Successful Educational Leadership in New Zealand

Successful Educational Leadership in New Zealand

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This book features case studies of 11 New Zealand educational leaders, both as testimony to the extraordinary work of these leaders and to help aspiring, new and experienced practitioners understand more about their leadership role. The case studies reveal some of the exhilaration of being a leader in different school/centre settings and identifies the key values, attributes and strategies that have enabled them to achieve and maintain success.

These case studies seek to provide contextualised answers to two major research questions:

What practices do successful leaders use?

What gives rise to successful educational leadership?

This book replicates in a New Zealand context research carried out under the International Successful School Principalship Project (ISSPP) which aims to focus research attention on factors behind principals’ success.

From: Successful Educational Leadership in New Zealand, by Ross Notman

CHAPTER 2: Learning-centred Leadership

Susan Lovett

Peter Verstappen

Principal, Lismore Primary School (1997-1998)

Deputy Principal, Ashburton Borough School (1999-2006)

Principal, Southbridge School (2007-present)


This case study illustrates one school principal’s attempt to connect leadership with learning. Peter Verstappen’s ways of drawing in staff, students and community to create and implement a vision for his school’s curriculum can be framed in terms of learning-centred leadership (Southworth, 2009). This type of leadership distinguishes school leaders from leaders of other organisations in that it signals a “desire and responsibility to enhance students’ learning” (Southworth, 2009, p. 91).

Southworth suggests that principals “explicitly seek and want to make a difference to the schools they lead” (p. 92). A case study of a principal striving to be such a leader is of interest because it offers an entry point for exploring principals’ conceptions of leadership and the ways in which leadership intentions can be enacted within particular contexts to influence student learning and achievement. The data underpinning this case study were drawn from multiple sources, including interviews, observations and document analysis, as part of a larger longitudinal project (2007-2010) called 2020VISION (Lovett, Verstappen, Clarke, and Gilmore, 2010). When analysing this material we adopted Simons’s (2009) preference for “situated generalisation,” because this approach enables the reader to “discern which aspects of the case they can generalize to their own context and which they cannot” (p. 165).

Background: The principal and the school setting

Peter Verstappen was a late entrant to teaching, having previously worked as a professional actor, broadcaster and, for 10 years, producer of a children’s television show. He has worked in three schools in the roles of teaching principal, deputy principal of a large primary school and, for the past three and a half years, principal of nine teachers at Southbridge School, an hour’s drive from Christchurch (New Zealand).

Southbridge is a small rural town with a strong core of middle-class families who have lived in the district for multiple generations. New Zealand schools each have a designated decile rating, which is an indicator of socioeconomic status. Southbridge School has a decile 9 rating, the second highest on this scale, along with a higher percentage of Māori students than is typical for a rural Canterbury school. Owing to the growing demand for dairy workers and the fact that Southbridge is within commuting distance of Christchurch, new families have begun to move into the district. Cheaper housing means the area is affordable to beneficiaries. In addition, new arrivals from other countries have added a second-language dimension to the school. Overall, the children are well prepared for school and keen to learn, while their parents appear to value education and what the school has to offer. Parental engagement is a particular strength of the school and gained a special mention in the 2009 Education Review Office evaluation report.

Peter connects with teaching and learning in the school through a range of strategies for monitoring teacher and student performance. These include “learning-walks” through classrooms, where he looks for evidence or artefacts of learning on display and talks to the teachers and children about their work. He uses reciprocal dialogue at every opportunity, through both direct conversations and the written word.

Peter’s enthusiasm for learning permeates his every action and serves to reinforce the purpose of schooling. He wants, and expects, responses to his questions about learning and demonstrates his interest in the satisfaction to be gained by students in new learning experiences. At times he even quizzes the children at the school road-crossing about their day at school. Students willingly share examples of their learning when they meet Peter in the classroom and about the school. They are left in no doubt that he is keenly interested in their learning, not only because he continually asks them about their experiences but also because he works with them to create new and exciting learning opportunities. One example is Peter’s endorsement of an idea from two of the senior boys who were keen for the new playground area to include a skateboard ramp. These boys were delighted to find not only that their suggestion became a reality but also that they were invited to draw plans for its design. Peter’s responsiveness to their suggestion increased their sense of belonging, and in turn helped the boys’ engagement with learning. They now had a good reason for coming to school!

