Effective leadership

This report was originally published 17 November 2015.

Image: Effective leadership


Principals have a substantial impact on student outcomes. Their impact may be less direct than teachers’, but their effectiveness is felt by all students in a school. The most effective principals have a sustained focus on improving teacher quality and student learning.

Today, expectations of school principals are higher than ever before. Principals are not just seen as educational leaders, knowledgeable about teaching and learning, they are also expected to know how to work with data, make funding decisions, engage with their wider community, support children with a range of special needs and navigate a complex operational environment. With increased local decision-making and authority, principals in NSW government schools are also called upon to implement new reforms involving change, financial and people management skills.

This Learning Curve presents a snapshot of the current workforce profile of principals in NSW government schools and outlines the research evidence on what makes an effective principal and how best to identify, develop and support aspiring school principals.

Key messages:

  • Many NSW government school principals are at or nearing retirement age, with nearly two-thirds aged 50 years or more, making succession planning important for NSW.
  • Principals have the second biggest in-school impact on student outcomes after classroom teaching, though it can take several years for them to achieve their full impact in a school.
  • The most effective leadership has a very strong instructional focus and is constantly seeking to improve student learning and outcomes.
  • The leadership practice with the greatest impact on student outcomes is promoting and participating in teacher learning and development.
  • Effective principals are especially important for schools that are struggling in difficult circumstances.
  • The Australian Professional Standard for Principals is the nationally agreed description of what principals need to know and understand to be effective leaders, though engagement with the Standard varies across jurisdictions.
  • High-performing school systems proactively identify candidates and place them on a leadership development track.
  • Formal mentoring and coaching is an important component of leadership preparation, and is a feature of the best pre-service and in-service leadership development programs.

How important are principals to student outcomes?

Principals have the second biggest in-school impact on student outcomes, after classroom teaching. An extensive review of the evidence concludes that leadership explains about one quarter of the total difference in student outcomes explained by all school- level variables (once student intake and background factors are controlled), compared with classroom factors which explain around one third (National College for School Leadership 2010).

Other findings from the research on principal impact include:

  • The difference made to student achievement by highly effective principals is considerable – one study using Texan data on student gain indicates that a highly effective principal raises achievement of a typical student by between two and seven months of learning in a school year (Branch, Hanushek & Rivkin 2013).
  • Principals may make more difference to some outcomes than others – a study using data from British Columbia, Canada finds that principals had significantly greater impact on final year English exam scores than they did on Year 12 graduation rates (Coelli & Green 2012). Another study using data from British Columbia finds that more effective principals are associated with higher reading and maths gains from Year 4 to Year 7, though the performance boost is greater for maths (Dhuey & Smith 2014).
  • It may take time for a principal to achieve their full impact in a school – Coelli and Green (2012) estimate that principals achieve over 90 per cent of their full impact by the end of their fourth year in a school.
  • Effective principals are especially important for schools that are struggling in difficult circumstances. Branch, Hanushek & Rivkin 2012 find principal effectiveness varies more among lower-SES schools, which is consistent with the view that principal skill is most important in challenging schools and that there is less consistency of principal quality in these settings. A substantial British study found schools achieving high value-add in student achievement from a low starting point were more likely to report substantial change in leadership practices over the period of improvement than schools with higher initial student attainment. Principals in these schools are also more likely to have to lead change across diverse areas of school culture – from behavioural climate to the effective use of performance data (Sammons et al. 2011).

What makes an effective school leader?

Over the last 25 years, research has focused predominantly on two types of educational leadership: instructional and transformational. Instructional leadership is shown to be the most effective style of leadership (Hattie 2009), having three to four times greater impact on student outcomes than transformational leadership (Robinson, Bendikson & Hattie 2011).

Some research indicates that well distributed leadership is one of the factors of effective principal leadership (ACER 2008; National College for School Leadership 2010). To be effective, however, distributed leadership must reinforce core instructional priorities (Dinham 2005, cited in ACER 2008).

Three models of educational leadership

  1. Instructional leaders focus more on students. They look to the teachers’ and the school’s impact on student learning and instructional issues. They conduct classroom observations, ensure professional development that enhances student learning, communicate high expectations and ensure that the school environment is conducive to learning (Hattie 2015).
  2. Transformational leaders place their major focus on teachers. They set a vision, create common goals for the school, inspire and set direction, buffer staff from external demands, and give teachers a high degree of autonomy. The majority of school leaders see themselves as primarily transformational leaders (Marks 2013, cited in Hattie 2015).
  3. Distributed leadership recognises that sustained improvement cannot be achieved by one person alone (ACER 2008). In practice, distributed leadership can mean a range of things, from the delegation of leadership functions particularly common in larger schools to a focus on shared decision-making across the school community. It is about the process – rather than the focus – of leadership.

What do effective leaders focus on?

In reality, principals combine elements of instructional, transformational and distributed leadership in response to the contextual and developmental needs of their school community (Gurr 2015).

In all contexts, effective leaders focus on1:

  • establishing goals and high expectations
  • planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum, including systematic use of assessment data to monitor learning and adjust provision
  • leading teacher professional development
  • ensuring a supportive and orderly environment
  • resourcing strategically, and
  • developing and maintaining an evaluative mindset for ongoing improvement.

1 The description of key leadership practices in this paper draws on the formulation proposed by Robinson, Lloyd and Rowe (2008), which reflects the broad research consensus on the elements of success.


  • Leadership and school improvement
  • Research report

Business Unit:

  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
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