to others who have known us before; form your own opinions of us. Walk through our classrooms. Sit with us at lunch. Be present in body -- we want to see you on campus, your new home. Be present in mind -- don't look over our shoulder as we are talking to you about a problem yet to be solved by those who have come before you. Know that we each bring something different to the table: be it traditional or progressive. We all add to the mixture of diversity as a staff, and that variety is good in a school even if a staff member doesn't represent the hires you plan to take on. We all add some spice to the gumbo.

#4. Remember: Love these students as we do. We need someone with the dedication that we have for the kids. Get to know them and their accomplishments and potential. Show up to the Robotics tournament. I know it’s two hours away, but the teacher goes, and she is volunteering her time to do it. Help with supervision. You know when there are hundreds of kids on campus. Be accessible to them during their most leisurely time of day. Talk to them in the classrooms and ask them to tell you what they are doing in class. Show up enough and you become a staple to both the classroom management and the rigor in the school. We need a leader that will stay with us and help to see us through from good to great.

#5. Please take your time. I know things need to be changed; I know you want to make your stamp on the school right away. But much like a gross-out comedy that grosses you out too early in the film before any trust has been built up about character, don't shake things up too soon if you don't want to freak out those who are cheering for your success. Get to know what works, and celebrate those things first. Then ask us to visualize where you want us to go together. More people will be willing to board your boat if you've acknowledged that we've actually sailed ourselves.

Remember, we the staff are on your side. We want you to succeed. Start your school year knowing that you are entering a wonderful place where students are admired, where staff is hard working, and dedication is a part of our daily culture. You are lucky to have us, as we are lucky to have you. Let us remember our pasts yet look forward together. Perhaps then this can be the start of a beautiful friendship.


Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Printed by kind permission of Heather Wolpert-Gawron who is an 8th grade English language arts teacher, a speech and debate coach, and a teacher on special assignment at San Gabriel Unified School District in Los Angeles, California. Her most recent books are DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge, 2015) and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge, 2016). She blogs at Tweenteacher.com, as well as for Edutopia and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter.


Teachers, what makes an #idealprincipal? Click here to find some responses.

Activity 6: What makes school leadership effective?

Use the Headlines protocol to synthesize your thinking on what makes school leadership effective.

Dig deeper

School Leadership: Resource Roundup - links to a wealth of resources on school leadership from the edutopia website. Click here.


  1. ^ Successful principal leadership in times of change: An international perspective.
  2. ^ Can leadership enhance school effectiveness?
  3. ^ Learning-centered leadership
  4. ^ 10 Strong Claims about successful school leadership Day Sammons Hopkins Harris Leithwood Gu and Brown 2010 NCSL
  5. ^ Darling-Hammond,L. (ed) (2011) Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High-Performing Education Systems, SCOPE
  6. ^ Dinham, S (2013) Connecting Instructional Leadership With Clinical Teaching Practice, Australian Journal of Education, 57(3) pp220-231
  7. ^ McCall, J., Smith, I., Stoll, L., Thomas, S., Sammons, P., Smees,E., Macbeth,J., Noyd,B.,  MacGilchrist, B (2001), Views of pupils, parents, researchers: Vital indicators of effectiveness and for improvement, in J. Macbeth & P. Mortimore (Eds.), Improving School Effectiveness, Buckingham: Open University Press pp 74-101
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