The New Zealand curriculum revision: An opportunity

Peter welcomed the requirement in the new (2007) New Zealand curriculum document that every New Zealand primary school should design and implement its own local curriculum. After realising that the new-entrant cohort of 2007 would finish their formal schooling (Year 13) in 2020, he devised the name 2020VISION for this project. He also invited researchers from the University of Canterbury to collaborate in the initiative and to act as mentors. By enlisting the support of academics with whom he had worked previously (before taking on the principalship at Southbridge), Peter was able to add another layer to the data used to develop the school curriculum to ensure the curriculum reflects the unique needs and aspirations of the local community.

Although the research project accompanying the development of 2020VISION was a novel idea, it gave the project added status in the school and the community, especially as the university team was often at the school and made a point of being visible and approachable to the students, parents and teachers. As a longitudinal study, the project has tracked the evolving nature of the school’s curriculum and the leadership actions underpinning its development. In particular, it has tracked the ways in which the consultation process has drawn in teachers, parents and students as collaborative learning partners in contributing ideas and commitment to an evolving 2020VISION.

Newsletters invite dialogue about learning

All schools are required to consult with their communities, but Southbridge goes much further than most by actively encouraging and inviting parents to engage in ongoing dialogue about learning. A variety of approaches are used to include parents in activities, such as parent focus groups, 2020VISION days, and sports, cultural and academic events. One key strategy is the school’s newsletter, which is distributed weekly by email or in hard copy to parents and community members. Although the newsletters serve an educational function in sharing news of daily life at the school, families are also invited to respond to questions and to share their experiences in regard to the children’s learning and activities. Peter takes pains to ensure all parents find this approach invitational rather than simply informational. This notion of invitational leadership practice signals to parents that their voices matter in shaping the school as a learning community.

Peter carefully crafts his introductory remarks in each newsletter to engage and entice readers. The language he uses is accessible, and he frequently includes storytelling to capture moments of learning. The tone of the newsletters conveys a genuine interest in gaining a response, and the parents do, in fact, take the time to reply verbally or by email to Peter as principal. In addition to inviting comment, the newsletters often contain questions or topics for families to discuss at home. Peter also encourages students to share their suggestions or questions with him, and he makes sure he is always a highly visible and interested presence around the school.

School-community partnerships

Peter views the school-community partnership as an integrated whole and uses the symbol of a triangle to encapsulate the equal roles the home, the school and the pupil play in children’s education. The triangle, with points connected by lines, draws attention to the relationships each of the three partners has with the others. In a newsletter to parents (30 April 2009), Peter explained the nature of this partnership:

When it is working well, this triangle is incredibly strong and gives the child the best possible start in life. But if any single element of the triangle is weakened, it disables two-thirds of the structure and the triangle collapses. The dreams and ambitions we have for our children’s education will only happen if we make this triangle work.

Peter’s main aim is for students to see their lives at school and beyond school as one. His aim is for students and parents to see that education is not like “forcing the membrane at nine a.m. to enter the school and forcing oneself out at three p.m. to resume normal life.” Rather, he promotes the notion of a “vanishing school”, by which he means “school, home and community will cease to be mutually exclusive learning environments in the minds of children.” In a similar vein, Peter also talks about inside-out and outside-in learning, of which the school’s Trees for Learning project is a prime example. Southbridge has begun to develop gardens containing native plants at the school and on nearby Rakaia Island, in partnership with the Ministry for the Environment and a local nursery. Peter explained this development, and what the school hoped from it, in a newsletter sent out to parents and community members on 29 May 2008.

These native gardens will become an important part of our 2020VISION curriculum. We intend to improve and extend them over the years ahead, to involve all our children in their development and to use them as a base for environmental education projects. Years from now we want our children to return to the island and to school and admire their trees. Is this what you mean?

Our native gardens are also a response to our discussions about how we want learning to be at our school as we move towards 2020VISION. We’ve heard from the community (and we believe this ourselves from our knowledge of good teaching and learning) that you want your children to experience “real” learning that has purpose beyond exercise books and worksheets. We also hear that you think it is important that learning connects with the community. You may have already volunteered to help our planting day at the island next Friday. If not, you are welcome to join us. And we want your feedback.

Is this the kind of learning experience you think is valuable?

Is this what you mean?

Let me know, Peter.

The learning dialogue at Southbridge School provides an entry point for formulating and progressing the 2020VISION. The implicit challenge is to change the way everyone associated with the school perceives schooling. Under this vision, the school is seen not as a transmitter of knowledge but as an organisation directed towards helping children develop learning habits that will serve them for a lifetime.

