Research about effective and successful school leadership has a relatively short history in Australasia. For example, in our reviews of successful school leadership in Australia (Gurr, 2008, 2009, 2012; Gurr et al., 2010) we describe how substantial research in the area has a fifty-year history, and a predominate focus on principals. The 1960s saw research and teaching on educational administration emerge, particularly fuelled by the work of Walker and colleagues at the University of New England, and Bassett and colleagues at the University of Queensland. This work relied on overseas research and a somewhat unsophisticated view of school leadership, with the overwhelming view that this resided in the male head of a school, in an individualistic and positional pursuit to influence others to improve: effectiveness and success tentatively meant ‘[a] good school has good staff … Given a reasonable basis on which to work, the headmaster can create a good staff’ (Bassett et al., 1967: 3); ‘[e]ven if he [the headmaster] (sic) already has a good school, he can look forward to leading an infinitely better one’ (Bassett et al., 1967: 32).
In the following decade, research and writing remained largely focused on principal leadership, but there continued to be a lack of major Australian research. This changed with the project titled ‘The Australian School Principal: A National Study’ (see Duignan et al., 1985), a study that heralded a thirty-year interest in exploring successful Australian school leadership. Using interviews with principals, parents, teachers and students from government and non-government schools in all Australian states and territories, a survey administered to 1,600 principals and fourteen case studies of highly effective schools from across Australia, it was the first major study in Australia to explore principal leadership and effectiveness, and presented a model relating principal personal and professional qualities (including leadership) and the nature of their work to improving teaching practice, and indirectly, student learning outcomes. In the ensuing years there have been many more contributions such as the following.
A large survey-based study exploring leadership, organizational learning and student outcomes – Leadership for Organisational Learning and Student Outcomes (LOLSO) (Mulford & Silins, 2003; Mulford et al., 2004).
Many small-scale case studies of successful principal leadership such as exploring innovation and success (Dimmock & O’Donoghue, 1997), market-centred leadership (Drysdale, 2001, 2002) and leadership of a successful Christian school (Twelves, 2005).
An extensive and ongoing school improvement project that has developed a framework for establishing professional learning communities to improve school outcomes – IDEAS (e.g. Crowtherr et al., 2009; Lewis & Andrews, 2007).
Research focused on describing successful Australian practice within a world focus (e.g. Caldwell & Harris, 2008), or principals writing about what they do (Anderson & Cawsey, 2008; Fleming & Kleinhenz, 2007; James, 2012).
Exploration of middle-level leadership through case studies of fifty Australian secondary school subject departments and cross-school programmes – An Exceptional Schooling Outcomes Project (AESOP) (Dinham, 2005, 2007).
Publication and distribution to all Australian schools of a book of seventeen stories about the exhilaration of being a principal (Duignan & Gurr, 2007a).
For this chapter we focus on the last three contributions to describe a collection of research that provides a description of the practice of good leadership in Australia and New Zealand. We begin by describing in some detail findings from the cases from the Australian group associated with the ISSPP (the ISLDN is still at an early stage although some exploratory research is described in Gurr et al., 2014 ), before exploring a summary of findings of the cases from the New Zealand ISSPP group. The focus on principals concludes with an exploration of the work of successful principals described in Leading Australia’s Schools (Duignan & Gurr, 2007a ). The chapter ends by broadening the focus of leadership with a discussion of research on successful middle-level leaders in Australian schools. It is not meant to be an exhaustive review of research in Australasia, and while the selections are somewhat eclectic and predominantly Australian, they serve to provide illustrations of effective and successful leadership to complement the chapter on leadership development in Australia by Clarke and Wildy contained in this book (Chapter 3).
Some history of the ISSPP is needed to locate the importance of this project within the broader educational leadership research landscape. The ISSPP (
) began in 2001, and was established to address the need to better understand how principals contribute to school success. The aim was to examine the characteristics and practices used by successful school principals across countries. With more than twenty countries now involved, it has been a productive research project accumulating more than 100 case studies of the leadership of successful schools and producing many publications including four project books, seven special journal issues and more than 100 chapters or journal articles. It is most likely the largest international educational leadership project ever undertaken. Apart from being involved in the leadership of this project from its early stages, our research involvement has been through the production of cases studies from Victoria, Indonesia and Singapore in association with several graduate research students, and collaborating with Bill Mulford as he produced case studies and conducted a principal and teacher survey in Tasmania (see summaries of this work in Mulford & Edmunds, 2009; Mulford et al., 2009).
