UK heads are the best in the developed world, an international research study has concluded.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which produced the report, praised heads in this country for "doing what school principals should be doing - spending time focused on learning, not administration".
Published this week, the report - Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century - put UK heads top of an index that showed they were more involved with the details of education and teaching than their counterparts in any other industrialised country.
The organisation sees this concentration on what happens in the classroom as "key" to improving standards.
The findings come at a time when heads are feeling under pressure. Last month, a national newspaper splashed the headline "5,000 heads are no good" across its front page after the chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw called for "less tolerance of poor leadership". Prime Minister David Cameron also attacked "a deeply held ideology" in English schools that "stopped schools competing".
Brian Lightman, the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, said the OECD findings were "proof of the extent to which there is excellent practice in our schools".
The organisation ranked school heads from 33 of its 34 industrialised member countries according to how likely they were to carry out 14 potential areas of their job, related to pedagogy, pupil progress, the curriculum and behaviour.
The UK finished top overall in the "leadership index" - at or above the OECD average on all indicators and well above average on most of them, according to the research, which based its work on the last Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey.
It found that 100 per cent of heads in this country ensured that their teachers were working towards their school's educational targets, compared with just 51 per cent of heads in Japan.
All UK heads used pupils' performance to develop their school's targets, compared with just 34 per cent of school principals in Switzerland and 44 per cent in Denmark.
"The UK has the highest index of principal leadership among OECD countries," said Beatriz Pont, a senior analyst at the OECD and one of the report's authors. "This is an index that measures the involvement of school leaders in areas the OECD considers key to improving teaching practices and the school's working conditions. The index includes tasks such as working with teachers to support their performance, monitoring students' work or observing instruction in classrooms."
Heads in this country were also well above the norm in terms of how many observed teaching, with 93 per cent saying they did so "quite" or "very often", compared with an OECD average of 50 per cent, and just 9 per cent in Portugal.
Moreover, the number of lesson observations in this country was higher than anywhere else in the OECD, the report said. "The frequency of observations ranges from as often as three to six times per year in England to once every four years in Chile, with several countries settling on annual observations," it read.
That finding was based on research from 2008. However, the gap between England and other countries is likely to widen further because government ministers plan to scrap a three-hour annual limit on formal observations of individual teachers.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL education union, said: "If observation is focused on improving practice, then it can be a very good thing. However, in far too many cases it is unfocused, badly done, punitive and creates a climate of fear in schools."
In a seeming anomaly, Pisa high performers Finland and South Korea finished near the bottom of the school leadership index. An OECD spokesman said: "There, it is the high quality of teachers that makes a difference, because every teacher there is a leader . so they focus less on the post of school principals. But for other countries, improving school leadership is important. And the UK has invested a lot in this area and this shows in the results."
The spokesman said Finland was now looking at the role of principals and that the UK was a model for other countries.
Mr Lightman said the school workforce agreement had helped heads to manage the administrative responsibilities of running autonomous schools without compromising their focus on education. "It has helped schools to employ more support staff and high-level business managers and bursars who can lead and manage that aspect of the school's operation," he added.
The report was produced as background for the second international summit on the teaching profession held in New York this week.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said: "This is very good news. All the evidence suggests that it is when leaders focus on teaching that they make the most difference. So it is pleasing that British heads are doing that because that is when you see schools really leaping forward."
The OECD has called on governments to help tackle an international teacher shortage in key subjects by making the profession more attractive to talented graduates.
A report, produced for its international summit on the teaching profession, said that one in five school heads reported that a lack of qualified maths or science teachers was handicapping pupils' learning.
It suggested improving teachers' pay, social status and professional autonomy as solutions. The report highlighted how England's school workforce agreement was introduced to relieve teachers from administrative duties and extra workload.
England's advanced skills teacher scheme was also suggested as a way of giving teachers more career options.
Photo: Jeremy Doyle at Redhills Combined School in Exeter involves himself with his charges. Photo by Jim Wileman
Original headline: Leaders of the pack: UK headteachers are top of the table