Selecting the right leaders to build excellent schools

by on January 30, 2015

Over the course of my two-year fellowship at Teach For India, I came to realise the many ways I could influence my students’ lives for the better. However, I was often frustrated by what I saw as my inability to influence factors beyond the walls of my classroom. Being the teacher of one single class in a government school made me understand just how powerful a whole-school culture is – having a shared purpose and allowing for continuous learning and improvement across the school.

I realised that only a dedicated school principal can shape and sustain a positive student-centric culture and ensure that teachers are not demotivated by circumstances in the classroom, school, and community. As the head of a school, a principal or headmaster can drive learning beyond the scope of one classroom by instilling an eagerness to teach and to learn, helping teachers implement effective teaching strategies, facilitating professional learning opportunities and engaging the local community. There is, in fact, growing evidence that there are nearly no documented cases of low-performing schools turning around in the absence of an effective leader (Leithwood, 2004).

In India, however, the role of principals remains largely under-recognised, and worryingly, considered more of a figurehead. With no clear definition of the actual responsibilities of school leaders in India, school principal’s role today is seen as primarily administrative, rather than as an opportunity to leverage the role of an instructional leader. Moreover, across most of India, teachers are automatically promoted to the position of headmaster or head teacher based on seniority. This means that teachers usually become heads of schools at the tail-end of their careers, without really receiving any training that equips them to effectively lead a school

This is precisely why we view the move of some states to introduce a screening and an entry bar for head masters vastly progressive. The state of Gujarat, for instance, is one of the first states to institute a comprehensive school leader selection policy that favours merit over seniority. Interestingly, the policy has put in place an age limit (of 36 years) for teacher candidates coming through the direct recruitment route, consequently bringing in a significantly younger cadre motivated to become heads of schools.

Recent visits to government schools in different villages of Ahmedabad highlighted for me the potential of a policy of this nature.

One head teacher recruited through this new policy had effectively motivated and delegated responsibilities to all teachers, with each one taking ownership of specific school-level learning activities. These included, for instance, a school newsletter by children to generate awareness, a reading club where both teachers and students discussed books they had read.

A headmaster in another school had, in addition to his regular responsibilities, decided that he should contribute to at a system level. He was therefore designing and undertaking his own research across a sample of more than 400 teachers on their awareness and training for Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation.

Another headmaster we interacted with was a 30 year old, who stood up to school officials who, in her words, ‘chose to focus not on student learning but on decreeing what female staff can and cannot wear’. Her own focus on expanding student knowledge was evident – I spent a good hour with grade 5 children of that school who told me all about President Obama’s recent visit to India and their views on what could be done to make sure that attacks like those in Peshawar never happen again.

The introduction of a merit-based selection policy appears to have helped create a motivated, much younger and more capable cadre of school leaders. Anecdotally, it also seems to have made the position of a headmaster aspirational for teachers.

Since 2012, the state government of Gujarat has recruited head teachers in government schools through this Head Teacher Aptitude Test (HTAT). The examination covers general knowledge, administrative management, education policy, pedagogical concepts and the primary school syllabus. A teacher candidate is selected only after taking into account his/her performance on the HTAT, academic qualifications as well as teaching experience.

Additionally, the Education Department issued a resolution articulating the duties to be performed by head teachers, with his or her role encompassing both administrative and instructional responsibilities. The government has also initiated reforms in training, with newly appointed head teachers receiving a three-week orientation training programme to prepare them for their administrative and instructional roles.

We see this as an exciting time in school leadership with Gujarat and other states contemplating and implementing a multitude of initiatives for school heads. For us, school leadership must be viewed within a holistic framework of articulating the roles and responsibilities of a head master (beyond merely administrative functions), introducing a robust selection process, effectively inducting these school leaders, as well as providing them with on-going professional development. Instituting a well-thought out merit-based system of selection is one step in this direction.