Managing to Lead: Reframing School Leadership and Management in India


Unlike western countries, research on school leadership and management in developing countries is quite sparse. In the Indian context, it is the head-teacher (also known as the principal, headmaster, or principal teacher) who occupies the central role in the school leadership and management. A typical day of a school principal involves enlisting and guiding the talents and energies of teachers, students, and parents toward achieving common educational aims (Wise, Stutchbury & Cooke, 2016). From the effective utilization of resources to establishing a healthy relationship with the local community, the head-teachers in India bear the vast responsibilities. The School Leadership Development Programme (SLDP), initiated by the National University of Education Planning and Administration (NEUPA), lists out five key areas where head-teachers could play an important role. These key areas are; leading partnerships, developing self, transforming the teaching-learning process, building and leading teams, and leading innovations (pg. 23, SLDP 2014). The RTE schedule specifies that, in a school where there are 150 or above students, there will be five teachers and one head-teacher appointed, whereas, in schools where the numbers are less than 150, the senior teacher would bear the responsibility of a head-teacher (pg. 12). While not directly specifying the roles and responsibilities of a head-teacher, The Right to Education Act (RTE Act, 2009) entrusts significant power in the hands of head-teachers in the functioning of government schools.

Source: World Bank

The RTE Act locates the local governance in SMCs (School Management Committees), which consists of the elected representative of the local authority, parents of the children, and teachers. Being a secretary to the School Management Committee (SMC), the head-teacher nominates its members and calls its meetings from time-to-time to discuss the tasks such as preparing a school development plan, monitoring the working of the school, manage grants received from appropriate authorities and perform other functions as may be prescribed. A head-teacher also provides both instructional and administrative leadership to a school. The responsibilities under the instructional leadership role consist of framing the school goals, coordinating the curriculum, planning for the teachers’ capacity development, and working with local communities to improve enrolment and learning outcomes.

In contrast, administrative leadership includes scales like accountability roles and bureaucratic responsibilities such as managing school grants and budget, coordinating with higher officials. These head-teachers are found to have varying degrees of both leadership styles. In a survey conducted by Educational Initiative and Wipro, titled Quality Education Study (QES), it was found that a quarter of school principals’ time was spent on administrative tasks such as recruitment, budgeting, scheduling, and internal meetings while a little less time was spent on instructional leadership tasks such as developing curriculum and pedagogy. The study also revealed that one-tenth of school principals’ time was spent on other activities such as ensuring campus cleanliness, carrying out case studies, entertaining visitors, attending and conducting workshops, interacting with NGOs and other civil society organizations (QES, 2011).

School leadership, and the roles and responsibilities of head-teachers in India

The term school leadership came into currency in the late 20th century when demands were made on the US schools for higher levels of pupil achievement. These expectations were accompanied by calls for accountability at the school level management and performance. The attempts were made to borrow the concept of management from the business world and apply them to schools (Bogotch, 2005). The new public administration and governance theories also supported the idea of leadership, which was dynamic and proactive. Soon, many US and United Kingdom (UK) universities started offering courses on school leadership or educational leadership (Bush, 2008). Since then, various educational leadership theories and perspectives have been presented and explored. Some of these perspectives which dominated the discourse are instructional leadership, distributed leadership, transformational leadership, social justice leadership, and teacher leadership (Leithwood, 2005). Researchers have studied the relationship between school leadership with various other school factors such as school culture, identity, motivations, and behaviors of teachers, students’ performance, etc. In contrast to the western experience, school leadership and management have remained an understudied area.

Historically, the concept of the head-teacher or principal first appeared in the colonial era. The principal or head teacher’s role began to take shape when the British colonial government-appointed school superintendents to monitor the government-aided school. Generally, it was a senior teacher from the school who represented the school in front of the school superintendent, a representative of British colonial power. This role of intermediary between the school and authorities got further cemented when the British government started appointing principals in government-run or aided schools by the end of the 18th century (Saravanabhavan, Pushpanadham, & Saravanabhavan, 2016). By the early 19th century, principals were performing tasks such as maintaining order, improving academic activities, and managing school resources. Even post-independence, the core characteristics of a principal remained the same where he or she had to play the role of intermediary between the state and the local community. The focus was more on the managerial competencies of head-teachers and principals, and they were expected to “push teachers to work, emphasize production in terms of higher pass-percentage, foster community relationship, prepare appropriate instructional material and aids, help improve instructions by working with teachers, organize pilot studies and action research, help teachers through capacity building, ensure a good relationship and staff morale within the school, and assist the organizational development at the school” (Pandya, 1975). Resolving disciplinary problems at schools, advising, and directing teachers were considered as the primary functions of a principal’s responsibilities (Sharma, 1982).

