There are some things that we instinctively think we know. For example, parents looking for the right school for their child might decide partly on intangible factors – they might like the ‘feel’ of a school during an open day.
If you ask them later how they knew they’d made the right decision, they might struggle to give an entirely rational explanation. They might have considered a lot of factors, but in the end they simply trusted their instincts.
Similarly, we might think we know what makes a great school principal, even if we can’t list all the characteristics, skills and attributes that make them great. Yet we instinctively know that a great principal will have an impact that ultimately leads to good outcomes for students.
Now, researchers at the University of Melbourne have given us a scientific basis for what we might intuitively believe. In a recent paper, Mike Helal and Michael Coelli set out to map the paths that principals might follow to reach the goal of enhanced student achievement. They come up with a complex mathematical formula that might be indecipherable to most of us.
Yet what it amounts to, in plain English, is this: effective principals can have a direct impact on student results if they set goals that are shared by school staff, encourage interaction between staff, and promote professional learning of staff.
Their research provides further evidence, if it was needed, of the importance of leadership in affecting student outcomes. This, the researchers say, ‘is as important as the current focus on the role of teachers, since a high-quality principal can affect outcomes among all students in a school’.
They go on to say: ‘Our estimates imply that principals who effectively raise student achievement are those who enhance their teaching staff’s sense of goal congruence as well as their level of professional interaction and professional growth. School morale also improved, but there is the possibility that this increase is a result of improving student achievement rather than the cause.’
The research used data from test scores from Victorian government primary schools, yet it’s safe to say that its conclusions have wider relevance. It’s also safe to say, in this case at least, that what we intuitively know has a rational basis.
The qualities highlighted by this research confirm and reinforce the importance Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) places on helping develop the leadership skills of principals. These skills might not be the only factors in improving student performance, but clearly the influence of a great principal flows through an entire school, reaching into every classroom.
That’s why the professional learning programs and other services offered by ISV include a strong emphasis on supporting principals and school leaders.
These programs assist principals throughout their careers, offering different levels of learning depending on what stage they have reached.
Each year we run a New Principals Program, which aims to help new principals clarify their purpose so that they can pursue the vision of the school they want to create and set the goals they want to reach.
Through the Southern Cross program, we help school leaders put their strategy and vision into action. The practical program focuses on process and performance management to align a school’s vision with operations to improve efficiency, effectiveness and student achievement.
Our unique LEAD surveys allow principals to use data to inform their decision making, giving them a cost effective and robust tool to assess and improve their school performance.
To develop skills principals need, we’ve worked with the Australian Institute of Management to develop courses that give them the professional knowledge they require in areas like management and strategic planning.
We collaborate with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a range of programs supporting principals throughout their careers.
The Future of Learning program is aimed at mid-term principals; for more experienced principals, there is the Leading Learning That Matters program, an innovative project that looks at what students need to learn and to thrive.
Our support for educators doesn’t just focus on school leaders. Our professional learning programs for teachers reflect our commitment to their professional growth, one of the factors that the University of Melbourne research highlights as essential to the success of a principal and the achievement of a school.