Selection and Succession:
Challenges for (Current and Emerging) School Leaders

Merit should provide the basis for all promotion and recruitment. Kaplan and Owings in their book, Introduction to the Principalship, Theory to Practice (2015) correctly assert that a highly effective principal raises the achievement of a typical student by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year. They further hypothecated that effective leadership is even more critical to success in complex and disadvantaged schools.

This notion was strongly reinforced by the extensive work of Branch, Hanushek and Rivkin (2013), in their papers on school leadership and the impact of principals. Their research concluded that school leadership is a powerful driver of student outcomes, second only to teaching quality. 

Photo by Gursharndeep Singh from Pexels

How do our current policy, succession and recruitment methodologies curtail the effectiveness of school leadership?

 There is vast evidence reflecting the shortage of prospective leaders showing interest in school principalship. Data shows that schools are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and recruit leaders for their executive team. It is both a struggle of quality and quantity.  There is a declining interest in principalship which in turn predicates a decline in the number and (in some cases) the quality of applicants. Thompson, (2019) reported that in Victoria, 76% of secondary assistant principals were unwilling or unsure about applying for higher leadership roles, and only 24% of them were willing to apply for a principal role within the following three years. In contrast, in 2014 the results reported approximately 64% and 34% respectively.

So, how did we get here?

Gurr & Drysdale (2013), OECD (2018), Thompson (2019) collectively identify some of the deterrents as location, school size, 24/7 accountability pressures, onerous compliance measures, gender based cultures in principalship, continually changing system requirements, job stress, the amount of administrative work, work / life balance, career expectations of younger people, parental complaints, lack of confidence in the selection process and societal problems that make it difficult to focus on instruction. It is therefore understandable that some teachers weigh up these disincentives and incentives roles and find the incentives deficient.

A sympathetic forensic analysis of the unwillingness of future potential leaders to assume this critical responsibility is key to addressing current and emerging shortages. In brutal terms, teachers perceive the impediments associated with school leadership as more compelling than the incentives.

One critical factor often overlooked by researches is the fact that some teachers, often those with exceptional leadership capacity love to teach and wish to retain the teaching elements and student interaction.

“In Australia, teachers are, on average, 42 years old and 30% of teachers in Australia are aged 50 and above (OECD average 34%). This means that Australia will have to renew three out of ten members of its teaching workforce over the next decade or so.” 

OECD Teaching and Learning International (TALIS) Survey, 2018.

Startling figures from the NSW Primary Principal’s Association, 2020 predict that 6,000 teachers will be retiring in the next two years; and, that by 2024, 28% of current teachers will be at retirement age, along with 45% of current principals and 31% of school executive members.

“In Australia, principals are, on average, 51 years old (the average age of principals across OECD countries and economies participating in TALIS is 52). Furthermore, 19% of principals in Australia are aged 60 and above (OECD average 20%)”. 

OECD Teaching and Learning International (TALIS) Survey, 2018.

This professional development is mandatory in some Australian states, but not all, prompting discussion about professional learning requirements and preparedness for leadership roles. Uncomprehendingly, currently in NSW there is no such training requirement to become a school middle manager. In Australia,

…only 30% of school leaders have completed a programme or course in school administration or training for principals (OECD average 54%), and 43% have completed an instructional leadership training programme or course (OECD average 54%), before taking up their position as principal”.

OECD Teaching and Learning International (TALIS) Survey, 2018.

Gender balance in principalship is also an important consideration:

“In Australia, only 40% of principals are women, compared to 62% of teachers. This can be benchmarked against the OECD averages of 47% of women among school leaders and 68% among teachers.” OECD Teaching and Learning International (TALIS) Survey, 2018.

OECD Teaching and Learning International (TALIS) Survey, 2018.

This was validated by McGrath, & Van Bergen (2017):

“Male educators make up just two percent of the workforce in Australian early education, compared to 18 percent in primary schools and around 40 percent in high schools. Australia’s first longitudinal study of teacher numbers has revealed the number of male primary school and high school teachers has fallen 10 per cent and 14 per cent respectively since 1977”.

OECD Teaching and Learning International (TALIS) Survey, 2018.

No one can argue against the case for further research, cultural change and policy action to address this gender imbalance. We must find ways to attract more male educators to teaching positions and address the chronic gender imbalance in female leadership.

So, how do we close the gap and nurture effective middle school leaders?

Phillip Mckenzie (2008) conducted a major survey on the teaching and leadership workforce in Australia’s schools (on behalf of ACER). He highlighted a range of specific issues for future workforce planning, including a rethink on promotion methodologies. Similarly, the NSWPPA (2018) Merit Selection Position Paper echoed his findings, concluding that changes over the last thirty years have revealed unintended consequences for the leadership density of school executive, placing education at potential risk. 

