Jennifer Clement

What good school leaders do: getting it right takes time

The role of the principal today is challenging and complex. Schools face constant change, not only in curricula and technology for example, but also as they get more power to make local decisions over things such as finances and staffing. A principal has to negotiate all of this and deal with increasing public scrutiny through the publication and comparison of high stakes test results.

I decided to look more closely at what principals do as they attempt to balance the activities needed for implementation of ‘big picture’ visions with the daily tasks that require more immediate attention. My study helps provide an insight into the qualities that help principals be effective at leading and sustaining change in their schools.

What good school leaders do

There have been lots of research studies undertaken and many papers written about what makes a good school principal. I discovered there is a broad agreement on what makes an effective school leader. I have reduced the list down to five major qualities.

Firstly principals need to be able to lead the creation of a shared vision for their school. It should have a clear moral purpose and achievable goals. School staff need to feel as though they have had a big say in what that vision is and how it will be achieved.

Secondly, principals should pay attention to the individual people they are working with. Building relationships is important. Not only should principals develop trust between each member and themselves but they should also help build a feeling of trust among staff members in general. Principals should get to know each staff member well enough to be able to help and encourage them with their teaching work.

Thirdly, they should draw on multiple sources of information to solve problems as they arise. This is not just a matter of building a network of people to go to for help or advice but to be open to looking at a wide range of data about the school and its performance. It also means principals need to be flexible enough to change school procedures and arrangements where necessary.

Fourthly principals should have a sustained focus on the core business of schooling, that is, teaching and learning.

Lastly principals need to be able to see beyond the school walls. They should understand and be able to build links with their local community. They should be aware of the political landscape within which the school and community operates.

I decided to look at how the qualities outlined above played out with two principals in two specially selected schools.

The schools were selected in consultation with the regional School Education Development Officer. Selection criteria included stable, motivated and energetic school leadership; stable, dynamic school staff; willingness to devote attention and time; and having an open attitude towards change. The research team worked with the schools from mid-2009 to the end of 2011.

Our study discovered that the principals in both schools showed ample evidence of all of the qualities mentioned above.

However the development of a shared vision proved to be the most interesting of all the components we looked at, so I will give you more details of what happened with this one. (Go to my full paper for details of findings on the other components).

 Getting a shared vision takes time

The principals’ first task in the project was to develop, in consultation with their staff, a suitable long term goal to guide their actions in the medium and short term. This process proved to be a surprisingly difficult task. In the case of the primary school, it took the project steering committee twelve months and ten meetings to arrive at their goal “to build a culture of success based on our vision of the ideal graduate, in order to better aid transition from primary to high school.” The protracted nature of the goal setting process was due in part to the need for the vision to be a shared one. As one of the staff on the committee commented:

“But I think, even the way it is delivered… hasn’t been [the principal] saying, right, we are doing this, this and this. It’s been a collaboration. What do you think about this? Let’s have a look at it. Do you want to try it? Go away, have a think, come back, let’s talk about it.”(primary steering committee teacher)

A similarly prolonged process took place in the secondary school as they worked on setting a common long term goal. After nine months and nine meetings of their steering committee they arrived at the goal “to make [this school] the school of choice”, that is, the school that parents want their children to attend after they leave primary school. Interestingly, this goal was suggested by the secondary school principal in the first meeting, however, it took nine more months for agreement to be achieved. Despite what could be seen as wasted time, the principal explained:

“…people tell me it’s a lot to do with my leadership. But it’s a lot to do with my belief that if you have people on board and going in the same path, you’ve got to give them the respect and the opportunity, and allow them to be involved in all the processes and have that openness and transparency, and that’s something I really, I believe I’ve done pretty well…Yes, something I’ve consciously worked at.”(secondary school principal)

As the project progressed the primary and secondary school teachers began to communicate with each other in more significant ways than had previously occurred. They visited each other’s schools and observed lessons, which lead to significant conversations about teaching and learning, specifically in relation to mathematics. As time progressed the teachers in both schools began to talk about shared goals in terms of teaching approaches that could be employed to provide better outcomes for students.