The ISSPP established early the protocols to conduct the multiple perspective case studies. Primary data are collected through semi-structured interviews using a standard protocol conducted with the principal (multiple interviews), teachers (individual and group interviews), parents (group interviews), students (group interviews) and members of the school board or council. Secondary data are collected through school documents, minutes of meetings, press reports, school websites, researcher ethnographic notes and so forth. For later case studies, observation of the work of the principal, and of the life of the school, are also included.
Schools were selected using one or more of the following: student learning performance above expectations on standardized tests; reputation of the principal (typically gathered through discussion with system leaders); and other indicators of site-specific success such as school inspection reports.
Having selected the schools, the researchers set about determining the extent that participants in the study could identify and confirm the principal’s contribution to the school’s success, and identify what participants thought were the characteristics and qualities of the principals that helped them to contribute to that success. Fourteen case studies were conducted in the states of Victoria and Tasmania between 2003 and 2005. The five case studies in Tasmania were conducted under the leadership of Bill Mulford, and the nine cases from Victoria were conducted under the supervision of David Gurr and Lawrie Drysdale. Three of the schools in Victoria have been subsequently revisited, with these studies including observation of practice (Drysdale et al., 2011).
Initially the researchers focused on ‘success’ rather than ‘effectiveness’ because success was seen to be a more inclusive and broader concept. It was felt that success would provide another dimension that was not included in previous definitions of effectiveness, which had focused on student achievement within a narrowly defined curriculum. Sergiovanni (1991) had previously noted that ‘successful’ should be used because it communicated a broader definition of effectiveness. In order to better understand success we wanted to investigate perceptions of success at the school level and explore the contribution of the principal to that success.
A key finding was the difference in the definition of success of the participants in schools compared with the more narrow definition adopted by the researchers; almost universally, participants outlined a broader definition of success than the researchers. Typically school success was defined as school achievements and milestones, improved student outcomes in a range of areas, whole school improvement, and the provision of services, resources and amenities. While these success factors were common, schools also defined success in their own terms and within their specific context. Examples of success included: achieving individual potential; student engagement; self-confidence and self-direction; sense of identity; sense of community and belonging; positive school staff morale; a positive school culture; a focus on the whole child; prizes and rewards; and reputation in the community.
Principals made a difference and contributed to success by being a positive influence on the quality of the education in their school (Gurr et al., 2005, 2006). The contribution was manifest in aspects such as improving the image of the school, setting new direction through a common vision, establishing high expectations, building school capacity (especially in regard to staff development), reorganizing the school, and focusing on improving teaching and learning. In most cases the school community identified the principal as the ‘engine room’ of school improvement and change, and were able to identify milestones and achievements directly attributable to the principal.
From these cases we explore five common features of the leadership of these successful school principals: values and beliefs; qualities; skills; interventions/practices; and capacity building. The first three features (values, qualities and skills) are to do with principal identity. These were personal characteristics attributed by participants to the principal that shaped their perception of positive leadership, which enabled the principals to influence and have impact. The other aspects were more to do with what principals did – the practices and interventions that led to success and how they built the capacity of staff to enable success.
Sergiovanni (1991) noted that style itself is less important than what the principal stands for, believes in and communicates to others. This was clearly one of the key findings from the Australian case studies. Initially we categorized this as the principal’s personal philosophy (Gurr & Drysdale, 2007). Subsequently we have defined this as values and beliefs (Drysdale & Gurr, 2011). The principals were able to clearly articulate their values and were observed to act in accordance with their values; they embodied or modelled what they believed. The values were perceived on multiple levels. For example, they expressed core values, such as respect for others, fairness, trustworthiness and responsibility. But they also had universal values, such as social justice, dignity and freedom, empathy for the less well off, compassion and tolerance. Other levels included professional values and beliefs (service to staff, acceptance of diversity, accepting constructive feedback from others, maintaining confidentiality) and social and political values (respect for life and the environment, respect for minority rights, respect for the law).
