The catalyst for John Key's announcement regarding four new roles in the teaching profession is the longstanding problem of persistent and growing disparities in educational achievement in this country.

The leadership of New Zealand schools has been overhauled, with the Government creating new roles including 'executive principals' and 'expert teachers'. The change was announced today by Prime Minister John Key in a state of the nation-style speech in Auckland

While I welcome an enhanced career structure for teachers and leaders, we should not lose sight of the fact such enhancement is not, and should not, be the primary purpose of this new policy. In responding to the announcement and contributing to its more detailed planning, we should be asking: "What do we know about the conditions under which such roles are more or less likely to succeed in improving achievement?" We have considerable negative and positive experience to help us answer this question.

First, lines of responsibility and accountability must be absolutely transparent. We know from numerous experiments in school clusters that putting school leaders together to develop a shared improvement agenda can be a colossal waste of time and money. Clusters have failed because they lack appropriate expertise, because principals could not shed their competitive mind-sets, and most of all, because the cluster leaders are conflicted and unclear about the nature and source of their authority in the group. Unless this is clarified in advance, the appointed executive principals, no matter how skilled, will struggle.

Second, we have had nearly 25 years of experienced principals, in the form of commissioners, going into schools which have been identified by ERO as failing in some respect. Yet despite that, many such schools are still at risk. What has been learned from this experience about the expertise required of such change leaders and of the regulatory framework that is required to support them? Has or will a systematic analysis of this experience inform the design of these new leadership roles?

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Third, there is now a considerable body of evidence available about the expertise required by school leaders to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their schools. Unless they have encountered such research in recent graduate study, experienced principals have had very little opportunity to access and apply this body of knowledge.

This knowledge needs to not only inform the selection of executive and change principals, but also be made available to all experienced principals so that the leadership expertise of all our schools is enhanced and the pool of future executive principals can be developed and sustained.


Viviane Robinson is a distinguished professor at the University of Auckland and academic director of the University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership.