Is school leadership the answer to lifting student progress?

One of my favourite sayings is that attributed to Lao Tzu:

“The worst leader is one whom the people despise; the good leader is the one whom people obey and acclaim; but the best leader is one  whose aims are fulfilled and yet the people say ‘we did this ourselves’ “.

I was reminded of this saying when the current government in New Zealand announced a major boost to education expenditure,  focussed on improving student progress by introducing the concept of executive principals and change principals.

The Executive Principal will be expected to lead a group of 10 schools and focus on the improvements needed. There will be 250 appointments. There are 2538 schools in New Zealand. It will be interesting in the South Island with schools such a distance apart, finding ten schools that want to engage with each other!

There will be 20 Change Principals appointed. They will be appointed to schools who are judged to be struggling and whose Boards cannot afford to pay the extra money to attract an effective leader.

There are several assumptions here. How is a struggling school defined? And is a great leader  one who will be persuaded to apply only because of a possible $50,000 extra each year of the appointment? Or is there some other way of assessing great leadership potential?

I have just returned to New Zealand after five years working in education in England. Three years were spent working in local authorities, supporting schools  deemed from their examination results to be failing. The last two years were as a interim head teacher, put into a school whose results were not as they should have been. The  English experience has left me with much to reflect on.

It is my assessment that reliance on a Principal to achieve the necessary change is not the healthiest long term answer to lifting student learning.

Five years ago in England, the notion of hard and soft federations was being actively explored. These were schools who volunteered or were persuaded into a federation with another school. The hard federation included the appointment of a joint Governing Body and of an Executive head teacher/Principal. The soft federation left the governing bodies and head teachers for each school in place and provided some money to allow for collaboration etc.

These federations always needed the school that was being helped to improve to see that there was a need to improve, and that there needed to be changes. In my experience with a range of programmes, initiated from Whitehall, and actioned by the local authorities, there was normally an element of force applied within a short timeframe. So there was definitely little time allowed for  honest self analysis and acceptance. It was not unusual to see the head teacher, most members of the senior team and some pivotal Heads of Department removed and paid out. Sometimes that would have been the best way forward, but there were other ways to achieve the same result for the students.

Federations were mostly achieved with State schools within one local authority. The Labour Government had also introduced academies. Most state schools in England receive their funding from the state after a % has been taken by the local authority for a range of support.

The first set of academies replaced local authorities with local businesses and new governing bodies. These local businesses took the % that had formerly been deducted by the local authority. These first academies were the struggling schools, and in the most part they were secondary schools. And the schools were not given choice : they were academised.

When the Conservatives formed their coalition government in 2010, they expressed the desire that all schools would become academies. And there became two forms of academies. If your results were good enough your school could apply to become an academy in its own right.  And thus they gained all the money from central government and there was no % for local authorities. It was very like Tomorrow’s Schools in New Zealand. Such ‘converter academies’ became autonomous units.

But still there remained those schools deemed by their results to be failing. With an end to local authorities having much role in school improvement, there was a stronger move to private companies and continued forced academisation. In another blog I will focus on the privatisation of education in England and the development of academy chains.

All the emphasis has been put on super leaders being the answer to student progress in learning. But the model has not worked in the short term. The schools in the academy chains, mostly those forced to become academies, have not had the rapid improvement that was expected of them, despite the super leadership and the attached bigger salaries.

The strongest school head teachers that I met and worked with in England either elected to stay outside the academy chains, or to work with other schools in mutual and agreed support. I did see a few remarkable leaders of hard federations, whose salaries did not increase and who were focussed on rebuilding those schools with whom they were working into independent entities as soon as possible. But they were rare.

A culture of depending on one person to lead a school through major change, begs the question of what do you do when that head teacher/leader falls ill, wants to retire, before they have built a sustainable school that can grow without a super leader.

And when you want to build communities of ten schools with an executive principal, as with the proposed New Zealand model, there is the issue of building a consensus among ten very different schools as to which are the issues that they wish to concentrate on and who is the best to be deemed the executive principal. I can see some fun ahead between primary and secondary schools. And do early childhood groups fit into this grouping?

Can a Principal who has demonstrated success in an urban decile 8 school be just as successful in a small town low decile school, where children do not choose to come to this particular school. Smaller schools can have so many different issues. Is there just one stereotype of leader which can be applied to all the different situations. Is there just one formula for a successful school, that can be applied universally without regard for the different learning contexts?

For the New Zealand government to have put so much money into this proposal does concern me. I do see value in collaboration. And I do see value in funding such collaboration, but the money should not be so much for the leader, but for teacher release, for coaching within the schools and for the very important first steps when schools analyse their strengths and weaknesses. This model requires facilitators, not executive principals.

We need to avoid the blame game and the judgement just on results. A school with good examination results can still be a school where bullying is rife. Learning is so much more than achieving good scores at whatever level. And successful leadership is so much more than the achievement of those examination results.

In my mind a good school is one where everyone claims a role in contributing to that success, where all the talent is used, where all the talent is recognised. Those who develop and work in such environments rarely put up their hands to be super or executive principals.



One thought on “Is school leadership the answer to lifting student progress?

  1. Marian,
    Great to have you back in New Zealand with wise, experienced counsel like this. It was interesting to see how little in depth analysis there was of the issues that you raise in the media when this policy was announced. I have a sense of a big lever being applied but little focus on the usual policy thing the likely downstream unintended impacts of the policy.

    I’ve been working on a public good effort with some great people and would love to update you on it if you have time!

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