It was obvious from the interviews with participants that successful leaders were attributed qualities and traits that helped to define their leadership. Gurr et al. (2006) found that particular personal qualities and characteristics seemed important for the success of the leadership of principals, and Belchetz & Leithwood (2007) noted these features were important, not so much for what leaders do, but for how they do it. Traits found in the Australian research included passion, optimism, enthusiasm, persistence, determination and assertiveness, and principals were described by interviewees as visionary, inspirational, authentic, collaborative, courageous, having integrity, resilient and intuitive (Gurr et al., 2006).
Successful principals demonstrated a set of skills that enabled them to align people in collective purpose, empower people to act, push through change and initiate new approaches, remove blockages, provide a clear vision for the future, establish good relationships with a range of stakeholders, and develop strong support networks and alliances. They showed highly developed skills in planning, team building, organizational management, communication, coaching, problem solving, decision making, sensitivity to others, and developing self and others.
Values, qualities and skills are only part of the equation. Who they are is important but significantly what they do and how they do it also determines their success. We have found that successful principals used particular kinds of influence and intervention strategies to improve outcomes such as ‘enhancing the school and professional capacity of teachers, improving the quality of instruction, redesigning the curriculum, building social capital, and providing a safe and secure environment’ (Drysdale, 2011: 454).
Leithwood and Riehl (2005) labelled these interventions as practices. They identified three practices: setting direction, developing people and redesigning the organization, and in later publications (e.g. Leithwood et al., 2006) this list was expanded to include managing teaching and learning. Our ISSPP research confirmed these four key practices and added three additional ones – self-leadership, influencing and understanding the broader context. Principals demonstrated self-leadership by being able to understand themselves to maintain and improve their own effectiveness and overall performance. They showed evidence of personal motivation, self-direction and emotional maturity in order to reflect on, monitor and improve their cognition and behaviour. In respect to the broader context, successful leaders were able to make sense of the changes in the internal and external environment. They were aware of international and national trends and were able to navigate the uncertain terrain by being adaptive and learning from their practice and experience to ensure school success. Finally, they were effective influencers. They were able to build coalitions and establish alliances. They built productive relationships and networks using a range of influence techniques and strategies. The principals acted purposefully and strategically. They engaged in a series of interventions that reflected the contexts and the needs of their schools (Gurr & Drysdale, 2007: 45).
In producing an initial model of successful leadership, Gurr et al. (2006) identified ‘capacity building’ to be a common intervention to improve student learning across the cases, and this has featured in our subsequent revisions of our model of successful school leadership as we have gone back to several schools to explore the sustainability of success (e.g. Drysdale & Gurr, 2011). The latter model also lends itself to interpretation of leadership influence broadly and helps locate the work of principals and other leaders in schools. In this model we conceptualize leadership as influencing student outcomes through interventions in teaching and learning (Level 1), school capacity building (Level 2) and external influences (Level 3). Level 1 interventions are focused on improving curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and reporting, and have the most impact on student outcomes. This is the area in which many middle-level leaders operate. Level 2 interventions are focused on school capacity building (individual, professional, organizational and community capacity building). Level 2 interventions have a more indirect impact on student outcomes, and principals and other senior leaders typically operate at this level. Level 3 involves the external influences on schools. In this, principals, and occasionally other school leaders, are responsive to the many external influences on schools, and sometimes are able to shape these influences by, for example, contributing to district and system level policy development, and being involved in networks and professional associations.
Led by Ross Notman, the ISSPP group in New Zealand has contributed thirteen cases to the ISSPP including one specialist school, one early childhood centre, one intermediate school, six primary schools and four secondary schools. The early childhood example is the only one in all of the ISSPP cases. Findings from an initial six cases were published in Notman and Henry (2009, 2011) and Notman (2012), a further seven cases were published in a ten-case edited book (Notman, 2011a) and one final additional case (Notman, 2014) contributed to the fourth book of the ISSPP (Day & Gurr, 2014). The selection process and case study methodology adhered to that previously described for the ISSPP, with leadership success denoted in the main through positive school inspection reports (particularly in regard to the leadership and management of the principal), and the acknowledgement by professional peers of their leadership success.
