Leadership Article - 'High Impact Rural School Leadership'

Report reveals 4 keys to high-impact rural school leadership

By EducationHQ News Team
Published November 5, 2021

 A new, government funded report has identified the key elements of outstanding leadership in country schools.

Leadership in country schools requires a sense of collective responsibility, the paper argues.

According to the University of New South Wales’ High-Impact School Leadership in Regional, Rural and Remote Schools report, the best leaders have four key attributes: an innovation imperative, collective responsibility, a focus on teaching and learning, and visibility in and commitment to the community.

To come to their conclusions, the researchers conducted a series of scoping studies, held workshops with representatives from principals’ associations and interviewed high-performing principals.

Lead author Associate Professor Scott Eacott told EducationHQ that many teachers in rural areas only plan to stay for a short time, which makes building relationships difficult.

“When I was a teacher back in the 90s, it was a bit of a rite of passage for you to go and do a bit of country service…” he said.

“I think there’s a bit of a legacy there, that sometimes it is that you just go and 'do your time' in the country, whereas I think all of the principals that we spoke to [emphasised that] to actually have impact as a leader in these types of locations is to be both visible in the community … and actually showing a commitment to the community. So you're not just using them as a stepping stone, you're actually there and trying to impact on the outcomes of students, staff and the community.”

Leadership in country schools also requires a sense of collective responsibility, the paper argues.

“The idea … that every member of staff is responsible for every student and every family, and really building that idea that you don't just look after your class or the students that you've worked with; everybody in the school is responsible for every family and every student in the school,” Eacott said.

“It's this idea of collective responsibility, you don't leave it for someone else to pick something up, you actually do it yourself. If you see something, you act on it. I think that was a really important thing … how do you build that locally grounded responsibility, where everyone's involved and everyone feels a sense of responsibility for everyone in the school?”

Lower educational outcomes in rural areas call for innovative leadership, Eacott said.

“The outcomes at the moment are not good enough, we can't just keep doing the status quo, we need to be thinking outside the box and doing something a little bit different.

“So in some ways, there's actually a little bit more permission to be innovative in these sorts of locations, and that calls for different types of leadership.”

Eacott added that it is important to move away from a deficit mindset when talking about regional, rural and remote education.

“It's really easy to fall on the data that the farther a school is located from a major centre, the lower the outcomes are and all of that type of stuff, but that sets you up in quite a deficit way [of thinking].

“We really tried in this project to look at the impact that you're having in your school as opposed to, ‘What do you need to do to make your school better?’

“So we tried to flip that narrative and have a really positive story about the work that's going on in those schools rather than a deficit logic.”

Associate Professor James Ladwig of the University of Newcastle welcomed the report, but added some "cautionary notes".

"First, on the cautions, the report really is mislabelled," Ladwig said.

"Because the authors were really only able to obtain direct evidence from principals and system agents, the findings should not be considered definitive statements.

"They are better understood as what principals and systems people from rural and remote schools say. Of course, that isn’t to be discounted completely – but it is only one viewpoint we would include in a better understanding of the issues at hand.

"Second, the report declares impact without any evidence of actual impact – so we can’t really test the findings on impact. In this case, the key points of the report (that the leadership needed in rural and remote settings is different to metro- settings and that ‘an innovation imperative,’ ‘collective responsibility,’ a ‘focus on teaching and learning’, and ‘visibility in and commitment to the community’ are in fact causal factors for school impact) remain plausible and reasonable, but un-tested. More research is needed to secure these findings.

"Finally, it is likely that some of these points are very much understated and in many ways the consequence of how systems manage rural and remote schools. Innovation is often a means to obtain needed basic supports in these settings. Collective responsibility isn’t optional there. The need to focus on teaching and learning is probably not unique, and the relationship with community extends far beyond commitments and visibility – but requires long term authentic membership in these communities."

Eacott noted that, when visiting schools to conduct case studies, the researchers spoke to school staff and community members as well as principals.

"We did actually speak to more than just the principals, but at the same time, it isn't definitive," he said.

"It's four case studies, it's 20 interviews, it's part of an ongoing agenda to try to improve outcomes in regional, rural and remote Australian schools."