For us, this thinking has helped explain the relevance and importance of our research. The case study approach has allowed us to explore three important questions concerning children’s learning:

•    To what extent do parent and teacher relationships with children promote or inhibit their education?

•    To what extent do home-school relationships foster student learning?

•    In what ways does the school’s community enable its children to learn?

Discussions about learning

We found another example of how the school’s newsletter serves as a catalyst for discussions about student learning in one issue advertising a family maths evening (14 August 2009). Peter began the newsletter with three maths problems and offered two free tickets to a rugby game to the first person to reply with the correct answers. In the next paragraph he reminded parents of the ways in which people apply mathematical skills in daily life. Following this, he provided examples of all aspects of maths (measurement, geometry and number).

Whether or not maths is your ‘thing’ it still figures enormously in your life, and in the life of your child. By the time you read this newsletter on Thursday afternoon, you will have used maths a dozen times today, from something as simple as knowing when to set your alarm … to judging the distance between the front of your car and the curbing when you park outside the school.

Peter then went on to describe the forthcoming maths week and invited parents to attend a family maths evening. The evening, he wrote, would include shared activities and workshops on how to support children’s maths learning at home.

Throughout the research project we witnessed many other invitations to parents to support school learning on the home front. We saw ready recognition among school staff, parents and other interested community members that the questions Peter asked tended to be difficult and would require a fundamental shift in perception about learning. We were also aware that not all members of the school’s community could, or would, respond to every invitation, and that reaching these people required an approach that was both creative and persistent. The newsletter, with its real examples of learning and active illustrations of how learning matters, was one way of keeping parents and students aware of the focus of 2020VISION.

Successful leadership strategies

Peter considers his most important work in the school to be building stronger school-community partnerships. However, he is also quick to point out that such “success is only as good as the last encounter with parents. What worked yesterday may not work today or tomorrow.” He is particularly mindful that successful school leadership does not reside solely with the principal, no matter how enthusiastic, dedicated and energetic he or she may be. He wants to build leadership capacity and distribute leadership at the school, but he knows that this can only happen if the school has a highly experienced staff.

For Peter, extending leadership beyond the staff with formal designated roles has not been easy. He explains that the annual turnover of staff (most moving to larger schools) and their replacement with beginning teachers has slowed the pace of the 2020VISION project. The absence of more experienced teachers has made it difficult for him to distribute responsibilities in the school. However, this situation has improved with the appointment of a new deputy principal, whom Peter sees as bringing considerable strengths in home-community partnerships, the Māori community and literacy. A new senior management role in the school, involving an assistant principal and a rōpū1 structure, has also been instituted.

Peter also works hard to create spaces for parents who have the time, energy and inclination to contribute to enhancing learning at the school. For example, Southbridge School now provides opportunities for parents to be members of parent focus groups, and for senior students to take on roles on student learning committees covering a range of interests, such as the environment, sports and the arts. Students are also encouraged to make presentations about their learning and to join in discussions during 2020VISION development days.

Leading through personal strengths

The school-community partnership approach Peter has taken in developing the 2020VISION project marks him as a learning-centred leader. The manner in which 2020VISION has reinforced the importance of learning and the way this emphasis has been nurtured and sustained ultimately come down to Peter’s personality as a performer. Southworth (2009) claims that

effective leaders know they are ‘on show’ … Not only are leaders closely observed, but what they pay attention to gets noticed … Leaders who visit classrooms, encourage colleagues to talk about their teaching successes and concerns, and ensure that meetings of teachers focus on learning, demonstrate that they remain strongly connected to classrooms. (p. 96)

Peter acknowledges the link between performing and his role as school principal. He freely admits to playing roles with intent rather than by default, and acknowledges that his strengths in performance contribute to his resilience in the face of the daily challenges of being a principal. He attributes his ability to “put on and off a professional costume, demeanour and role with a degree of ease” to his years in theatre. Although Peter is the force behind 2020VISION, his energy, persistence and creative responses have also gathered the support and commitment of the school and the community.

In Peter, the research team sees a leader who knows that connecting leadership with learning is about working with and developing people, being open to ideas, and adjusting the pace of change and development to suit the understanding and energy of others. However, Peter’s success also comes from distributing leadership, for, as he emphasises in word and practice, leadership must extend beyond the principal as a person.