This risk places student learning opportunities at risk, with further negative consequences for the larger community. The responsibility of various industrial associations in the creation of selection mechanisms must also be considered. While passionate in their support of members rights and the need for unquestionable procedural fairness, this has stifled innovative human resources approaches already implemented in international systems that focus on best practice through flexibility, personalisation and excellence.

Merit Selection

While the application process has recently been tinkered with, there has been no significant review since 1998 as Brian Scott’s ‘Schools Renewal: A Strategy to Revise Schools within the New South Wales State Education System’. The review proposed major changes in the NSW State School System and set out a Schools Renewal Strategy, which involved the devolution of greater control to schools including budgets, staffing, management, and increased community involvement.

Out of these recommendations evolved the current merit selection system based on written applications, provision of referees and, if successful, an interview. This has realised benefits but has also resulted in greater variance in capability and skill levels of those gaining school leadership roles. Reform of merit selection processes and adoption of modern business approaches has the capacity to improve the quality of school leadership, improving student learning opportunities; reducing principal and executive turn-over, improving wellbeing; and reducing exposure to risk across the system.

NSW Principal Classification system

The current NSW Principal Classification system has inadvertently contributed to the evolving leadership density crisis. While the majority of primary principals have significantly benefited by clustering large numbers of leaders within the similar pay grades, this has actually stalled mobility. For example, a deputy principal is renumerated at just under 14% more than a teacher, while a P1 Principal attracts an additional 14.5% and a P3 Principal attracts an additional salary of just over 28%. Do these results substantiate the retort from many teachers– why bother?

​How do we ensure policy and process support (not hinder) emerging leaders?

A significant influence is the promotion process itself.

How do we balance demonstration of the excellence we desire in practice and the recruitment process?

How do we balance process and the provision and assessment of the additional skills required of leaders?

Do we provide enough steppingstones, support and opportunities for emerging leaders?

The methodology used to select school leaders impacts directly on the quality and quantity of the candidature. References, resumes and panel interviews are relied on heavily, with the expectation that an aspiring leader can utilise these avenues to effectively demonstrate the relevant skills, capabilities and experience they will bring to this specific role and context. This is in stark contrast to earlier approaches, some of which offered a degree of procedural reassurance based on externally validated candidate competences.

Limitations in the Performance and Development Framework

It has been claimed that vacant executive positions are filled on an individual basis, rather than holistically looking at the needs of a school.

“Too often, contextually incorrectly matched candidates are selected or identified for advancement. This sadly does not reflect the collaborative and collective efficacy of school leaders  Exacerbating this is the harsh reality that, after appointment as a principal, or executive, it is very difficult to be demoted or dismissed for under-performing or, reappointed if they aren’t the right fit for the school or school leadership team.”  

SBS, Insight Program (2019)

This is further exacerbated by the retention of non-effective principals:

“Only seven NSW public school principals have gone through a formal improvement program in the past five years and just one has successfully completed the program”. 

Sydney Morning Herald, 2019

In turn, the NSW Department of Education’s Performance and Development Framework does not adequately support principals and supervisors to effectively manage and improve teacher performance, or actively improve teaching quality. The Department manages those teachers identified as underperforming, through teacher improvement programs.

“Only 53 of over 66,000 teachers employed by the Department were involved in these programs in 2018. In 2017, 52 teachers were involved in teacher improvement programs.” 

The Auditor General Report - Ensuring teaching quality in NSW public schools, 2019

Reluctance to engage in programs aiming to improve teacher performance is understandable. Not only are programs emotionally draining, excessively time consuming, administratively demanding, but fertile grounds for retaliatory complainants resulting in minimal chances of success.

Further to this point, the 2016 report by the NSW Auditor-General revealed the cost of workers’ compensation claims relating to psychological injuries, against the NSW DoE, had increased by over 70 per cent since the previous year. Over 300 employees cited bullying, harassment and violence as the cause of their injury – nearly 34 per cent more than in 2014-15.

 

Is there a correlation between an effective teacher and their effectiveness in school executive?

“Thinking has evolved from an assumption that good teachers will automatically become good leaders, to recognition that there are specific preparation and development needs for those in school leadership positions.” 

