The role of school principals in improving learning in Francophone Africa

Le rôle des directrices d’école
Le rôle des directrices d’école

How do gender inequalities affect the management of elementary schools? Gender parity among the leadership roles of these institutions is far from being reached. However, a new IIEP-UNESCO report finds that the presence of female principals has an impact on student achievement across a number of francophone African countries. In four of the 14 nations examined in the study, student performance is better in female-led schools. This is not generalizable to the entire region and is currently the subject of further research.

Still, is there a link between a principal's gender and student achievement? Using a rich database of primary school students' reading and math proficiency collected in 14 French-speaking African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Niger, Senegal, and Togo), the IIEP study reveals a link between school success and female leadership in four cases. In Benin, Madagascar, Senegal, and Togo, students' performance at the end of primary school is better when they attend a female-led school, controlling for other contextual factors.

Level of education, past experience, and the work environment clearly influence principals’ management practices. But gender also has an impact - as in politics or business - with female leadership styles often being more attentive to the needs of others. According to the researchers who completed the study, "women are underrepresented in the leadership literature review. Yet, if we want those in important roles to be role models for girls, we need to study their backgrounds. This is what motivated us to conduct this research"

Characteristics that set the directors apart

Previous studies in Kenya, Mozambique, and Madagascar, among others, have shown that the presence of a woman in the school environment has a positive influence on students’ results generally, and those of girls in particular, as well as on their professional aspirations. A possible explanation is that female principals serve as role models and help "combat gender stereotypes". The new IIEP report reveals characteristics "that set principals and the schools they lead apart”. In some of the 14 countries surveyed, female-led schools were "more likely to hold meetings with parents, offer support classes and have lower levels of teacher absenteeism”. 

These examples could be explained by the existence of discriminatory practices that lead women to work harder: those who rise to the top are often more qualified and experienced than their male colleagues. According to the researchers, it is not that women are necessarily better than their male counterparts, “because whether you are a man or a woman, we are all capable of having responsibilities…Rather, it is a matter of identifying interesting practices and seeing how women can benefit from better training and be better supported”.

Management practices and gender may not be the only reasons for the differences observed between male and female principals. The study shows that there are contextual and geographic characteristics often associated with female principals: they are more qualified than men, but they are also more likely to be located in urban areas, in schools with "better infrastructure, with students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds”.

Only 22% of students have a female principal

These findings are part of a broader research project currently being undertaken by the Gender at the Center Initiative (GCI), which aims to explore women's leadership and school management practices in low- and middle-income countries (WiLL - Women in Learning Leadership). For the authors, they represent progress towards a better understanding of a subject that still needs to be studied in greater depth: "The analysis allows us to identify four countries in the region that stand out. Now we need to go further because there are great contextual differences within the same country and from one country to another”. Studies are already underway in Benin and Madagascar, the countries with the highest proportion of female principals, as well as in Chad, where only 5% of school principals are women, according to the latest national school census data.

The objective is to identify mechanisms that can facilitate women's access to leadership positions. "We really want to understand how things work. Principals do not work in the same way from one country to another, the conditions of recruitment are not the same and training opportunities either”. Collecting such data can also be used to help improve skills and employment conditions, and to inform the design of policies for greater parity. The region's elementary schools are predominantly run by men, and discriminatory recruitment practices persist. On average, in the fourteen countries studied, only 22% of students have a female principal. Some states even have only one female principal for every ten male principals.

Learn more about the program
Women in Learning Leadership – WiLL