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Top principals boost students' outcomes, research finds

College leaders' effectiveness 'seems unrelated to their salary', according to the Centre for Vocational Education Research

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College leaders' effectiveness 'seems unrelated to their salary', according to the Centre for Vocational Education Research

Better principals make a positive difference to their student’s educational outcomes, research by the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) at the London School of Economics and Political Science has found.

But while the research found that "leadership does make a clear difference to learner performance", it also suggests that "principals’ effectiveness seems unrelated to their salary". It did, however, find that the best-performing principals employed a higher proportion of female staff and staff on permanent contracts – and tended to pay their teaching staff more.

The research, exclusively revealed by Tes today, considered a dataset of principals in FE institutions in England over the period 2003 to 2015, and combined it with data on education performance coming from the Individualised Learner Records (ILR), the National Pupil Database (NPD) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Considering both how principals performed at different colleges and how colleges fared under different leaders, the researchers ranked them from least to most effective.  

It found that switching from a principal in the bottom 25 per cent of performers to a principal who is in the top 25 per cent increases students’ probability to achieve level 2 by 15.9 percentage points. At  level 3, the difference was 14.1 percentage points, and the increase in probability of students enrolling on a qualification at level 4 or above was 3.7 percentage points.

Clear difference

“This shows that leadership does make a clear difference to learner performance; and that it matters to attract and retain ‘high quality’ principals,” the report found.

However, assessing whether the differences in effectiveness are explained by their age and gender, as well as their salary and teaching qualification, the researchers found “no significant correlations” between these characteristics and students’ educational outcomes. “It is particularly interesting to notice that principals’ effectiveness seems unrelated to their salary,” it said.

Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela, a research coordinator at CVER, stressed, however, that this did not mean salary did not matter. “That doesn’t mean you could cut principal pay and it would not affect performance. It would, and it would make it more difficult for colleges to retain the best principals. It only means that so far, we have not found a result in the outcomes we measure.”

The research also assessed the differences between principals in their recruitment and wage policies. “Again, we find strong differences between college principals in their recruitment and wage policies. Our results show that switching from a principal who is at the bottom 25th percentile to a principal who is at the top 25th percentile would increase the share of teachers under a permanent contract by 12.9 percentage points, the share of female teachers by 5.5 percentage points, and the share of certified teachers by 14.1 percentage points.”

Ability to enable students to progress

Similarly, a change from a principal among the bottom 25th percentile to a principal who is at the top 25th percentile of the “wage fixed-effects distribution would increase the average gross annual salary of teachers by £3,511".

The report concludes that principals “notably differ in their ability to enable students to progress”, and therefore, it matters to invest time and resources in finding ways to improve the quality of leadership among FE principals.

Dame Ruth Silver, founding president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership, told Tes she was not surprised by the findings but was pleased there was now scientific research to highlight this.

“I often use the quote ‘Where you are, a place arises’ – and I certainly think that is true. But equally, ‘Where a place is, a you arises’ is also true,” she said. “It is about relationships and relatedness.”

The former Lewisham College principal added: “As a principal, you should spend as much time on the outcomes of students as you spend on budgets.” However, she cautioned: "We have joined the vice-chancellors [of universities] in the naming and shaming list of salaries and that does no the [reputation] of leaders in this sector no good."

Earlier this year, Tes revealed the highest paid principals in the country, and showed the number of colleges which spent over £200,000 in a single year on salaries for their principals had risen by 50 per cent.

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