school background with supplies

Leadership for inclusive education

picture illustrating the differences between equality, equity, reality and liberation


By Loes van Wessum

Realizing equity in education is elusive, not all students get the same opportunities. Where you were born is still a strong predictor for school success. Students from parents with a lower social economic status and students with special educational needs don’t always get the same resources or opportunities compared to students with parents with higher social economic status. Socio- economic status has a large influence on students’ performance in science, reading and mathematics. For example, on average across OECD countries the mean science score in PISA among disadvantaged students was 88 points lower than the mean score among advantaged students. This gap is equivalent to about three full years of schooling. However, we must note that Pisa is culturally biased as it does not take into account less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives like physical, moral, civic and artistic development.

The good news is that helping disadvantaged students is possible. By transforming the entire national school system, it is possible to promote equity in school education. Especially investing in early childhood education benefits the overall development and academic performance of students. A higher public expenditure per student can reduce the student achievement differences between schools.

Providing every student with equal opportunities is not enough. Besides equality, systems and schools should also work on equity. Equality means that each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach the best possible outcome. Equity does not mean that all students obtain equal education outcomes, but rather that differences in students’ outcomes are unrelated to their background or to economic and social circumstances over which students have no control.

Institutional changes can also make a big difference in students’ lives. Children from wealthier families will find many open doors to a successful life. But children from poor families often have just one chance in life, and that is a good school that gives them an opportunity to develop their potential. The quality of teaching plays a prominent role in achieving high and equitable educational results. Realizing equity is complicated and asks a lot from teachers (see HEADstart #9 on improving equity in schools by teaming up with the educational consultant). They need to develop their capacity to identify students’ needs and to manage diversity in classrooms, to build strong links with parents, and to encourage parents to be more involved in their child’s education. Teachers can create a positive learning environment for all students (see HEADstart #3 on ensuring children´s agency in school).

Teachers cannot provide equity on their own – a community approach is needed. It takes a village to raise a child, as the proverb says. ‘’The most powerful set of practices that equity-oriented school leaders enact is to create authentic partnerships among schools, families, and communities aimed at ensuring student success’’ (Leithwood, 2021 ; see HEADstart #6 on collaborating with parents).

Leadership practices enhancing equity in education

School leaders play a pivotal role in providing learning success and wellbeing for all students. There is growing consensus among international researchers about the leadership practices that foster improvement in instruction and student learning. Successful school leaders can use five leadership practices which contribute to greater equity within schools (Leithwood, 2021). The five domains of leadership practices include 22 specific practices:

  1. Setting Directions includes Building a shared vision
    Identifying specific, shared, short-term goals; creating high-performance expectations; and communicating the vision and goals.
  2. Building Relationships and Developing People
    Stimulating growth in the professional capacities of staff; providing support and demonstrating consideration for individual staff members; modelling the school’s values and practices; building trusting relationships with and among staff, students, and parents, and establishing productive working relationships with teacher federation representatives.
  3. Designing the Organization to Support Desired Practices
    Building collaborative cultures and distributing leadership; structuring the organization to facilitate collaboration; building productive relationships with families and communities; connecting the school to its wider environment; maintaining a safe and healthy school environment and allocating resources in support of the school’s vision and goals.

  4. Improving the Instructional Program Staffing the instructional program; providing instructional support; monitoring student learning and school improvement progress; buffering staff from distractions to their work; and participating with teachers in their professional learning activities.

  5. Securing Accountability
    Building staff members sense of internal accountability and meeting the demands for external accountability.

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Leadership dispositions enhancing equity in education

There are four categories of dispositions, attributes, or personal leadership resources that help equity in schools.

  1. Cognitive resources
    These include problem-solving expertise; systems thinking; and several types of role- related and organizational improvement knowledge.
  2. Social resources, largely encompassed in most accounts of “social appraisal skills” or “emotional intelligence”.
    These include the leaders’ abilities to perceive the emotions of others, manage their own emotions, and act in emotionally appropriate ways.
  3. Psychological resources
    These include optimism and resilience, self- efficacy, and proactivity.
  4. Values and ethics
    Ethical leadership points to both personal and professional values influencing the leaders’ success, such as fairness, honesty, and integrity.

Leadership for inclusive education

School leaders can make a great difference in students’ lives. They can do so by their behaviour – using several leadership practices adapted to the context they are working in. But it’s not only about leadership behaviour, it’s also about being a leader. Successful school leaders will also use their dispositions to enhance equity in their schools. Fostering improvement in instruction and student learning is necessary for realizing equity in education and can contribute if school leaders are aware of their moral obligation and are ready to enhance equity.

Assessment for learning tool

If you wish to explore further and are interested in assessing your own strengths and the fields you need to develop as a leader, check out this tool.

Loes van Wessum (Phd)

Educational researcher Teachers and Teacher Educators in Inclusive Learning Environments at Windesheim, University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

She is co-author of the book Leading a learning school. Which questions have you asked today?

Loes van Wessum


This article was published before in HEADlight magazine September 2023.