Exploring Relationships between School Leadership, Teacher Capacity & School Improvement

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In the third of our workshop series in 2015, The HEAD Foundation was host to a panel of four experts and practitioners – Mrs. Belinda Charles, Prof. Alma Harris, A/P David Ng, and Dr. Hairon Salleh – who discussed and debated issues in and around the notions of school improvement, school leadership and teacher development with The HEAD Foundation team. The discussion outcomes for the day included 1) the strong need for contextualization when it comes to transferring and understanding theories and policies across countries and the 2) necessity of structuring education policies appropriately for the country’s economy.

Renowned distributed leadership scholar, Prof. Alma Harris from the Institute of Education (University of London) and the Institute of Educational Leadership (University of Malaya), started off the roundtable by highlighting the importance of contextualization when policies and theories are transferred across cultures and countries. She emphasized that while certain education policies may appear successful in a particular country, it is necessary to also consider the conditions (e.g. culture, structure, environment) that made these strategies successful.

Referencing to the oft-mentioned issue of the importance of educational leadership, Prof. Harris noted that simply because high-performing school systems such as Singapore had strong school leadership policies, it does not mean that underperforming education systems is due to weak leadership practices. Instead, she advocates that more in-depth research be done that contextualizes the reasons as to why desired results are not obtained.

In response, National Institute of Education (NIE) researcher A/P David Ng, argued also that if successful education policies were to be transferred or learnt across countries, governments must realise that such policies were intended for countries with a particular economic outlook. Prof. Ng also shared how NIE’s approach to equipping teachers and principals for a knowledge economy involved incorporating design thinking paradigms into the training curriculum. Questions were also raised if teacher improvement policies like Professional Development were impactful and had any return of investment, especially in a context where multiple dynamic variables could influence the process towards student outcomes.

Dr. Hairon Salleh, also from the NIE and an expert in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), deepened the discussion with a key thought that if PD must be seen as a lifelong professional commitment, how do you deal with teachers in the later stages of their career? Furthermore, while PD opportunities are aplenty, what is needed to make borrowed PD models like Lesson Study succeed in a context like Singapore or Indonesia?

Veteran educator, former principal, and presently Academy Dean of the Academy of Principals (Singapore), Mrs. Belinda Charles sharpened the panel’s insight when she touched on the new realities faced by school principals. As the demands of principals are aplenty, and which when compounded with the need to ‘firefight’ problems, takes up the principal’s capacity on strategizing a school’s direction. Furthermore, she argued that while leadership is and will remain important, she observed that Singapore’s practice of rotating principals once every 6 years has the potential latent effect of straining existing resources as each new principal tries to set new goals and directions.