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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Quality leadership in Australian schools

Teaching Australia

This week Curriculum Leadership publishes the second of two edited extracts from the Executive Summary of the report Teaching and leading for quality Australian schools: a review and synthesis of research-based knowledge, commissioned by Teaching Australia and produced by the University of Western Sydney.


Quality leadership in schools provides direction, involves a process of influence with intention, and is value-based and vision-driven. While it is common to equate leadership with principals and faculty heads, the research reviewed in this report recognises the variety of leadership roles within a school.

There is conclusive evidence that principals have a salient but indirect effect on student outcomes through the goals they establish and the quality of the learning environment they foster.

The leader’s role

The demands placed on school leaders are complex, multi-dimensional and sometimes contradictory. School leaders face competing expectations in their roles as managers, marketers and education leaders. These competing expectations and growing accountabilities have had an impact on the workload and professional satisfaction of school leaders and are seen to have made it increasingly hard to recruit quality leaders.

Professional practices of quality school leadership

Effective leadership is responsive to context and adaptable in the face of change. There is no particular school leadership model that works in all circumstances. Research depicts school leadership as a process of negotiating dilemmas and shows how effective teachers and principals practise leadership that is contingent, team-based and collegial.

Quality school leaders:

  • set directions by identifying and articulating a vision that creates high performance expectations
  • develop people by offering intellectual stimulation, demonstrating care for their staff and providing individual support
  • establish collaborative processes and provide opportunities for teacher-leadership, professional learning, reflection and debate
  • understand their school’s community and create strong partnerships with stakeholders, including home–school linkages
  • value and empower students by encouraging teachers and the school community to value the social and cultural capital of its students through shared decision making and support for students as leaders.

Educational leader or manager?

In the past few decades principals have had to spend an increasing proportion of their time on managerial responsibilities and addressing accountability requirements. There is agreement in the research that management and administration are core responsibilities of successful school leaders, necessary to ensure the smooth operation of a school. However, it is educational leadership that is central to the improvement of students’ social and academic outcomes. Effective school leaders are committed to improving the quality of teaching, encouraging and equipping staff to focus on student learning outcomes. The school principal does not necessarily have to be an exemplary teacher, but should ensure that the school’s main focus is an educative one.

Leadership strategies

The report identifies and describes different leadership strategies employed by school leaders and cites research evidence about their effectiveness. The strategies include:

  • instructional, pedagogical or educative leadership, where leaders assume responsibility for the professional development of teachers, the learning outcomes of students and the deployment of resources to realise these goals
  • managerial leadership, where leaders manage the key functions and tasks of schools in the same way as profit-making businesses are operated
  • transductive or transactional leadership, where the leader and follower achieve interdependent goals through a traditional ‘effort for rewards’ relationship
  • transformational leadership, which relies on the vision and charisma of the leader in the pursuit of higher-level common goals
  • interpersonal or emotional leadership, which places high value on the quality of relationships
  • moral leadership which focuses on values and beliefs to give a sense of purpose to the school
  • contingent or contextual leadership which employs a range of leadership strategies and styles depending on the issues at hand, context and the stage of school development.

Leadership organisation

Effective school leadership is organised in a variety of ways:

  • strategic leadership, where school leaders operate strategically in the interest of the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of the organisation
  • distributive, participative or democratic leadership, where leadership is distributed across people in the organisation
  • parallel leadership, where principals assume responsibility for strategic leadership and teachers have primary responsibility for instructional leadership
  • co-principalship or ‘shared principalships’, where two individuals share the principal’s role.

Promoting schools as learning organisations

Effective school leaders have expertise in building school and community capacity and collegiality. They work with and through teachers, parents and community members to develop systems and structures that promote the school as a learning organisation and improve student outcomes. Transformational and distributive leadership are effective in facilitating organisational learning.

