The Leadership Behaviour of the School Principal: An Exploratory Study in Five Special Schools in Kwazulu-Natal

This study examined the leadership behaviour of the school principal at five special schools in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. A quantitative survey was conducted involving 50 teachers (11 male; 39 female) across the five schools. The Likert-scale survey questionnaire used in the study comprised 37 items categorised along five dimensions of leadership: collegial relationships; communication of vision and goals; professional and personal growth; shared decision making, and recognition of professional skills and accomplishments. The data was analyzed using multiple statistical procedures, including mean point value, standard deviation, t-test of significance and one-way-analysis of variance (ANOVA). The findings revealed that there is limited evidence of the leadership factors and characteristics examined in the study at the five schools. There were interesting differences by gender in responses of teachers on whether the key leadership characteristics were displayed by their school principals. The findings suggest a strong need for re-culturing of the special schools in the direction of participatory and transformative leadership styles and a sharing of power. Key words: school leadership, gender, school principal, special schools.

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Publication: Gender & Behaviour
Author: Naidoo, Lingesperi; Muthukrishna, Nithi; Hobden, Sally
Date published: December 1, 2012
Language: English
PMID: 93409
ISSN: 15969231
Journal code: GNBV


The impact of the leadership behaviour of the principal on a school's ethos, culture and motivational climate are explicit and implicit in research globally (for example, Barbour, Clifford, Corrigan- Halpern et al., 2010; Grobler, Bisschoff & Beeka, 2012; Kocolowski, 2010; Rice, 2010). Internationally, effective schools research shows that good principals influence a variety of school outcomes such as student achievement, motivation of teachers, well-articulated school vision and goals, effective allocation of resources, development of organizational structures to support instruction and learning as well as emotional well-being of staff (Davies, Hammomd, LaPointe & Meyerson, 2005; Raihani, 2007; Rice, 2010). The role of the school leader is complex and leadership varies from school to school. Many scholars have argued that there is no one best way to lead as leadership styles are linked to context, and there are often webs of contextual influences operating (Hargreaves & Fink, 2006; Leech & Fulton, 2008; Raihani, 2008).

There are many leadership models proposed in the literature, for example, an autocratic style; a bureaucratic style, an invitational leadership style, a charismatic style; participatory leadership, and a transformational style (see for example, Kamper, 2008; Murphy, 2008; Swanepoel, 2008; Van der Mescht & Tyala, 2008). Drawing largely on literature on participatory and transformational leadership, researchers have proposed a core set of leadership practices which are valuable in school contexts (Bass & Riggio, 2006; Day, Simmons, Hopkins, et al., 2010; Dinham, 2004; Hallinger, 2011; Leithwood & Riehl, 2005; Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris & Hopkins, 2006). Three key behaviours are found in this core set: (1) developing consensus about goals and priorities which includes building a shared vision and creating high performance expectations; (2) developing people including offering intellectual stimulation, providing support, and modelling important values and practices; and (3) redesigning the organization which includes creating and maintaining shared decision-making structures and processes; building collaborative cultures, and building relationships with parents and the wider community. A number of qualities essential for effective leadership in schools are highlighted in the literature. The most important of these are the creation of a climate so that teachers can have opportunities to feel more adequate as professionals; see greater significance, possibilities and responsibilities in their roles; perceive the situation as one in which improvement is not only possible but highly valued, and feel that their contributions to the achievement of organizational goals are recognised and valued.

There have been numerous empirical studies conducted internationally that have investigated leadership practices in schools, including the role of the school principal in creating sustainable school environments (for example, Juma, Enose, Simatwa & Ayodo, 2011; Bentley, 2011; Germaine & Quinn, 2006; Kamper, 2008; Msila, 2012; Mestry & Singh, 2007; Zame, Hope & Repress; 2008). However, the majority of studies reviewed were undertaken in ordinary school settings. Very few studies explored leadership practices in special school contexts. Naidoo (2012) conducted a critical review of empirical studies on the leadership of the school principal in the last decade undertaken in the African context. Of the twenty four (24) studies identified, none investigated the leadership of the school principal in the special school sector. The study reported in this article aimed to address this gap and investigated the issue of school leadership in five special school settings.

