A new report from the Department of Education, Skills, and Employment (DESE) has highlighted the importance of having impactful leaders in regional and remote schools across Australia to achieve equitable outcomes for all students.
Researchers of the High-Impact School Leadership report worked with major principal associations to identify schools and principals to take part in the study, which was aimed at developing a framework “not just limited to identifying relations associated with high-impact leadership” but also providing “a pathway for preparing, developing, and supporting high-impact leaders in regional, rural, and remote locations to achieve the best outcomes for students, staff, and communities.”
“For far too long regional, rural, and remote schools have been left waiting for a heroic leader to arrive in town and turnaround outcomes through their individual charisma and tenacity,” said Associate Professor Scott Eacott, the report’s lead author and deputy head of the School of Education at the University of New South Wales.
“Such an approach is indefensible given these schools serve some of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. We need better ways to prepare, attract, support, and retain high-impact leaders and educators into these schools and tell the stories of the work they do,” he added.
As part its findings, the research outlined four key attributes school leaders must have to bring impactful changes. According to the report, high-impact leaders must demonstrate:
- An innovation imperative, which requires having a “long-term and multi-agency perspective to school improvement”
- Collective responsibility where collaboration, and not competition, becomes central to the work of the schools, and decision-making and responsibility are shared
- A focus on improving teaching where leaders actively involved, and learning is based on a broader range of assessments more than standardised tests
- Visibility in and commitment to the community, which is central to the uptake and success of community initiatives
“There are considerable inequities in Australian education, many of them experienced daily in regional, rural, and remote schools,” Associate Professor Eacott said. “Addressing these issues requires innovative solutions not more of the same. This report provides ideas of how they could be addressed.”
Associate Professor James Ladwig of the University of Newcastle’s School of Education and a key architect of the NSW Quality Teaching framework, however, has cautioned that the report was “mislabelled.”
“Because the authors were really only able to obtain direct evidence from principals and system agents, the findings should not be considered definitive statements,” he said. “They are better understood as what principals and systems people from rural and remote schools say. Of course, that isn’t to be discounted completely – but it is only one viewpoint we would include in a better understanding of the issues at hand.”
Associate Professor Ladwig added that the study “declares impact without any evidence of actual impact,” therefore, the findings cannot be tested.
“The key points of the report remain plausible and reasonable, but untested,” he said. “More research is needed to secure these findings.”
He also noted that some of the points were understated and “in many ways, the consequence of how systems manage rural and remote schools.”
“Innovation is often a means to obtain needed basic supports in these settings,” Associate Professor Ladwig said. “Collective responsibility isn’t optional there. The need to focus on teaching and learning is probably not unique, and the relationship with community extends far beyond commitments and visibility – but requires long term authentic membership in these communities.”
School leaders’ profile ‘magnified considerably’
Dr John De Nobile, senior lecturer at the Macquarie University School of Education, said that the research brought to light something the school leaders in rural Australia knew well, but “the rest of us might not.”
“Leadership is indeed a different experience in rural and remote schools compared to their counterparts in larger cities and many country towns,” he said. “Principals in all schools, of course, tend to have a prominent public profile, but that profile is magnified considerably for school leaders in smaller rural and remote locations.”
Dr De Nobile shared an experience he had with a contact in a regional school.
“A young principal from a rural school in central NSW described how he was sometimes asked to settle arguments, with locals expecting him to be some sort of font of knowledge,” he said. “He recounted how one evening worried locals came to his home wanting him to come up to the pub to break up a fight because it would have taken too long for police to arrive from their station at a nearby larger town.”
“Relationships with students are different because they are part of the town and seen to interact a lot with the community,” Dr De Nobile added. “Community can also be a source of support for leaders. The report reminds us of the importance of the partnerships leaders can foster between school and community, potentially for the benefit of students if managed well.”