Back in February, the NSW Premier announced a brand-new program to revolutionise the education system and attract university students, new graduates and existing teachers to take on leadership opportunities in the state’s schools. Starting in 2022, the plan is to fast track a group of emerging leaders into Principalship. The government hopes that the strategy will be its answer to the lack of leadership depth in a system that is struggling to find teachers for teaching and leadership positions across the state.
Currently, the average time taken for an NSW teacher to transition to a Principal role is close to 20 years, with the new program identifying a 10-year fast track process, new leaders will be at the helm in less than half the time of those who have come before them. Given such a dramatic difference in preparation time, it is natural to wonder how these developing leaders will be ready to take on the complex nature of a leadership role in one of the many diverse schools across the state.
School leaders in NSW have common key accountabilities regardless of the communities they find themselves in. The role requires a diverse set of skills developed from both experiences and from knowledge acquisition. Principals must lead and manage a school in the areas of educational leadership, educational programs and learning outcomes, student and staff welfare, professional development and staff performance management, building maintenance, budgeting and financial management and community partnerships. These key accountabilities are as diverse as the skills required to complete them at the highest level.
Whilst policies, procedures and programs can guide leaders to make the best choices for their school community, nothing can prepare emerging leaders for all the challenges that a senior leader faces on a regular basis. Whilst knowledge-based skills and strengths are often developed through education, training, professional development and experiences, the range and depth of this experience can change a person’s ability to complete work, relate to others and achieve goals.
If the fast-track program is to work to its full potential, we must not just look at emerging leaders who may present a certain level of knowledge-based skills and strengths. We must look at the transferrable skills and personal traits of potential candidates and ways in which we can develop these over the 10-year period. This is a vitally important step as knowledge-based and technical skills required to do the job often determine a person’s success in a school leadership role.
Transferable skills have been referred to in the past as ‘soft skills’, however the term ‘essential skills’ is becoming a much more common reference to these necessary leadership qualities. In school leadership, the most common skills are; leadership, communication, negotiation, critical thinking, decision making, emotional regulation, conflict resolution, and problem solving, however there are many, many more.
Whilst in the past, some of these skills would have been developed in action over a long tenure in education, shortening a person’s timeframe into leadership roles may mean their exposure to the many experiences that help shape and develop these skills in situ are limited.
If the new group of fast-tracked emerging leaders is to be successful in helping the government achieve its goal of attracting potential candidates to explore education as a career path, then the program must include the development of these skills. The reality is developing and nurturing these skills takes time and in real time scenarios. If the fast-track leaders can be exposed to as many of the challenges the Principal cohort faces on a daily basis, and is guided, supported, mentored and encouraged, then success may be imminent. If the program can’t adequately do that, we will have young leaders, ill-equipped leaving the profession because they are facing the same lack of professional support that the generation of leaders before them have faced.
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