Formative evaluation of the Principal Recruitment Allowance

Publication Details

The Principal Recruitment Allowance (PRA) is an allowance available to boards of trustees in schools which face significant challenges and have a principal vacancy. Its purpose is to attract principals who will provide highly effective management and instructional leadership. This formative evaluation seeks to understand how a programme is operating and inform decision making aimed at improvement.

Author(s): Jo MacDonald and Eliza Stevens, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: February 2018

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Executive summary

The Principal Recruitment Allowance

The Principal Recruitment Allowance (PRA) is an allowance available to boards of trustees in schools which face significant challenges and have a principal vacancy. Its purpose is to attract principals who will provide highly effective management and instructional leadership. Both schools and principals must meet detailed eligibility criteria. Eligible principals are paid an allowance of $50,000 per annum for a fixed period of three years, which may be paid for a maximum of two further fixed periods of up to two years each (i.e., up to seven years in total). The PRA is funded by the Ministry of Education (the Ministry). The policy was announced in 2014, as a core element of Investing in Educational Success (IES), and the first appointment was made in mid-2015. At the start of this formative evaluation in March 2017, 25 schools had been approved to offer the allowance, and 13 principals were receiving it.

What the Ministry wanted to know

A formative evaluation seeks to understand how a programme is operating, and inform decision making aimed at improvement. This purpose shaped the three overarching evaluation questions:

1.  To what degree is the PRA being implemented as planned?

2.  How does the PRA design work in practice?

  • What is working well and why?
  • What is not working so well and why?

3.  What changes can be made to design and implementation to strengthen the PRA?

This report covers all aspects of PRA design and implementation, divided into three key stages:

  • The expression of interest, full application, and assessment against school eligibility criteria;
  • The appointment of a principal in approved schools, which may be with or without the PRA, depending on eligibility;
  • Support once a principal is in place.

Early in the evaluation we identified areas for investigation within each of these stages, and developed focused evaluation questions for each area. These are provided in Appendix 1 and are used to structure this report. This evaluation was not intended to explore or report outcomes from the PRA. A fourth evaluation question, related to how the outcomes of the PRA could be evaluated in the future, will be reported separately.

What we did

We took a qualitative approach for this formative evaluation, interviewing 53 people (all but seven face-to-face). Our approach was based around the school as a site for the PRA, nested within a region. We wanted to explore how the PRA was operationalised in these different sites. A purposive sample of 12 schools was selected. People that we knew to have involvement with the PRA process for each school were then invited to participate in the evaluation. These included: principals; chairs of boards of trustees; commissioners or limited statutory managers; directors of education, education managers, and senior advisors at Ministry area offices; Education Review Office (ERO) review service managers; New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA) advisors; and the chair of the New Appointments National Panel (NANP). We also invited representatives from sector organisations to share their perspective on the PRA implementation. Interviews took place between 20 April and 16 June 2017.

