Welcome to the Curriculum & Leadership Journal website.
To receive our fortnightly Email Alert,
please click on the blue menu item below.
Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
Follow us on twitter

Preparing future leaders for Australian schools

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

The article is adapted from the report Preparing Future Leaders: Effective Preparation for Aspiring School Principals, © Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, used with permission.

The role of the school principal is complex and evolving. Principals require a broad repertoire of skills and the confidence and acumen to deploy those skills with impact. With increasing autonomy, there are also greater opportunities for and demands on principals to make good decisions at the local level. This has implications for the development of the corresponding leadership skills to meet these needs.

The average age of principals in Australia is one of the highest among OECD countries (OECD, TALIS, 2014) and too few suitable candidates are stepping forward to take the place of those who will soon retire. Survey results show that approximately half of current deputy principals do not intend to apply for a principal position in the next three years (ACER, Staff in Australia’s schools 2013). There is significant evidence that many first-time principals feel they were unprepared for the demands of the role.

A new report, Preparing Future Leaders: Effective Preparation for Aspiring School Principals, highlights the key challenges in preparing principals for current and future school needs and provides an up-to-date and comprehensive picture of the current state of play across Australia. The current article provides edited excerpts from the report.

The evidence base

Preparing Future Leaders is based on two other recent in-depth reports, both commissioned by AITSL: the Environmental Scan: Principal Preparation Programs by Dr Barbara Watterston, and a literature review and horizon scan, Aspiring Principal Preparation, by Dr Ben Jensen and colleagues. This research was supplemented by a number of recently released data reports: National Teaching Workforce Dataset Data Analysis Report 2014, Australian Department of Education; Staff in Australia’s schools 2013, ACER for the Australian Department of Education; Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013 results, from the OECD; and Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, 2014, Australian Catholic University.

AITSL’s research into preparation of principals has been broadened through extensive consultation with the profession. A number of strategies have been used, including face-to-face meetings, teleconferencing, social media and an online survey, to seek the views of aspirant leaders, school leaders, and system and sector representatives from around Australia, with the aim of gaining widespread and diverse input.

Current principal preparation in Australia

This body of research found that principal preparation programs and activities delivered across Australia are generally based on sound principles of professional learning (set out on page 8 of Preparing Future Leaders). However, it also found that they are not always well aligned with broader goals for the sector. The Environmental Scan identified a total of ten dedicated principal preparation programs in Australia at the beginning of 2015; these programs have a small reach. Each of the government, Catholic and independent systems and sectors has its own approach to principal preparation, in which principal preparation is often part of more generalised leadership programs.

The evidence clearly indicates that there is much still to be done to ensure principals are well prepared for the challenging role of leading a school.

The extensive research and consultation undertaken for Preparing Future Leaders have led to five major recommendations for improvement in the current approach to principal preparation in Australia.


Take a systematic, standards-based and coherent approach

To be effective, principal preparation programs need to be well coordinated. They must match supply and demand, and training delivery to training needs. As part of this process they must operate within an environment that promotes the positive aspects and status of the principal role.

A major aim of principal preparation is to ensure a supply of suitably qualified and skilled applicants when and where they are needed. At present, principal preparation is too often ad hoc and disconnected. Achieving a match between high-quality supply and local demand is unlikely to happen if left to chance. A more systematic, structured and coherent process is required to deal with the demographic challenges facing the leadership of Australia’s schools. A national approach should be based on the agreed skills, knowledge and abilities required of Australian principals detailed in the Australian Professional Standard for Principals and the associated Leadership Profiles.

Secure and ongoing funding for programs and initiatives is a key part of the success of such a systematic approach.

Alongside professional learning providers, system leaders and employers, principals themselves have a key role to play in developing the capacity of potential leaders. Involvement in local initiatives such as shadowing, coaching and mentoring activities is an important aspect of the responsibility of the profession in building future leaders.

Through greater alignment, systems, sectors, universities and private providers can better develop effective principal preparation opportunities.

