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Principals And Elite Principals In Primary Schools

Principals And Elite Principals

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In June 2016, Mike Helal and Michael Coelli published a working paper called How Principals Affect Schools. This was a result of research at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne.

Their research was on the effect primary school principals have on educational results of children between Grades 3 and 5.

Most research with analysis by economists around the effects of school principals on educational results has been done in the USA.  Helal and Coelli have carried out the first important research in Australia using statistical methodologies.

What We Knew

Good And Bad News About Mum And Dad’s Bank Balance

Put bluntly, the better off one’s parents the better one’s results would be in school. Since 1966, when important research was carried out, we have known or believed that the socio-economic status of parents (SES) was the most significant influence on educational outcomes for students. Read on, you have a surprise in store.

Education itself, school communities and society are more complex and nuanced today than was the case in 1966.

Good And Bad News About What Sort of Teacher Your Child Had

The better the teacher, the better the student learning, and the better the results. That means we have learned, since that era, that the quality of teaching in classrooms was an important influence on student success.

What We Have Learned This Century About Principals

More recently, research tells us that school principals can make the same level of improvement in results on every student in a school as a high quality teacher does on the students he or she teaches. So the results for every student made by that one person in the school affects the general results for the whole school.

Research In British Colombia, Canada

Primary schools (elementary schools) in British Colombia in Canada have the closest correlation with primary schools in Victoria, Australia, for the purpose of comparison of results.

Using scores for achievement gains in BC Canada, Dhuey and Smith (2014) found that a one standard deviation improvement in the quality of principals was related to a 0.29 to 0.41 standard deviation improvement in maths and reading scores in Grades 3 to 5 students.

Back to Helal And Coelli In Victoria, Australia

Using data provided by the Victorian Department of Education, Helal and Coelli used two methods in their research with no significant variation in conclusions.

Objectives of Helal And Coelli’s Research

They had two objectives.

The first was to identify factor/s in the actions of school principals that positively affected students’ results. To do this, all other factors had to be removed from the equation. This led to the possibility of achieving the second objective. It was important for the study to remove school-based factors, for example the quality of teachers, to isolate principal effects.

The second main objective was to attempt to identify specific “pathways by which individual school principals may affect the schools they lead and ultimately student achievement, our main measure of school outcomes (productivity). The effective practices of school leaders, and leaders more generally, remains largely unknown (p 2).


By keeping all the factors steady and constant over time, that is, the principal in the school, students in the school, teachers in the school, the researchers were able to nail certain characteristics that made a principal who was having outstanding positive effect. To do this the study sample involved about 168,000 students who could be matched to give a sample with constant factors for study.


  • The positive effect of parents’ socio-economic standing (SES) is less than it used to be.
  • The negative effect of staff turnover in larger primary schools is now greater.
  • There is also a greater positive effect the longer the principal’s tenure possibly to a limit of about 8 years.

Caveat: However, in lower socio-economic environments with higher numbers of non-European students, principals are less well-qualified and less experienced. So the positive effect of principals is lower because of these two factors.

  • Principals had greater positive effect on Maths results than on Reading results. These are the two key skill areas that the researchers focused on.

Directions For Future Principals

The research results contribute greatly to our understanding of possible pathways.

  • Existing pathways that elite principals follow, perhaps unconsciously, can be identified and developed.
  • Programs for Principal Development can be put in place. The programs can be explicitly directed to educate principals in what works.
  • All principals can become elite principals and increase the positive effect of their leadership skills.

In Addition

By exploring and analysing changes in the school-level factors, researchers hoped to isolate school-level factors that principals could directly or indirectly influence.


The results were in line with expectations but with one or two surprises. Isolating school level factors was important because some do not affect the results for students. Some results were expected.

  • Boys result were better in Maths than girls, and girls results were better in Literacy than boys.
  • Students from non-English speaking families had lower results in both English and Maths but by Grade 5 they had higher achievements in Maths.
  • Higher socio-economic status (SES) and the proportion of non-English speaking backgrounds gave higher results when the two were together.


Regional and remote schools produced better results than metro schools in spite of the lower socio-economic status of parents which had already been factored in. Regional schools had  overall better results than metro schools with remote schools not far behind regional schools.


To examine the school factors and how principals can affect them positively, the researchers looked at the surveys of staff and parents going back some years, even though the data was incomplete.

Surveys Of Parents

  • Surveys of parents reveal the perception that principals have the least effect on teaching quality.
  • There is an inconsistent correlation between the way parents perceive a principal and students’ results. So a principal more concerned about relationships with parents may not be yielding the best outcomes for students, and vice-versa.

Surveys of Staff

  • Good principals positively lifted morale of staff marginally.
  • Good principals positively affect maths results after fostering Professional Development in Maths. This is not seen in Literacy results.
  • Principals have significant effect on school performance.
  • Principals have many social and educational factors in common.

Helal and Coelli draw interesting and important conclusions from their research. They write:

“Leaders who create

  • a stimulating and collaborative professional environment,
  • with a shared school vision and goals, are
  • those who can best raise student achievement.”

“The more effective pathways involved principals influencing their teaching staff,

rather than via influencing parental perceptions of the school.”

Their results imply that the most effective principals are able

  • “to establish a coherent set of goals for the school’s workforce,
  • to encourage professional interaction among staff, and
  • to promote the professional development of staff”.

Personally, I look forward to reading further research. These findings will be transposed to the secondary school sector with greater confidence. There are already elite principals in place to turn around poorly performing schools with declining enrolments. The findings of earlier research carried out in the USA has already impacted the Department of Education in Victoria.






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