Principals in Action: An Analysis of School Leadership

By Neil, Peter; Carlisle, Karen et al. | Research in Education, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Principals in Action: An Analysis of School Leadership


Neil, Peter, Carlisle, Karen, Knipe, Damian, McEwen, Alex, Research in Education


The job of principal of a school is one of the most crucial in the education system. It is recognised that pupils' learning depends on good leadership of the schools in which that learning takes place. It has been said, however, that, despite its importance to education, leadership remains, as Burns (1978) suggested, one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth (cited in Dimmock, 1993: 99).

Within the literature on school leadership, a distinction is drawn between leadership and management and between management and administration. Leadership, for example, has been described as building and maintaining an organisational culture (Schein, 1985), establishing a mission for the school, giving a sense of direction (Louis and Miles, 1990) and doing the right thing (Bennis and Nanus, 1985). It is clear from the literature on school improvement that good leadership is essential if a school is to develop (MacGilchrist et al., 1997) and, furthermore, that improvement will be effective only if there is concentration on teaching and learning and awareness of what is going on in classrooms. Leadership is the exercise of high-level conceptual skills and decisiveness, according to Bennis and Nanus (1985). It is envisioning mission, developing strategy, inspiring people and changing culture.

Leadership is distinguished from the more operational areas of administration and management. Everard (1986) describes management as more future-oriented, entrepreneurial, proactive, concerned with achieving change by working on people's values, beliefs and ideas to raise standards and define future goals. Administration, on the other hand, is present-oriented, reactive, concerned with structures and operations, establishing order, predictability and systems and routines. Typical tasks in the act of management are clarifying future aims, planning, organising resources, reviewing and refining. Administration involves tasks such as ordering goods, answering the phone and keeping accounts (Everard, 1986, pp. 14 ff.). According to Boleman and Deal (1991, cited in Evans, 1996), most school leaders spend more time managing than leading. Running an organisation seems to be a matter of solving an endless set of 'messes'. Management, on the other hand, is making sure the bells ring on time. Fullan (1991, pp. 158) maintains that successful principals are both managers and leaders simultaneously. According to Bush (1995, p. 11), current principals have to fulfil a dual function, that of a chief executive, responsible for the general management of the school, and, on the other hand, they are also leading professionals, responsible for leading teachers. Bush maintains that the educational reforms which have taken place within the last two decades have made it difficult for them to act in both capacities.

The problem is, therefore, how to enable principals to move beyond the administrative level and management level to the level of educational leadership without neglecting the tasks which are necessary for the organisation to continue to function. In other words, how can the effective principal be involved in actively reflecting on the context of her or his daily actions and the implications they may have for the school (Day, 2000)?

The importance of reflection on teaching has been highlighted as an important vehicle for self-development. According to Griffiths and Tann (1992, p. 77) there are three incremental levels of reflection:

1 The technical or action level, at which the focus is on what happened.

2 The second level involves analysing the underlying assumptions, the educational goals, which were selected and those which were discarded.

3 The third and final level involves considering the moral and ethical issues. Schon (1987) adds a further dimension, namely reflecting in action.

In another model of professional development of principals operated by one principals' centre (Barth, 1990, p. …

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