Education and Skills

Why good management is key to school performance

Nick Bloom
Professor of Economics, Stanford University
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Surely the only thing more painful than teaching a Friday afternoon maths class to restless teenagers is subjecting teachers to ‘learnings’ in management gobbledygook from a pimply consultant straight from university.

But hot air aside, can better management in schools really improve life for pupils, parents, and teachers? Recent evidence suggests that this might be the case. For example, randomised control trials have shown that ‘no excuses’ US charter schools in urban areas appear to causally generate significant improvements in pupil performance (e.g. Abdulkadiroglu et al. 2011), and that the distinctive management practices adopted in these schools can be imported successfully into regular public schools (e.g. Fryer 2014 on Houston public schools).

Over the past decade, we have been measuring management quality in several thousands of organisations around the world. Most recently, we also have looked at secondary schools (those educating 15-year-olds and others) in eight countries: Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Sweden, the UK, and the US (Bloom et al. 2014). We focused on many of the practices used in high performance schools, such as effectively using data for monitoring and teaching, setting sensible targets, and basing teacher advancement on performance rather than just years of service. After interviewing more than 1,800 head teachers to evaluate the quality of school management, some surprising results are emerging [RB1] .

Management quality and pupil performance

First, we find that our measures of management quality are strongly correlated with pupil performance. For example, in England, improving the management quality of a school from the bottom 10% to the top 10% is linked with an 18% increase in high-stakes exams at 16 (GCSEs) and a 3% increase in ‘contextual value added’ – the improvement that children make in schools (corrected for socio-economic status).  At face value, this appears a much stronger relationship than class size or competition. We cannot rule out that there is something else we haven’t measured, but the link between management and pupil exam results remains after taking account of a host of other factors.

Second, UK and Swedish schools head the rankings of school management, followed by North America. Other European nations (Germany and Italy) follow below with, unsurprisingly, emerging economies like Brazil and India doing least well (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. Average management scores in schools by country

Source: Bloom et al. (2014).
Notes: 1,851 secondary schools (defined as those teaching 15-year-olds). Controls include number of students, pupil/teacher ratio, school type (autonomous government, private, regular government), curriculum type (academic, vocational), and interview noise controls.

Autonomous schools have better management

Third, it seems that autonomous government schools do better on their management scores than other schools. In England, for example, autonomous schools include academies, foundation schools, and voluntary-aided schools. In the US, such schools would include charter and magnet schools. This difference does not emerge because autonomous schools are just private schools that can cherry-pick their intake. In terms of management, autonomous government schools actually outperform private schools. What’s more, the difference between autonomous government schools and other types of schools does not seem to reflect differences in composition of pupils, school structure, location, or the obvious characteristics of head teachers such as gender or tenure.

The importance of accountability

So why are some schools so much better managed than others? The critical factor in management success is governance and leadership. If there is strong accountability to the local governing body, this is a great marker of excellent management. Also, head teachers who have established a coherent long-term strategy – and communicated it effectively to their staff and the wider school community – unlock better management overall.

These findings suggest that reforms to education in England and Sweden over the last 20 years – focused on improving head teachers’ autonomy and driving up managerial standards – have not been as misguided as they sometimes seem. But they also suggest a strong note of caution. Autonomy is valuable but it is not enough by itself. The talents of teachers and school leaders – and strong accountability to local governors – are also needed to improve management quality and, ultimately, school performance.

This is a summarised version of Bloom et al. (2014).

To see more results of the study, download data, and benchmark your organisation see


Abdulkadiroglu, A, J D Angrist, S M Dynarski, T J Kane, and P A Pathak (2011), “Accountability and Flexibility in Public Schools: Evidence from Boston’s Charters And Pilots”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 126(2): 699–748.

Bloom, N, R Lemos, R Sadun, and J Van Reenen (2014), “Does Management Matter in Schools?”, Centre for Economic Performance Discussion Paper 1312.

Fryer, R G (2014), “Injecting Charter School Best Practices into Traditional Public Schools: Evidence from Field Experiments”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, forthcoming.

This article is published in collaboration with VoxEU. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Nick Bloom is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Stanford University, having previously worked at the Centre for Economic Performance, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Renate Lemos is a writer for VoxEU. Raffaella Sadun is Assistant Professor in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School. John Van Reenen is a Professor in the Department of Economics and Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.

Image: Students sit for an exam at the French Louis Pasteur Lycee in Strasbourg, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Vincent Kessle

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