Identify and nurture talent

In the best approaches to principal preparation, potential leaders are identified early in their careers and given a range of opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Successful succession planning requires structured, transparent career pathways, and clear selection prerequisites for promotion.

Profession-wide criteria for identifying the attributes and dispositions of future leaders do not currently exist in Australia. While the Standard and associated Leadership Profiles articulate the leadership role at increasing levels of sophistication, to develop a pool of capable aspirant principals it is also necessary to be clear about the prerequisites for principal preparation and promotion opportunities, and to define what support is needed at each career level and how that support should be provided.

To ensure a healthy pipeline of potential leaders, well-articulated and explicit pathways to leadership are required. Leadership career pathways should clearly identify the opportunities for people to progress, the skills and leadership behaviours required for progression, and the feedback and performance management systems that support the progression. Part of the pathway may be the provision of opportunities for leaders to practise in various middle management and deputy roles, ideally in a range of schools, and to ‘act’ in those positions to which they aspire.

Setting out transparent career pathways and clear selection prerequisites for promotion will reduce the current tendency to view the principalship as ‘inherited’ by virtue of educators’ length of time working in a school.

Match learning to an individual’s capabilities, career stage and context

With clearer pathways to advancement, professional learning should be appropriate to each point on the pathway, explicit, well understood and sustained after appointment. Professional learning needs to be timed and spaced to allow aspiring principals to grow in their leadership and management abilities as they move closer to the role, and sufficiently targeted to equip participants to succeed in their context.

Learning for aspiring leaders should occur in three broad stages:

  • developing deep and comprehensive pedagogical knowledge as the foundation for strong instructional leadership. This learning can be done relatively early in the journey to principalship as it is compatible with a teaching role
  • developing the many higher-order and interpersonal skills required by principals, including strategic thinking, change leadership, and emotional and social intelligence. This learning is best developed over time and should occur well before an aspirant takes on the role of principal
  • developing management skills. This learning is best undertaken immediately prior to assuming a principal role, as it can then be consolidated through immediate practice.

Use evidence-based adult learning techniques

Highly effective preparation programs reflect an understanding of a range of adult learning techniques that have been shown to be successful and provide a diversity of experiences over time. They include:

  • discriminating application and selection processes matched to the learning opportunity
  • blended learning and the opportunity to apply new skills and knowledge, collaborate, gain feedback and receive ongoing support
  • a degree of personalisation that takes into account the needs, career stage and context of the individual
  • an emphasis on learning from experts and practitioners
  • recognition for the learning undertaken.

Evaluate programs for impact

To ensure principal preparation programs are high quality and have a positive impact, it is critical to engage in rigorous evaluation for purposes of accountability and improvement. Principal preparation evaluations should provide evidence of participant readiness for the role, measure impact upon take-up of role, and demonstrate growth in the number of well-prepared aspirants available to fill future vacancies.


While there are some promising initiatives in principal preparation in Australia, broadly speaking it is an area greatly in need of a more strategic and cohesive approach. Those principals who feel they were well prepared for the role often put it down to good fortune, usually in the form of a great role model, rather than good planning. In reality, too much at present is left to chance.

Getting principal preparation right is a big challenge for the education system, yet the rewards are great. An incredible 96 per cent of principals would choose the role again if given the chance (OECD, TALIS, 2014), which speaks to the depth of job satisfaction possible in leading a learning community to ensure all students reach their full potential.


Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) 2014, Staff in Australia’s schools 2013: Main Report on the Survey, Department of Education, Canberra.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) 2011, Australian Professional Standard for Principals, Education Services Australia, Carlton.

Jensen, B, Hunter, A, Lambert, T and Clark, A 2015, Aspiring principal preparation, prepared for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, AITSL, Melbourne.

TALIS 2013 Results: an International Perspective on Teaching and Learning, TALIS, OECD Publishing.

Watterston, B 2015, Environmental Scan: Principal Preparation Programs, prepared for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, AITSL, Melbourne.


Subject Headings

School leadership
School principals
Educational planning
Educational accountability
Education policy