Small school challenges: learning lessons from small school headteachers

by Amanda Tuck


Aspiring school leaders often contemplate their first movement into principalship via a small school. Amanda Tuck engaged in a significant research project interviewing leaders of small schools to find out their concerns, advantages, and the issues they face. This is a short summary of the full report. The study is based in England, but provides a discussion which is also relevant for New Zealand leaders.

The main issues that the writer raises are as follows:

  • The complexity of leading a small school. These schools have small numbers of staff yet they are subject to the same demands as larger schools. In addition they play a central role in their communities and provide many additional responsibilities for their leaders and staff. The principal is often a teacher as well as the school’s leader.
  • The need for mutual support and collaboration, which is often difficult to find and sustain as many small schools are geographically isolated.
  • The need for careful succession planning.

Along with raising of these issues the writer makes some recommendations for addressing them.

This (and the full report) would be very useful to use with aspiring leaders. Mentors and experienced principals could help aspiring leaders to look realistically at what it would mean to take on leadership of a small school, and to prepare them in advance for the issues they are likely to face.

As there is little research into the issues facing leaders of small schools this reading and the ensuing discussions could prove useful insights for aspiring and current leaders of small and often isolated schools.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this report:

  •  In discussions with aspiring leaders ask them to consider what they think will the major issues for them are likely to be in taking on leadership of a small school. Work together to make up a chart that identifies these issues and suggests ways in which each could be effectively managed.
  • What are the main advantages of leadership within small schools? Build up a set of goals for leadership in these settings and consider how they will prepare people for leadership in larger schools.
  • What systems are in place to assist principals of small schools? Build up a resource which will provide small school leaders with advice and guidance to ensure they are able to access the support that is available (from the Ministry, ERO, professional development, with the board of trustees, etc).

Other reading

Ralley, P. & Cockcoft, P. (2005). Virtual leadership: a small school reality? NCSL. Summary Practitioner Enquiry Report.


Tuck, A. (2009). Small school challenges: Learning lessons from small school headteachers. NCSL, Research Associate Summary.

Tags: Leading small schools

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