Chapter 6. Putting the spotlight on school leaders in the Netherlands

The quality of school leadership is especially critical in a highly decentralised school system, as in the Netherlands, but it has received relatively little policy attention. Although school leaders usually perform to standard, the evidence suggests that if the Netherlands is to realise its educational ambitions, school leaders’ competences need to be further strengthened. This chapter examines the challenges and solutions for developing high quality school leaders in the Netherlands. It highlights the need for a strategic approach to leadership development that rests on professional collaboration and a culture of continuous improvement. It examines how further developed competence profiles for school leaders could support professional development. In addition, this chapter discusses the need for capacity building of school leaders and leadership teams for conducting school self-evaluations, and for supporting the development of schools into learning organisations.


The limited profile of school leadership issues

School leadership is critical but has received relatively little policy attention

Fuelled by increasing school autonomy, the role of the school leader has grown in importance in many OECD countries (Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008; Schleicher, 2012), including the Netherlands (Verbiest, 2007). However, the issue of school leadership has received little policy attention in the Netherlands: more than eight out of ten (83%) General School Leaders Association (AVS) members (primary school leaders) believe the government devotes insufficient attention to school leaders (AVS, 2012). The Global Teacher Status Index 2013 revealed that respect for school leaders in the Netherlands was second lowest among participating countries (Varkey GEMS Foundation, 2013).

School leaders are not always involved in policy discussions

School boards, represented by the various sector councils, have been the key point of contact for MoECS in the development and monitoring of policies, for example in the sector agreements between MoECS and the Primary Education Council (PO-Raad) and Secondary Education Council (VO-Raad). Part of the challenge of involving school leaders may lie in the fact that they have been less well organised. The AVS represents the interests of primary school leaders, however, the association that represents secondary school teachers, the Network for School leaders (NVS), was only established in November 2015.

Defining what we expect of school leaders

Leadership competences have been established for primary and secondary education

The MoECS Action Plan Teacher 2020 proposes that all primary and secondary school leaders, and the leadership/middle management team in upper secondary vocational education, should have a required set of professional competences (MoECS, 2011). For primary and secondary school leaders, recently revised competency profiles (Table 6.1) provide guidance on daily practice, appraisals and education programmes. For upper secondary vocational education schools, no such profile has yet been established.

Table 6.1. School leader competence standards for primary and secondary education

Primary education school leader competences

Secondary education school leader competences

1. Vision directed working

1. Creating a shared vision and direction

2. In relationship to the environment

2. Establishing a coherent organisation for the primary process

3. Shaping organisational characteristics from an educational orientation

3. Promoting co-operation, learning and research

4. Handling of strategies for co-operation, learning and research at all levels

4. Strategic dealing with the environment

5. Higher order thinking

5. Analysing and problem-solving (higher order thinking)

Sources: Andersen, I. and M. Krüger (n.d.), Professionele Schoolleiders. Beroepsstandaard voor schoolleiders in het Primair Onderwijs [Professional School Leaders. Professional Standard for School Leaders], Schoolleidersregister PO,; Secondary Education Academy (2014), Beroepsstandaard schoolleiders VO [Professional Standard School Leaders VO], Secondary Education Academy,

Current leadership competences provide limited guidance

The competence standards illustrated in Table 6.1 are relatively abstract, which leaves school boards with a limited basis on which to select, appraise and develop the skills of their school leaders (Inspectorate of Education, 2014a). The key issues of human resource management receive scant attention. Greater clarity on expectations could be provided, as is done in Australia and Singapore (see Box 5.3 in Chapter 5).

Box 6.1. The Australian Professional Standard for Principals and the Leadership Profiles

The Australian Professional Standard for Principals and the more detailed Leadership Profiles create and promote a shared vision, clarity of understanding and a common language around effective and high-impact school leadership. The Standard is applicable to principals irrespective of context or experience. What varies is the emphasis given to particular elements of the Standard as principals respond to context, capability and career stage. The Standard is based on three leadership requirements: 1) vision and values; 2) knowledge and understanding; and 3) personal qualities, social and interpersonal skills.

These requirements are enacted through the following five key professional practices: 1) leading teaching and learning; 2) developing self and others; 3) leading improvement, innovation and change; 4) leading the management of the school; and 5) engaging and working with the community.

