If We’re To Catch Up With Kazakhstan, We Need To Let More Leaders Work Their Magic In Schools


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So, the Great Education Debate rolls on.

The revelation Australian Year 4 and Year 8 students are sliding down the international maths and science rankings has triggered another political skirmish over how best to pull our school system out of this sea of mediocrity.

Would more money be the answer? Or instead a greater focus on how teachers spend their time in the classroom? How about a substantial improvement in the quality of teaching graduates?

When things are this bad every available measure would probably help.

But often overlooked in this all too predictable point scoring is the vital role played by the man or woman to whom every teacher and student answers.

And here our attention turns to the school principal, a figure in turn demonised and lionised in popular culture. Think the scheming Mr Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the kindly and wise Professor Dumbledore presiding over Hogwarts.

In real life a good principal can be the difference between students and their teachers succeeding or failing.

Like any good organisation, a school’s culture is set at the top. If a principal sets high professional and personal standards this should be felt in every classroom and every staffroom.

A recent University of Melbourne study quantified the benefits of a good school leader. The research found students with top-shelf principals were up to two months a year ahead of their counterparts at other schools.

The report also highlighted the clear dividends for staff of principals actively promoting professional development for their teachers.

How does a great principal make all the difference?

For the last eight years I have seen first-hand how a great principal can make all the difference. He wouldn’t want the attention and perhaps would be embarrassed by the shout-out, so I’ll just call him Michael.

From the moment we met Michael it was clear this was a man who not only set high standards but also commanded respect from all quarters of the school.

A quick guided tour of the classrooms was met with a chorus of ‘Mr’ this and ‘Mr’ that.

It was (and still is) a pretty poor school with teachers and kids alike inhaling truck fumes from the adjacent main road during recess and lunch breaks.

But the classrooms always rumbled with learning, fronted by teachers we could rarely fault. Again, a good indication of a school well-led.

Away from the blackboards, I have also watched Michael take a personal interest in kids needing help. I have watched him interacting with parents at school council meetings, calmly dealing with all sorts of curveballs.

It is with great sadness we are bidding him and the school farewell as our youngest child moves on to high school.

So, as the school year winds down and the Great Education Debate winds up (again) this is something for politicians and interest groups to ponder. Call it holiday homework.

Get more principals like Michael, and Australia might stand a chance of catching up with Kazakhstan.

Online Source: ABC.net.au.

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