Tony Townsend, Professor of Educational Leadership, Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Brisbane Australia, describes an exciting and innovative project that resulted from a professional learning program.
The importance of maximizing learning outcomes, for all students in all schools across an educational system in a rapidly changing, increasingly diverse society, one that is trending towards a knowledge-led economy, is obvious. To do this we need to think about school autonomy (decentralising some of the decisions about education to the school), school effectiveness (improving the achievement of students), and school leadership (for the two previous factors to work, the quality of school leadership has been shown to be critical).
Governments around the world continue to search for the silver bullet that provides a solution, at both the system level and the school level. Since 2013, over 250 Australian public schools have been made Independent Public Schools (IPS) by the Queensland Government based on the argument that doing so “recognises the best decision-making often occurs at a local level through direct response to local community needs and aspiration”, one that stemmed from an identified commitment to “providing state schools with greater autonomy in decision-making and increased capacity to work in new ways to maximise learning outcomes”… to enable them to “have greater freedom to find their own strategic direction and make decisions which will directly benefit their students” .
This blog considers the impact of a professional learning program called the Principals as Strategic Leaders (PASL) on the ways in which principals lead their schools in innovative ways. The four-module program, conducted over nine months, focused on developing strategic thinking, strategic execution and entrepreneurial leadership. Principals from 26 schools, sometimes with the support of others in their leadership team, making a total of 45 people in the cohort, undertook the program. The program contained four modules, commenced in August 2016 and was completed in February 2017. Research was conducted in conjunction with the program and the subsequent implementation of the strategic plans drawn up by the schools and a series of case studies were conducted over the course of 2017 to gain a deeper understanding of how school leaders actually used strategic leadership to guide their schools in innovative ways. Data was collected through interviews, document analysis and focus group discussions.
In one primary school about an hour west of Brisbane the chosen innovation was to improve teacher and parent understanding of the role played by each in the development of highly successful students and to further develop the relationships between home and school in ways that would support improved student engagement, learning, and achievement. The principal outlined how the school had changed in recent times:
…we have more than doubled in size within sort of a two-year period … new families have come in, a lot of movement from other schools coming through as well … this school’s reputation in particular has picked up and bringing in a lot of the private schools in particular this year as well … it was a very strong apostolic stronghold, with the church down here being the biggest apostolic in the southern hemisphere. So, they considered this school to be theirs. You’ve now got Catholics coming into the place as well …a clientele in terms of their parents’ employment, university lecturers, scientists, all that sort of stuff, as well as businesses from you know, going to Brisbane, so it’s changed from that whole rural school to where it is quite a complex mix of parents that are coming into it…
The change in the school’s demography brought about some new problems. Whereas some parents were really committed to their child’s education and wanted to participate, other parents were not so active and the school’s attendance rates suffered.
We’ve got a whole lot of parents who understand that they’ve got a big part to play and are confident that they can support their children’s education. And we’ve got a core of people who don’t realise the importance and don’t think that they have the capabilities to support their children’s education.
Having some parents wanting to be more involved seemed to be a threat to some of the teachers:
It was a complex mix of parents in the play, but it was also alternating to the mindset of teachers to enter those questions of the parents, who are starting to become more and more on their doorstep, asking you know, what’s going on … all of a sudden, teachers are seeing themselves as fishbowls, in terms of that. And changing perceptions of what parents now expect of them as well, so trying to meet in the middle and gain some ground on what’s going to work best for our school.
To overcome the twin issues of attendance and the need to build better relations between teachers and parents, two strategic decisions were made. The first decision was called the Latte Lounge and the second, the Performance Pact. The two were connected by a clear understanding that if parents were interested enough to come into the school (through the Latte Lounge) then it was important for these meetings to have meaning and significance. The relationship between the two was developed through the use of a school slogan, CLEAR – for Celebrate, Learning, Excellence, Attitude, and Respect – which allowed students to, in the principal’s words, “Dream, Believe, Strive, Succeed, which I think is very powerful. And that’s really it in a nutshell, dream, believe, strive, succeed…
The Latte Lounge brought people into the school in an informal way but allowed the school to keep them abreast of what the school was trying to do.
The purpose of the Latte Lounge was to share information with parents that might not normally come to the school for formal parent-teacher meetings but would be prepared to come to a more informal conversation over coffee.
It encouraged parents that were not on formal committees in the school to become more involved.
… the one thing we noticed was there were a group of parents who are involved in the P and C, and we wanted to get different groups involved in the school, not just that group who had the time and the knowledge and the confidence to come and do tuckshop and fundraising and that kind of thing.
But as parents’ confidence grew, it was also possible to provide parents with much more specific information about ways to support their children and to develop a shared understanding of what the school was trying to do.
One of the things we also did, because we started doing a literacy program called SSP. And so, one of the Latte Lounges focused on that and so I was able to give background for that, and what we were doing in class. So, all parents across the school could come …
Our discussions have been around, okay, how can we help you get your child to that place that we need them to be. So, there’s been a lot of those conversations through the Latte Lounge.
Parents interviewed at the school were very positive about the Latte Lounge.
And it’s not like a meeting setting, it’s just an informal chat … an informal chat, get together, have a coffee, something to eat … very relaxed environment.
The Latte Lounge assisted parents to have a better understanding of how to support their child:
I go to the Latte Lounges and quite often people go “I don’t understand the Performance Pacts, I don’t understand the way they rate it and that”. So, [principal] will actually get it all up on the screen … and go, right, this is how you read it, this is how you work it, this is where your child’s at, sort of thing.