Leading the Management of the School Profile

Sources: Schleicher, A. (2011), Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the World, OECD Publishing, Paris,; AITSL (2015), Australian Professional Development Standards for Principals and the Leadership Profiles, Australian Institute for Teaching and School leadership,

Becoming a school leader

School leader salaries may not be sufficiently attractive

As in many countries, salaries for school leaders in the Netherlands depend on the size of the school (EACEA, 2015). The salary difference between school leaders and teachers is small, for example, a headmaster of a small primary school (fewer than 200 students) only earns up to 7% more than a teacher on the highest salary scale (“LB scale”). Although few difficulties in filling leadership vacancies have been reported (Lubberman, Mommster and Wester, 2015), the salaries may not be sufficient to attract the most talented individuals. The relatively low social status of school leaders and an anticipated wave of retirements make this issue pressing (Inspectorate of Education, 2014a, 2015).

Most school leaders have some type of leadership training

School boards appoint school leaders after an open selection process. Unlike many countries, school leaders are not required to have teaching experience, although they usually do (Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008; Nusche et al., 2014). Most school leaders receive non-mandatory training (Bal and De Jong, 2007). The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013 showed that almost all lower secondary leaders participated in a school administration or principal training course either before or after taking up duty (OECD, 2014).

Induction of new school leaders is underdeveloped

Although research evidence suggests that quality induction programmes for new school leaders are valuable (Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008), they are not common practice in the Netherlands. Less than half of recently appointed school leaders in a recent study had participated in any sort of induction and mentoring programme, and only 12% had participated in a substantial programme (Andersen et al., 2012). MoECS could look towards the examples of Ontario (Canada), New Zealand and Victoria (Australia) that have integrated such training programmes as a mandatory requirement into their national improvement strategies (see Box 6.2).

Box 6.2. The Ontario Leadership Strategy

Ontario designed and implemented an education-improvement strategy, Energizing Ontario Education, with three main goals: raising the level of student achievement, defined as 75% of students achieving the provincial standard in Grade 6 and an 85% graduation rate; narrowing the gaps in student achievement; and increasing public confidence in publicly funded education.

To support the education improvement strategy, the Ontario Leadership Strategy aimed to foster leadership of the highest possible quality in schools and school boards. The strategy has two goals: 1) attract the right people to the principalship; and 2) help principals and vice-principals develop into the best possible instructional leaders. Within the strategy, a leadership framework covers: 1) setting direction; 2) building relationships and developing people; 3) developing the organisation; 4) leading the instructional programme; and 5) securing accountability. This framework is adapted to local contexts used in new principal appraisal systems, and for training and development.

New school leaders need to have an undergraduate degree; five years of teaching experience; certification by school level (primary, junior, intermediate, senior); two specialist or honour specialist additional qualifications (areas of teaching expertise) or a masters degree; and have completed the Principal’s Qualification Programme (PQP), a 125-hour programme with practicum.

Source: OECD (2010), Improving Schools: Strategies for Action in Mexico, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Strengthening leadership quality

School leader performance could be improved

The Inspectorate of Education (2014a) judges the performance of school leaders in primary and secondary education as adequate overall, but more than a third of leaders score below standard on one or more competences, and few are good or excellent. Primary school leaders were found to be good at building trust and acting credibly, but less skilled in anticipating risks and solving complex problems. Secondary school leaders are knowledgeable of regulations and their application, but less able to reflect on their own actions, to create a professional learning culture and to use data. Other reports have noted the limited capacity of school leaders to provide educational leadership and shape human resource management policies (e.g. Education Council, 2013; Oberon, Kohnstamm Institute and ICLON, 2014). Our analysis corroborates these findings.

Little is known about school leaders in upper secondary vocational education (MBO)

In the Netherlands, as in many countries, school leadership in vocational schools is an important but largely unexamined topic. Vocational school leaders typically have to manage a much more diverse teaching force than a non-vocational school – often including people with an industry rather than academic background. They need to establish close working relationships with employers who provide work-based learning, and very often, particularly at the lower MBO levels, need to address the needs of disadvantaged students with the weakest academic performance. These are multiple and profound challenges, but little information is available about leadership in upper secondary vocational schools. The development of competence standards for team leaders/middle management in MBO would be a step forward.

