School leaders managing and sustaining change – perceptions of Queensland state school principals

Year: 2019

Author: Kowalkiewicz, Anetta

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

‘While school improvement is outcomes-oriented, it is a process: a journey with many subtleties that even the richest of case studies can’t capture’ (Stoll 2009, p. 116). Effective school improvement requires ‘coherence’, which can be achieved when ‘[the system’s] interdependent parts are connected in ways that enable the relevant output‘ (Robinson et al. 2017, p. 3). Achieving this coherence means school leaders need to act effectively as change agents who ‘move people and organizations forward under very difficult circumstances’ (Fullan 2014, p. 123).

This paper focuses on the experiences of school principals as leaders of organisational change and it aims to identify the determinants of success in school improvement initiatives from a principal’s perspective. It draws on data collected through semi-structured interviews conducted in 2018 with 15 principals of Queensland state schools representing different contexts. These schools were reviewed by the Department of Education between 2014 and 2016, which gave incentive for them to plan and implement a range of improvement strategies and actions. The paper discusses the principals’ retrospective accounts of their school improvement journeys, which were coded and analysed using an inductive approach. The inductively derived themes focused on: the determinants of school improvement, the role of school reviews in school improvement, and the ways in which implemented changes can be sustained in schools.

The findings highlight the notion of a school’s starting point – a combination of factors at the beginning of each school improvement journey. They confirm the importance of direction setting, distributed leadership and collaboration for the success of school improvement initiatives. They also identify multiple mental models and narratives of change developed by school leaders and staff during change implementation, and how they supported or impeded the implementation of school improvement initiatives. These findings underscore the role of principals in managing school culture and rhetoric of change.

The findings also demonstrate that school reviews acted as a catalyst for change, empowered school leaders, and helped them clarify the focus of school improvement and maintain the momentum of change. Finally, the paper identifies ways in which principals attempted to sustain change after the review – these indicate the importance of staff retention, instructional leadership, distributed leadership and documenting change.

The paper concludes by drawing the implications for research, educational leaders and policy makers in terms of how school leaders’ capability as change agents could be further explored, developed and supported by the system.