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What does brilliant school leadership look like?

The smooth and successful operation of a school is a complex business that requires insightful and decisive leadership

NEWS 8 June 2023

Behind every classroom, school camping expedition, sports event, graduation and new school building lies an extensive network of people and procedures that work together to ensure every student matters every day.

The day-to-day functioning of a school and its ongoing survival and growth involves much more than meets the eye, particularly in schools where hundreds of staff members each make an important contribution and impact the education of thousands of students.

Coordinating, supporting and enabling each of those people to do their job well, and steering a school’s future in the right direction in a rapidly evolving educational environment, requires thoughtful and experienced leadership skills.

At Haileybury, one of Australia’s top-ranked independent schools, two high-performing women are leading the charge on many key leadership decisions. Rebecca Arceri is Haileybury’s first Chief Operating Officer (COO), leading the business support activities associated with the School, and Anna Sever, Deputy Principal (Teaching & Learning), oversees the teaching and learning programs from Years 5 to 12.

Their responsibilities extend across Haileybury’s four Melbourne campuses, Haileybury Rendall School in Darwin and the online school, Haileybury Pangea.

We sat down with Rebecca and Anna and asked them what they felt were the vital skills and actions for those leading a high-achieving school in 2023?

Here are their top seven leadership insights:

Trust and listen, and then lead

“To lead successfully in any organisation, requires trust first and foremost, followed by empathy and listening. I want the team to know that they’re seen, appreciated, supported and heard.”
Rebecca Arceri, Chief Operating Officer

“Being able to listen is another essential part of leadership. It allows you to get the lay of the land so you can understand the best way to navigate any changes that might be needed. Listening also helps you engage with people and build a relationship and that’s important if you later want to make changes and ask people to step out of their comfort zone. Many day-to-day challenges are easier to overcome if there is a shared sense of purpose and strong relationships,” she says.

Harvest ideas

To support innovation, Rebecca established a project steering committee to discuss and act on ideas for improvement, which includes stakeholders from across the School and is underpinned by a comprehensive framework to support each idea we explore. The ideas can be submitted by anyone within Haileybury. She says it’s important for schools to create avenues where people can share ideas that can be analysed and acted on.

“It’s important for people to feel part of the puzzle that makes Haileybury what it is, it’s a very complex place. We often hear about our achievements academically, and I want the Corporate Services team to be proud of what they do that impacts outcomes for students. They may not be in the classroom teaching, but that teaching couldn’t happen without everything they do,” adds Rebecca.

Create a high quality, consistent experience

“We have a One School model that is permeated by high standards, that ensures consistency of experience for students as they move through the school,” says Anna. “So, a student at our Keysborough campus must have the same experience as a student at Brighton, for example. The Heads of Department are the same across all campuses, there is collaborative planning of resources for students and everyone hears the same message and follows the same curriculum. It’s a system-wide approach which evidence suggests leads to improved outcomes for students.”

Leverage technology

Haileybury Pangea is just one example of how school leaders can harness technology to increase educational opportunities and accessibility. Anna cites Clayton Christensen’s ‘disruptive innovation’ theory as a valuable lesson for school leaders. Christensen was an American educator and business consultant. He championed the value in creating a new disruptive product or service that may start at the bottom but then improve and rise, challenging competitors and forcing them to also improve.

“We don’t hide the fact that we want to be a great world school and that means continuing to innovate, learn and challenging ourselves to always be better. Haileybury Pangea is the new entrant and, Haileybury and Haileybury Pangea will force each other to be better and thus increase in quality. Choice breeds better outcomes for all students.”
Anna Sever, Deputy Principal (Teaching & Learning)

Zone in and slow down

A self-confessed ‘doer’ who likes to dive in, be hands-on and help make change happen, Rebecca says it’s important for school leaders to ‘learn not to do – straight away’. “When I began at Haileybury I could see so much opportunity, there was so much that could be done and I learned that it’s important to zone in, slow down and pick what you think will work,” she says. “If you jump in, you can’t explain the ‘why’ and being able to do that is important in anything you do.”

Keep learning and growing yourself

“When I was younger one of my first managers told me they always recruited people who aspired to do their job, because those people keep pushing you and you continue to grow,” says Rebecca. “In the business of education and school leadership, being willing to constantly learn yourself and always widening the aperture beyond education ensures growth and innovation.”

Make the one per cents matter

“Look outside your own school and cherry pick innovations that you believe have potential. Then contextualise them for your particular organisation or situation,” says Anna. Firmly believing that strong leaders never think they have accomplished all that can be done, Anna says striving for marginal gains – the ‘one per centers’ – matters. “Schools and organisations can always be better; you must never rest on your laurels and assume success. There are always areas where you can improve – search for those, work hard at it and always have a desire to be the very best,” she says.