From the initial six cases, the following findings emerged in regard to the ‘influential components of a principal’s successful leadership and their capacity to maintain that success’ (Notman & Henry, 2011: 377):
– these included having previous life experiences that enhanced their leadership, a passion for education, demonstrating pride and self-belief in school and community, a high work ethic, a high level of resilience and being able to portray the human face of leadership.
– included management skills developed before becoming a principal, use of communication skills to build positive connections and consultation with the school community, knowing when to lead and when to let others lead, expert use of a variety of decision making processes, critical self-reflection and interpersonal connectedness.
– these included establishing shared vision and purpose, focusing on student achievement for all students, continuous school improvement, consulting with teachers and the community, employment of quality and supportive staff, developing a strong senior leadership team, personnel support systems, integration of different cultures and fostering cultural diversity and inclusiveness, growing other leaders through delegation and shared decision making and having one’s ‘fingers on the pulse’ of events in the life of a school.
– this was supported by developing collaborative leadership, adopting a contingent leadership approach that addresses external influences on the school and good intrapersonal leadership that focuses on a principal’s self-awareness and self-management.
In Notman’s (2011b) synthesis of the ten cases in the book Successful Educational Leadership in New Zealand: Case studies of schools and an early childhood centre (Notman, 2011a) he used the term ‘pedagogical leadership’ to describe the core focus of the principals’ work. This included a vision for teaching and learning that aims to increase student achievement, an orientation to the possibilities and opportunities rather than the limitations of government curriculum mandates, fostering staff collaboration through stimulating learning conversations among staff, encouraging explicit sharing of pedagogical strategies and the use of assessment data to guide student learning programmes, and, in the early childhood and primary settings, building school–parent partnerships to support children’s learning. Notman went on to describe how these leaders exhibit a range of common leadership strategies that included:
The leaders were people-centred, and were good at developing relationships, modelling appropriate behaviour and establishing relational trust. They could articulate their core beliefs and values and demonstrate these through their actions. Critical self-reflection, personal resilience and demonstrating a range of interpersonal skills that involved and acknowledged others were important elements of their successful practice (Notman, 2012).
Leading Australia’s Schools (Duignan & Gurr, 2007a ) is a book of seventeen empirical stories about the exhilaration of being a principal, with all the principals being highly regarded and successful school leaders nominated by their peers in the Australian Council of Educational Leaders (ACEL). Unlike the ISSPP, this is a book about principals reflecting on their work. Case study writers (esteemed educators nominated within ACEL) were engaged to interview the principals and prepare a chapter that described their work, particularly focusing on the sustaining aspects of being a principal. Partly sponsored by the Australian federal government, the book was distributed to all Australian schools.
Drawing on descriptions from the first chapter (Gurr & Duignan, 2007), some of the aspects of the work of these successful principals can be described. Principals make a difference to the lives of students, as they can help lift a school to extraordinary heights where students are able to perform at a level higher than would normally be expected. Tony Considine at Thursday Island High School in the Torres Strait, and John Fleming at Bellfield Primary School in Melbourne, showed that it does not matter what level of disadvantage exists in a community, students can be provided with a school environment that allows them to be the equal of any. Under the guidance of expert principals, schools can be inviting, exciting, purposeful and humane places that students want to go to. As Lynne Hinton from Buranda commented: ‘Our kids enjoy coming to school. But more than that, there is a real sense of purpose about what the kids are doing. A sense that they are here for a reason, and that is to learn.’ Principals provide support, advice and a warm smile for parents and they often influence the wider community. The story of Rhonda Brain described how she extended her influence outside of her school and improved literacy in the surrounding rural community. These principals’ work is complex and Jodee Wilson used the term ‘chaos’ to describe her work. She saw herself as a human resource facilitator, an educational expert and a symbolic chief, while at the same time making sure her school operated smoothly. Sister Geraldine, the principal at a small Western Australian Catholic school for young teenage girls experiencing serious behavioural and emotional issues, described her multiple roles as spiritual head, social worker and educational leader. Yet despite the demands of these multiple roles and sustaining a small special-setting school, Sister Geraldine saw her work as a privilege:
It’s a privilege to be trusted by them [the students] and work with them to get the best outcomes. It’s a privilege to see them grow day by day at school, to see them improve their behaviour outside school, to see their life in the family improve, to see conflict replaced by harmony. It’s a privilege to help them live their lives more fully the way God wants them to live – to reach a greater fullness of life. That is the biggest reward.
