The persistent educational achievement gap and historically haphazard nature of progress for students in impoverished contexts in New Zealand primary schools is a deep-seated problem needing urgent attention. Many hypotheses are espoused about why students in low socio-economic (LSE) schools are less likely to succeed than those in high socio-economic schools, and why, after many years the pattern continues, and the tail of underachievement may even be growing.

We often hear its teacher quality that is primarily to blame, and second only to quality teaching, is the need for improved leadership.  A need for improved resources are also mentioned as are family circumstances; student attitudes are also considered problematic. Still others argue that in fact, the problem is more complex than this- a problem not as easily solved by fixating on just one of these components.

The answer to the tail of underachievement is instead likely to be multifaceted and therefore systemic in nature. As such, my research, which took the form of an in-depth case study focused on the component of leadership yes, but it additionally explored primary school principal leadership as a type of complex adaptive system of its own making, inclusive of the principal leader, and worked to show how the system’s components interconnected and adapted with the purpose of enhancing local notions of success.

My research primarily explored what principal leadership patterns of practice were in evidence, what underlying beliefs were present, how LSE principal leadership is influencing of context, as well as influenced by context and local trajectories for success.

Principal leadership patterns of practice

The four main patterns of practice identified in the research as important for a thriving principal leadership network aimed at educational success for students in the LSE context include:

  • the shaping of an inclusive community of learners which considers a broad membership, wide boundaries, and the addressing of power differentials
  • the facilitating of conditions for student engagement so that the physical environment was safe, encouraged cultural diversity, used flexible structures and measured and resourced learning in ways that ensured the holistic wellbeing of network members
  • the developing of reciprocity which required a practice network that can for example ensure increased involvement of middle leaders, act on student voice, and maintain aiga-whānau connections
  • the confrontation of inequalities which requires a strong philosophy, political voice, PLD focus, and a willingness to reject deficit theorising and negativity. Additionally, wider community resourcing and health needs require addressing.

Principal leadership core beliefs

Sitting beneath these patterns of practice are the following four core beliefs:

  • Diversity and belonging and the ideas associated with building strong, respectful relationships
  • Equity and social justice where difference is a welcome strength
  • Being solutions and future-focus, with a consideration for the wellbeing of people and place, now and in the future
  • A systemic view of the world and the notion that solutions are somewhere in the system.

Local notions of success

Participants in this study understood educational success as a series of and/both considerations for the wellbeing of the whole child into the future and include:

  • adding intrinsic and extrinsic value
  • taking and making opportunities
  • evolving personal and cultural identity
  • progressing personal and social responsibility
  • valuing present and future success
  • ensuring collective and individual engagement
  • developing personal strengths and expected competencies.

Overall, the shared perceptions of educational success enhance the immediate purposes of schooling and the longer-term, social wellbeing and success in the wider world of its participants.

Contextual disruptions in the LSE schools

The interaction of principal leadership patterns of practice, core beliefs and local notions of success in fact exposed an interesting aspect about the greater whole- it uncovered the systemic vulnerabilities specific to the LSE setting . These vulnerabilities continually halted or threatened the patterns of practice that were needed for educational success and possible transformation and included:

  • Resourcing vulnerabilities such as inadequate BOT expertise, insufficient and reducing funds, inconsistent funding solutions and resources on offer that did not keep up with a growing diversity of cultural and learning needs within the school.
  • PLD vulnerabilities included growth opportunities that did not meet teaching and learning needs, the speed at which solutions to more complex learning problems were expected to be found, limited teacher knowledge in areas such as ICT, assessment and science and, the perception of inaccurate and unreliable test results.
  • School–community relationship vulnerabilities included:
    • misuse of school grounds
    • unreliable learning relationships between home and school
    • high student absenteeism and/or inappropriate social behaviours
    • a mismatch between public and private views regarding the quality of education available
    • differing parent and school expectations of student capabilities
    • tensions between whānau/aiga in the wider school community
    • increased competition between schools.

These vulnerabilities constrained the patterns of practice in three ways:

  • by affecting the quality of work produced by the principals’ networks and the ability to both fulfil current learning needs and project forward to future needs
  • by affecting the ability of the principals’ networks to address problems accurately, to develop the thinking required to solve complex puzzles of practice, make changes, and focus on learning rather than just accountability measures
  • by affecting the ability of the principals’ networks to stay focused on relationships that mattered to student learning, develop shared goals, and improve engagement at the network periphery.

These vulnerabilities clearly show that where leadership is continually disrupted through under-resourcing, inadequate PLD and precarious home-school relationships, then so too is the quality of leadership, and as a result, learning and teaching on offer.

What does this mean?

The principals in this research were already highly skilled, adaptable and committed to building networks of people dedicated to improvement and change. They were seen to practise more from the position of practical wisdom or next practice to address vulnerabilities and keep patterns of success going, even under very difficult circumstances. Wright (2011) refers to ‘next’ practice as a willingness of leaders to work through the unknown alongside others. Three main aspects allow next practice to be more viable: phronesis, which is the ability to judge based on practical knowledge that helps the ability to respond to difficulty; contextual intelligence, or the ability to draw on prior learning and apply the learning to the current context, working towards a preferred future; and lastly, the ability to work with the unknown.

The recommendations listed here therefore, focus on examples of systemic considerations, with a focus on the Ministry of Education (MOE), but these recommendations are by no means the only recommendations to fall from this research.

Resourcing

  • providing enough finance to cover a teaching complement that matches the diverse community composition, including specialist ELL teachers, and is stable amidst the ebb and flow of the school role. This should include a secure principal salary.
  • including a security budget to maintain facilities
  • including a budget for LSE schools to develop a positive public image campaign
  • focus on local notions of success and looking at what further resources are needed for adding value to these ideals. Perhaps consideration needs to be given to linking student outcomes to the NZ living standards framework
  • establishing resourcing processes driven by next practice leadership and so, making resources more accessible and timely
  • supporting the principal to ensure middle leaders are freed up from management-type tasks so they can focus on learning excellence.

PLD

  • providing PLD that is more timely, appropriate and context-specific
  • focussing PLD efforts on ICT, assessment and science content knowledge
  • explicitly considering the effects of poverty on learning in future NZ leadership policy documents, including those currently in draft form

Home-school relations

  • supporting a transdisciplinary approach to better home-school relations. One area highlighted in this research is the need for a more formal link between education and health. Bringing the community hub strategy into the mainstream for the lowest socio-economic schools in New Zealand to ensure the wellbeing of all students and aiga/whānau remains a priority
  • connecting wider industry policy initiatives that affect LSE communities with education and seeking principal input.

A collection of recommended changes must be made to stabilise the LSE schooling context.

Conclusion

While on the surface students in New Zealand can expect the same quality of teaching and learning, no matter the demographic, the principal leadership networks in this study identify otherwise. There appear taken for granted assumptions about what structures and resources are present and easily flow into and out of an LSE primary school setting, so that principals and teachers can be the best they can be, and their energy, which is not infinite, can be put into their core work – influencing teaching and learning. Inequities in resourcing, PLD and home-school relations must be addressed if the scope of any future recommendations are to support a system of transformation, rather than continuously limp towards status quo progress.

Angela Millar is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington. Her thesis investigated principal leadership practice in low socio-economic primary school settings for educational success.

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