The learning poverty rate in low- and middle-income countries rose to 70 percent in 2022, which affirms that education systems are in crisis. Yet in many countries, there are schools that perform better than others, even though they operate in similar conditions. By focusing on ‘positive deviance’, the UNICEF Innocenti: Global Office of Research and Foresight’s Data Must Speak (DMS) positive deviance research, supported by the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), addresses the global learning crisis by researching performance variability in low-income contexts. The DMS research explores various factors affecting school performance, including school leadership.
Evidence on learning outcomes from 14 Francophone Sub-Saharan African countries shows students in female-led schools have better scores in mathematics and reading (PASEC 2019). These findings led UNICEF Innocenti to explore gender and school leadership across its various workstreams, including DMS, where evidence from Côte d’Ivoire, Lao PDR, Madagascar, Mali and Togo suggests that female school leaders are associated with improved educational outcomes. For example, in Lao PDR and Zambia, female-led schools have higher learning outcomes than those led by males – and in Mali and Madagascar, female-led schools have higher promotion rates for students. Other UNICEF Innocenti evidence, including the Time to Teach research on teacher attendance in West and Central Africa, reveals that female headteachers are more likely to encourage teacher attendance and parental involvement (Jativa et al 2022).
Following these findings, and concerned with the vast underrepresentation of women in school leadership – in some Sub-Saharan African countries, only about 1 in 10 primary school leaders are women (Bergmann, Alban and Brossard 2022) - UNICEF Innocenti designed the Women in Learning Leadership (WiLL) research programme in partnership with IIEP-UNESCO Dakar and the Gender at the Center Initiative. WiLL aims to build evidence on the underrepresentation of female school leaders, identify gendered management practices that lead to better learning outcomes and promote evidence-based policymaking to support gender-equitable school leadership and scale-up effective leadership practices. WiLL’s methodology at the country level is inspired by lessons from DMS and builds on its behavioural sciences approach.
WiLL co-creates research with Ministries of Education and local partners and engages with other international stakeholders working in the field of school leadership, such as Global School Leaders and VVOB, to share knowledge, foster collaboration and encourage gender equality in learning leadership.