A New Zealand principal reports on how an executive principal idea is working in England

A New Zealand principal was in England last year and was in a position to observe an executive principal in action.

And who do you think turned up in September last year? Yes – a delegation from the ministry of education.

The executive principal concept in England has some of the characteristics of the models being mooted in New Zealand – a mixture of the fly-in model and the executive principal cluster model. In the instance being described, we should imagine a cluster executive principal operating from a cluster (even though he was a fly-in) directed to schools by the bureaucrats and ERO – in England, of course, it was Ofsted who were involved.

In the New Zealand executive principal cluster model, it is my belief that the executive principal will function similarly as an extension of the bureaucracy and be used in schools for a variety of reasons.  For instance, if a school does not adhere closely enough to ministry directives; if a school has a ‘breakdown in relations’; if a school demonstrates unwelcome independence; and if a school does not reach its achievement target for funding.

What follows is just a snippet of what is in store for New Zealand principals.

The executive principal was, as a rule, in his own school three days per week and in his executive role in the other school for two days.

The executive principal had his office next to the school principal’s with a sign on the door declaring his status as ‘Executive Principal’. The school principal was reasonably new to the position and this, combined with the school having a fairly troubled history, was the reason for the appointment of an executive principal. It was the school principal’s second year in the position, having had the executive principal in place since she began in her position. In theory, the executive position was designed to assist and support the new principal but the New Zealand principal adjudged the executive principal to be very much in charge. As an indication, the New Zealand principal was astonished to see the executive principal having key meetings with the school principal not in attendance.

While the school principal was discreet and very professional, a sense of frustration was clearly evident. But what could she do? Her position was vulnerable. In a sense, she was something of an add-on to the school. There is no doubt that the setup had significant potential for tension and resentment.

The school principal, it seemed to me, was quietly frustrated at not being able to display full leadership, also at the lack of status – a dissonant arrangement given that it is the school principal who will finally have to assume full responsibility.

The teachers in the executive principal’s school were vexed with the principal being away so much. They commented that there was a sense of drift in the school’s functioning. It was bad enough, they said, that he was away two days a week but sometimes his absences, when they occurred, were irregular. There was no doubt the teachers at the executive principal’s school were significantly affected in their work.

The teachers in the principal’s school were perplexed. They had a principal: why wasn’t she left to get on with the job? She was appointed to be a principal, why wouldn’t they let her be one. They said having an executive principal cast something of a slur on the school and them. As well, it would take some time before the stigma of being a junior principal was removed. One teacher said school teaching should be something of an adventure but everything was being squeezed into the one package.

What makes the situation more worrying in a way was that the executive principal was admirable. He was committed, enthusiastic, and passionate about successful leadership. Imagine an executive principal considerably less so. In New Zealand education at the moment, tribalism reigns – those in favour get the favours – on such a basis a good number of unsuitable principals would be appointed – unsuitable principals who would look more to the bureaucracies than to schools for validation.

The executive principal admitted his job of trying to do justice to both schools was stressful.

It is interesting to note that he received an additional ‘salary’ which mainly went to the school with an allowance for him.

He felt lonely and isolated.

What has been described above is only a part of IES, quite minor – the executive principal did not have, for instance, power over a cluster – but there is indication enough that it is not a particularly rewarding road to travel either for the schools involved or the principals.


I asked a principal to comment on what I have reported: ‘The $359 million dollars to fund something like this is obscene especially when we can’t get IWS for children through the ministry. In our cluster, there’s usually only two students accepted a month. Last month there weren’t any approved, apparently due to lack of funds. Support is being desperately sought for our top five per cent in need. We are in crisis with our children. I am deeply concerned at the rapidly decreasing amount of funding for student support.’

The principal concluded: ‘This is a very sad indictment of our country and education system and one of extreme frustration for us as compassionate people and committed educators.’


The IES policy, in reference to the executive principal concept, no matter how well intentioned in practice, is not about collaboration, it is about control; it cannot be about collaboration because the context is about control and set to get worse – think of all the control mechanisms already in place and the more to come, for instance, school funding by ‘achievement’. Education should not be described in advertising and managerialist terms as an investment in an abstract concept like success, but in the reality that is children and their particular needs.

And remember, the ministry came visiting in September – grubbing around the world for ersatz managerialist ideas, when the answers, the authentic ones, lay at hand.

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2 Responses to A New Zealand principal reports on how an executive principal idea is working in England

  1. Kelvin says:

    George Burrell writes: The report from the NZ principal is disturbing.

    Right now, principals I have known through school board work have acquired the services of mentors who are often retired principals.

    In an invisible way, they have been involved in ‘lumps’ of work such as preparations/attendance with ERO, annual plan and policy development.

    The Executive Principal scheme looks like it could develop into a pseudo-commissioner arrangement but even worse than that difficult arrangement.

    I had no idea that we could see a door with ‘Executive Principal’ on it at a school, but it leaves little doubt in my mind regarding seniority from perspective of teachers and students. And worse, the NZ principal’s report makes it clear that they can do whatever they like?

    Yes, the question needs to be asked – is the real principal of that British school capable of doing the job herself? If the answer is yes as we would assume it is, let her get on with it and arrange support (as new principal) as required and in a discreet manner.

  2. Moira McKay says:

    Imagine if the executive principal’s school started to fail because he/she was no longer able to be there often enough to know what was going on, could there be another position open for this?
    We need to get all the parents with children who are struggling from lack of support to form a flash mob in parliament and leave the politicians to deal with them.

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