The discourse on school leadership and management took another turn when National Policy on Education (NPE, 1986) suggested that policy-makers and school administrators in India should “evolve a long-term planning and management perspective of education and its integration with the country’s developmental and manpower needs.” The policy document also emphasized upon decentralization of educational institutions and recommended to “establish the principle of autonomy in relation to given objectives and norms.” The idea that the school leaders need more autonomy in curricular and administrative matters was further supported in Acharya Ramamurti and Yashpal committee reports (Govinda, 2006). This was also the time when India had to turn to external agencies for financial help, and in return, had to agree to the structural adjustment program (SAP).

Educational policies, too, reflected this trend, and programs such as District Primary Education Program (DPEP) brought a fundamental shift to the way schools were governed and administered. The DPEP and the subsequent policies introduced the idea of collective accountability where the head-teacher, along with the local community was made responsible for the day-to-day governance of the school. The institutions’ like Village Education Committees (VEC), Parent Teacher Associations (PTA), Mothers Teacher Associations (MTA), Mahila Mandals, etc. were created to represent the local community’s demands and aspirations (Kumar, Priyam, & Saxena, 2001), by decentralizing the authority from the central or federal government to the school level (Caldwell 2005). This new regime of governance, inspired by the principles of School-Based Management (SBM), devolved the responsibility and decision-making to a combination of principals, teachers, parents, and local community members. SBMs can have different forms of governing structures, given who (principal or teachers or parents or the larger community) has the power and how much decision-making power has been devolved to them. Who is given the responsibility for the devolved functions might result in four models of school-based management; (i) administrative-control SBM- final authority resides with the principal, (ii) professional-control SBM- teachers collectively make the decision for the school, (iii) community-control SBM- parents or larger community have a final say, (iv) balanced-control SBM- final authority is shared by parents and teachers (Patrinos et al., 2011). In a continuum of ‘weak’ to ‘strong’ framing of governing structures, an SBM may perform roles such as; budget allocations, hiring and firing the teachers and other school staffs, curriculum development, procurement of textbooks and other educational materials, infrastructure improvement, and monitoring and evaluation of teacher and student performance. The nature of SBM at a school would determine the scope of roles and responsibilities of principals.

Leadership and management theories have also been utilized to explain school leadership. These theories propose a framework where the school head (head-teacher) and other stakeholders are engaged in sustained efforts of change for an extended period. Having strong leadership and management skills help a head-teacher navigate through the complex web of school-level processes such as capacity building, understanding the change process at school, creating a culture of performance, and coordinating with various stakeholders (Fullan, 2005). From developing meaningful relationships with stakeholders, forming a shared understanding about ideas and ownership regarding the school to establishing an environment of accountability, these theories cover a wide spectrum of a head-teacher’s tasks and responsibilities (Fullan, 2010). These theories postulate a free environment that enables an informal interaction among the stakeholders with minimum hierarchical constraints, providing scope for collaboration to work together for greater effectiveness (Senge, 1990). Through their shared understanding, stakeholders also develop a sense of common purpose (Spillane, 2005). These leadership and management skills are further refined by experiential learning of various stakeholders as they keep using their reflective observation, active experimentation, and abstract conceptualization (Senge, 1990).

The head-teachers, contexts, and the enactments

Several studies in the last two decades have tried looking at the leadership attributes of the principals or head-teachers. Some of these leadership styles such as transformational (Leithwood and Jantzi, 2005), distributed (Harris and Spillane, 2008), and instructional (Bryk et al., 2010; Louis et al., 2010) etc. have helped academics to make sense of how principals navigate through the complex binaries of personal and political. As the school principals are located within a context, their actions are generated through the complex interaction between their own motivations/beliefs and the contextual/environmental factors (Coburn, 2005; Scott, 2005). Furthermore, individual actions correspond to the logic of leadership that is rooted in the beliefs, norms, and routines of that particular context. Every style of leadership, whether it is instructional or administrative, operates from a specific field of logic.

