'Principals are one of the most effective means to improve college performance'

Principal quality matters for educational performance, argue researchers from the Centre for Vocational Education Research

The past 20 years have witnessed a large increase in research about the role of chief executive officers in the management of firms, although much less is known about the effectiveness of CEOs in the public sector. A better understanding of what makes good public-sector managers is crucial to better inform decisions on leadership and management in key public services such as health, transport and education.

In education, an increasing number of studies has tried to assess the impact of school principals during the compulsory stages of education. Perhaps surprisingly, far less research has been devoted to understanding the impact of principals in post-compulsory settings. The on-going research, summarised here, analyses the impact that college principals in post-16 institutions in England have on their learners’ educational outcomes. We also investigate some potential mechanisms that might explain principals’ performance, in particular, recruitment and wage policies.

In our work, we create a panel dataset of principals in further education institutions in England over the period 2003 to 2015, together with data on education performance coming from the Individualised Learner Records (ILR), the National Pupil Database (NPD) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). We also exploit the information contained in the Staff Individualised Records (SIR). We necessarily focus on younger learners because we need to link early educational records to further education outcomes. Although sixth-form colleges mainly focus on those aged 16-18, further education colleges have many adult learners (whose outcomes we do not consider in this analysis).

To estimate the importance of principals on the outcomes of younger learners, we exploit the fact that we observe principals and colleges over time. We therefore see a given principal in different institutions, and a given institution managed by different principals. This allows us to use a methodology that takes account of the fact that principals might sort into different types of colleges depending on their characteristics.

Principal quality matters

Our results reveal that principal quality matters for educational performance, over and above other aspects of the institutions that they run. After having estimated the performance of college principals on learner outcomes, we rank them by increasing order. We find that switching from a principal who is at the bottom quarter of the distribution to one who is in the top quarter increases students’ probability of achieving a qualification at level 2 by 15.9 percentage points, of achieving a level 3 qualification by 14.1 percentage points, and of enrolling in a qualification at level 4 or above by 3.7 percentage points. Such differences in effectiveness are not explained by principals’ gender, age or salary.

We find, however, strong differences between college principals in their recruitment and wage policies. Using the same methodology as described above, we estimate how college principals affect recruitment (and wage) policies, and we rank them by increasing order. We find that switching from a principal who is at the bottom quarter of the distribution to one who is at the top quarter increases the share of teachers under a permanent contract by 12.9 percentage points, the share of female teachers by 5.5 percentage points, the share of certified teachers by 14.1 percentage points and would increase the average gross annual salary of teachers by £3,511.

These results have wide-ranging policy implications. First, policymakers and colleges should find ways of detecting low-performing principals and of improving the quality of leadership amongst college principals. Second, our results show how important it is to attract and retain high-quality principals to FE colleges. Principals have a surprisingly low profile in the debates about education. The focus instead usually falls on curriculum, college/institution types and teachers (how to measure their effectiveness, attract and keep good ones). We hear far more talk about holding teachers accountable than about principals. But, as we show, principals can make a real difference, and more attention could be devoted to them.

Direct impact on learners

Principals are important because they offer one of the most effective means to improve college performance. Although teachers have been shown to impact student achievement, the recruitment of a new high-performing teacher affects a few classes, whereas the recruitment (or the training) of a high-performing principal directly impacts on thousands of learners in a college. Finding ways to improve principal quality could be cost-effective in that it potentially affects so many learners.

These findings are particularly relevant given the current political context in England. Following the 2010 election of the coalition government and the Wolf Review of 14-19 vocational qualifications, the government started to give more autonomy to FE colleges. One of the objectives was to free them from central government control by reinforcing the role of college governors in setting the strategic direction of the colleges and selecting the best principal. This new educational context highlights the need for strong leadership in the post-16 education sector, and for more research in this area. Stay tuned.

Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela, Camille Terrier and Clémentine Van Effenterre are researchers from the Centre for Vocational Education Research at the London School of Economics

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