Since 1994 when the new democratic government came into power, South Africa has seen a precipitation of education legislation and policies which without doubt has had an impact on school leadership behaviour and practices. These include inter alia, the South African Schools Act of 1996; Education White Paper 6: Building an Inclusive Education and Training System (Department of Education, 2001); Curriculum 2005 (Department of Education, 1997); the Revised National Curriculum Statements (Department of Education, 2002), and the National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements - Grades R- 12 (Department of Education, 2011). In the area of special education, in the last few years there have been various Education White Paper 6 implementation strategy documents that have directly impacted on special schools, for example, National Strategy on Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support (SIAS) - Operational Guidelines (Department of Education, 2008a); Guidelines to Ensure Quality Education and Support in Special Schools and Special School Resource Centres ((Department of Education, 2008b); Conceptual and Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of Inclusive Education: District Support Teams (Department of Education, 2007), and Guidelines for Responding to Learner Diversity in the Classroom through Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (Department of Education, 2012). While all these policies initiatives foreground democracy, participatory decision making, social justice, inclusivity and gender equity, policy changes in the main have been a significant contributor to the low morale of staff in schools (Oglesby, 2006). It has been suggested that new initiatives emanating from the Department of Education have had an adverse effect on the motivational climate in special schools (Eloff, Irma & Kgwete, 2007; Pather, 2008). One of the reasons is that most stakeholders in schools do not understand or poorly interpret the philosophical change and the practical implications of policy change (Timmons & Muthukrishna, 2007; Pather, 2008; Wilderman & Nomdo, 2007).

Thus, in the context of changes in special school policies and practices since 1994, the exploratory study reported in this article focussed on nature of leadership provided by school principals in special schools. The key research question was: What are teachers' experiences of the leadership behaviour of the school principal in the context of their own special schools?


Research context and sampling

This small scale exploratory study involved five special schools in the Province of KwaZulu- Natal. From a population of 64 special schools in KwaZulu-Natal, 5 special schools were chosen for the study through a process that involved both convenience and purposive sampling. Firstly, the intention was to ensure that a fair range of disabilities was represented. Secondly, schools were chosen on the basis of proximity and accessibility. Each of the 5 schools represented a different disability: School A - school for the Deaf; School B - school for the Blind; School C - a prevocational school for children with learning difficulties; School D- a school for the physically disabled (which also caters for learners with cerebral palsy); and School E - a school that caters for learners who are intellectually impaired. Ten teachers from five different special schools were chosen randomly to participate in the study.

Data collection

The study comprised a survey design. Drawing on literature on transformational leadership, a structured questionnaire, the "Principal Leadership Behaviours Questionnaire" was developed as the research instrument, and was completed by the sample of teachers. Part one of the questionnaire focussed on biographical information. This information was vital in establishing the gender, age, qualifications, number of completed years of teaching, post level as well as the classification of the school (according to category of disability). Part two comprised 37 items describing the school principal's leadership behaviour to which teachers had to respond on a three point Likert scale: agree, uncertain, disagree. Teachers had to respond according to the extent to which the items applied to each individual teacher's experience of his/her own school principal. These 37 items could be categorised according to five leadership factors/variables: shared decision making; collégial relationships; communication of visions and goals, professional and personal growth; and recognition of professional skills and accomplishments.

Cronbach's alpha coefficient reliability estimate for the whole scale (37 items) was 0.959 indicating a high level of internal consistency. A reliability coefficient of .70 or higher is considered acceptable in most social science research situations (Miller & Neil, 2002). The scale Collégial supportive relationships also displayed high levels of internal consistency (.939). However, the other four scales displayed marginal internal consistency: Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments = .512 (5 items); Shared Decision Making = .626 (6 items); Communication Goals and Visions = .688 (4 items). This may be considered a limitation of this study. However, the decision made to include the specific items and factors was based on an in-depth study of the literature in the field of educational leadership.

Data analysis

The data was analyzed using multiple statistical procedures, including the mean point value, standard deviation, t-test of significance and one-way-analysis of variance (ANOVA). The SPSS statistical package was used. Teachers were required to respond to these key factors on a scale of 1 being agree, 2 being disagree and 3 being uncertain. In order to allow for more intuitive interpretation of the data, the data was recoded to -1 disagree, 0 uncertain and +1 agree.

Ethical considerations

Participant and school anonymity was assured, and participation by the teachers was voluntary. Informed consent was obtained from the Department of Education, and each of the school principals. All five school principals viewed the study as an important project, and indicated that the findings had the potential to feed into transformative initiatives at the schools. To protect the identity of the schools they will be referred to as: School A (School for the Deaf); School B (School for the learners with Learning Difficulties); School C (School for Physically Disabled); School D (School for the Blind), and School E (School for the Intellectually Impaired).


Demographic characteristics of the teachers in the study

Table 1 presents the characteristics of the schools and the teachers. Fifty teachers ( 1 1 male; 39 female) participated in the study.

