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School leadership studies: improving outcomes for pupils across the globe

What makes a successful school leader?  

That’s the question that’s been at the heart of Christopher Day’s work for more than 20 years, and which has led to the creation of a global research partnership impacting teachers and pupils in over 20 countries.

A former teacher himself, Professor Day is interested in identifying and understanding the values, qualities, characteristics and actions of successful school leaders internationally. Success is defined by both measurable academic student attainment results and a broader range of progress and achievements by students. His concerns are shared by an increasing number of researchers, and by members of the International Successful Principalship Project(ISSPP) which he founded and whose members are drawn from more that 20 countries.

Together they have generated new, conceptually sound and empirically robust understandings of how success is achieved and sustained in different cultures and socio-economic contexts. The lessons learned are then shared with international policy makers and practitioners, and applied to schools around the world to help improve outcomes for their students

His numerous research studies have been instrumental in improving the effectiveness of school leaders and teachers, reforming school leadership practices and organisational strategies, and impacting on educational policy in the UK and internationally.

But he is perhaps best known for being the founder of the International Successful School Principalship Project (ISSPP), the world’s largest and most sustained research network on successful school leadership. Originally formed in 2001 with researchers from eight countries, it now covers 27 countries and has led to the spread of knowledge, understanding and practices of successful school leadership across the globe, as well as the creation of training centres in countries including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.

Professor Day and the ISSPP’s research has focused on discovering the key values, qualities, attributes and practices of a successful leader and found that, whilst they are applied in different settings, they remain the same, regardless of the country they work in or the socio-economic setting of their school.

Professor Day said: “There are more similarities than differences among those who are successful and who have sustained the success of their schools.”

"There are more similarities than differences among those who are successful and who have sustained the success of their schools."
Professor Christopher Day

He is clear that improving academic results alone does not necessarily represent success, and that those who have the most positive influence on their school are focused on the wider social and personal purposes their institution is striving to achieve.

Common characteristics of successful school leaders include a strong sense of moral and social/ethical purpose, high expectations both of themselves and their teams, a love of learning, transparency about their beliefs and values, modelling good practice, fairness, involving others in decision making, and high quality relationships

The research has also found those who are the most successful engender a high degree of respect and trust from their school colleagues and wider community.

And whilst the social, political and educational histories of schools differ from country to country, the partnership has found that all school leaders face a number of similar pressures, regardless of their location in the world, including:

  • Social movements: changes in the expectations families have of schools, the attitudes of students
  • The ever-increasing interest of governments in measurable performance targets
  • Adapting to what it means to be a 21st century school: the increasing use of technology, a move towards greater personalisation of the learning experience
"All school leaders face a number of similar pressures, regardless of their location in the world."
Professor Christopher Day

Lejf Moos, a researcher from Denmark and a member of the ISSPP, said: “One of the real surprising things in this project is that when we started we could never agree with colleagues from other countries what a good school is, because the Nordic way of looking at schools was very different from America and England. These days we seem to agree more: we all know what a good school is.”

The partnership’s findings have gone on to directly inform dozens of national and regional programmes on successful school leadership, which have trained thousands of school teachers and leaders. For example, in Sweden, the research findings from the ISSPP project were used to develop and deliver the National Principal Training Programme, while in Mexico over 1600 principals have taken part in professional skills training based on the outcomes of the ISSPP research.

Alongside this, Professor Day has worked on numerous other research projects centred around effective school leadership for a range of high-profile organisations, including the Department for Education (DfE), the Economic and Social Research Council, the Education Development Trust, International Baccalaureate and the Association of Independent Schools.

His research has directly informed policy debate and reforms in England - with the Department for Education using it to develop guidance on the recruitment of headteachers for boards of maintained schools and academies in 2017. He has also acted as a consulting expert on school leadership for various policy-making organisations including the Governments of Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

Christopher Day

Christopher Day, Professor of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences 

He is ranked 130 in the world and 20 in the UK by’s citation-based ranking of the top 1000 scientists in the area of Social Sciences and Humanities, and is among only nine educational leadership researchers in the top 1000 social scientists in the world.

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