The second strategic decision was the introduction of the Performance Pact. The Performance Pact is a contract between the school and the parents, one that indicates that if the parents commit to ensuring that their child attends school, that the school will commit to do everything it can to ensure that the child progresses at an appropriate rate.
To be on the Performance Pact, they’ve got to maintain a 95% attendance rate throughout the whole year, and we monitor that. So, if they don’t achieve it in a five-week cycle, I send a warning letter home to parents. If, in the next five-week cycle, they still don’t improve the 95 % … I send a letter home to parents stating that their Performance Pact is on hold and they don’t get the additional support that we’re offering … until they get their percentage back up again.
The Performance Pact not only placed expectations on parents to ensure that students attended classes for at least 95% of the time, but the school also had to live up to their side of the bargain as well. School leaders spend two evenings a week and two mornings a week working with students to enable them to have the best chance of success.
We offer after school tutoring…. Twice a week, after school…. That’s for students that we’ve identified through our data that haven’t made enough progress towards their goals, we give that additional support to them until they achieve that goal…. The parents of those children are very supportive … they are prepared to wait and pick their children up later, or just simply wait at school until their children are finished…
…we’ve got before school homework support [twice a week] for students, basically who, for some reason or another, don’t have the parent support at home to complete the homework, or the parent lives are very busy. Those sorts of things. So, we’re offering two days a week, in the mornings, where we take the kids from eight to half past eight, to get that homework completed for those kids.
A parent interviewed at the school expressed her appreciation for this concerted approach to support her child’s learning.
…my son, he’s on the Performance Pact but he was sort of still working towards his goals so they offered him the tutoring after school. And so, they’re wanting to help and see your child achieve those goals no matter where they are.
The Performance Pact has generated positive outcomes, including a more focused approach to identifying specific student learning needs and also to have wider, more general conversations about academic standards.
…there’s been a lot of those conversations, both with teachers and parents, about what, you know, performance looks like. What do academic standards look like?
The Performance Pact has also streamlined the reporting system in the school. With the Performance Pact providing parents with regular information about their children and with the Latte Lounge providing opportunities for parents to learn about what is happening in the school and to be able to ask questions about issues they see as important, then detailed reports in the middle and at the end of the year are not necessary.
… with report cards, [we are] very much making it just one very simple comment. Because the parents are getting so much information throughout the year, there is no need to have that very detailed report card now, because a report card, at the end of the day, is just another piece of information to these parents now, because it really doesn’t tell them anything more.
Both the Latte Lounge and the Performance Pact have made a difference to the culture of the school as can been seen by one comment by a teacher about the celebration to which all students on the Performance Pact are invited and a comment from the parent about the extra work done by people in the school to support the students.
The Latte Lounge is one way and having the display at the end of the term to celebrate learning was a way to get other people in and I was sceptical at first because the first time we had it was the last day of term one just before Easter. I thought no one’s going to turn up there. It was massive … there were a lot of parents who were there that I’d never seen before … I had a lot, I had probably I think ten, a dozen parents come in and we had the kids’ bookwork open and they came in and they chatted and looked at what the kids were doing.
The best thing that’s happened to the school is introducing the homework clubs and the after-school tutoring. I think that’s just great. It’s an expense that the parents don’t have because it is offered to them free if your child meets the certain requirements. So, if they’re struggling at school, if you get them here every day on time, and they’re here 95% of the time, they actually get offered that free tutoring … if you can’t get your kids there or if they have so many days off you don’t get offered that free tutoring because the kids aren’t here to learn.
Perhaps the most significant outcome for the school in this project is the way parents talk about and support the school.
I recommended it to her [the other parent] … I drive the extra 10 minutes to come out here rather than the five-minute one where we’re at. A lot of parents, they bypass their closest school to come here. There’s probably three or four closer schools that I could send my child to, or could have sent my girls to, but I drove past them to come here.
I’ve gone past three [schools] just to get here, probably four, yeah.
In summary, this school is an excellent example of both strategic thinking and strategic leadership. Strategic thinking started from the data related to a changing demography with changing expectations, and the leadership team identified the need to enhance the relationship between teachers and parents in ways that created a partnership approach to improving student outcomes. Other data told the school leaders that attendance was a problem and that this contributed to some students not achieving. Two major entrepreneurial initiatives were undertaken, the Performance Pact and the Latte Lounge: the former to address, specifically, attendance issues and student achievement, and the latter as a means of communicating what the school was trying to do with parents. Strategic execution of these two main avenues towards higher levels of student achievement involved the elements associated with strategic leadership (Pisapia, 2009): transformation (the culture of the school changed), management (expectations were identified and enforced), bridging (connecting teachers and parents in different ways), and bartering (higher levels of teacher-parent interactions during the year meant that annual student reports could be simplified). The leadership team recognised that bonding, especially reaching out to teachers to support them through this ongoing process, was an issue that needed additional work. Overall, however, school leaders, teachers, and parents alike were positive about the steps that the school had taken and were confident that what had been accomplished in 2017 can be further built on in years to come.
What the PaSL program and the case study has shown is that principals, if given the right tools and the authority to make change, are able to think and act strategically in ways that supports the development of their school community. The issue of context is important as is the issue of equity and, given the opportunities and skills, principals may be able to identify, plan and implement innovative approaches to improving student learning in ways that provide local solutions to what might be perceived as global problems.
 Independent Public Schools, Department of Education and Training website, downloaded 14/09/2015
 Pisapia, J. (2009). The strategic leader: New tactics for a globalizing world. Charlotte: Information Age Publishers
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