Making school reformers of head teachers

(Credit: Hashoo Foundation USA CC BY-SA 2.0)

Amal Aslam 

Policymakers in Punjab are increasingly convinced that real change in education will emanate from head teachers within schools instead of through top-down approaches where government officials push changes that affect classrooms. This idea has been captured by the latest buzz term in the education reform discourse, “effective school leadership”, with policy makers seeing a vivid connection between school leadership and school improvement (and ultimately student learning outcomes).

Any reform effort in this direction will need to first map and study the configuration of head teachers in the current education landscape to understand their autonomy and to see what type, level and extent of decentralization of decision making to head teachers is required moving forward. Such a study involves a thorough understanding of how head teachers are recruited, what salary they draw, how their roles and responsibilities are conceived in job descriptions, how they are monitored as per Standard Operating Procedures and reporting protocols and the level and type of access that they have to policy makers and officials at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy.

The Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) has currently undertaken such a study for its School Leadership project to inform future reform efforts aimed at empowering head teachers to effect change.

Here is what we know so far about how head teachers operate:

The head teacher selection process is problematic

The criteria for appointing head teachers are not applied consistently and are missing an emphasis on personal traits and other qualities that makes for good head teachers.

In the past, head teachers in the public sector have been recruited or promoted to their posts entirely on the basis of seniority. There has recently been a shift, in some cases, with more educated teachers being designated as head teachers regardless of seniority. A substantial proportion of head teachers at all levels of schooling now possess a Master’s degree, although this trend is much more pronounced in middle and high schools (Figure 1).

Moreover, unlike primary schools, where 36 percent of head teachers have only completed their education till matric or intermediate levels, there are virtually no such head teachers in middle and high schools. Does a more educated head teacher, however, necessarily make for a better leader? Selection criteria right now do not consider other relevant qualities such as personality traits, attitudes and enthusiasm at the time of appointment.

Figure 1

Head teachers in Punjab
Level Number Qualifications (%)
Matric FA/FSc BA/BSc MA/MSc
Primary 34,091 24 12 30 34
Middle 7,841 1 1 21 71
High 5,692 0 0 13 86
Source: Punjab EMIS (2014)

Header teacher responsibilities are open-ended

There are currently no official job descriptions or Terms of Reference for head teachers. Whether this is deliberate or not is unknown. Head teacher roles and responsibilities originate in various government “notifications”. On paper, they have a variety of responsibilities split between two identifiable roles – “manager” and “instructional leader”. As managers and in the day-to-day running of schools, head teachers must see to the following: a safe physical and psychological climate, health and hygiene, the implementation of new government initiatives, community involvement and the management and appraisal of teachers amongst other duties.

There has recently been some devolution of financial management powers to head teachers as well. For example, they have been granted use of the Farogh-e-Taleem fund[1] at their own discretion, and they can use the school’s Non-Salary Budget in conjunction with School Council members. Head teachers are also expected to take charge of enrollment drives in March of every year and to effectively engage with the community to increase enrollment and prevent dropout. This is important for their use of funds, because the Non-Salary Budget is in fact tied to enrollment levels. Higher enrollment increases available funds that head teachers can use to improve school environment and infrastructure.

As instructional leaders, head teachers are expected to create a positive school environment where teachers and students are motivated to excel and share a long-term vision for the school with them. They are to mentor and train staff in skills and attitudes that will help realize organizational goals and groom future leaders. How much time head teachers spend, however, on managing as opposed to coaching or leading in practice remains to be seen.

Head teacher salaries are not commensurate with duties

Current salaries and allowances may not be enough to incentivize and drive good leadership in head teachers. The only difference at present between the salaries of head teachers and other teachers is that of a negligible monthly allowance of 500, 700 and 1000 rupees for primary, middle and high school head teachers respectively despite their significant responsibilities (Figure 2).

Figure 2

RoleResponsibilitiesHeadTeachers(Source: Head teacher guides (developed by the Directorate of Staff Development, Punjab)

Head teacher evaluation could be part of the problem

Right now, head teachers are monitored, ranked, and rewarded or penalized by provincial, district and sub-district education authorities based on their schools’ performance on a number of indicators. These include student enrollment and retention, student attendance, student results, teacher attendance, implementation of the school timetable and their own attendance. Head teachers collect and report data on these indicators to numerous forums and officials at frequent intervals.

Accountability measures are important but there are many potential problems that could undermine their usefulness. For example, is such reporting more intensive and invasive than necessary? Is it conducive to head teachers innovating and leading from the front or does it reduce them to mere recorders and suppliers of data to the powers that be? Is it having a motivating or demotivating effect on heads? Is reporting on these indicators comprehensive and does it capture behaviors of good head teachers effectively? Is such reporting superficial in nature and/or making head teachers complacent, causing them to perform at the bare minimum of what is required?

Apart from being answerable to higher authorities, it remains to be seen whether head teachers are able to meaningfully engage with them and to share their opinions, experiences and recommendations in policy making circles at the time of policy design and implementation. Do head teachers have grievances regarding their exclusion from these circles and are there sufficient and effective channels and mechanisms in place for them to articulate these and have them redressed?

How do we define a school leader?

In order for head teachers to be good leaders and the main agents of change in the education system, it also becomes paramount to define what exactly we mean by ‘leadership’ with illustrations and examples of good leadership by head teachers. Is there consensus on who makes a “good leader”? Is a good leader merely an effective administrator or something more? Depending on our understanding and expectations of a good leader we can set about reforming and re-imagining their space in the education landscape of Punjab.

Amal Aslam is a research manager at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS). She can be reached at

[1] A school fund raised by charging students 20 rupees a month