School Leadership, Teaching Practice and Digitalisation: Lessons from a School Improvement Programme Learning Partnership in Uganda

Geeta Gambhir (Researcher) and Juliet Kyoshabire Kotonya (Research Manager), National Foundation for Educational Research

Friday 22 September 2023

Quality education remains an ongoing challenge in many parts of the world, exacerbated by learning missed due to Covid-19.

To improve the quality of school leadership and management and, in turn, the quality of education in Ugandan secondary schools, Promoting Equality in African Schools (PEAS) and the Directorate of Education Standards (DES) co-designed Inspect and Improve (I&I) in 2018. This innovative partnership combines the enhanced DES school inspections process with PEAS’ model of school improvement support.

The pilot took place across 10 schools from 2019-21. Building on a body of evidence on the strength of management practices at PEAS’ own schools (EPRC, 2018) and evidence from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) evaluation of the pilot in 2021, the programme was extended to 40 secondary schools, taking it to 215 across the country.

During Covid-19's school closures and travel restrictions, I&I's programme delivery shifted to digital platforms and remote support. PEAS staff engaged with I&I school leaders through WhatsApp support groups and virtual training activities.

In a Learning Partnership with PEAS – designed to generate evidence of impact and effectiveness for ongoing programme learning and improvement, and to support further roll-out of I&I – from April 2021 to December 2022, NFER explored:

  • Improvements in school management and leadership.
  • Changes to the quality of teaching and learning, student wellbeing and gender equity.
  • The pilot of a digital inspection tool, and the way in which programme delivery adapted to Covid-19 restrictions using digital tools.

Here are our top five takeaways from the Learning Partnership:

  1. Training and support underpin the development of quality teaching practices

We examined the promising findings from the pilot phase on teaching quality, student wellbeing and gender equity. Interviews with school staff found that I&I training and guidance for school leaders supported a number of improvements across each area:

Improved quality of teaching and learning

  • Training on how to conduct lesson observations in a supportive, non-judgmental way helped to improve and maintain good classroom practice.
  • All study participants reported more focus on learner-centered strategies, for example, group work and project-based activities to help students learn more effectively.

Improved student wellbeing

  • Guidance on behaviour management strategies provided an alternative to corporal punishment.
  • School leaders gained confidence in how to provide psychosocial support and counselling to students on school reopening. As one headteacher explained:

“On Zoom, we had training, they were preparing us how to re-open during this time of Covid, on psychosocial. By the time we opened, we were prepared compared to other schools which were not under PEAS. For us we were prepared for whatever.

More equitable school experience for girls

  • Greater awareness of the need for a private space for girls in school, as part of menstrual hygiene management.
  • Higher numbers of girls took on leadership roles in class and participated in extracurricular activities, helping to redress many of the disproportionate gendered effects of Covid-19.
  • Greater monitoring of girls’ attendance on return to school, in particular, those girls who had experienced gendered practices during school closures, for example, early marriage.

Importantly, interviewees reported that positive attitudes toward the implementation of training and guidance helped shape a school mindset for improvement, which could help sustain the improvements. Headteachers’ awareness of the need to motivate and support staff, peer collaboration and support within schools, and headteachers’ delegation of some practices (such as teacher to teacher classroom observation) were also considered important for sustainability.

  1. Improved teacher and student attendance is the first step toward quality education

Quality teaching and learning cannot take place where there are high levels of teacher and student absent. In schools with improved management practices during this time, we found there was a corresponding increase in the overall inspection score. When looking at the inspection sub-categories, the improved management practices were associated with increased inspection scores in teacher and student attendance, but not with the other areas monitored in inspections (teaching quality; learner achievement; behaviour and safety; and school leadership).

These findings suggest that strengthened management practices have a positive effect on both teachers and students being in school, but that it may take time for attendance to impact improvement in the other areas, as measured by inspections.

  1. Gender equity in the school workforce has the potential to attract greater enrolment of girls in school

We found that schools with greater numbers of female teachers were likely to have higher proportions of girls in school. Further, school leaders in these schools reported positive changes in teacher attendance as a result of I&I support, with improved teacher attendance reflected in the inspection scores of these schools.

This is consistent with evidence that suggests positive associations between the female school workforce and outcomes like student wellbeing, of girls in particular.

  1. Digital tools can play a crucial role in timely school improvement

Inspectors agreed that the digital inspection tool improved the timely submission of inspection reports, reducing stakeholder waiting times for key recommendations. Respondents noted that before I&I’s digital pilot, the average processing periods for generating inspection reports varied from one to five months. Following the use of the digital inspection tool, which was associated with real time transmission of inspection data, this average processing period has been significantly reduced to one or two days.

In line with the findings of the pilot evaluation, online communities of practice are still crucial to professional development among school leaders participating in I&I. Headteachers cited the importance of knowledge exchange via WhatsApp groups and reported using the platform to address issues, such as lack of school meals and recovering lost learning following school reopening.

Further, the virtual training that school leaders received on topics like the provision of psychosocial support helped to provide instructional leadership to better support students and teachers on school reopening.

  1. The affordability of digitalisation for school improvement is a potential barrier to its uptake

Programme staff reported that the adoption of digital tools and platforms resulted in additional costs, including staff training, procurement of devices, and maintenance for IT infrastructure. School leaders and inspectors also noted that they had incurred costs for internet data and charging electronic devices. Despite these financial implications, there was a consensus that the investments made in digital tools demonstrated value for money. Additional cost savings from increased efficiency across the inspection cycle were noted, for instance, virtual training cut down on travel costs while achieving comparable outcomes.

The challenges with access to technological infrastructure, such as lack of connectivity and prohibitive internet charges, highlight a potential barrier to the adoption of digitalisation for school improvement. The need to extend the affordability of this infrastructure in education is one of the key themes in the 2023 GEM report on Technology in Education. These challenges need to be addressed to realise the full potential of investments made in digitalisation.

Concluding thoughts

The findings from the Learning Partnership point to encouraging progress in school improvement in I&I secondary schools. Overall, study respondents reported several benefits of I&I - this is particularly noteworthy given the demanding context of the study, which coincided with the global pandemic, teacher strikes and negative socio-economic challenges in Uganda. The findings illustrate that school inspections are dependent on timely feedback and that, along with training for school leaders, these play a key role in quality education, particularly in times of missed learning.

NFER and PEAS will be presenting findings from the digital inspections component of the Learning Partnership at the International Conference on Education Research for Development in Africa in September 2023.

You can learn more about NFER’s findings on the I&I programme in the 2021 Evaluation of the pilot and the 2022 Learning Partnership final report.

For more information on the wider context of inspections and improvements in Uganda, read NFER’s Political Economy Analysis (PEA) report published in July 2023.