A matter of principals: great leaders lead to great schools

If you have ever pondered what it takes to be an excellent school administrator, researchers have now devised a formula for the perfect principal.

As part of their How Principals Affect Schools study, University of Melbourne economists Mike Helal and Michael Coelli rendered the elements of school leadership as a mathematical equation.

The formula seeks to calculate a principal’s impact on a school by accounting for variables such as student quality, socio-economic factors and random events like funding cuts.

The math may be complicated but the formula’s solution is simple. Coelli and Helal conclude that “the most effective principals are able to establish a coherent set of goals for the school’s workforce, to encourage professional interaction among staff, and to promote the professional development of staff.”

While the efforts of individual teachers are of utmost importance, together, these three staff management techniques are more likely to bring about an improvement to students’ academic results because “a high-quality principal can affect outcomes among all students in a school,” the researchers determined.

Dr Coelli told the Canberra Times: “It’s important that new principals are told that if you want to have these effects, particularly on literacy and numeracy, these are the kind of things you need to do,” Dr Coelli said. “Leadership is extremely important.”

This is where independent schools enjoy a distinct advantage. Being autonomous and answerable only to their own board and school community, independent schools are able to offer their principals significant professional latitude.

Principals in independent schools hire their own staff according to their school’s unique criteria to ensure the best fit between students and teachers; they shape a school’s professional development programs in consultation with individual teachers; and they enjoy the flexibility to attract and retain the best candidates from throughout Australia and overseas.

Independent school principals hold a unique managerial role combining the jobs of chief executive, human resources manager and lead educator. They are invested with an immense responsibility but are also directly accountable to schools and stakeholders.

While this may seem like a lot of eggs for just one basket, the independent sector’s emphasis on autonomy and strong leadership is not misplaced.

The 2015 School Autonomy and Student Achievement report had three key findings:

* Higher levels of school autonomy are associated with higher levels of student achievement.

* The focus of autonomy should be on professional practice.

* The most powerful evidence linking school autonomy and student achievement is seen in the work of principals to build professional capacity through staff selection, professional development and appraisal; setting priorities on the basis of data about performance; and communication of purpose, process and performance.

Independent school principals agree.

Robert Phipps, principal of the Hills Grammar School in Sydney’s Northwest wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last year: “After 40 years of experience as an educator there is no doubt in my mind that teacher quality is the single most important factor impacting student learning and development, with ongoing professional learning being the main determinant of teacher quality. While independent schools will approach staff professional development in different ways they all invest heavily in it because they know it directly improves teaching and thereby the learning outcomes of their students.”

Phillip Heath, head of Barker College, echoes those sentiments, also in the Sydney Morning Herald, saying that is the role of the principal at an independent school “to relentlessly pursue improvements in teaching and learning, to hold people accountable to their best possible selves and to help them achieve their absolute best rather than settle only for what is ‘good enough’.”

Read more:

How Principals Affect Schools – Mike Helal and Michael Coelli, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, June 2016

The formula for the perfect principal – Henrietta Cook and Craig Butt, Canberra Times, June 2, 2016 http://www.canberratimes.com.au/victoria/the-formula-for-the-perfect-school-principal-20160601-gp96ak.html

School Autonomy and Student Achievement Case Studies in Australia – Professor Emeritus Brian J Caldwell, University of Melbourne. June 11, 2015 http://educationaltransformations.com.au/wp-content/uploads/School-Autonomy-and-Student-Achievement-Australian-Cases.pdf

Professional learning the key – Robert J Phipps, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2015

The role of principals – Phillip Heath, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2015

A matter of principals: great leaders lead to great schools
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Author: Mindy Laube

Mindy Laube is a creative content specialist with a strong background in digital and print journalism gained over a 14-year career at the Sydney Morning Herald. You can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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