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A systematic review of the impact of school headteachers and principals on student outcomes. Summary


Since 1990, there has been a large measure of agreement by scholars and policy-makers about what should be the priorities of school leaders. Education reforms in many countries have resulted in substantial changes in the roles of head teachers and principals. School leadership and management, as vested in the senior staff in schools and especially the head teacher or principal, is regarded by policy-makers and practitioners alike as a key factor in ensuring a school's success. Thus, there is a widespread, strongly held belief that school leadership makes a difference and that head teachers should be supported and trained to raise educational standards.

However, this strong belief finds rather limited support in the research and scholarly literature where the nature, focus and effect of leaders' actions are either contested or unclear. This review sets out to identify the research evidence on which these beliefs rest.

Aims of the review and review questions

This review focuses on the broad area of school management and leadership and in particular on head teachers and principals. The aims of the review are:

  • to identify studies of the effect of head teachers on student outcomes
  • to conduct in-depth analysis of the effect of head teachers on student outcomes
  • to make recommendations for practice, policy and future research

This review set out to answer one main question:

What is the effect of head teachers on student outcomes

The subsidiary review questions are:

What is the effect of head teachers on four aspects of student outcomes: achievement, attitudes, behaviour and recruitment?


How do head teachers' leadership and management strategies contribute to these outcomes?


This school leadership review used tools, guidelines and procedures developed by the EPPI Centre. In line with these, the review used systematic, replicable methods to identify potentially relevant studies through searching and screening; describe studies through keywording; undertake an in-depth review and quality assessment of relevant studies; synthesise relevant studies and have quality assurance procedures in place.

Users had an important role in the review. They helped to formulate the question, advised on the results and were also involved in reviewing studies.


Two of the eight included studies were descriptive and six were outcome evaluations. They were set in six different countries. The two descriptive studies were both British; one was set in a primary school and the other was the only one of the eight to include special schools. Of the four primary school outcome evaluations, one was from Hong Kong, one from Canada, one from the Netherlands and one from the US. One secondary school evaluation study was from the US and the other from Australia. Four studies were reported in books and four in journals.

All the eight studies reviewed provided some evidence that school leaders can have some effect on student outcomes, albeit indirectly. The more methodologically sophisticated studies demonstrated the pathways through which this effect was achieved. The evidence from one descriptive study was based on teachers' perceptions and the second on a single case study. The latter (McMahon, 2001) found that change of leadership can have a substantial negative effect. The evidence from three of the six outcome evaluation studies was more firmly based, while the remaining three provided weak but positive evidence.

One primary school study produced mixed findings about achievement: Van de Grift and Houtveen (1999) reported weak positive effect on three curriculum subjects; Leitner (1994) reported little or no effect on mathematics but significant effect on language and a small degree of effect on reading. One secondary school study (Wiley, 2001) found evidence of significant effect on mathematics test scores while the other (Silins and Mulford, 2002) also found evidence of indirect effect on student achievement.

Two primary school studies provided mixed evidence about leaders' effect on attitudes to learning. Leithwood and Jantzi (1999) reported no significant effect on student engagement, while Cheng (2002) found evidence of a moderate correlation between principals' leadership and attitudes to learning. One secondary school study (Silins and Mulford, 2002) reported indirect effect on non-academic student variables: participation in school, engagement with school and academic self-concept.

None of the studies collected specific data on recruitment or behaviour (i.e. student discipline). One descriptive study (Bolam et al., 1993) did provide some positive evidence based on proxy measures, while the case study (McMahon, 2001) highlighted the negative effect of change of leadership. One secondary school study (Silins and Mulford, 2002) found evidence of indirect effect on student retention.


Effective leadership was confirmed as probably being an important factor in a school's success. The evidence relating to the effect of head teachers on student outcomes indicates that such an effect is largely indirect. It is mediated through key intermediate factors, these being the work of teachers, the organisation of the school, and relationship with parents and the wider community. It is widely recognised that leadership is not exclusively located in the head teacher or senior management of the school. Hence one tentative conclusion from these findings is to suggest that leadership that is distributed among the wider school staff might be more likely to have an effect on the positive achievement of student outcomes than that which is largely, or exclusively, 'top-down'.


Bolam R, McMahon A, Pocklington K, Weindling D (1993) Effective Management in Schools: A Report for the Department for Education via the School Management Task Force Professional Working Party. London: HMSO.

Cheng YC (2002) The changing context of school leadership: implications for paradigm shift. In: Leithwood K, Hallinger P (eds) Second International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration. Norwell, MA, USA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Leithwood K, Jantzi D (1999) Transformational school leadership effects: a replication. School Effectiveness and School Improvement 10: 451-479.

Leitner D (1994) Do principals affect student outcomes? An organizational perspective. School Effectiveness and School Improvement 5: 219-238.

McMahon A (2001) Fair Furlong Primary School. In: Maden M (ed) Success Against the Odds – Five Years On: Revisiting effective schools in disadvantaged areas. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Silins HC, Mulford W (2002) Leadership and school results. In: Leithwood K, Hallinger P (eds) Second International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration. Norwell, MA, USA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Van de Grift W, Houtveen A (1999) Educational leadership and pupil achievement in primary education. School Effectiveness and School Improvement 10: 373-389.

Wiley SD (2001) Contextual effects on student achievement: school leadership and professional community. Journal of Educational Change 2: 1-33.

This report should be cited as: Bell L, Bolam R, Cubillo L (2003) A systematic review of the impact of school leadership and management on student outcomes. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

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