Effective school leaders benefit from collaboration with a focus on developing the intellectual or cultural capital of their school in the form of professional dialogue within and outside the school, staff professional development, peer networking and knowledge sharing. School leaders have been positive about the benefits of mentoring and opportunities to visit schools where they could see research-based theories in action.

Vision or mission

It is increasingly an expectation of parents and the wider community that a school has a vision or mission. A vision sets out directions for the school, drawing people together around common purposes and goals and engendering confidence and enthusiasm among stakeholders. Although defined as part of core leadership practice, vision building is a highly sophisticated, dynamic process that few organisations sustain. Visions typically reflect the core values and beliefs of the formal leader, but need to be derived from the values and beliefs of all stakeholders.

Attributes and capabilities of effective leaders

Successful school leaders possess a range of personal, relational, organisational and professional attributes, plus the capacity to employ these attributes effectively in complex and changing circumstances. It is not clear to what extent the practices, attributes and capabilities of quality school leaders can be learnt, particularly given the strong value-base of many of these attributes, such as caring, innate goodness, fairness, consideration for others and honesty. On the other hand, qualities such as being a good communicator, having an inclusive style with high expectations, being hands-on and being a good decision-maker are skill-based attributes that might be more readily learned.

The personal attributes of effective school leaders include passion and commitment (particularly a desire for students’ success), and a capacity for personal reflection. Values of social justice and equity usually underpin the passion, enthusiasm, persistence and optimism of successful leaders.

The relational attributes and capabilities of effective leaders include:

  • professional support and mentorship of staff. Effective leaders use a range of strategies to encourage teachers’ efforts in innovative thinking, investing in staff development and mentoring.
  • relational trust. Effective school leaders have a trusting disposition and can model and develop trust within the school community.
  • emotional intelligence. This includes capabilities such as calmness, sense of humour, perspective, resilience, ability to make difficult decisions, conflict resolution skills and the ability to listen and contribute to the work of a team.
  • interpersonal care and integrity. Effective school leaders respect others, have good interpersonal skills and communicate well. They value and practise personal relationship skills, they know their staff’s potential and support them in achieving their goals and in times of adversity. 

Effective leaders also possess critical organisational capabilities. These include:

  • effective management skills. Management skills and knowledge are essential to  maintaining clear directions, systems, expectations and roles that support development and understanding by all stakeholders.
  • contextual awareness. Effective leaders understand the local school community and the broader economic, political and policy contexts. They are also well networked, know where to source external support and resources, and are able to balance competing priorities, decide directions and use strategies that maintain positive relationships with their school communities.
  • strategic thinking. Effective leaders balance contextual pressures for change with core school values and vision when deciding their actions, keeping the school’s long-term effectiveness and sustainability in view.
  • problem solving. Strong leaders take calculated, legitimate risks and encourage others to do so in solving problems. Research suggests that problem solving and conflict resolution skills using analytical thinking can be learnt, particularly through shared experiential learning.
  • harnessing change. Successful school leaders positively manage change to achieve the school’s longer-term goals, and maintain staff and student morale during challenging times. They accept their responsibility for student learning outcomes while maintaining a commitment to broader goals for education.

The role of leadership standards

Research shows that leadership strategies can be learnt, albeit not in single off-the-job courses, but rather through more active, enduring means such as coaching, mentoring, networking, interschool visits and reflective portfolios. Standards frameworks for leadership can be used to:

  • clarify expectations
  • offer guidance to improving practice
  • provide a basis for professional learning
  • promote the profession
  • underpin performance evaluation systems
  • assist in the recruitment, selection and credentialling of principals.

There is considerable variability between existing leadership standards frameworks in their coverage of the full range of leadership practices. There is also a lack of research evidence of the impact of leadership standards.

Key issues for future research

Research on leadership and school effectiveness has moved away from concentrating on individual leaders to focus on systems, organisations and groups. Key issues for future research therefore are how school leaders can build capacity and successful learning organisations, and the contextual structures that will optimise the process.


Subject Headings

School principals
School leadership
Educational administration