It is a job with many tensions and dilemmas that need to be balanced. For example, Mark Doecke at Yirara College in Alice Springs explained the tensions involved in connecting with the school community, and how the clearly-expressed school values and beliefs helped resolve these:
One of my hopes for the college is that Aboriginal people will feel free to visit, chat, perhaps offer their services for some paid or unpaid work, and that we can accommodate that, as inconvenient as it may be. Yes, there will be tensions. For example, the needs of family versus the needs for education for the right behaviour. But let us not flee from those tensions, but deal with them in a spirit of openness and love, without compromising our values and beliefs. For it is our strong values and beliefs that are our strength.
Fundamentally though, being a principal is an exhilarating job, one full of possibilities and hope, one that few of us can do, but which, when done well, is one of the most satisfying of all. As John Fleming said: ‘I love my job, I love it. It is not all hard work and drudgery, and “how am I going to get through it?” It is actually exhilarating.’
The last chapter in the book (Duignan & Gurr, 2007b) provides a synthesis of the seventeen stories. To construct this, an initial thematic analysis was conducted by Gurr, looking for the big ideas that were being described. Two educational leadership graduate classes were invited to do the same and the analyses compared, with a final thematic review by Duignan, resulting in the production of the chapter. Duignan and Gurr (2007b: 158–64) found that these successful principals had:
These individuals demonstrated an orientation to life and work that helped them to be successful as a principal (e.g. use of self-reflection, clear values, love of people), a love of and for learning, a strong sense of moral purpose for what they do, and an unwavering hope for a better future.
In Australia, there have been several examples of research on middle-level leadership (see Gurr & Drysdale, 2013), and of the leadership of those in more senior roles such as assistant principals or heads of campus (Cranston, 2009 provides a summary of much of this research). Here we explore one research project focused on exceptional middle-level leaders who were heads of curriculum and support areas at the secondary school level, and then relate this to research that highlights the issues for those middle-level leaders that may not be as successful.
In what was termed An Exceptional Schooling Outcomes Project (AESOP), Dinham (2005, 2007, 2008) made a substantial contribution through exploring the impact on student learning of the leadership of fifty subject departments and cross-school programmes (e.g. student welfare) across thirty-eight secondary (years 7 to 12) and central schools (K to 10). All schools were able to demonstrate exceptional student outcomes in years 7 to 10 over at least a four-year period. Outcomes included academic, personal and social, with schools and leaders selected on the basis of public examination results, value-adding measures and nominations from parent groups, principals and system officers. Multiple-perspective interviews were used involving the principal, headteacher/leader of the outstanding department/programme, staff group forum, student forum, parent forum, classroom observation and document analysis. Principal leadership (Dinham, 2005), and leadership of the heads of department/programmes (Dinham, 2007) were both important for student success. The middle-level leaders were found to promote success through:
The support and encouragement of principals was important for the success of these middle-level leaders and Dinham (2005) describes how principals were able to foster exceptional achievement through adopting an outward focus and creating important external networks, having a bias towards innovation and action, having high expectations, maintaining a pleasant school environment, developing a culture of continuous improvement, promoting professional learning and the development of leadership skills, developing a common purpose to unite staff, encouraging staff collaboration, focusing on student welfare to support student’s learning, and, above all, focusing their work on students, learning and teaching.
Gurr and Drysdale (2013) reviewed the research of three of their doctoral students – Cotter (2011), Keane (2010) and White (2000). These studies, similar to Dinham’s research but without the criteria for leadership success, used multiple-perspective interviews of the work of school leaders with curriculum leadership roles, and showed that their work is heavily dependent on how their roles are constructed and the capacities, abilities and attitudes of the leaders. Some are expected to be leaders that influence teaching and learning, and they may be developed and supported to do so. Too often, however, teachers in these key roles have few expectations or opportunities to exercise leadership. While many have the capacity to be leaders of teaching and learning, others are not sure about their ability to influence teaching and learning. Keane (2010: 153) captured some of the issues well when he stated:
…[middle level] leadership is complex and multi-dimensional and is seen to be central to improvement in student learning outcomes. Their complex role includes the kinds of leadership that is exercised by principals and the senior management team, and yet the learning area leaders often receive inadequate preparation and little time to carry out their role. Moreover they are often removed from discussions about whole school policy and development.
