Recently, I had a chance to reflect on what it means to be a school principal in Australia.

We have more than 9,000 active principals Australia-wide. Our principals are quiet achievers, flying under the radar while performing great feats, often under difficult circumstances. Most principals share a unity of purpose that drives them, paired with a conviction and an emotional bond to their purpose.

They are the leaders who make the call others are afraid to make, who get in earlier and home later than most, and who care a lot about other people’s children and their future.

Given the extraordinary demands of the school principal role, it’s not surprising that less than 10% of principals intended to be principals when they start teaching! But, 90% of principals report that they are happy in their role and report significantly higher job satisfaction than the general population. And, they tend to stay in the job once they become principals. Over half have either Honours, Masters or Doctoral degrees.

The role has changed over the past 20 years. It has shifted from a managerial job to a profession that has a sharper focus on student outcomes, heightened community expectations and a significant role in the implementation of education policy reform.

Principals make a difference to students and their learning; the role of the principal in influencing student outcomes is acknowledged as being second only to teaching.

How are we improving?

Australia has laid the foundations for a truly world-class approach to improving teaching and school leadership.  We have implemented reforms aimed at improving what teachers do and how leaders support the teaching process and build a culture of learning.

These reforms complement work that is ongoing across states and territories, but achieving national agreement on many matters related to teaching and principalship, has been a significant breakthrough. Including the development of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and the Australian Professional Standard for Principals, that provide clear, detailed, nationally agreed definitions of what it means to be an effective teacher or leader, and a road map in each case for getting there.

But we are not done yet!

With many competing demands, it is vital that our principals are supported so that leadership that places student learning front and centre is prioritised.

Great principals have the courage to stop what isn’t working and to focus efforts on what can make the biggest difference to student learning.

So, what’s next? We need to build on the great work so far. The next wave of national reform must focus on leadership development; for those currently leading in our schools and for those that aspire to do so. It must support every principal to maximise impact on student outcomes through the development of a culture of professional collaboration to build the collective efficacy of teachers.

To this end we should:

  • support the development of a national, coherent strategic approach to school leadership development in Australia
  • recognise and promote expertise in high quality school leadership in Australian schools
  • put in place a nationally consistent standards-based professional learning experience for aspiring and experienced leaders
  • assure potential candidates have adequate exposure to a range of preparation experiences and are suitably equipped for the principal role
  • develop opportunities for experienced principals to understand, experience, reflect on and develop their leadership practice
  • build on the collective efficacy of the profession and grow it – collaborative expertise.

In my role I have met Ministers of Education across Australia. What strikes me is that while they might differ on some issues, they all want the very best teachers and leaders in schools.

The identification, nurturing and development of school leadership talent must be a part of the reform agenda, alongside supporting our current school leaders to work together nationally.

We must help strengthen collaborative leadership in Australian schooling by developing R & D partnerships with school networks and leadership institutes, sharing knowledge across systems and sectors.

And, we must support them in making the hard calls, to lead learning and impact in their schools and to take some time off to enjoy their lives outside of school.

I look forward to working with our key stakeholders to continue this work and build on what is already in place.