Odhiambo, 2014

Moreover,

“But just as the best football players don’t necessarily make the best coaches, too often teachers are promoted beyond their capabilities. Sometimes this is simply because they have excelled in the job they are currently doing. However, too often it is because they have become adept at speaking the meta-language of educational leadership, and writing resumes and applications that are overflowing with their accomplishments. “ 

SBS Insight, 2019

Reflecting on this, we need to consider,

  • Do we assume that an effective teacher, will make an effective leader? Or vice versa? There are some positions in school leadership e.g. secondary head teachers who many would agree should be an expert teacher in their chosen specialism, but is this the case for all leadership positions?
  • How much teaching experience is needed to ensure effectiveness as a school leader? How recent does the teaching experience need to be?
  • Is there an alignment between the skills and attributes of successful leaders and successful teachers?
  • Can we define or measure the traits of effective middle level leaders?
  • Does promotion to a leadership position infer or require a change in behaviour?
  • Do we have expectations of on-the-job learning, or a self-managed steep learning curve? Are we embracing a fail fast, fail forward approach, with new leaders supported in success and failure?
  • What is the criteria / expectations as leaders develop?
  • Do panel members and the panel as a whole understand the requirements of leaders, and if so, can they identify them?

It is recognised that, as with any recruitment process, adopting best practice carries with it associated costs, both in time and financially.  Not to mention administration software development, essential induction, ongoing mentoring and coaching. However, developing an understanding of best practice in the local context, has long term benefits, both human and financial to schools and systems. These far out way the price for making poorer choices and definitely offer a greater return on investment.

 

What does the data tell us?

For principal positions advertised in 2017 there were:

 

Area

No. applications

No. positions

Average no. of applications per position

Metropolitan

1364

165

8.3

Provincial

718

136

5.3

Remote

37

12

3.1

Very remote

20

5

4.0

 

For principal positions advertised in 2017 there were:

Area

No. applications

No. positions

Average no. of applications per position

Metropolitan

9044

997

9.1

Provincial

2521

446

5.7

Remote

73

23

3.2

Very remote

44

11

4.0

 

Source:  NSWPPA (2018)

 

This data should be considered in conjunction with the large numbers of ‘Expressions of Interest’ advertisements. How does this compare to leadership position applications in industry?

The shortage of quality middle managers was highlighted in the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council submission:

“Many school leaders in rural schools lack the experience of their metropolitan counterparts. This lack of leadership depth is compounded when the executive team and classroom teachers also lack experience.  In some cases, school leaders are appointed without having developed the requisite skills simply because there was no other choice.”

NSW Secondary Principals' Council submission to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education (2018).

Further research is required into the correlation between effectiveness of leaders and years of experience. This should be further investigated in the context of staff assuming leadership roles in challenging remote locations after brief periods of teaching and in light of the findings of MacKay (2017) who concluded that some 85 percent of job applicants embellish or outright lie on resumes.

 

Generational considerations

Recently, researchers have turned their focus towards generational differences and their attitudes towards career commitment and leadership. Salahuddin (2010) concluded that generational differences influence organizational success. While George Odhiambo (2014) observed that:

 

“Teachers are increasingly being promoted to the role of assistant principal at a younger age. The reasons for this are varied and include the suggestion that Generation Y attitudes see formal leadership positions as attainable at any age and not as a product of many years of experience. Teachers are regularly taking up assistant principal roles after only 5-6 years of teaching experience with very little leadership training or professional development because quality training programmes and support structures appear to be lacking within the system for this leadership level.”

It important for bureaucracies to understand the impact that generational differences have on school and system succession. Of interest are millennials attitudes towards middle management and leadership. Millennials demonstrate different attitudes, values, beliefs, and aspirations in the workplace compared to the previous generations. According to Črešnar and Jevšenak (2019),

 

 “millennials are in general more inclined toward values connected to personal growth and freedom from anxiety, emphasizing self-transcendence and openness to change, than toward self-protection and anxiety avoidance, understating conservation and self-enhancement values”.

  

Why is internal promotion so common?

An alarmingly fact from the NSW Public Sector Profile (2019), demonstrated that 60% of successful appointments are internal.

This statistic was explored in ‘Cloning Their Own: Aspirant Principals and the School-Based Selection Game’ by Lacey and Gronn (2006) where they explore the bias towards internal applicants. They suggest selection, namely employing “in house” candidates is so common because panels identify with similar values, attributes and skills and thus avoiding risk-taking in recruitment. The high rates of internal promotion may be down to the perception that it’s safe, or ‘better the devil you know’, a lack of system appetite to confidently select externally, or the lack of an external standard to identify and ensure benchmarks. Internal selection is not all doom and gloom. The upside is the continuity of experience and history candidates bring to the school context, coalesced with their own character and values.