Key findings

Application and Approval
(School Level)
Key Findings
Knowledge and use of the PRA, relative to other supports for schools most in need   The intent of the PRA policy is well understood and interviewees were positive about it as a response to supporting schools. Interviewees framed their discussion of the PRA within the wider issue of principal supply and the need to support principals after appointment.
The Ministry area offices have taken the lead in identifying schools that could apply to offer the PRA. The knowledge that senior advisors and education managers have of their 'patch' is important in ensuring the 'right schools' get the PRA at the 'right time'.
School eligibility criteria and the application process The school eligibility criteria were well understood, and supported area offices to put forward applications that were likely to be approved (although early in the policy there were more applications declined as area offices became more familiar with the criteria and the process). However, senior advisors found the process time consuming. They suggested it could be made easier to access the data required for the application, and that exemplars would be helpful.
Assessment of applications The assessment of applications and the operation of the National Assessment Group for the PRA is perceived to be straightforward and credible. Ministry staff in area offices were positive about the opportunity to speak to their case.
Support for schools when applications are unsuccessful Interviewees had limited experience of unsuccessful applications, either because there had not been any in their area, or because they were unaware of them. It was beyond the scope of this evaluation to directly engage with schools in this situation.
Principal Appointment Key Findings
Selection processes The New Appointment National Panel (NANP) is supportive and enabling in nearly all contexts. More consideration could be given to how it operates in Māori medium settings. (We understand that recent additions to the panel may have addressed this).
Principal criteria Principal applicants we spoke with understood the selection process and eligibility criteria in relation to the PRA.
The balance of national and local selection criteria was unproblematic for boards. Most schools had candidates that met the PRA eligibility criteria but a third of boards have appointed a principal who is not eligible for the PRA (usually a first time principal).
Applicants Overall, schools are more able to attract highly effective principals than before. Principals consider multiple things when deciding whether to apply for a position. Many described the PRA as a 'hook' or an 'enabler'.
After Appointment Key Findings
Briefing to principal about school context Most principals know enough about the school context, challenges and issues when they apply for the position.
Support Principals get personal support from their existing networks (not always local to their current position) and most (but not all) feel well supported by the relationship with their Ministry of Education senior advisor. A clear and strong finding from this formative evaluation is that principals need to be able to readily mobilise available support that targets the highest priority needs in their school context.
The parts of the policy intended to encourage cross agency working are not happening consistently in practice. The most obvious example of this is the cross-organisational meeting within three months of appointment. The purpose and process around this meeting (e.g., who should attend) needs to be clarified. ERO's role in schools with a PRA principal is not clearly articulated in policy documentation and Ministry guidance. ERO is clear about "stepping back" to a liaison role, but principals' and boards' experiences of this is variable. Some would like ERO to have a clearer and stronger role in schools with a principal receiving the PRA. NZSTA's role in the PRA processes appears to be minimal.
Accountability We heard a strong sense of personal responsibility from principals, but little focus on any additional accountability for boards because of the PRA. Annual reporting requirements are not being met by all schools that had appointed a PRA principal.
Criteria & processes for allowance continuation There is not a good understanding of the process for PRA allowance continuation, with everyone taking a 'wait and see' approach.
Laying a foundation for success Whether they had been in position for over a year or just a term, it was clear that principals were prioritising where they put their energy, whilst also focusing attention on multiple areas at once. Common actions were: 
- strengthening teacher capability, including working through competency procedures
- refocusing on learning and strengthening pedagogy and curriculum
- rebuilding systems and processes
- strengthening or repairing relationships with the community including iwi
- building relationships with and between students
- addressing property issues.

To what degree is the PRA being implemented as planned?

The PRA is largely being implemented as planned. The two-stage eligibility process is well understood and is operating as intended, to identify schools with a principal vacancy and significant challenges, and to attract high quality principals to these schools. Interviewees are positive about the appointments that have been made (including those where principals are not eligible for the PRA) and the early signs of change in schools.

How does the PRA work in practice and where can it be strengthened?

We highlight the following aspects of the PRA implementation that are working well.

  • The role of the senior advisor bringing close knowledge of their portfolio to identify schools for which the PRA would be an appropriate solution.
  • The assessment of school applications by the National Assessment Group.
  • The role of the NANP in supporting boards with recruitment and providing independent advice on principal eligibility for the PRA.
  • Principals' awareness of school context and challenges. It appears that the inclusion of the PRA in an advertisement prompts candidates to ensure they understand the school context.

There are two main areas where the PRA implementation could be strengthened. The first is the level of connection between organisations, most notably the Ministry and ERO. This is strong at the national level (collaboration on the National Assessment Group), but is not being operationalised consistently. Strengthening the purpose and process of the cross-organisational meeting within three months of a principal's appointment would support this.

The second area is the support for principals after appointment, in all schools approved to offer the PRA, whether or not the principal is receiving the allowance. Research on school development recognises that schools do not operate in isolation, and that external support, including funding, plays an important role (Wylie, 2012; Wylie & Mitchell, 2003). The finding that schools need to be able to readily mobilise available support matched to their priority concerns is consistent with the evidence that "the most effective and efficient forms of external support start with accurate identification of individual school needs and timely matching of external expertise and resources with those needs" (Wylie, 2012, p. 13). Strengthening the support for schools after a principal is appointed could also include clarifying ERO's role. The support for boards in PRA schools may also need to be strengthened, with a clearer role for NZSTA.

Other aspects of PRA implementation that could be considered are:

  • Improvements to data management, access to data analysts, and provision of exemplars to support area offices with PRA applications.
  • The capacity for the NANP in operate in Māori medium settings.
  • Mechanisms to support boards to meet annual reporting requirements.
  • Clarification of the process for decisions about allowance continuation.

Where to find out more

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