Instructional Leadership: Powerful at the School Level and Catalytic at the District Level

Last time, we shared our journey towards building a practical and evidence-based teacher training programme in South Africa. While teacher training and development is the most targeted method of supporting learners towards growth and achievement, teachers cannot work in isolation.

Teachers need school leaders to provide resources and direct support to help them drive effective learning experiences for every child in the school building. School leaders must be instructional leaders, that is, educators who focus on improving learning for students. Instructional leadership is complex work but necessary to create system wide change.

Instructional leadership not only involves ensuring teachers have adequate teaching and learning materials, but that teachers also understand how to break down the curriculum, set effective learning outcomes, assess learner mastery, and monitor and support learners. For many private school leaders, it may also mean choosing the curriculum.

As school leaders and teacher educators, we need to ask ourselves if we are actively creating an environment where teachers are excited and invested in continuing their own learning. Research consistently shows that leadership contributes significantly to learners’ learning (albeit indirectly) through the principal’s influence on teachers’ instructional practice, which directly determines learner achievement.

Over three-quarters of public schools in South Africa are underperforming in national and international examinations. Most principals continue to report that most of their time is spent on fundraising and human resource management instead of instructional leadership.[1]

In January 2022, we launched an 18-month school leadership development programme with a peri-urban school district in South Africa. The programme addresses the need for not only school leader professional development but close coordination with principal managers and supervisors in content and programmatic design.

We are focusing on three core competencies throughout the programme:

  1. School Culture: Principals should be able to foster positive relationships, systems, and tools focused on learning
  2. Instructional Leadership: Principals should be able to develop teachers’ capacity to implement effective teaching and learning strategies through effective professional development and observation and feedback cycles.
  3. Data-driven Decision-Making: Principals should be able to make decisions based on relevant and accurate evidence.


The programme is delivered in a flipped classroom style where participants complete modules with a practical focus on a skill, concept, or mindset. These sessions are followed by monthly virtual learning communities that require participants to bring an artefact showing their use of the skill, concept, or mindset covered in the module and reflections for improvement.

Here’s what one of the participants has to say about the programme:

“I really love the School Leadership Development Programme for what it is doing for me and my team. Modules like Leading Self, Reimagining the School Improvement Plan, and Monitor the School Improvement Plan have really changed the way that I look at my position as a school leader. All this has made me change the style of leading in my school and improved my leadership skills. As an HOD, I am able to use these instructional leadership practices and I can see the positive improvement in my school.”

100% of programme participants strongly agree or agree that our faculty is highly effective as coaches of adult learners, models instructional leadership practices and mindsets, and gives effective and practical feedback that supports their development as school leaders and school management teams.

Additionally, participants are attending six quarterly in-person, half-day clinic sessions to consolidate their learning from the past quarter, and plan forward for the following quarter.

Below we share some preliminary insights and observations based on data gathered about the programme, and what it means for us as we work to foster instructional leadership development:

  1. Engagement: Participation from principals and school management team members (many of whom are aspiring principals) is strong because school district leaders and principal managers are engaged. Over 70% of participants are completing all or most of the online modules. Further, Instill instructors emphasise practice and practical application.
  2. Setting realistic expectations: Principals and aspiring principals are hungry to learn but have little time to dedicate to their own professional development. We must be intentional with setting realistic and bite-sized expectations and learning deliverables.
  3. Contextualisation: The district already has many effective resources such as school improvement planning tools, but only a limited number of principals are using them effectively. Our designers and facilitators therefore design highly contextualised online and in-person content that focuses on guidance and implementation of existing resources and tools. between 85 – 90% of programme participants strongly agree or agree that the in-person session content is practical, contextually relevant, and supports deeper learning from the online coursework. Overall, our Net Promoter Scores (NPS)[2] is 65, which by most standards is excellent.
  4. Digital literacy: Participants also need support with navigating online learning. We found many of our participants had limited digital literacy. We introduced Study Halls at the end of each contact session to help participants navigate these bite-size online modules and training sessions. 


While we are still learning how to best support school leaders on their journey towards mastering their role as effective instructional leaders, we know that with high-quality learning content, dedicated practice, and effective support, school leaders can master this critical element of supporting teachers and learners.

We are more than halfway through our pilot programme, and the initial impact we have seen to date is truly exciting:

  1. On average, programme participants are spending 23% of their time on internal, non-instructional matters, compared to a recent study showing a typical school management team member in Gauteng (the province where our programme takes place) spends 72% of their time on internal, non-instructional matters[3].
  2. On average, programme participants are spending 42% of their time on instructional leadership (strategic planning, training, monitoring or coaching teachers on pedagogy), compared to a recent study showing less than 25% of typical Gauteng school management team members agreed to providing any form of professional development to teachers[4].


Instructional leadership is taking root in this school district and we are excited to continue to learn and collaborate with our district partner on their instructional leadership journey. We look forward to providing continuous updates on programme progress, stories from school leadership teams taking part in school leadership development programmes, and insights on the development of instructional leadership cultures and infrastructure within schools and school districts.

Are you a school leader, principal manager or district leader who is interested in learning more about our approach to instructional leadership programming? Explore our content on Upskill@Instill or reach out to us for potential collaboration.

Author: Shemanne Davis (Chief Learning Officer)

Contributors: Venessa Geswindt (Faculty) and Evan Hendon (Chief Programme Officer)

[1]  Dickson, D. & Kirori, M., Not a Panacea, but Vital for Improvement? Leadership development programmes in South African schools.South African Journal of Education.

Ombonga, M. Instructional Leadership: A Contextual Analysis of Principals in Kenya and Southeast North Carolina. Successful School Principals Project 2017

[2] NPS measures customer loyalty to a programme. They are measured with a single question and range between -100 and 100, with a higher score being desirable. Generally, a score between 0-30 is considered Good, 30-70 is considered Great, and 70-100 – Excellent.

[3] Malinga et. al. Instructional Leadership Capacity of Secondary School Science Heads of Department in Gauteng,  South Africa (2021)

[4]  Malinga et. al. Instructional Leadership Capacity of Secondary School Science Heads of Department in Gauteng,  South Africa (2021)