“Getting out to the partner primary schools has been a really positive link… I think it’s been instrumental.” (secondary school principal)

“For me the extra interaction and communication between myself, our school and the high school have been invaluable, absolutely surpassed any expectations I actually had… The communication with the high school and those networks with people that are now working not just down there and up here, but together to improve student learning outcomes.” (Primary school Year 6 teacher)

The benefits of all staff in the primary school working toward a shared goal were also recognised by a parent representative interviewed as part of the project:

“I think the staff are working quite cohesively now over the last couple of years as well, they seem to be communicating a lot better, and they’re on the same page, and they have, you know, common goals and they’re working towards the same direction… and I think that’s good… Earlier on they were a bit sort of working towards different things.”(primary school parent)

The experiences within the two school settings examined in this study exemplify the difficulties involved in developing shared goals, however, the case studies also articulate clearly the benefits of persisting with the process.

Implications for educational leaders

We found ample evidence that both principals worked actively to pursue the development of a long term goal, inclusive of their staff, albeit encouraged and assisted by the research team in this process. However, in both cases this process took considerable time and required the principals’ patience as the staff worked through various options. Ultimately the process in both schools was successful in arriving at a shared goal; however, the length of the consultation process provides a beneficial lesson for any leaders wishing to make change quickly. Given the pace of educational policy change and the increasing pace of change in society in recent times, this tension between facilitating change in an inclusive manner and imposing top-down measures is likely to continue.

The two principals also made considerable efforts to build constructive and trusting relationships with their staff. In part, the extended time taken during the goal setting process in each school was reflective of the respect that the leaders demonstrated toward their staff. Both leaders demonstrated effective communication styles that encouraged staff to feel invited to participate and provide input, knowing that it would be welcomed and considered in the process.

Despite much of their time being consumed by ‘non-teaching’ activities such as behaviour management and organisational matters, both principals were able to maintain a clear focus on issues related to the improvement of teaching and learning, although this often occurred in a tangential manner. The leaders focussed on enabling their staff to focus on teaching and learning by providing a supportive structure, guided in part by the research team. As a result the teachers became self-motivated agents of change, primarily focussed on improving student learning outcomes.

Although focussed on long term planning over a five year period, this research project examined only the first two years of the reform process. In these two years the school leaders and teachers developed long and short term goals and began the implementation process toward these goals.

Despite the subsequent withdrawal of the research team, there was evidence that the project would lead to sustainable change over a longer time period. Both the primary and the high school principals expressed a desire to continue to build on the gains made throughout the project:

“Getting out to the partner primary schools has been a really positive link, and people are looking at how we can build on that in the future, to maintain it, to continue it” (High school principal).

“Continuation of working with the high school. I’d like to see it not just with maths, but across other areas… So I can see that the stuff that we’ve started is spilling out to… the other schools, so people are wanting to come on board.” (Primary school principal)

There was also evidence that the planning process initiated in conjunction with the research team had become embedded within the schools as an important contributory component necessary for the continuation of the change process.

“I think even, you know, in the future, project or no project, those communication links will be further developed with those teachers and myself and our committee up here, which is only going to mean better outcomes for our students and bridging that transition gap from Year 6 to Year 7, which was definitely a goal for us at this end.”(Primary school Year 6 teacher)

This study has focussed on the process of long term change from the perspective of the school leaders and teachers involved in the process. We have not measured the resulting impact on student achievement, however, there were encouraging signs that the teachers and principals involved placed student learning outcomes at the centre of their reform efforts and were determined to continue the change process:

“We both have the same goal and the same aim i.e. the betterment of our students and their learning and supporting other students, which we’re talking a lot more than what we were… “(Primary school Year 6 teacher)

It appeared that the existence of a clear common purpose between high school and primary school teachers, with a focus on improved student learning outcomes, had energised the reform efforts occurring in each school, lending momentum to the continuation of the collaborative process.

“It would have to be the communication with the high school and those networks with people that are now working not just down there and up here, but together to improve student learning outcomes.” (Primary school Year 6 teacher)

If we are to understand how school leaders can best act to improve student learning then more long term research is needed. This study demonstrates that the pace of authentic school reform can be frustratingly slow and that progress toward long term goals can be sidetracked in response to changing government policies or community concerns.

School leaders must be able maintain a clear focus on long term goals, in order to manage the competing demands, while encouraging their staff to do the same. This is not an easy task.


This blog is based on the paper  The complex task of leading educational change in schools   by Kathryn Holmes, Jennifer Clement and James Albright. It was the most read paper in ‘School Leadership and Management” in 2014 and is included in the Class of 2015 series of articles, available free for all of 2015

Kath Holmes


Dr Kathryn Holmes is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. She is currently the Co-editor of the international journal ‘Teaching and Teacher Education’.