Taken together, these two examples of research on middle-level leaders show that while middle-level leaders have the potential to make a significant impact on school and student improvement, far too often this potential is unrealized. Lack of understanding and organizational support by senior leaders, lack of professional preparation and leadership development by individual middle-level leaders, and underdeveloped professional knowledge and capability contribute to a missed opportunity to make a difference in schools. Middle-level leadership can be enhanced by focusing on opportunities for quality professional learning and leadership development in building professional knowledge and practice in teaching, curriculum, assessment and student learning, and also in helping with developing strategies for building school capacity.
The study of successful school leadership is a relatively recent phenomenon in Australasia (Gurr, 2009 ) and has been focused in the main on principals (e.g. Duignan & Gurr, 2007a ; Gurr et al., 2006; Notman, 2011a), albeit with emerging research interest in senior leaders (e.g. Cranston, 2009), middle-level leaders (e.g. Dinham, 2007; Gurr & Drysdale, 2013) and teacher leaders (e.g. Crowther et al., 2009). Beginning in the 1960s the study of school leadership tended to reflect the historical context of the times. In the 1960s and 1970s the focus was on supervision, and in the 1980s and 1990s it was school effectiveness and instructional leadership. From the 2000s the focus has been on success, student outcomes and the complexity of school leadership in a rapidly changing environment. This historical perspective provides a valuable insight into successful and effective leadership. In the 1960s and 1970s a good school had good staff. Good leadership was about creating a good staff (e.g. Bassett et al., 1967). In the 1980s and 1990s leadership of successful or effective schools focused on improving teaching and learning and, indirectly, student outcomes (e.g. Beare et al., 1989). Since then the features of successful school leaders have broadened, as illustrated in the ISSPP studies in Australia and New Zealand. The distinction between successful and effective is not something that has been given much consideration, although in the ISSPP research, indicators of success were used as a way of broadening the more narrow effectiveness focus of previous research, and when participants in this research were questioned about school success, their definition was broader again. The stories of successful school principals by Duignan and Gurr (2007a) attest to a broader definition of successful leadership and successful schools than previously reported. There is also evidence that successful middle-level leadership can foster a range of positive outcomes that include, but go beyond, improving teaching and learning (e.g. Dinham, 2007; Gurr & Drysdale, 2013).
The many cases touched upon in this chapter illustrate the importance of the work of principals. The participants in the studies of successful principals in the ISSPP clearly described their principals as being important for their schools. From this multiple perspective research, and the principal perspective research in Leading Australia’s Schools (Duignan & Gurr, 2007a), the contribution to school success by principals is through: holding beliefs and attitudes that encourage success for all, such as having high expectations of themselves and others, valuing all, having a ‘can do’ attitude and so forth; establishing, communicating and developing a shared vision; developing the capacities of the teachers, with this perhaps best thought of as the establishment of a performance and development culture; inclusive leadership that engages others in the work of school leadership; culturally responsive leadership that fosters community engagement; an ability to understand, respond to, and influence context; knowledge of, and experience in, implementing a range of interventions/practices that improve teaching and learning; and acquiring, developing and using a range of personal and interpersonal qualities that promote success for all. The research on middle-level leadership supports these characteristics, but has a greater focus on improving teacher practice directly and advocating for particular sections within a school, and less focus on whole-school change. The characteristics of principal and middle-level leadership support summaries of leadership practice such as the setting of direction, developing people, developing the school and improving the teaching and learning dimensions of Leithwood (e.g. Leithwood, et al., 2006), but they go beyond these summaries to provide a more complex and nuanced understanding of leadership. It is difficult to describe successful leadership without taking this more complex approach, and so the importance of continuing to do in-depth case study research remains.
One thing that is clear is that principal leadership, and leadership in general, contributes to success and effectiveness however these are defined. What leaders do is important for building success. They engage in key practices or interventions that help to build success whether or not this has a direct or indirect impact on student learning. However, the studies also show that what helps to underpin success are the values, qualities, personal traits, characteristics and skills of the leaders themselves. It is the interplay of what the leader brings to the situation and the context itself. Contributions to success will be played out through this interaction.