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How do you conduct an independent school principal assessment?

Every school board wants its principal to succeed. One of the best ways to do this is through regular performance feedback – the more feedback the better. Principals have a much better chance for success when their schools undertake a well-planned, objective annual assessment with the participation of the full board, direct reports and key stakeholders; for example, parents, the school’s owners or trustees.

The non-government school sector is a diverse group of schools. Many of these schools are affiliated with a particular religion or promote a particular educational philosophy. Further, all registered non-government schools in Australia operate within the bounds of state, territory and Australian Government legislation, which together impose requirements in relation to financial operation, accountability, the curriculum, assessment and reporting. As such, depending on the school contexts in which they work, principals face very different sets of challenges. Approaches to principal assessment need to be based on careful consideration of the context in which the school operates and its particular challenges.

In our work with boards and senior leadership teams, we have found 360-degree feedback is an especially useful methodology because it can focus on both development and performance. It is also useful because leaders (including principals) may not be intuitively aware of other people’s expectations of them – boards are often guilty of not setting expectations for the performance and behaviours of their principals and then penalising the individual if they do not act in the way the board expected. Moreover, 360-degree feedback tools can be planned to enhance self-knowledge for the improvement of principal effectiveness.

However, there is a major caution when using 360-degree feedback - if it’s not carefully executed, and followed up on, it can do more harm than good. Therefore, it is worthwhile to use an externally facilitated process to provide independent and robust performance feedback for any ‘key person’ role, including principals, CEOs and senior executives. The anonymous and independent nature of this review allows for robust feedback and assessment of the principal, as it eliminates the fear of consequences in case of negative feedback.

Areas for assessment 

For an assessment of the principal’s skills and capabilities, a process that consists of separate but similar surveys (one for each direct report and one for other identified key stakeholders to respond to) can be beneficial. It can assess each principal’s behaviours in various areas such as:

  • leadership;
  • management;
  • working with the school/college board;
  • financial management; 
  • human resources;
  • personal qualities;
  • community – establishing and maintaining positive relationships with many groups that support the work of the school;
  • stakeholders;
  • technical skill;
  • overall performance;
  • strengths; and
  • opportunities for improvement.

For example, ‘financial management’ looks at the role of the principal to ensure that solid planning and budgeting systems are in place and that the school’s goals and strategic plan serve as the basis for sound financial planning. In addition, it is the principal’s responsibility to ensure that qualified staff are hired to accurately monitor, assess, and manage the financial health of the school.

When delivering feedback from a 360-degree assessment, it is important to focus on behaviours, not character. A good practice principal assessment process has a number of key traits. It should:

  • be critical, but not adversarial;
  • have both a past and future focus;
  • provide for multiple sources of input;
  • allow for (re)setting of future goals; and
  • emphasise the principal’s personal development.

When doesn’t a 360-degree assessment work?

Some situations where a 360-degree assessment may not be suitable include:

  • The principal has been at the school for less than a year.
  • It takes time to really know people, so someone reasonably new to the school cannot accurately make observations about the principal’s capabilities and behaviours. 
  • There are a limited number of people in a group to rate the principal.
  • The school is undergoing a major change or a period of uncertainty, e.g., the school has decided to become co-educational after a long history as a girls school.
  • Where the organisational culture exhibits a high degree of mistrust, implementing a 360-degree feedback process runs the risk of increasing mistrust within the school.
  • The board wants an excuse to reprimand the principal for poor performance - it is wrong to use the assessment process as a weapon, since the board can and should provide feedback to the principal throughout the year.

Communicating assessment results

Those involved in 360-degree assessments become jaded if the assessment results are misunderstood, not actioned or are actioned poorly – this is true for both the subject of the assessment and those asked to participate. This is often due to poorly articulated feedback. Expert feedback on the outcomes is therefore vital – simply sending a summary report to the principal and hoping they read and action it is not enough. Clear summary of the results and a one-on-one discussion between the principal and the independent expert who analysed the results (especially where there may be some negative findings) can make or break the assessment. If it is not delivered professionally, it may trigger a fear response in the recipient’s brain, and they will only see the negative aspects, even where the report is highly positive. The guidance the principal receives on areas for improvement can be the most valuable part of the process to the principal and for the school and board.

Principal’s Personal Development Plan (PDP) 

The true value of a principal assessment is not in the individual’s ratings or scores, but in the opportunity the assessment provides for the principal to enhance their performance through ongoing personal and professional development. In general, the PDP should:

  • reflect the individual’s personal aspirations;
  • be based on development objectives for the next 12 months;
  • have the commitment of the board; and
  • be properly resourced.

The principal’s PDP should highlight the particular learning needs of the individual as the top manager in the organisation. The plan could include:

  • counselling/coaching;
  • emotional intelligence program;
  • mentoring; or
  • further education/management development program.

Finally, as part of establishing a principal assessment process, it is worthwhile for the board and principal to establish a policy statement on principal monitoring and assessment. This policy should reflect a commitment to the principal of using a performance-based assessment process and should address the relationship between the assessment and the principal’s personal growth and remuneration, if any.

If you would like to discuss principal assessment further or have any questions, please contact our team for more information.

Ian Doyle
Senior Advisor
Ian Doyle is Human Resources Professional with over 25 years’ experience in HR roles in the Banking and Insurance Industries. Ian started his Human Resources career in Westpac ultimately having responsibility for Senior HR portfolios across the Qld...