School Improvement and Governance Network


School principals - three key issues

You may be interested in this PowerPoint presentation for school principals that discusses:

  • The three key issues of personalisation, autonomy, and community in education
  • The power of all three together, backed up by resources, in driving big improvements in students' learning outcomes and reducing the achievement gaps based on students' social backgrounds
  • The on-going creative work of principals, teachers and others with personalisation, autonomy, and community, and, in turn, how this work around all three is continuing to reinvent the principalship.

Principals as leaders, EOs and managers

For principals, the synergistic mix of leadership, governance and management involves extraordinary complexity and intensity. Expectations are commonly that principals will perform as:

  1. Highly competent managers with the skills to manage strategic educational change together with their roles in planning and budgeting, coordinating resources, controlling workflows and systems, organising projects, managing staffing, and monitoring and evaluating performance
  2. Visionary leaders at the edge of educational thinking, policy, practice and research, perhaps also working as system leaders with other schools and other organisations, helping to build school-family-community partnerships and collaborating broadly to improve learning outcomes
  3. Executive officers for school councils that can be or become high-level governing boards, supporting a council to actually govern and not narrowly confine its role to management oversight and ensuring that council meetings do not get clogged up with reports and administrivia.

A weakness in any one of these three undermines the other two, but it is obviously not possible for any one person to have the time for always developing the best practices in every aspect of the array of management, leadership and governance roles and responsibilities. This is a challenge that defies an easy solution although there are interesting trends such as school clusters and shared principalships.

Principals also creatively develop new kinds of collaborative leadership and management arrangements that bring about a better blend of the work of the principal class, lead teachers and business managers.

Striking a balance among these three imperatives (and securing the requisite resources and support to do this) is the key to the very future of school improvement. Principals, teachers and school councils are the architects of this paradigm shift to interdependent leadership, governance and management. Relevant to all of this, see our Local decision-making section which discusses the powerful trinity of:

  1. Leadership and vision
  2. School governance
  3. Management and values.

Principals as community-builders - ten practices

The work of principals in leading and helping to build strong learning communities and school-family-community partnerships is obviously crucial. It is also interdependent with the work of principals and other school leaders in leading teaching and learning. In the National Professional Standard for Principals, the fifth of five professional practices particular to the role of the principal is 'engaging and working with the community'. The first professional practice is 'leading teaching and learning'.

What many principals say to us is that leading teaching and learning and engaging and working with the community are so closely related to one another that they are really two sides of the same coin. The two practices together, backed up by resources and support, can propel significant improvements in learning outcomes. In developing and maintaining partnerships with teachers, students, families and carers, and all those associated with a school’s broader community, principals and teachers suggest that it is especially important to:

  1. Disperse leadership, and, to this end, help to develop and promote the community understanding that effective leadership is dispersed within schools. Effective leadership that serves to improve learning outcomes can obviously come from many ‘unusual suspects', making it important, of course, to identify and support such people among staff members but also parents and students
  2. Create a brains trust of people. School leaders surround themselves with, and build their own personal network of, people who are thinking afresh about the possibilities in education
  3. Nurture relationships. Some principals indicate that they convene bi-monthly parent forums as well as regular student forums - as an opportunity to really listen to students and families. Principals report that the impact of such meetings over time is to stretch their thinking and reshape their practice
  4. Contextualise learning, striving to deeply understand the community context of a school and how the curriculum and teaching methods should be modified to reflect this. This may include a school's work in developing an inclusive curriculum that seamlessly combines academic knowledge, concepts, theories and principles with practical and applied learning and real world problem solving
  5. Build community participation around students' personalised learning, assisted by the leadership work of principals in supporting teachers, parents, students and community members as real partners in the personalisation of learning
  6. Profile a whole school community approach to improving learning outcomes, helping their school to develop its own shared policy framework for 21st century teaching and learning. The frameworks that principals support their schools to develop include powerful learning, personalised learning, etc. The best frameworks are built around the shared ideas and insights of teachers, parents and students, reflecting the cultural and social mix of the school community
  7. Provide system leadership. Notwithstanding the obvious difficulties in always finding the time to do this, for many principals the major leadership role is increasingly to work with other schools and other organisations, collaborating to improve outcomes. System leaders, as they are called, care about and work for the success of other schools and organisations as well as their own. This can happen in P-12 clusters of schools and in partnerships with other organisations
  8. Be advocates for all. Principals emphasise the importance of representing everyone in the community equally,  understanding other people's perspectives together with ensuring that individual voices and views are heard and that a school's governing body considers minority viewpoints
  9. Strive for real consensus. If, for example, a school council or a committee cannot vote unanimously on a really key issue, principals will often encourage members to delay the decision for further consideration. If need be, with major issues, a facilitator may be called in to assist
  10. Publicise community efforts. In school newsletters, principals regularly publicise the contributions of teachers, parents, and students – and profile their work as school community leaders.

The role of principals as community builders needs to be better understood and broadly recognised. Principals also recommend on-going support and professional development experiences to help new and aspiring principals to develop their all-important leadership roles as community builders. For more information about community-building and partnerships, the following sections may be of interest:

Great reading

  • Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty by Deborah Ancona
  • Future Trends in Leadership Development, Centre for Creative Leadership
  • Federalism, Public Education and the Public Good, Professor Alan Reid
  • The Future of the Principalship, Michael Fullan
  • Meeting the Challenge of Leading in the 21st Century: Beyond the 'Deficit Model' of Leadership Development, Kim Turnbull James and Donna Ladkin
  • Personalised learning - the summary report
  • Principal Leadership - Discussion Guide
  • Leading Transformational Change in a Changing World, Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn
  • The Role of the Principal in School Reform by Kathleen Trail
  • The Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes, Viviane Robinson
  • Leading Boldly, Stanford Social Innovation Review
  • Public involvement in public education, Alberta School Boards Association
  • Connecting Leadership to Learning, Wallace Foundation
  • 21st century leadership: looking forward, interview with Michael Fullan and Keith Leithwood
  • The evolving role of school business managers
  • Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy and Change Knowledge, Michael Fullan
  • Successful School Leadership: What It Is and How It Influences Pupil Learning (Kenneth Leithwood and others)
  • The L5 approach to leadership, Principals Australia Institute
  • Pathways to School Improvement
  • Transformation and Innovation: System Leaders in the Global Age (edited by David Hopkins)
  • National Professional Standard for Principals
  • Essential Complementarities: Arguing for an Integrative Approach to Research in Mathematics Classrooms, David Clarke
  • Innovating pedagogy 2012
  • Future leadership, Alma Harris
  • Finland Study Tour 2012, Sharon Saitlik, Principal, Mont Albert Primary School
  • 10 strong claims about successful school leadership
  • Core Beliefs of the AEU National Principals' Committee
  • Governance as Leadership: Bringing New Governing Mindsets to Old Challenges (Richard P. Chait and others)
  • Creating a self-improving school system (David H Hargreaves)
  • Revolutionizing School Reform for Educational Transformation (John B. Keller and Charles M. Reigeluth)
  • Symposium on School Leadership (Alberta Education)
  • Principals in the Pipeline: Districts Construct a Framework to Develop School Leadership
  • Great Schools Checklist

National Professional Standard for Principals

National Professional Standard for Principals

Relevant articles on this website

Principals Guide to School Council Elections 2013

Principals Guide to School Council Elections 2013

Principal selection guidelines and information

DEECD's information pertaining to the development of an effective principal selection process. Includes the principal selection guidelines.


This section is the product of the many principals who have shared their knowledge and experience with us. We also wish to thank the many principals and others for commenting on earlier drafts.