Here logics are referred to as “belief systems and associated practices that predominate in an organizational field” (Scott, 2005). These logics allow for specific actions and disallow certain actions. An individual, operating from a logic, tends to perform actions and behaviors which are considered legitimate and at the same time, tries to avoid the illegitimate ones. It is not that logic operates independently of each other; various logics might inspire an individual at the same time. For example, a principal’s action might be inspired by prevailing logic, as well as other logics such as entrepreneurial logic, social justice logic, etc. This is especially true of a set-up where various aspects such as curriculum, textbooks, training programs, administrative set-ups, etc. are operating from different logics. A school leader has to function within the multitudes of logic. A training program may try to convey a different message to a school leader than what he or she generally believes about that particular topic. This all leads to a very complex sense-making process for a school leader who is operating in an environment where various messages are being received regularly and are being interpreted and re-interpreted. A school leader’s (head-teacher in the case of India) prior knowledge, beliefs, and attitude become essential here as his or her actions follow from what he or she decides to do in that particular social context.

Much of the work on policy enactment and sense-making has been centered on how teachers add their subjectivities to intended policy reform. It is only in the last 4–5 years; researchers have shown interest in looking at the sense-making by the principals. The studies on the NAPLAN in Australia, No Child Left Behind (NCLF) in the United States have broadened our understanding around the enactment by principals and how they actively resisted the ‘performance logic,’ which was introduced in the American education system (Lascoumes and Le Gales, 2007). To resist these accountability assemblages, principals and the community developed creative ways to interpret policy texts and apply them in the unique context of their settings. In Hong Kong and Singapore, principals resisted the pressures from the federal government to introduce a new assessment framework. The principals in both these places actively worked with the local communities to subvert the newly introduced structures. The head-teachers in New Zealand coordinated with the teachers to undermine the standardized curriculum, which had sought to take away the school autonomy on the matters of curricular activities. All of these studies show that the principals’ actions in these complex environments impacted all three core aspects of school-based governance; autonomy, accountability, and assessment.

Similarly, when the federal government introduced a new legal framework to regulate and monitor schools, school principals, teachers, and the local communities got together to challenge it by either completely rejecting or interpreting the legal framework in such a manner that it lost its objective (Bowe, Ball, & Gold, 1992). In another example from Spain, principals sought to circumvent the compulsory structures or procedures the state had put up for school governance. As the educational laws in Spain did not allow for the migrant communities to be part of school governance, principals sought to subvert these policies by either broadening current governing structures such as the Consejo Escolar, or by institutionalizing new governance structures that are substitutive or complementary to the Consejo (Òscar Prieto-Flores, Jordi Feu, Carles Serra & Laura Lázaro, 2018).

In all of these cases, while the expectation was that the policies would be implemented in the manner described in the policy documents, the actual implementation differed quite significantly. Several factors, such as the personal biographies of the implementer, local contexts, the organizational memory, and learning of the local institutions, came into play, which led to the enactment of these policies. Principals, with active participation from the local communities, not only resisted the centralization attempt from educational bureaucracies but also expanded their roles significantly by involving communities. In many cases, the boundaries between the community and the school got blurred. Similarly, the educational decentralization in India produced different logics, depending upon the contexts and the limitations set by the system (Chand and Kuril, 2018). The first round of reforms in educational decentralization sought to empower local communities by making the sarpanch, the elected head of the local village, the chairman of VEC. Here, policy-makers gave more importance to the act of participation than autonomy (Govinda and Diwan 2003; Govinda and Bandyopadhyay 2006). The second round of decentralization reforms, introduced with the implementation of the Right to Education Act, 2009, produced a different sort of logic. Based on the institutional memory, and organizational learning, the first round of reform had created, the policy-makers decided to make principals the in-charge of school governance — these reforms generation a sense of collective action, which was then extended to other areas. The behaviors of individuals within these complex environments generated actions which led to the shifting of ‘school as village issue’ to ‘village as school issue’, weakening of deliberation by making participation more technical, and leaving out any subsidiary institutions from any consideration from decision-making at the school level (Chand and Kuril, 2018).


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EdTech, Educational Data Sciences, Childhood Studies, History of Education & Policy Sociology, curate @central_ed , Currently @IIMAhmedabad