EU must invest in innovative leaders in schools

Androulla VASSILIOU – Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Lithuanian Presidency Conference on Educational Leadership /Vilnius


It’s a pleasure to be here with you today for the opening of this important conference on leadership in education. I am really grateful to the Lithuanian Presidency for organising this event and for putting the issue of school leadership high on the political agenda.

Today we will discuss the central role leadership plays in quality education and training. And we will look at ways to support and improve this leadership, with the aim of providing a better educational experience for our young people.

This is a crucial task – and one that the economic crisis has made all the more urgent. Our education and training systems need to change to become more relevant; to this end we want to improve the working environment of our teachers, to improve the quality of teaching, so that we can improve the life chances of our learners.

Six million young people across Europe are without a job – in some countries over half of them are unemployed.

And, furthermore, 7.5 million 15- to 24-year olds are neither in employment nor in education or training. Their prospects will remain bleak, even after the end of the crisis, unless something is done urgently.

As the Commission has been pointing out during the annual wide-ranging European Semester review of Member States’ economic and social policies, the need to address poor performance in education systems is widespread. And the fact is that practically all Member States need to improve the level of their investment in education and skills.

But beyond identifying what’s not working, the key question is how do we bring about change?

This is a complex question, to which there is no simple answer.

Last November, I presented European Education Ministers with a strategy to rethink our education systems and put us on the path to a sustainable solution. We have debated these issues in the Council, with the Ministers of all Member States, and there is consensus on some key points.

One of them is the importance of supporting the teaching profession.

Teachers have an essential role, both to improve school performance and to reduce early school leaving – two key issues which emerge strongly from the European Semester reflections. In improving our support to teachers and trainers, the active participation of school leaders will be crucial.

I use the term ‘leaders’, not ‘managers’. Because we don’t need just to ‘manage’ change; we must promote and drive it. Our schools and training institutions must actively seek improvements; and we want them to achieve these improvements through a collective effort. For this to happen, we need leaders who can inspire other people – teachers, trainers, students, parents, local communities – to follow them.

Educational leadership is about having a vision for the future and inspiring others to turn that vision into reality.

Such a vision would include a school environment where learning and reflection are not only valued, but also made interesting and challenging – for all students.

And since teachers and trainers play such an essential role, every single teacher and trainer should also be a lifelong learner; in this, institution leaders also need to set the example. Effective leaders improve the quality of teaching by giving feedback and encouragement to every member of staff, helping them to update, improve and extend their competences.

In this vision, there must be close and effective links with the local community, with local employers – this is particularly important for vocational education and training, where collaboration with companies is crucial, but it must become part of the challenge for general education as well.

Running an educational institution is a very challenging job.

To achieve the vision I am describing, the leaders of our schools and training institutions need to marshal the enthusiasm, energy and competence of staff, students, parents and other stakeholders.

And to do this, it takes a specific set of skills and personal qualities.

Such leaders are strategic thinkers and experts in pedagogy; but also resource managers, good communicators, problem-solvers … they have courage, optimism, resilience, tolerance, emotional intelligence, energy, commitment and, above all, a thirst for learning.

I am sure that you will agree with me – that is quite a list!

And as the world of education and training must change in response to a rapidly changing world, so must our educational leaders evolve. They must constantly seek new and more effective ways to organise teaching and learning.

Member States need to put in place the necessary conditions for inspiring and innovative leadership to take root and flourish.

Firstly, we need to make educational leadership more attractive. We need to seriously improve the capability of European systems to train, recruit and retain the right people in leadership roles.

One aspect of this involves breaking down the gender gap which has become over the years very entrenched: we need to attract more women to leadership roles at secondary level, and more men to leadership at primary level.

Once the right people are in the right places, we need to give them the space and autonomy to implement their ideas, to develop the capacity of their schools and training institutions to improve and innovate in their turn.

We need schools to have effective and accountable autonomy.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. It is not always easy to find people with the right profile to fill vacant posts for school heads. All across Europe, there is the common challenge to recruit and retain such people.

Recruitment problems are clearly linked to the heavy workload of heads and principals. Studies have shown that they face heavy and growing demands on their time, with day-to-day administrative demands taking up about 40% of their time.

