Over the past decade, many Hong Kong schools have seen leadership changes and the trend is continuing as more principals approach retirement age. There has been a dearth of competent people to fill the posts vacated; although there are enough applicants to go through the necessary principal certification process, character and experience seem to be in short supply.
Those who have landed the job have faced immediate challenges as they have become enmeshed in the intensifying school reforms.
Their inexperience may have a negative impact on the current reforms and the quality of school education because the principal is deemed the prime mover when it comes to implementing change and innovation at a school.
In the longer term, there is a worry that there will even be fewer choices of suitable candidates as experienced and potentially more qualified vice-principals are shying away from taking up the job of principal.
The Hong Kong Association of Deputy Principals conducted a survey among its peers about aspirations to become principals.
More than 80 per cent of those polled expressed an unwillingness to become a principal for two main reasons. Firstly, they felt the burden a principal must carry is unbearable; and secondly, there is little knowledge of exactly what the job involves.
How to keep the leadership pipeline flowing properly for Hong Kong's schools is now becoming an issue of concern for all in education. Proactive efforts are needed by the government, as well as collaborative ones made with the profession, to tackle the problem.
Recently, the government replaced the former advisory committee on teacher education and qualification with a committee on the professional development of teachers and principals.
This indicates a concern for the development of leadership in our schools.
School leadership should be viewed as a continuum, moving from leadership without title to formal teacher leadership in the form of subject panel chairmanship, and principal leadership. This can be further split to include the position of vice-principal.
The leadership continuum can be divided into stages of development to dovetail with a teacher's career progression. The principals need different levels of leaders within the school to help them administer an increasingly complex school organisational system. This way, they can divert more energy to achieving quality education for all students.
Principals are currently too preoccupied with administrative duties to spare much time for curriculum and instructional leadership.
Training for different levels of school leadership can be sought for teachers, and vice-principals, in particular, to help them acquire the proper mindset, as well as the skill set for school leadership.
Besides structured courses, the best mode of training for professionals like teachers should be mentoring within a community of peers. That way, experienced members can help the novice learn the ropes.
Community building is where professional bodies can help. The newly formed Hong Kong Principals' Institute is such a community and is a potential ally to the authorities.
The Principal Competence Framework it develops through professional input and wide consultation with tertiary institutions could be a reference when framing leadership development programmes.
Other associations of school heads can also be partners to such a leadership development coalition. It takes a collective effort to identify, develop and maintain school leaders to keep the leadership pipeline flowing.
The final strategy that merits consideration may be for Hong Kong to establish a college or academy for school leadership.
This strategy has been adopted in Britain, Singapore, Ontario, Canada and in Victoria, Australia. The institutions run as governmental or quasi-governmental bodies, or exist as professional ones with substantial government support.
These colleges are focused, centralised, purpose-driven organisations that ensure schools are supplied with well-groomed leaders for all levels, as well as potential successors to retiring heads.
Effective school leadership is undoubtedly a crucial factor in sustainable success of education reform. Early planning for it is one way to go.
Robin Cheung is a retired school principal