Leadership for schools as learning organisations

School leaders play a key role in transforming schools into learning organisations

The requirements for school leaders need to be linked to a shared vision of effective schooling. This relates to the idea of a school as a learning organisation, which is promoted in the Netherlands through the Teachers Agenda 2013-2020 (MoECS, 2013). Research shows that teacher effectiveness depends on collaborating with and learning from colleagues (Schleicher, 2011; Hattie, 2008), and school leaders play a vital role in establishing collaboration (Fullan, 2006; Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008). However, according to TALIS 2013, less than half of Dutch principals (43%) actively support co-operation among teachers to develop new teaching practices and observe instruction in the classroom (OECD, 2014). School leaders need to allocate sufficient time and other resources for collaborative working to succeed (Silins, Mulford and Zarins, 2002; OECD, 2015; see Box 6.2). Additional time and resources for peer review and other forms of peer learning have been incorporated into the 2014-17 collective labour agreements and sector agreements for primary and secondary education.1 The amended Education Time Act is expected to provide secondary schools with more flexibility to organise collaborative learning activities. But many school leaders, as well as school boards and teachers, are not pursuing collaborative working and learning with sufficient vigour (MoECS, 2015; Oberon, Kohnstamm Institute and ICLON, 2014).

Box 6.3. Key characteristics of the “school as learning organisation”: A review of the literature

This OECD review draws on learning organisation literature and other research that covers organisational behaviour, knowledge management, learning science, school improvement and effectiveness. The school as learning organisation model consists of seven dimensions, each containing a number of elements validated by a group of international experts.

  1. Developing and sharing a vision that focuses on the learning of all students.

  2. Promoting and supporting continuous professional learning of all staff.

  3. Promoting team learning and collaboration among all staff.

  4. Establishing a culture of inquiry, innovation and exploration.

  5. Embedding systems for collecting and exchanging knowledge and learning.

  6. Learning with and from the external environment and larger learning system.

  7. Modelling and growing learning leadership.

An example of one of the school as learning organisation dimensions and underlying key elements is presented in the table below.

School as learning organisation dimension


Modelling and growing learning leadership

  • School leaders model learning leadership, distribute leadership and help grow other leaders, including students.

  • Leaders are pro-active and creative change agents.

  • School leaders develop the culture, structures and the conditions to facilitate professional dialogue, collaboration and knowledge exchange.

  • School leaders ensure that the organisation’s actions are consistent with its vision, goals and values.

  • School leaders ensure the school is characterised by a ‘rhythm’ of learning, change and innovation.

  • School leaders promote and participate in strong collaboration with other schools, parents, the community, higher education institutions and other partners.

  • School leaders ensure an integrated approach to responding to the learning and other needs of students.

Source: Kools, M. and L. Stoll (2016), "What makes a school a learning organisation?", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 137, OECD Publishing, Paris.

School leaders are often not able to use data effectively

The capacity of school leaders to use data and guide teachers in the use of data has become a central tenet in school improvement, especially to raise test scores and change school culture (Wayman et al., 2009). In the Netherlands, many school leaders lack this capacity (Oberon, Kohnstamm Institute and ICLON, 2014; Schildkamp and Poortman, 2015; Inspectorate of Education, 2015). In TALIS 2013, for example, 16% of Dutch principals (compared with a TALIS average of 11%) reported that they had not used student performance data to develop the school’s educational programmes (OECD, 2014). Several reports have also questioned schools’ self-evaluation capacities (Blok, Sleegers and Karsten, 2008; Janssens and De Wolf, 2009; Inspectorate of Education, 2015), and an OECD report (Nusche et al., 2014) underlined the importance of building school leaders’ capacity to evaluate their own schools.

Sustained effort is necessary to transform schools into learning organisations

MoECS has implemented several support programmes, including the recently stopped School Has the Initiative that aimed to help schools develop into learning organisations. The MoECS Developmental Model Learning Organisation was developed to support self-evaluation and improvement planning towards this purpose. MoECS could focus on other elements that are essential for a learning organisation (see Box 6.3.), expand the focus on feedback provision to other forms of collaborative learning and give more emphasis to collaboration with other schools and teacher education institutions (see Chapter 5).