Teacher perceptions about the leadership behaviours of the school principal

The first part of the analysis examined the data by school. Table 2 and Figure 1 show that teacher ratings of their principals' leadership behaviours in respect of the factors examined in the study were rather low. In addition, teacher ratings differed markedly between Schools A and C on the one hand, and School B; School D and School E on the other hand. In Schools A and C more teachers agreed that principals did use the specific leadership characteristics targeted under the five dimensions (the scale being + 1.00: agree; 0 - uncertain; -1.00 - disagree). However, the mean scores in these two schools were rather low. The highest mean scores were for the factor, Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments: School A (M = 0, 48; SD = .63), and School C (M = 0, 58; SD = .54). These factors were rated as more evident by teachers in these two schools than by teachers in the other three schools. In School A the factor least evident according to teacher ratings was Communicates Goals and Visions (M=O, 18; SD = .83), and in School C the factor was Shared Decision Making (M=O, 18; SD = .76).

However, in School B, School D and School E the negative mean scores indicate that, on average, the teachers disagreed with the statements which describe good leadership by the principal. The majority of the teachers in their ratings indicate that there is no evidence of the five leadership factors in their principals' leadership styles.

Across the three schools, the factors least evident was Collégial Supportive Relationships: School B (M = -0, 46; SD = .17; School D (M =-0, 62; SD = .19); School E (M = -.61; SD = .20), suggesting School D had the lowest rating.

The mean scores give an indication of the overall opinions of the teachers, but do however obscure the variations in the data. It is helpful to consider the box and whisker plots shown in Figure 2 which indicate the diversity of opinion within a particular school.

The data for School A and School D will be explained as examples. The dark line within the box represents the median of the data so that half the scores lie below this line, and half above. In School A, on the scale Collégial supportive relationships, half the teachers at that school scored above 0, 5 indicating moderate agreement that the leadership characteristic or behaviour was present. However, the lower "whisker" descends to -0, 8 indicating that at least one of the teachers approached disagreement that this leadership characteristic was present.

In School D, on the same Collégial Supportive relationships scale, no teacher reached a positive score indicating agreement that this leadership characteristic was present. The two cases (48 and 41) that come closest to agreement are indicated as outliers which mean that their scores are markedly different to the other teachers in the school. The small box and short whiskers indicate that the scores of the teachers in that school are very close, in other words the teachers concur in their disagreement of evidence of that leadership characteristic.

Figure 2 enables one to examine the variations and other patterns in the data. The table shows the spread of means for each factor in the five data groups (schools) around their medians (50th percentile), using a "box" and "whiskers" to break down each data group by percentile. In Schools A in respect of the factor Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments, the median is reflected as 0, 5. This shows that 50% of average ratings (average scores on the four items) were below 0,5, and in School C it is reflected as 0,8 (50% of the mean ratings of the four items were below 0,8 ). More teachers in School C agreed that this factor was evident.

Teacher perceptions of leadership behaviour by post level, gender, and experience

In this section the data are analysed according to the perceptions of teachers by gender, post level and experience across the five schools. When the data is disaggregated according to these categories interesting patterns and trends emerge.

Teacher perceptions by post level

Table 3 and Figure 3 show that when the data is disaggregated by post level, teachers at post levels 1 and 3 on average, disagreed on all items and factors with respect to whether the related leadership characteristics were evident in their schools -the degree of disagreement being most strong with level 3 teachers. At both these levels the least evident factor was Collégial and Supportive Relationships (Level 1,M = -.25, SD =.58; Level 3,M = -.58, SD = .61). At post level 3 Communicates Goals and Visions (M = -.37, SD = .18); and Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments (M = -.38, SD = .18) were also rated low by the majority of teachers.

Although this data points to interesting trends, it must be noted that a one way ANOVA reveals that none of the difference are statistically significant at the 5% level. In other words, there is less than 95% certainty that the differences in means can be attributed to Post Level rather than the variations noted within the groups of teachers at each post level.

It is interesting to note that Post level 3 teachers disagreed strongly in the key area of collégial supportive relationships yet part of their job responsibility is the creation of collégial supportive relationships. However, a limiting factor in this analysis is that only three participants in the study were at Post level 3. In the main since 41 of the 50 participants were level 1 teachers. It seemed that there is mean disagreement in all the key areas.

The positive mean scores for Post level 2 teachers indicated that two key leadership characteristics were evident at their schools. Teachers indicated that Shared Decision Making (M = .38, SD = .58) and Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments (M = .32, SD = .64) were most evident.

