The development of newly appointed principals and school improvement in the Gauteng province of South Africa

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Abstract

The crucial role that a school principal plays to ensure effective strategic leadership in schools has been the subject of intense debate in the educational community and education leadership literature for many years. The role and task of the school leader or principal, commonly referred to in the literature as “the principalship” or mere “principalship”, is critical in the effective functioning of any school and crucial for school improvement. Principalship can be described as the symbiotic interaction between the strategic leadership functions and the organisational functions in a school. Strategic leadership involves functions such as planning, budgeting, organising and dealing with staffing issues, while at the same time dealing with the day-to-day running of the school. School leaders are required to manage the balance between the strategic and the organisational functions of their roles. These roles cannot be separated, because the functions often run concurrently. For example, decisions relating to the vision and mission of the school, which affect long-term activity, are a part of strategic leadership, while the daily operational decisions that affect the “here” and the “now”, constitute the organisational function of school principals. Newly appointed principals tend to respond to the more urgent “day-to-day”matters when leading a school, and this may result in their neglecting the strategic-leadership function of their new roles.

Due to this important and crucial role of the principal and its effect on school effectiveness, consideration must be given to the knowledge and skills that principals possess that can lead to an increase in school improvement and, ultimately, to improved learner outcomes. Crucial to this debate is context-shaped developing opportunities for principals. In the South African context, newly appointed principals are not regarded by teachers as appropriately skilled and trained for school management and leadership. They often experience what could be described as a culture shock as they cross the threshold from teaching into principalship. Effective preparation is one way of reducing this culture shock and helping new leaders to cope.

As a critical aspect of educational reform, school improvement can be understood as being concerned with the school’s internal structures, strategies, capacities and processes that are linked in a coherent manner to advance a specific goal. School improvement is pursued, among other things, by seeking ways that will strengthen the management and leadership capacities of those working in schools to ensure that learners are provided with quality learning opportunities. As an important component of management, school principalship is pivotal in determining continual school improvement. Moreover, it may be argued that the extent of this success depends on the nature of leadership and management practices pursued in a school. The school principal plays a vital role in this process. Change in the nature of school principalship entered the global stage of an intense discourse on educational reform towards the end of the last century. Now, as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the debate continues unabated, if not vigorously. Preoccupation with change that underscores educational reform has been motivated by the growing demand for school improvement. Preoccupation with change that underscores educational reform has been motivated by the growing demand for school improvement.

A common thread in contemporary research on school effectiveness, school change and school improvement refers, inter alia, to continually introducing new and relevant support strategies to promote school principalship and, as a result, also improve teaching and learning in schools. In this process, the development of newly appointed principals becomes vital. Induction of the newly appointed principal is most often cited in the literature as the most important need for new principals. These practices and on-going professional development opportunities can range from carefully planned and formal training and induction programmes to less formally planned “on-the-job” - and “home-grown” experiences. These may include workshops, formal courses and regular principal meetings with other principals.

The main research question for this study is: How can newly appointed principals be developed to improve school effectiveness and learner achievement? The objective of the paper was to gather data regarding professional development needs from newly appointed principals in Gauteng.

This paper, based on a quantitative empirical case study among 50 (n=50) newly appointed principals in Gauteng schools, contributes to the discourse on school principalship, change and school improvement. The research instrument to obtain data for this paper was constructed through a themed and structured questionnaire survey. The participants were purposefully select from among newly appointed principals of both primary and secondary schools in diverse socio-economic communities in Gauteng. They were requested, after informed consent had been given, to complete a comprehensive questionnaire to ascertain their views on their development and training needs. The structured questionnaire survey used was adapted from a combination of a leadership development framework by Piggot-Irvine, Howse and Richard (2013) and the framework for the Norms and Standards for Educators from the Gauteng Department of Education (2013). The questionnaire used a five-point Likert scale to gather quantitative data regarding which leadership needs were perceived by the newly appointed leaders as requiring the most on-going support and development. Drawing on the research data obtained from the respondents, this paper reports on the perceived developmental and training needs of these participants.

Drawing from a combination of these leadership development frameworks, five main leadership functions were identified as the areas in which newly appointed school principals felt they most needed developmental support. The data obtained from the participants were discussed according to these five identified themes. An analysis of the data obtained from this study suggests that newly appointed school principals have unique development needs that, if acknowledged and supported by the Gauteng Department of Education, would enable these newly appointed principals to be better positioned to lead and develop their respective schools. In this respect, this paper suggests that newly appointed principals in Gauteng, as in the rest of the world, have unique development needs that are different from the needs of well-established principals. As a result, they require specific, contextualised approaches in their professional development. In summary, the five elements investigated – namely leading strategically, leading teaching and learning, leading the organisation, leading people, and leading the community – each revealed various sub-sections where the newly appointed principals who formed part of this study felt they needed support and development.

Recommendations for policy and practice highlight the importance of appropriate, multifaceted, developmental “home-grown” support initiatives for newly appointed principals. The paper concludes with empirical findings of the perceived development needs of newly appointed school principals in Gauteng schools and suggests that this unique specialist occupation requires relevant and specific preparation.

Keywords: Gauteng; newly appointed principals; principalship; school improvement; schools; South Africa; support

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die ontwikkeling van nuut-aangestelde skoolhoofde en skoolverbetering in Gauteng provinsie

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