There is scope for more sharing of good practice

The review team learned of many examples of strong performing schools (see for example Several of these schools participate in support programmes, such as Foundation Teacher (Box 5.2) or the Data Teams initiative of the University of Twente (Schildkamp and Poortman, 2015) in which teachers and school leaders work together to improve the quality of teaching and learning. There is much to gain from learning more about the structures and processes of high-performing schools and the work of their school leaders (Inspectorate of Education, 2014a).

Continuous professional development

A primary education school leaders register became mandatory in 2015

School leaders need to continuously upgrade their skills, not least to serve as role models for teachers to do the same (Fullan, 2014). Following the examples of Australia, Ontario (Canada) and Scotland (Schleicher, 2011; van Dijk, Gaisbauer and Scheeren, 2013) the Netherlands established a mandatory register for primary school leaders and (in 2016) a voluntary register for secondary school leaders. But these registers on their own are not sufficient and registration is disconnected from school leaders’ actual performance. Four out of ten school leaders also overestimate their own competence levels (Inspectorate of Education, 2014a). To make registration more meaningful, it could be linked with career advancement and used to hold school leaders accountable as in Australia and Scotland (Lawrence et al., 2006; Donaldson, 2010).

Many school leaders face barriers to professional development

While, in principle, school boards play a pivotal role in managing school leaders, not all school boards do so adequately in respect of professional development (Inspectorate of Education, 2014a, 2015; AVS, 2012). Although almost all Dutch principals participated in some form of professional development in the 12 months prior to the TALIS 2013 survey, training intensity was low (half the cross-country TALIS average). About one in five did not participate because it was too expensive (19.4%) and conflicted with their work schedule (20.8%), and 12% said that lack of employer support was a barrier to participation (OECD, 2014). The General Association for School leaders (AVS) says that three quarters of primary education school leaders feel they face barriers to their professional development (AVS, 2012). School boards, however, say that the weak motivation of school leaders is a barrier to professional development.

School boards need to develop their capacity to conduct and use appraisals effectively

Although school leaders’ performance partly depends on the constructive appraisal and feedback of their supervisors (Inspectorate of Education, 2014b), one in ten primary and one in five secondary school boards do not hold yearly appraisal discussions with their school leaders (Inspectorate of Education, 2014a). A large minority (38%) of school leaders say that appraisal by the school board led to no concrete measures to support their professional development (Andersen et al., 2012). The Inspectorate believes that the absence of personal development plans is often an obstacle, and many school boards may lack the skills in conducting appraisals (Inspectorate of Education, 2014a). Scotland and Ontario have developed appraisal guidance with supporting materials and instruments (OECD, 2016; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). The Netherlands has also developed an online instrument for primary school leaders (the NSA EFFECt), but not yet for leaders at the secondary level.

Recommendation 9: Develop a leadership strategy that promotes professional collaboration and a culture of continuous improvement

The leadership strategy needs to be systematic

Various initiatives have sought to strengthen school leadership in the Netherlands. But these need to be more systematic and more ambitious. The Netherlands should therefore develop a leadership strategy that includes:

  • Promotion of collaboration among school leaders, teachers and school boards and the linked development of a culture of continuous improvement. This should fit MoECS ambitions of transforming all schools into a learning organisation.

  • MoECS should consider establishing a mandatory national induction programme for school leaders, guaranteeing the quality of the induction and mentoring support. School boards should ensure that all new school leaders participate in the programme. Successful completion of the induction period could serve as a starting point for inclusion in mandatory school leadership registers (for all levels).

  • School boards should ensure annual appraisals for all school leaders – not as a bureaucratic exercise but as a practical and relevant means of facilitating professional development. Adequate training should be provided to school board members for conducting appraisals and personal development planning that is aligned to school goals.

  • The Netherlands should continue building the capacity of school leaders and leadership teams to conduct school self-evaluations. School leaders should have the capacity to: promote collaboration within and beyond the school and actively take part; establish strategic partnerships (with schools, teacher education institutions, businesses, etc.); use data and promote the use of data; and foster self-evaluation in a learning culture geared towards continuous improvement. Schools, particularly poor performing schools will need support if they are to develop into learning organisations, which is a key objective of the Teachers Agenda 2013-2020. Strong school leaders are a precondition for this to happen.


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← 1. The sector agreements describe the ambitions for the respective sectors (primary education and secondary education) for the period from 2014 to 2017. The agreements cover priorities, objectives, measures and investments.