Teacher perceptions by gender

Table 4 and Figure 4 reflect that there were differences by gender in responses of teachers on whether the key leadership characteristics were displayed by their school principals. Overall male teachers (n = 11) disagreed that any of the characteristics were evident in their schools. The least evident characteristics were Collegial Supportive Relationships (M = -.55, SD = .17) and Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments (M = -.41, SD = .23).

Overall the female teachers' ratings suggest that on average they felt there was some evidence of four of the leadership characteristic at their schools: Communicates Goals and Visions (M = .013, SD = .73 ); Professional and Personal Growth (M = .12, SD = .53); Shared Decision Making (M = -.009, . SD = .60) and Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments (M = .06, SD = .66). Female teachers did not believe that their principals displayed any of the characteristics within the factor Collégial, Supportive Relationships (M = -.12, SD = .65). These characteristics included: respects me as an individual, listens to me attentively, reassures staff that they are making a real contribution to the school and the child.

An independent samples t-test was conducted to compare the scores on each leadership scale for males and females. There was no significant difference in scores for males and females on the scales of Communicates Goals and Visions and Shared Decision Making but significant differences were found in the other three scales: Collégial supportive relationships (p = 0.01); Professional and personal growthfp = 0.03) and Recognition of professional skills and accomplishments (p = 0.01). The scales showing difference were the more personal ones related to personal relationships and affirmation. Males seemed to respond more negatively on these scales.

Teacher perceptions by experience

Table 7 and Figure 5 disaggregate the data by years of teacher experience. In general ratings were very low on all factors - the highest rating across all the groups categorised by experience was for the factors: Professional and Personal Growth and Communication of Goals and Vision.

The results demonstrate that teachers with fewer years of teaching experience were positive that their school principals displayed the characteristics under the factors, Professional and Personal Growth and Communication of Goals and Vision. These were teachers in the 0-5 year group and the 6-10 group. Teachers who had more than 11 years teaching experience were generally negative in their responses on all five key dimensions. A one way between groups analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to explore the impact of teaching experience on the perception of leadership characteristics, as measured on the five scales created from the questionnaire (refer to table 8). There was no statistical significance at the p <0.05 level for the five different experience groupings.

Teacher ratings of leadership behaviour of the principal: Examining ranking values

Table 9 provides a picture of teacher ratings of their school principals with respect to the specific leadership behaviour patterns under each of the five factors. The ratings are low implying that the patterns are displayed at a minimal level. If one examines the ranking values, the five leadership behaviours rated the highest were:

* Offers constructive criticism of unsatisfactory work

* Encourages staff members to participate in professional activities especially in regard to inclusive education

* Respects me as an individual;

* Gives recognition to each staff member for his/her special contribution to special education

* Actively models/ supports staff development;

In other words, these behaviour patterns are somewhat evident. Three of these items belong to the dimension or factor: Personal and Professional Growth; one to Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments; and one to Collégial, Supportive Relationships.

The five leadership characteristics of the 37 in the questionnaire rated lowest were:

* Follows through on promises made

* Reassures staff that they were missed during their absence

* Solves conflicts successfully

* *Makes every effort to understand each staff member's frustrations

* *Takes responsibility for the orientation of new staff

* Keeps staff abreast with developments in special education

Two of the above items (marked *) were tied. The above suggests that these leadership behaviours or characteristics are rarely displayed by the school principal. Four of these leadership behaviours belong to the factor: Collégial, Supportive Relationships. Two belong to the factor: Personal and Professional Growth.

If one ranks the composite means for the five factors, the ranking emerges as follows:

1. Professional and Personal Growth (M = .04; SD = .50)

2. Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments (-.04; SD = .62)

3. Shared Decision Making (M = -.06; SD = .54)

4. Communicates Goals and Visions (M = -.07; SD = .69)

5. Collégial Supportive Relationships (M =- .22; SD = .61).

Results reflect that the leadership behaviours that relate to the above factors are minimally displayed at their schools by the school principal if one examines the low mean ratings. The above suggests that students rated leadership characteristics that related to Collégial, Supportive Relationships and Communicates Goals and Visions as the most unlikely to be evident in their schools. These are important behaviours associated with teacher motivation according to literature reviewed in chapter two.

Discussion of Findings

The study reported in this article examined the leadership behaviour of the school principal in selected special schools in KwaZulu -Natal. The findings revealed that teacher ratings were very low on all five leadership dimensions or factors: shared decision making; collégial relationships; communication of visions and goals, professional and personal growth; and recognition of professional skills and accomplishments. Yet studies suggest that these dimensions and the values embedded in them are key characteristics of effective schools (see, for example, Mestry & Singh, 2007; Hoog, Johansson & Olofsson, 2005; Bennell & Akyeampong; Chen & Nan Chun, 2007).