Lacey and Gronn’s (2006) research further explored the essential value of engaging leaders with disparate views, experiences and backgrounds in decision making, to ensure effective school improvement.  The identify the disadvantages of recruiting internally as, the school outlook narrows, innovation stifles and opportunities for improvement decrease.

Furthermore, experienced principals also acknowledge presence of an unsuccessful incumbent is sometimes the cause of conflict or at least resentment that can be cancerous to school operations.

 

 Identifying the ‘holy grail’ of succession planning.

Hargreaves and Fink (2006) suggested that principals, as well as other executives are aware that a key aspect of their role is management succession, and they recognise that the process of identifying potential leaders is neither simple nor straightforward. They explain that leadership is a complex, multifaceted capability, with myriad nuances and subtleties and characteristics that can help a person succeed in a given environment.

Despite this awareness, and the best of intentions, many principals make the costly and painful mistake of selecting the wrong person for a key position out of sheer necessity. This could be the result of the complex selection processes, time needed to readvertise, cumbersome software, the perception that the next round of candidature won’t expand the quality of quantity, internal or external pressure, or in some localities, the sheer situational necessary of getting ‘anyone’ into the position.

Many systems and schools tend to focus their energies on developing leaders rather than on accurately identifying them or their traits, at an earlier stage. We need a balance between the two. In many schools, there is leadership talent that may go untouched.

There is an abundance of unrecognised leadership in schools.

Directors or principals, for various reasons may identify the wrong people as having high potential, often because they work with incomplete information to overvalue or undervalue certain qualities, in other cases because some of the true leaders don’t put themselves forward.

Candidates are sometimes promoted to key positions purely because they possess one remarkable characteristic, such as excellent music skills that can persuade and inspire others, or to retain teachers in subjects where there are shortages, or in some cases due to gender. Consequently , many schools, and therefore systems, are struggling with a leadership shortage. (Marks, 2013). The trick is identifying it, which requires the time and ability to sort through and make sense of the myriad nuances and subtleties of leadership.

  

So, what are the essential attributes for selecting good leaders?

To undertake an in-depth assessment of candidates, principals or system leaders must consider the full range of leadership qualities, including “soft” skills and traits, such as personal integrity, that are difficult to define, assess or identify.

The appraisal processes at many schools, however, do not generate such complete and accurate information. Even more concerning is the circumstances whereby schools or systems wish to pass on “dead wood”, leaving other principals, and the department susceptible to risk. These include the risk of poor leadership, increased personal conflicts and progression of people who should instead be performance managed, leading to poor culture. The current Performance Development Process (PDP) needs reinvigorating to demonstrate the role of effective soft skills, general capabilities and essential leadership aptitudes such as the ability to inspire others or, the demonstration of empathy even investigated or considered satisfactorily.

Appraising an applicant for a school position is a formidable task.

Dempster, Lovett & Fluckiger, 2011.

Indeed, judging different individuals on such a multifaceted and nuanced capability as leadership is, at best, an imperfect process, relevant across all industries and aspects of society. Cohn and Moran (2011) wrote in their book ‘Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?’

 “…because selecting the right people can be very, very, hard. It’s easy to say that if we had better choices, we would pick better leaders. But that means that we are promoting the wrong people through the system”.

From Cohn and Moran’s (2011) work in succession planning and executive assessments, they have isolated seven leadership attributes that come up again and again, that provide the key to leadership success. These attributes they caution, must be viewed as a whole, because if you take even one away, you end up with someone entirely different. If any one of these attributes is missing, a person who is called on to lead will eventually fail.”

Cohn and Moran (2011) seven basic building blocks of a leader are:

  1. Empathy
  2. Resilience
  3. Vision
  4. Courage
  5. Emotional intelligence
  6. Passion
  7. Integrity

 

 Succession planning – A way forward:

Robinson, Lloyd and Rowe (2008) stress the importance of meaningful school leadership preparation and development programmes as unquestionable. As daunting as it appears, there is no mandatory minimum training requirement to become a school executive, nor is access to universal high-quality professional learning. Thompson (2019) found that relatively few participants were undertaking the professional development available through the region and state (in Victoria and nationally).

If we are looking for the nirvana, the answer is not far away, for example, Scott and Scott, (2013) identify Singapore’s career ladder system as a prime model for replication. The National Centre for Education and the Economy provides a full description of the attributes of the Singapore system. This approach would address many if not all of our underlying concerns.