As a leader Peter is sustained by ideas and the networks of people around him. His mantra, a principle he not only states but also models to staff, is “keep looking up, out and accept challenges.” He believes there are two choices for a principal: to help make opportunities happen, and if this is not possible, to go out and find opportunities. These choices characterise Peter as a learning-centred leader, as someone who actively seeks to combine leadership with learning and to have this principle explicitly practised by everyone associated with Southbridge School. That leadership should be linked with learning is also a dominant theme in School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why (Robinson, Hohepa, and Lloyd, 2009), with its key message that “the closer educational leaders get to the core business of teaching and learning, the more likely they are to have a positive impact on students” (p. 47).

The role of school leadership in student achievement and well-being

The claim that leadership makes a difference to student achievement and well-being was confirmed through our study and its review of associated literature. The aforementioned work of Robinson et al. (2009), with its eight dimensions relating to the qualities and effects of school leadership,2 offers a framework for identifying leadership for learning. Notably, the synthesis revealed that school leaders who take an active role in educational development have significant direct and indirect influences on children’s learning, and the same applies to the case study principal described in this chapter.

Southworth (2009) endorses the connection between leadership and learning, stating that leadership is “more potent when it focuses on developing students’ learning and strengthening teaching” (p. 93). He also maintains that when learning-centred leaders add their influence to that of the teacher, it can create a combined effect on students’ learning. However, because leadership contexts vary, and thus necessitate different actions, there is no formula for successful leadership for all situations (Leithwood, Jantzi, and Steinbach, 1999). In this respect, case studies of leadership are useful because they allow us to recognise the uniqueness of different contexts and, in doing so, collectively expand our knowledge of leadership actions and their effects.

Southworth (2009) further emphasises the difference between leadership and the leader. By viewing leadership as an activity or a set of actions, it becomes possible to move beyond the idea of the formal position of leadership and to recognise the many actual leaders in schools who may not necessarily hold official leadership roles. Harris and Muijs (2005) contend that “distributed leadership enables expertise to be recognised wherever it exists rather than seeking this only through a formal position or role” (p. 28). Peter Verstappen acknowledges this in welcoming and forging opportunities for others to share leadership responsibilities at Southbridge School, regardless of whether they are teachers, parents or students. This is also why Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd (2009) take particular care in their research review to include all types of leaders and leadership roles rather than focusing solely on principals.

The 2008 OECD report Improving School Leadership is another document that redefines school leadership responsibilities for improved student learning as the responsibility of a wider group of leaders. This is further endorsement of the need for learning-centred leaders who can use their leadership actions to support the learning and achievement of others, which is exactly what Peter is doing at Southbridge School. The OECD report redefines these responsibilities in terms of what leaders can do to:

•    support, evaluate and develop teacher quality

•    support goal-setting, assessment and accountability

•    enhance strategic financial management skills of school leadership teams

•    adopt a systematic approach to leadership policy and practice. (p. 64)

Each of these actions requires what Bush (2009) refers to as knowledge for understanding, for action and for improvement of practice, and for the development of a reflexive mode. These same areas of knowledge are all hallmarks of a learning-centred leader like Peter: a principal who is constantly making deliberate connections to further his own learning and that of others.

One strategy for valuing these connections is to create and review educational visions. Southworth (2009) refers to this very point in terms of “a sense of direction” in relation to the explicit purpose of schooling. This means having a vision and the plans to translate the vision into action:

Leaders look ahead to see what is on the horizon and what this means for the school. They are aware of those patterns and trends outside the school which will have implications for the students’ learning needs today and tomorrow. They then work towards developing the people and the organization to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities the perceived changes may have for the students, the staff and the school as a whole. (Southworth, 2009, p. 94)


The influence that Peter Verstappen exerts as a principal, and the way he exerts it, appears to be closely aligned with the three strategies that Southworth (2009) outlines in his learner-centred leadership framework of modelling, monitoring and dialoguing. Peter places learning at the forefront of his work, whether it be his own learning as a leader or his leadership actions to promote learning among students and the parent community. As a leader, his focus on learning is deliberate and always present in conversations about the key purpose of schools.

The importance of fostering learning relationships and connections with the parent community is also endorsed by Robinson et al. (2009), who name and devote a whole chapter to this theme in their best evidence synthesis iteration. They advocate the “ako” (learning and teaching) principle in order to signify the fundamental importance of reciprocal learning and teaching for the creation of educationally powerful connections between home and school. Part of this means that principals must also be learners who demonstrate a willingness to learn from and listen to others’ voices if they are to bring the worlds of home and school together to improve students’ learning. Such a focus on alignment is achieved through leaders “utilising opportunities that arise out of the core business of teaching and learning” (p. 150). This is precisely what Peter manages through his newsletter storytelling, using everyday incidents to combine the worlds of home and school in ways that are accessible to all.