The findings suggest that there may be a lack of professional development programmes for school leaders at the five special schools. It seems that key insights on school leadership from research over the past two decades that should inform any kind of school leadership training and development are not impacting practice on the ground in the schools in this study. If principals are not formally trained in leadership skills, it is difficult to acquire these skills on their own. Van der Mescht & Tyala (2008) argues that leadership practices that involve distribution of responsibilities, a shared vision, and participatory decision making are more likely to succeed. There was little evidence of these practices in the five special schools if one assesses the rating of the teachers. Mestry & Singh (2007) emphasize that principals who have a strong driving vision and are able to transfer this to a binding staff vision will be better able to attain goals. Collier and Esteban (2000) stressed the need for empathetic dialogue, open communication, and the maintenance of relationships of trust. Hargreaves & Fink (2003) argue that one way for leaders to leave a lasting legacy is to ensure that leadership in a school is developed with and shared by others.

The findings in the study point to the need for "reculturing' of the five schools in the study. Reculturing focuses on cultural rather than structural change and involves a range of strategies to be used in order to bring about cultural change in a school (MacNeill, 2005). Schools as organizations are complex adaptive systems that operate in a particular social context (Painter-Moreland, 2008). There is a need to constantly examine and reconsider how the habits, values, beliefs, and expectations that inform the cultural dynamics within an organization's culture are shaped and sustained. In the context of schools as organizations, if the habits and behaviour of principals and teachers are informed by a culture in which there is limited shared participation, support, recognition, respect, communication and collegiality, then leadership needs to be re-examined. Although the male participants in the study rated their principals negatively on all five dimensions of leadership, the female teachers' ratings suggested that on average they felt there was some evidence at their schools of leadership characteristics: Communicates Goals and Visions; Professional and Personal Growth; Shared Decision Making and Recognition of Professional Skills and Accomplishments. However, they did not believe that their principals displayed any of the characteristics within the factor Collégial, Supportive Relationships. These characteristics included: respects me as an individual, listens to me attentively, and reassures me that I am making a real contribution to the school. This suggests that the female teachers valued the social and emotional aspects of collegiality in their interactions with their principals, and experienced this dimension of principal leadership negatively. Studies have shown that teacher collegiality has a positive impact on their commitment to the school as an institution and to school success (Shah, 2012; Jarzabkowski, 2002). It is not possible to draw any conclusions on gender differences given the small sample of male teachers in the study. The study suggests that the issue of collegiality in the context of special schools is an area for further research.

There was limited evidence of shared decision making in the leadership behaviours of the five principals in the study. The sharing of power has significant implications for building an effective school. A transformative leader is the kind of leader who is willing to relinquish and share power with others and is able to generate a community of leaders in which every member becomes a leader in some way, at some time (Botha, 2006; Kocolowski, 2010; Singh, 2005). Therefore the principals and teachers need training and empowerment so that they can take their role in a new power sharing process.


This study has important implications for the development of the principal as a leader in special schools. Special schools are complex organizations more so in South Africa currently as they are in the process of major policy changes. As a result a tremendous amount of anxiety exists around the future of special schools and the changing leadership roles. The present study has important implications for professional development of school principals and whole school development in the five special schools examined. Key leadership behaviours seen as critical to the development of effective schools and for promoting teacher motivation and morale are rarely displayed in the schools according to teachers in the study.

Professional training programmes for school principals need to draw on debates on participative and transformative (Ali & Botha, 2005; Kamper, 2008; Kocolowski, 2010). Empowerment of teachers and principals can be done through providing opportunities for cooperative actions, training in the collaborative managerial functions of the school, creating a climate for risk taking, providing opportunities for collegiality, recognition of professional success, development of group process skills, and the development of communication skills. In addition it must be understood that if teachers are to be part of the vital decision making process at school then they need to be given space to make decisions and their decisions should be valued.

A limitation of the study is that it was small scale in nature. Only ten teachers in each of the five schools were participants. The study did not explore an interesting facet, that is, to establish the principals' perceptions of their own leadership behaviour. A principal's questionnaire and interviews with the five principals could have yielded very valuable information that would have enhanced the quality of the study.


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Author affiliation:

Lingesperi Naidoo Nithi Muthukrishna Sally Hobden

School of Education, University of KwaZulu -Natal, Private Bag X03, Ashwood 3605. South Africa

Author affiliation:

Corresponding author: Professor Nithi Muthukrishna, School of Education, University of KwaZulu- Natal, Private Bag X03, Ashwood, 3605. South Africa. Email:

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