Practitioner advocacy concerning what is needed in leadership courses for school leaders commenced with consultation with local school principals. The research then took the form of online surveys and focus group discussions with students who are also practising school leaders. Findings informed changes made to courses in Education and Business programs, thus impacting the quality of leadership courses at USC and potentially at USQ (details to be published on the Pivotal website when available). Expected outcomes included more relevant courses for leaders of learning communities in these two regions through practitioner-based research. However, it was also anticipated that future partnerships with other universities, employer groups and professional associations would encourage more widespread development of sustainable and innovative leadership programs within a rapidly changing learning landscape.
Composition of the project team
The PIVOTAL research team benefitted from a range of expertise: research, leadership development, and school experience and expertise. Whilst the project leader is an early career academic, she offered significant project management experience gained through her own leadership in schools, including as the foundation principal of a new college. The inclusion of Associate Professor Michael Christie provided invaluable mentoring and strategic project advice based on his significant research profile both within Australia and internationally. Associate Professor Karen Noble contributed research expertise in education, whilst Dr Wayne Graham and Associate Professor Jane Summers contributed expertise in leadership in business programs. Research Assistant Kairen Call was appointed from the cohort of USC Education HDR students, not only capitalising on her relevant school-based experience but also providing her with opportunity for relevant research experience.
Prior to external consultation regarding leadership learning needs, an analysis was conducted on data from (a) the universities͛ processes of Student Evaluation of Teaching and Courses (SETAC) for the Master of Education (M Ed) and the Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) programs over the past three years, (b) the Graduate Destination Survey (GDS) and (c) the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ). However, the establishment of Reference Groups was anticipated to provide essential contextualisation and clarity concerning leadership needs within all sectors of schooling, and that these criteria would be important to meet early in the planning stage.Consequently, working closely with representative external educators to maximise input from schools, this research benefitted significantly from gathering input from a Reference Group convened for this specific purpose at USC (Figure 2), and from data received through a broad investigation and sector scan completed at USQ as part of the process for re-accreditation. This investigation was the USQ Review of Leadership studies: For school leaders and aspiring school leaders, 2014. The report contained specific advice based on internal and external consultation concerning the nature and content of leadership courses relevant to the school context. At USC, principals selected from local schools within the sectors (state, catholic and independent) participated in facilitated discussion at USC's Innovation Centre specifically for the purpose of informing the direction of the research project.
Survey and Focus Groups
The next phase of the research incorporated the opportunity to participate in online surveys and focus group discussions between current and past M Ed and EMBA students who are also practising (or aspiring) school principals. The process involved two stages: online surveys and focus groups were held in October 2014 to inform potential changes to programs, followed by a second stage of online surveys and focus groups in June 2015 to evaluate the changes incorporated in identified courses.
To indicate the scope of the research, 55 school leaders who had been postgraduate students in either education or business courses were invited to participate at USC, with 52% completing the survey and 41% participating in the first focus group discussions. The focus group sessions with these groups of participants expanded further on the trends identified in the Reference Groups and the online surveys, through collegial interaction within an environment conducive to professional sharing. The Integrated Model of Professional Standards for Principals (AITSL, 2011) was used as a framework for research questions, incorporating AITSL's designated Leadership Requirements of Vision and Values, Knowledge and Understanding and Personal Qualities, and Social and Interpersonal Skills.
The methodology followed by USQ was to dovetail the investigation in with the USQ Review of Leadership studies: For school leaders and aspiring school leaders, 2014which was being undertaken at the same time. This involved a large number of participants from a variety of schools and systems throughout Australia and consultation with relevant documentation from Federal and State Governments, Principals Associations, and Professional Organisations such as the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL). The Education and Business faculties worked in cooperation for this activity in order to cater effectively for their cohorts of postgraduate students who were also school leaders.
There were two stages of online surveys and the focus groups in the PIVOTAL Project. Firstly, the October 2014 data was examined to inform the innovations to leadership course design (for example, by adding the components of mentoring and person vitality to course curriculum in both Education and Business leadership courses at USC, with other components to be confirmed which were amended at USQ based on their research). Secondly, focus groups and surveys were used in June 2015 to evaluate these innovations and to identify deeper observations and potential themes for future investigation. A PIVOTAL Research Day in July 2015 enabled the researchers to focus on the data and to plan for future NVivo analysis.