Harris, Andrew-Powell and Goodall (2009) argue that the commitment of the principal, senior leadership team and/or senior leader is pivotal in moving the parental engagement agenda forward. The three key processes they advocate for this are the articulation of a clear vision, commitment, and an audit of existing practices. Again these processes are evident in the 2020VISION project at Southbridge School. This is indeed a challenging task and one that requires leadership actions that empower and inspire others to engage in reciprocal learning for the long term. Learning is the pulse behind Southbridge School, and to reiterate the words of Southworth, learning is dependent on the attributes of constant modelling, monitoring and dialogue for it to succeed.

Reflections for readers  Image

The complexity and expansion of school leadership roles and responsibilities, particularly for school principals working in devolved educational settings, mean that more than ever principals need to make judicious decisions about how they can make the best use of their expertise and time so that their efforts enhance learning and teaching. An effective partnership with parents is crucial if the worlds of home and school are to connect. Therefore, leaders could usefully ask themselves:

•    What can I do to ensure parental engagement is central to the school and its ways of working?

•    What understanding do we share about the importance of parental engagement in learning?

•    What strategies are the most effective for engaging parents with schools?

•    How can schools ensure that parental engagement has a positive impact on students’ learning?

•    How can school principals retain parental engagement for learning in the school over time?

Suggested further reading  Image

Allen, J. (2007). Creating welcoming schools: A practical guide to home-school partnerships with diverse families. New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Bull, A., Brooking, K., & Campbell, R. (2008). Successful home-school partnerships: Report to the Ministry of Education. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Clinton, J., Hattie, J., & Dixon, R. (2007). Evaluation of the Flaxmere project: When families learn the language of school. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Desforges, C., & Abouchaar, A. (2003). The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: A literature review. Research report No 433, Department of Education and Skills. Retrieved from http://www.dfes/

MacBeath, J., & Dempster, N. (Eds.). (2009). Connecting leadership and learning: Principles for practice. London, UK: Routledge.

Timperley, H., & Robinson, V. (2002). Partnership: Focusing the relationship on the task of school improvement. Wellington: NZCER Press.


Bush, T. (2009). Leadership development and school improvement: Contemporary issues in leadership development. Educational Review, 61(4), 375-389.

Harris, A., & Muijs, D. (2005). Improving schools through teacher leadership. Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.

Harris, A., Andrew-Powell, K., & Goodall, J. (2009). Do parents know they matter? Raising achievement through parental engagement. London, UK: Continuum.

Leithwood, K., Jantzi, D., & Steinbach, R. (1999). Changing leadership for changing times. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Lovett, S., Verstappen, P., Clarke, M., & Gilmore, A. (2010, April). 2020VISION: How staff, children, and community combined to lead learning in a New Zealand primary school. Paper presented to the New Zealand Educational Administration Leadership Society International Conference, University of Canterbury, Christchurch.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (OECD). (2008). Improving school leadership: Volume 1: Policy and practice. OECD publishing. doi: 10.1787/9789264044715-en.

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why: Best evidence synthesis iteration. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Simons, H. (2009). Case study research in practice. London, UK: Sage.

Southworth, G. (2009). Learning-centred leadership. In B. Davies (Ed.), The essentials of school leadership (2nd ed., pp. 91-111). London, UK: Sage.


The author wishes to acknowledge the work of University of Canterbury researchers Michelle Clarke and Associate Professor Alison Gilmore who were the other members of the 2020VISION research team. Dissemination of this leadership case study from the 2020VISON project has been possible because of the funding granted by the Cognition Educational Research Institute.


1  The school is divided into the two rōpū of the teachers of Years 1-3 and of Years 4-6. Each is led by a member of the senior management team. The rōpū is another name for a grouping of teachers working with similar-aged children.

2  The eight dimensions are: (1) establishing goals and expectations; (2) resourcing strategically; (3) planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum; (4) promoting and participating in teacher learning and development; (5) ensuring an orderly and supportive environment; (6) creating educationally powerful connections; (7) engaging in constructive problem talk; and (8) selecting, developing and using smart tools (Robinson, Hohepa, and Lloyd, 2009).

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