School principals who have an organisational approach to their work and also have previous leadership experience develop by participating in Sweden’s national principal training programme. However, the programme is failing to engage participants who lack experience or who have a different view of the role of a principal. These are the findings of a new thesis from the University of Gothenburg.
Within a year, newly employed comprehensive school principals must commence Sweden’s three-year principal training programme, on which they study in parallel with their work as a school head. Stina Jerdborg has studied how principals on the programme understand the role of principal and how they tackle the parallel processes of work and training during their first years in the profession.
Stina Jerdborg observed study groups on the national principal training programme at three different higher education institutions and interviewed 14 principals and some of their teaching staff. The principals were interviewed while in the programme but were also interviewed and shadowed while at work. It became clear that their approach to the role of principal was crucial to what they learned and the experiences they gained.
“The principals who understood that the role of school principal is an organisational one, in other words that their role as head is to lead their organisation, created an identity that enabled them to fully participate in the programme and develop further in their professional practice,” says Stina Jerdborg.
Principals distanced themselves from the programme
Those principals who were “task-oriented”, i.e. saw their job as resolving one task after another rather than addressing the organisation, distanced themselves from the training programme and distanced themselves at work.
“They created an identity of non-participation. They saw the courses as being too abstract and not for them. This limited what they learned and the experiences they took back to their schools.”
A third group of “idea-oriented” principals, who were primarily driven by a desire to implement a specific educational idea, engaged in elements that they felt were directly relevant to the implementation of that educational idea. However, they distanced themselves from other parts of the programme.
“Their participation became ambivalent, whereby they switched between full participation and what I would term non-participation.”
Previous experience crucial
Previous experience of leadership in schools was another crucial distinguishing factor. Such experience meant participants had a basic understanding and a leadership repertoire that could be further developed during the training programme. Principals with such experience were also more likely to have developed an organisational view of the role of principal.
“The study shows that a deep insight and understanding of one type of school, for example, combined with some kind of school management experience, supports the professional development and learning of principals. Those who lack such insight and experience tend to be so new to the role that they need to start by building up their basic knowledge. Those principals who were in their first leadership post and also new to the type of school – such as upper secondary school teachers who became primary school principals – and new to their local context – for example, those working under a new education authority – found it particularly difficult,” says Jerdborg, concluding:
“The national principal training programme can provide important support for the professional development of principals but it needs to be viewed in a wider context where it can be seen as one amongst several components. For example, it does not bridge or replace the experience that produced the fundamental approach and repertoire of principals,” says Stina Jerdborg.
Text: Carl-Magnus Höglund