New Research Holds Lessons in School Leadership for the Global South

5 min readSep 25, 2019


This blog is authored by Laura Brown, CEO of PEAS, and Sameer Sampat, Co-Founder of Global School Leaders

School Leaders in Kenya participate in a professional development session

The gathering of the world’s leaders in New York for the UN General Assembly is a reminder to us of the importance of leadership. Yet, as the world faces a learning crisis of 600 million children in school who are not learning the basics, we find that leadership in education is an overlooked issue. Teachers and school leaders are at the heart of any effort to improve the quality of education but there is little investment in preparing them for the leadership aspect of their roles.

In New York, the Education Commission just released a report, “Transforming the Education Workforce: Learning Teams for a Learning Generation,” which found that “Teachers need leadership and support to be effective at what they do best and to help reach those with the greatest needs.” The report specifically highlights the role of instructional leadership in “guiding teaching and learning through clear educational goals, curriculum planning, supporting and providing feedback to teachers, and creating an enabling environment for learning, including for the marginalized.”

From 2011 to 2016, six large US school districts improved their processes regarding the selection, training, and accountability of school leaders. The Wallace Foundation supported these improvements through their Principal Pipeline Initiative. The RAND Corporation produced a report evaluating this program, stating that it produced substantial gains on student learning outcomes, reduced principal turnover, and was cost-effective.

This adds to the growing evidence base that suggests school leadership as a key lever for improving school systems. Much of the current systemic research on school leadership comes from the Global North and there is a growing need for comprehensive approaches and accompanying research in the Global South

As two not-for-profit organizations that invest in models for effective school leadership model in in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, we believe that improving school leadership has the potential to have the same transformative impact in the Global South. PEAS is a network of 32 not-for-profit secondary schools in Uganda and Zambia. External evidence shows that PEAS schools in Uganda are delivering higher quality education to more disadvantaged students at a lower unit cost that government schools and that strong school leadership is a key driver of this success. GSL supports school leadership development for leaders serving students in marginalized communities. GSL’s partner organizations in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Kenya serve more than 3,000 school leaders across these countries.

We see the PPI program holding the following lessons for school leadership in the Global South:

  • Focus on supporting principals to be strong instructional and organizational leaders
  • A need for global standards that allow for flexibility for contextualized program implementation
  • Supporting improvements on multiple components of the school leadership pipeline: namely selection, training and accountability

An important component of the PPI program is its focus on supporting principals to be strong instructional and organizational leaders. In GSL programs, school leaders receive training to put student learning at the center of their management activities. Leaders practice research-based methodologies for fostering teacher development and building a positive school culture. A coordinator of GSL’s Kenya program says, “One of the teachers I spoke to told me how she never understood why she should make a lesson plan but after her head teacher held a session for them and explained, she understood why it was important. She asked me to come and observe her science lesson the next time I visit her school because she has now started planning for it.”

At PEAS secondary schools in Uganda and Zambia, the key elements of school leadership are split across leadership teams. The PEAS school directors are responsible for strategic, financial and organisational leadership leaving the PEAS school head teachers to lead on teaching and learning.

The US-based PPI program would need to be contextualized to be applicable to the countries in which we work. However, one of the keys to the PPI approach is that the program defined common themes of work while leaving detailed implementation to be instructed by local factors. As the report states, “While these similarities are real, the districts had and used important flexibility to approach the pipeline activities in ways that made sense given their contexts and to adjust their strategies over time.”

We believe that defining global standards around the school leadership pipeline is important in improving the field, and in-country knowledge and expertise is key to developing context-specific strategies. As outlined in another Education Commission report, improvements in school leadership, and in school systems generally, will accelerate when local knowledge is informed by global best-practice.

A key insight from PPI is that it supported improvements on multiple components of the school leadership pipeline: namely selection, training and accountability. As the researchers write in their report, “PPI components appears to have worked as a cohesive whole, much as it was designed to do. There was little evidence that individual components were uniquely correlated with larger or smaller effect sizes.”

In a study of school leadership and management across government, private and public-private partnership schools in Uganda, PEAS school leadership scored 2 standard deviations higher than school leadership of other school types. Exploring some of the reasons for this unique performance, the author points to “the supervision model… includes detailed targets for a range of performance indicators, high-stakes accountability for head teachers with the removal of those under-performing and promotion of those successful, and ongoing support and challenge throughout the year.” We believe that a comprehensive approach to school leadership development is required, and that major investment will be required to build the tools and research required to support this work.

In conclusion, from our work at GSL and PEAS we know that school leadership is the most important factor in a school’s success or failure. We also see an inadequate focus on school leadership development in the Global South. Education investments are missing this important school leader cadre that has the potential to dramatically improve the learning experiences for millions of children around the world.




We incubate, connect, and support organizations that train school leaders to improve the learning of students from under-served communities around the world.