Quality leadership in Australian schools
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:
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.
The report identifies and describes different leadership strategies employed by school leaders and cites research evidence about their effectiveness. The strategies include:
Effective school leadership is organised in a variety of ways:
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:
Effective leaders also possess critical organisational capabilities. These include:
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:
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 HeadingsSchool principals