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Leadership in schools

Head Teachers as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs)?

There is plenty of evidence to show that leadership makes a big difference to performance in the private sector. Indeed, the value placed on high performing Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) can be judged from their pay. Recent studies have also highlighted the importance of governance in shaping how well private sector firms perform. Much less is known about the role both leaders and governance play in influencing public sector performance.

In this study, researchers will explore whether there is a substantial difference between the role of leaders and key personnel in the public and private sectors. The project will look specifically at leadership and governance in education. Researchers will examine how head teachers are selected, paid and the relationship between head teacher pay and performance. They will then look in detail at how governance works in practice. What decisions do school governors make? Who is responsible for the key strategic decisions taken in schools? Can a better understanding of these issues lead to better performing schools?

What the research means for policy makers and the wider community

Research methods

The project is in two phases. In the first phase, researchers will examine data on the career profiles of head teachers in England and Wales. In the second phase, researchers will develop a questionnaire and pilot a survey to study governance in schools among head teachers, deputy head teachers, school governors and, at a later stage, University Vice Chancellors. The study will focus on three areas: head teachers’ personal characteristics and career profiles; their pay and performance; and selection and governance.

Further Information: Project Posters

Updated Project Poster 2009

Below is a summary of this project’s provisional findings. It was originally presented as a dissemination poster, which is available here as a pdf document. All figures can be found at the bottom of this poster summary as thumbnails, which one should click to view full-size images. Alternatively, where figures are reffered to in the text, click the linked text for a full-size version.




Effective leadership is said to be vital to the success of any organisation, so motivating good leadership practices should be a top priority. There is a wealth of economic literature relating the performance of private firms to the pay and leadership practices of CEOs, yet surprisingly, this has never been transposed onto the public sector. In England, the establishment of ‘City Academies’ and the lauding of ‘Super Heads’ for turning around failing schools has put increasing emphasis on leadership in education. Was Chris Woodhead, former chief of Ofsted, right to assert, “We don’t need report after report on the theory of turning around failing schools. It isn’t a matter of money; it’s leadership first and foremost?? If so, what constitutes good leadership in schools and can it be encouraged through performance-related pay?


We aimed to:

» discover whether there was a link between head- teacher pay and school performance (Figure 1), and thus, whether public service organisations are subject to the same sort of labour market as private sector organisations;

» develop an effective survey instrument to evaluate the impact of leadership practices on school performance, and discover:

What We Did

» Using pensions data from the DfES we built a picture of head-teachers, their career and pay, and matched them to schools between 1997 and 2002.

» We linked this to data from school performance tables to investigate the relationship between pay and performance for every primary and secondary school in England.

» We developed a survey instrument to elicit evidence of actual management practices and their impact, by designing an open-ended, non-leading questionnaire, which was used to interview head-teachers on setting targets and monitoring performance, and pay and performance incentives offered to teachers.

» This was tested on a sample set of 13 schools in Wales, ranking them on a scale from 1 to 5 for each of these practices.

Provisional Findings

» We found an active head-teacher labour market where pay was sensitive to school performance (Figure 2), contrary to much recent debate on pay and performance premised on a view that teachers were not subject to wage incentives.

» We found a link between levels of prior pupil achievement and turnover of head-teachers.

» Our pilot survey suggested that performance tracking and evaluation at the school level was generally strong, but substantially weaker at teacher level (Figures 3 and 4). Policies varied widely on the use of financial incentives to motivate staff. Rolling out our pilot survey would help quantify variation in practices across schools and test our hypothesis that practices are correlated with school performance.


Click on the figures to enlarge

besleyfig1.jpg besleyfig2.jpg besleyfig3.jpg besleyfig4.jpg

Other Project Outputs and Related Webpages

Project page on the ESRC Society Today website

February 2008: Are Public Sector CEOs Different? Leadership Wages and Performance in Schools, LSE EOPP Paper

Research Team

Tim Besley

Tim Besley

Timothy Besley is Professor of Economics and Political Science at the LSE and Director of STICERD. He is a Fellow of The British Academy, the Econometric Society and the European Economics Association. His research interests are in political economy, development economics and public economics. He is a past co-editor of the American Economic Review and a past managing editor of the Economic Journal. After completing his doctorate at Oxford, where he was a Fellow of All Souls College, he taught at Princeton before moving to the LSE as a Professor in 1995.


Steven Machin

Steven Machin

Steve Machin is Professor of Economics at University College London, Director of the Centre for the Economics of Education, and Research Director, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics. His main research area covers empirical work in labour economics and industrial relations. He is also one of the editors of The Economic Journal.