Our educational leaders, if they are really to be strategic thinkers and drivers of change, need to be freed from routine administrative tasks. Ministers of Education have already agreed that there needs to be an explicit redefinition of the roles of managerial staff, so that they can focus their efforts on improving learning.

In some countries, school administrators are employed for routine administrative and budgetary functions. There are indeed examples of best practice, and we are urging countries to share these.

Another example: in some Member States, school leaders devote a lot of their time in giving systematic feedback to teaching staff about their work; indeed, developing teacher quality, supporting and guiding newly qualified teaching staff should be a core task. It should further include promoting collaborative work cultures, coordination of the curriculum and teaching programmes across subject areas.

As is the case with teaching staff generally, Europe is also faced with the imminent retirement of many heads and principals. This exodus brings both a major loss of experience and an opportunity to recruit and develop a new generation with the skills and competences that are needed today.

To address this challenge, the European Commission is encouraging Member States to better identify – early in their careers – those teachers that have leadership potential. This gives them the opportunity to develop their leadership skills over time.

Some countries – and one of them is Lithuania – now have special leadership academies or training programmes. We urge more countries to do the same.

Of course recruiting and retaining the right people in itself is not enough. As greater responsibility is given to educational leaders, greater accountability is also demanded of them. The tasks of leadership need to be distributed in new and more effective ways, including through a team approach.

Collaborative leadership, as opposed to leadership invested in the head-teacher alone, offers an effective route to school improvement.

Within a school or VET college, several members of staff may take on a leadership role – whether formally or informally – according to their different, complementary expertise and competences. This does not affect the core competences required by heads and principals; rather, it underlines the need for clarity and sharing of leadership roles.

Furthermore, it reminds us that educational leadership cannot function in a vacuum but must be supported also from outside the institution.

The potential for successful reform is bigger when the various players involved work together. Ministers, local authorities, inspectors, advisers, professional associations, employers, trades unions and stakeholder groups, and not least parents, all share a responsibility in shaping the vision of high quality learning for all something which we all aspire to.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We all share the Lithuanian Presidency’s desire to promote better, more effective, more innovative school leadership. Putting the right people into leadership roles; creating the right leadership structures;
supporting them both within and beyond the school – these must be key objectives of education policy in all Member States.

That is why my services are working closely with the Lithuanian Presidency as they prepare Conclusions to be adopted by the Education Council this November on the subject of innovation in educational leadership.

Furthermore, at EU level, we have a number of policy and financial instruments to help the Member States and schools themselves to develop quality leadership in education.

The Structural Funds, for example, support measures to promote innovation in leadership and the professional development of leaders.

The Erasmus+ programme starting next year will provide a myriad of opportunities for educational leaders to get involved, with their colleagues abroad, in partnerships, research and international exchanges that will help to develop innovative approaches to education, including educational leadership.

Erasmus+ will provide:

  • more opportunities for strategic partnerships between schools to allow exchange of best practices and cooperation for innovation;
  • more incentives for cross-sector cooperation, for instance between schools, higher education institutions or businesses;
  • more staff mobility, to stimulate peer learning and help modernise leadership;
  • an easily accessible tool to promote innovative approaches: the eTwinning platform, which is currently being upgraded specifically to enhance its communities of practice; and
  • a new action: ‘policy experimentation’ to encourage Member State authorities, in cooperation with school leaders, to test and implement innovative approaches.

The European Union also supports the European Policy Network on School Leadership. This network brings together 11 Ministries or government agencies, 7 stakeholder groups and 20 universities to promote effective educational leadership, drawing on research and good practice from around Europe. I encourage you to take a look at the network’s website.

These are just some of the ways in which the EU is working to help Member States to promote new approaches to educational leadership.

I’m sure all of you have ideas and experiences of your own to share that can contribute to the spread of quality leadership in education across Europe. And ultimately, to better learning outcomes – and a brighter future – for our young people.

I’m delighted the Lithuanian Presidency has given us the opportunity to discuss these ideas, and I look forward to the outcome.

I wish you a successful conference.

Thank you.


Source: European Commission Press Room