Monday, 19 October 2015

How old are leaders?

I know the following commentary is controversial. But in the interest of a robust discussion and education advancement I wish to present a view that our education system needs a spring clean. For real representation and diversity in education leadership we need to inject dynamic, bold, youthful educators into the exclusive Principal club.

According to the New Zealand government website Education Counts, in 2012 (the most recent stats available) just 13% of our public and state integrated school principals are aged 45-49 years. Which at a quick glance could make you think there must be plenty of education leaders in their 30’s and early 40’s. Right? Well, no.

 Nearly 70% of our principals are over 50 and under 80 years of age. Just 8% are under 40 years of age. While there are some truly remarkable leaders in the sunset period of their career, including some who continue to innovative and drive change, we must recognise that great leadership is not just about longevity.

 We need leaders who are informed by the very best contemporary practice, creativity and digital nous, who are collaborative, innovative and passionate.

We need leaders who can lead our children into the increasingly complex (and competitive) world they live in.

 Ask a Deputy Principal or Assistant Principal role how hard it is to take the step up to become a Principal position. The roles are few and far between and the appointment of a new principal is often in the domain of Boards of trustees and recruitment advisers who follow well-defined safe pathways.

As a rule when a school principal moves on, they are almost always replaced with another senior educator who has retirement within short reach.

Is it possible that the tried and tested, worn-in life-experience is still so valued as a key leadership characteristic that younger leaders who bring new education context, contemporary experience and greater understanding of technological advances are almost always overlooked?

 The above data presents consistent statistics over the past decade, which then leads to the question, ‘does our continued preference for mature leaders mean we are losing exceptional educators to other sectors? Do some simply give up waiting and move on?

 Please don’t get me wrong, I truly hope that in 15 years when I am knocking on the door of 60 that my skills will still be relevant and valued. But I hope by that stage my contribution will have shifted from leading an education organisation to one where I can provide value in other ways.

 I have spent my life researching, reading or participating in education. But this knowledge also provides me with a detailed insight that the older I become, the more I have to work at staying relevant.

Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to surround myself with a very dynamic team of educators who bring experience, practical knowledge and contemporary teaching practices to my world. They also happen to be young by New Zealand education standards. While 40% of my team are over 40 years, I gain incredible insight and real benefit from the younger members of my team.

My collaborative team of young(ish) education leaders help inform and shape my key decisions and they lead many of the conversations about progress. Most of my team identify with another culture in addition to being proud kiwis. They are highly skilled, with almost all teaching staff holding a Masters degree or a Ph.D.

They are also practitioners from diverse industries including science, engineering, film, design, languages, software development and education.

Each member of the team has a voice, a valued viewpoint and experience that we collectively benefit from. The age of the team has nothing to do with their leadership capability, their potential or their ability to lead the transformation of New Zealand education.

Let me present the idea that it is time to explore the effect of age creep in our schools and start looking at how we can keep our passionate young teachers in the system long enough that they too can lead change from the top. Let’s set a new goal of raising the number of school principals aged 40-49 years of age while looking at a new post-principal role designed to support new education leaders and mentor teachers who are coming through the ranks.

Let us mobilise together to promote the advancement of our best teachers to apply for leadership roles and let the best and brightest lead us forward, whatever their age.

 Data sourced from

Frances Valintine
Chair of the Board at The Mind Lab by Unitec


  1. This argument has crossed my mind a fair few times in the last couple of years. I think that another factor is the lack self belief in the under 40s that they can take a senior leadership role.

    If you have spent your life in an environment where leadership demands a certain gravitas that only comes with maturity, then no, we will not get the under 40s sitting in the big chair.

    Does wisdom come with age?
    Should you have a wide range of life and work experiences under your belt before stepping up?
    Do young leaders have the leadership skill required to inspire and motivate?
    Or do our under 40s have other skills that need to be acknowledge -, enthusiasm, innovation, energy, motivation?

    I believe there is a shift happening, its a small ripple, but it is there. However the problem is not just with the boards and the old school system, but with the under 40s having the belief in themselves and the confidence to stand tall and go for it.

    As a school leader it frustrates me that younger staff do not aim for the sky, and raise their sights. They are reluctant to or turn down opportunities to participate in profesional development,post grad or research work in their own time. Where is the fire in their bellies?

    How do we light that flame?
    Why do they lack confidence or motivation to go the extra mile and do the extra work?

    There are opportunities for the younger teacher to rise through the ranks. The Mindlab PostGrad and NAPP2016 are the ideal stepping stones. The success rate for entry into senior roles after NAPP is phenomenal for the participating candidates. But you need to do the course in the first place. Somehow we need to show the under 40s that it is possible and there are opportunities there if you take them.

  2. I actually found myself agreeing to this until I realised that I was one of those "in their sunset period". I feel bold; I feel dynamic; I feel youthful! Age is merely a number...are principal's chosen because of their 'maturity'? or is it because they have what the employing Board is looking for? Surely it is the role of a principal to grow leaders within a school setting, to help develop the self belief (whatever the age), to share life experience...As a new principal in the over 50 age bracket, I have many good years left!!

  3. Very ageist comments. If you are a leader, you are a leader. It is not about how old you are. If you are not doing your job well then you should step down. Why should you get a job as a leader just because you are younger than someone else?

  4. Agree totally with the last two comments - hopefully BOT's are employing people for their skill sets not youth or maturity. e.g you may be a youthful innovative educator who has no idea how to manage change or effectively lead a team...

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