Skip to main content

A question of principals

In the developing world, getting children into school - any school - used to be the only issue. But it is not just in the West that education consumers are becoming increasingly discerning. And as David Rogers reports, it's the quality of the head that counts

In the developing world, getting children into school - any school - used to be the only issue. But it is not just in the West that education consumers are becoming increasingly discerning. And as David Rogers reports, it's the quality of the head that counts

David Archer is head of education at anti-poverty charity Action Aid and has spent a quarter of a century closely involved with the many and changing strategies to improve schooling in the developing world.

A trained teacher, he is more committed than most to the principle that, in some of the poorest countries in the world, education is the only way to raise children's aspirations beyond survival.

But recently he has spotted an interesting development. Just as in the UK, people in the most deprived regions have become increasingly discerning about the type of schools they want to send their children to.

"It's not any different," he explains. "A good-quality school is always going to make a difference. If it's a good school, the kids are more likely to enrol because of the positive knock-on effects."

One does not have to have followed global policy development in detail to know that vast reserves of energy, passion and political capital have been spent on training teachers in the developing world and, of course, in attempting to ensure that millions of children who otherwise might not get the chance to go to school receive an education. But just as in the West, the quality of those who will lead, and teach at, their schools has become important.

"The quality of headteaching makes a big difference," says Mr Archer, who is also a board member of Global Campaign for Education, an international pressure group. "If a school has got a good structure, people will go to it."

Plans are now afoot to improve the quality of training received by heads in developing countries. An initiative involving the Varkey Gems Foundation, the philanthropic arm of private-schools chain Gems, and Unesco, the education, scientific and cultural arm of the United Nations, plans to train up to 10,000 headteachers across India and Africa by the end of 2015. This is not going to change the world, but it is a major step in the right direction.

Freda Wolfenden, director of the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa scheme at the Open University, says initiatives like Gems' are overdue. She believes that the idea of specifically training heads for their role needs to be inculcated in developing world education policy.

"Teachers tend to move up by default, not because they have got any specific training for that headship," explains Ms Wolfenden, who is also an associate dean of the university. "Very little is done for headteachers. I guess it has not been a priority. The priority has been to get teachers into school. Headteachers see themselves as managers to ensure teachers are there and children are allocated classes rather than leaders of learning. Because headteachers' roles are different there isn't the local management of schools in the way we would understand."

Mr Archer says the problems facing heads in developing countries tend to focus on essential logistics: "There is unreliable electricity, maybe no proper drinking water," he says. "I really hope the emphasis of this (Gems) initiative is on the rural schools or marginal urban areas than the relatively well-off schools."

At the end of last month, the Global Campaign for Education said 67 million children were still without access to education and wealthy countries must act it if it is to meet its Education for All goals - such as expanding early childhood care and education - which have been endorsed by 180 countries.

Gems - which describes itself as the largest private kindergarten-to-grade-12 education provider in the world, with schools in the UK, the Middle East, India and China - argues that improving the training of heads and the target of 67 million are linked and hopes that its project will result in improved educational standards across the board.

Mr Archer agrees and hopes that Gems' work will become a catalyst for wider reform of teacher training in developing countries. "Teacher-training colleges have been grossly under-invested in for years," he says. "Very little attention has been paid to transforming the systems. All of the approaches need to be renovated."

Vikas Pota, chief executive of the Varkey Gems Foundation, says it has been discussing its plans with Unesco for the past six months. Under the scheme, the organisation will link up with Unesco for the work in India as well as Kenya and Ghana.

"Skills principles" in the three countries will now be taught, including action and strategic planning, coaching and performance-management. Others will focus on building teams and working with the community and developing skills for holding effective meetings at school.

The project is the largest school principals' training programme involving a private organisation in Unesco's 66-year history, and Gems is hoping it will eventually benefit up to 10 million children.

Under the plan, the company, which currently teaches 100,000 children in 143 countries in more than 60 private schools, will second teachers and heads - including some from its schools in the UK - to help skill up more than 200 so-called "master trainers".

Gems, which has 22 schools in India and is due to open its first in Kenya in the capital Nairobi next September, is currently on the hunt for people who can become master trainers.

According to Joseph Massaquoi, director of Unesco's Kenya office, his country has about 7,000 school principals, any one of whom could be suitable.

The reality, says Mr Massaquoi, is that between 2,000 and 4,000 heads in Kenya will be trained up between next spring and the end of 2015.

But he is hoping that all headteachers in the country will eventually receive some form of management training and predicts that future teacher-training programmes will include management.

"We want to build a capability that is sustainable, but that is for the future," he says. "We have very specialised teacher training colleges here. But the management of schools could be better. I think (the Gems training) will look at focusing on how principals retain staff and stretch the limited financial resources they have."

He is due to meet with members of the Gems team in January, when it is expected that the final number of master trainers allocated to Kenya will be decided. "In Kenya, principals are usually promoted because of experience and competence and not necessarily because of their management skills," he adds, echoing the view of Ms Wolfenden.

Interviews for trainers in Ghana, where Gems does not have any schools, and India will also begin next January and appointed trainers will then be given five days' instruction before they begin work with the first of the 10,000 principals next spring.

Mr Pota says the project will cost Gems about $1 million, and adds: "In any school, the school principal is critical to staff. They set the education values for their teachers."

He says each trainer will be monitored by the Gems Foundation, with each expected to make regular progress reports.

"We've found that teacher training in these countries is very academic, but a principal needs to know what a budget is," says Mr Pota. "The training tends to focus on things such as 'How do I teach maths?' rather than managing and monitoring a team and how to develop a team."

But Action Aid's Mr Archer has some advice for Gems. "I can see how it (the project) would work in India, where they have existing connections. But they need to build up local partnerships in Africa. Expat trainers are not necessarily the right way to do it. There is a danger they could come across as patronising and not having local knowledge."

But other countries are already showing interest in the idea. They include Zambia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, which is embarking on a separate #163;50 million initiative to improve the quality of English teaching to 12 million primary-age pupils with the help of Britain's Department for International Development.

The acid test for Gems begins next spring, but Mr Pota is confident the scheme will prove beneficial. "We wanted to apply our skills to an ambitious goal."


The Gems initiative will be carried out in four phases. The first, the planning stage, is already underway and includes the provision of manuals and other materials to master trainers, to update their professional knowledge.

This will be followed by the master trainers' first five-day training sessions. These are expected to start next spring.

Gems is hoping that a "cascade and replicate" effect will then follow over the final two phases, with training focused on clusters of principals in geographical proximity to one another, to make travel easier.

Unesco says it will then assess the initiative as a model of supporting school leadership in developing countries before the idea is rolled out to other interested countries.


67m - Number of children without access to education

$1 - Every dollar of investment in education would generate between $10 and $15 in returns through economic benefit

7m - HIVAids cases that could be prevented in the next decade if every child received an education

50% - Increased chance of a child born to a literate mother surviving past the age of five, compared with one who is illiterate

Source: Global Campaign for Education.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you