New school principals need more support, particularly new principals in small schools, ERO research shows

Principals are crucial to the quality of education. A growing number of principals across New Zealand are new to the role. In 2023, more than a third of principals have been in the role for less than five years, an increase from a quarter in 2014.

New research from ERO has found that only a quarter of new principals feel prepared when they start.

With more than one in three principals having less than five years’ experience in the role, it’s important that they are set up for success - currently this is not always the case.

We heard that the complexity of the role and the reality of the school they are in are two key reasons new principals arrive feeling unprepared or anxious.

Having an opportunity to hold a leadership role before becoming a principal is important. New principals who have had this experience are more than three times as likely to be prepared.

We found that identification of future principals is too often left to chance, and not all those with potential are encouraged or aware of the best pathways to become principals. 

Development and support before becoming a principal can make a big difference. New principals who had taken part in postgraduate leadership programmes, or coaching and mentoring, were twice as likely to be prepared for the principal role when they start.

New principals’ confidence grows once they gain experience in the role. But the research found that, in some areas, confidence remained low. Ongoing development helps, in particular connecting with other new principals and with more experienced principals.

ERO is particularly concerned about new principals in small schools. Four in 10 new principals are in small schools, but they are less likely to have had leadership experience before becoming a principal, are less prepared for the role, and are less likely to be confident once they are in the role.

This report shows we need to do more to prepare and support our principals in small schools so they can thrive.

To better support new school principals across New Zealand, ERO is recommending clearer pathways to become principals, better opportunities to gain experience and skills before becoming principals, and ongoing support once in the role.

We know that we need to do more to set up new principals to thrive, and are recommending a range of actions to improve how new and aspiring principals are set up for success. Successful principals are key to a good education for all Aotearoa New Zealand’s learners.