 

12 Recommendations for moving forward:

  1. The validation of candidates as leaders ‘on-the-job’ by Directors or independent verifiers to create a validated talent pool, prior to opportunities arising through a negotiated industrial process. This would include demonstration of efficiency and effectiveness, evidenced by artefacts and the applicant’s current or previous supervisor(s). Applicants could utilise a portfolio of their work reflecting education and work achievements and learning.
  2. Clear and comprehensive role statements for all levels of executive, accessible by candidates, or early career teachers before they apply for promotion, based on the Australian Teaching Standards and the Australian Professional Standard for Principals This would include a review of staffing codes and specific selection criteria ensuring robust, yet adaptable themes that encompass soft skills.
  3. Effective pre-requisite training for current and future applicants to middle leadership positions. Compulsory undertaking of accredited qualifications before, or within 12 months, of appointment.
  4. Explicit early identification of leadership potential by principals, other leaders or other school executive staff. These potential leaders will then be referred to the leadership institutes for a range of assessments for various skills in various scenarios. This would require a review of processes to identify, attract and appoint suitably qualified candidates from other states, sectors and industry.
  5. A newly imagined, flexible panel composition, including relevant, trained stakeholders to align flexibility and quality benchmarks.
  6. Provision of inductions and ongoing, long term mentoring and coaching as a structured aspect of all promotion positions prior to and after appointment. This will be provided from recognition as an emerging leader through to successful experience as a leader.
  7. Partnerships and collaborations between nationwide leadership institutes and universities. Recognition of prior learning by leadership institutes.
  8. . Mandatory experience across a variety of schools, reflecting variation and cultural disparity (e.g. rural or remote), with in built initiatives and right of return. Rotation of school executive after set periods, where relevant
  9. In house application for executive positions no longer applicable without demonstration of varied experience across numerous schools.
  10. Schools for Specific Purposes (SSPs) recognised as unique educational settings that require specialist skills and experience and support to build this experience if noted as an aspiration.
  11. Effective transition periods involving overlapping of tenure, ensuring school and system continuity and provision of continued support for newly appointed leaders.
  12. Exploration of psychometric testing or aptitude testing as part of revised Merit Selection processes for school leadership.

 Conclusion

There is an increasing trend towards fewer applications for vacant executive positions. This trend can be reversed through the identification and assessment of predictive talent, or through reimagination of the qualities we want for our current and emerging leaders and the modelling of effective leadership. Do current initiatives begin to address the issues outlined here?

Here, we have argued for more fundamental structural reform from which the above initiatives can better flourish, aligned with a teacher and leadership recruitment strategy.

Authors and contributions

Louise Green is an experienced Principal with a demonstrated history of working in the Education Management industry. Skilled in Classroom Management, Lesson Planning, Educational Technology, Instructional Design, and Differentiated Instruction. Strong education professional who graduated from the University of Wollongong.

John Mularczyk has demonstrated experience in high-level analysis and planning and provide support to the students, staff, parents, and systems in developing, driving and implementing programs of strategic change in areas including learning culture and performance, strategic planning, asset performance and evidence-based advocacy that places student experience and outcomes at the centre of learning. He has extensive leadership experience with a deep knowledge of contemporary learning and supporting technologies, combined with a vision for next-generation learning and teaching. After successfully leading three schools he has a proven track record of success in the delivery of high quality, family responsive management services, using data-driven planning and decision making to deliver services.

Kathleen Donohoe is the Director and Founder of Leading Thinking International. She supports school and industry to reimagine learning experiences across physical, virtual, and social learning space, bringing national and international teaching, academic, research, and executive experience. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, MGSE, with the ILETC Project. Kathleen has vast experience developing and implementing strategy for transformation, curriculum renewal, and physical virtual and social learning space, including as Director, Futures Learning at NSW Department of Education.

Special thanks also to Lila Mularczyk for her contribution to this paper.

After 38 years in public education, Lila’s commitment to education was recognised by being honoured with the Order of Australia Medal (OAM), announced in 2017.  Lila currently has a portfolio of work including several roles for the NSW Department of Education, managing Professional Learning for UNSW Gonski Institute for Education, Presidency of ACENSW, lecturing at university, and supervising professional experience. Lila is also a member of several education advisory boards, coaches school leaders, collaborates on research and works freelance on several special projects across professional associations and the education community. Until recently, Lila held the position of Director, Secondary Education, at the Department of Education and prior to which was the President of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council (SPC) from 2012 to 2016. The professional association she led operated in a privileged, mutually respected and influential position both educationally and politically. Further, as principal of a secondary high school for 15 years, she led numerous innovative reforms and programs at a school, cluster of schools, regional, state and national level Principals’ Council (2012-1016). Lila was principal of Merrylands High School for 15 years until 2016.

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