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The Centre for Educational Leadership Perspectives are opinion pieces that highlight current and topical educational leadership matters. Our professional experts write candidly about their views and offer a fresh perspective on today’s educational leadership challenges. Occasionally, other faculty members contribute.

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Changes to Principalship signal major changes to the way New Zealand schools operate - Good news or bad?

Posted on
Wednesday, January 1, 2014 - 09:35

John Key has just announced some sweeping changes in educational leadership positions in our schools.  Four new positions are to be created.  I will briefly comment on the two principal positions.

The 250 Executive Principal positions signal a major shift in New Zealand education; they create a layer between the school principal and the Ministry of Education that has never before existed in this country. It essentially means that principals will have a ‘boss’ beyond their board chair; a professional leader responsible for the performance of a group of ten schools.  This is revolutionary – not because it creates a new layer of leadership, because most Western countries have this in some form – but because the position is of a practising principal and that it is a two-year fixed term position. 

As with all these new positions, the devil will be in the detail but potentially this is ground breaking in New Zealand in a number of ways.  Firstly, it offers another career step for principals who are already excellent in their own schools and seeking new challenges, without removing them from the schooling sector to, for example, overseas positions or alternative options such as self-employment.  Cathy Wylie from the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, and others, having been calling for this type of structure for many years.  Secondly, the need to apply for the position on a two-yearly basis means reappointment can be made on the basis of performance. 

As with any change, there are a lot of potential risks and details to be worked through. One obvious question is what impact will these positions have on school governance in our system?  Currently a principal answers to his or her board.  Do they now effectively answer professionally to the Executive Principal as well?  How can they not?  If these Executive Principals want to be re-appointed, they need to show their ability to lift performance across the schools. That implies that the schools have to work closely as a community of professionals, which is great, but will the Executive Principals have the degree of influence they need to do that?  Obviously the intent is that they do.  It is very challenging work indeed to effectively lead a network of schools. This is a skill set that not many people will have.  If the intent is that ten schools act as a community of schools, there will be many principals who will not be keen to lose their current degree of autonomy.  Overall, however, I think this position provides an incredible opportunity for the New Zealand principal-leadership community. 

The second new principals’ position is that of Change Principal.  I absolutely applaud the intent of this move.  Currently, we usually see our most inexperienced principals appointed to our highest risk schools.  I have long advocated for any school having a history of performance issues to be ‘red-flagged’ by the Ministry and to go into a special system where the Ministry appoints a very experienced and successful principal to go in as change agent.  Many new principals ‘fall over’ in their first role because of the risks inherent in the position, not because of their own failings (e.g., long histories of governance, community or staff dysfunction).  The same old solutions are not what is needed; this position signals the right kind of shift.  Congratulations to those brave enough to make this call. 

So, from my point of view these are very positive moves.  There are risks, of course.  When are there not?  Overall, however, these positions present exciting opportunities.