Leading a small school

School leadership is a complex role, and leading a small school can present its own challenges.

Experienced school leader Alasdair Maclean has spent his career in small schools. Reflecting on what he's learned, he tells Teacher that building productive relationships is crucial.

‘Building relationships is very important; developing positive relationships. Really digging deep into your school, into what makes a school work for the community, for my staff and for myself.'

Maclean is former Director of the Independent Schools of Riau (ISR), on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The K-8 school is home to just 68 students but is well staffed, with 14 teachers, including specialists for PE, Art, Bahasa language, Bahasa culture and Music.

Relationships and communication

When the New Zealander first joined ISR six years ago there were two schools. Now it's a single campus, serving families working for Chevron. That means all staff live on one, self-contained camp. ‘All the staff live in one area – they work together and they socialise together. So, everyone knows each other very well.

‘[As a principal of a small school] relationships are very important, the communication is very important, and of course leading school direction – especially strategic direction.'

Prior to joining ISR, Maclean had leadership roles in small schools in India, China and New Zealand. He says growing up on a dairy farm in a small, rural community certainly influenced his career pathway. ‘I started off working in small schools because I went to a small, country school as a pupil. In 2004 I had a chance to become a principal of a small, rural country school in New Zealand and took the opportunity.'

Sharing leadership and leading by example

In A Collective Act: Leading a Small School, Michelle Anderson notes that the five principal co-authors who contribute their case study stories to the book all agree that sharing leadership is a critical aspect of leading a small school (Anderson, Davis, Douglas, Lloyd, Niven & Thiele, 2010).

Maclean agrees and says, in his experience, it can't be a top-down approach. ‘[At ISR] I was the only senior leader in the school so then what I did was create other leadership groups in the school and empowered my staff to take on leadership positions, where there wouldn't always be leadership positions.'

He also makes professional learning alongside staff a priority. ‘And where [at a larger school] I might be in one professional learning team, at ISR we might have had four or five professional learning teams and I was involved in every one.'

Wearing ‘multiple hats'

Principals of small schools – particularly those with only a handful of staff – will know that wearing multiple hats comes with the territory. ‘There are certain things you might not have as a small school,' Maclean says. ‘You find yourself doing timetabling and substitute teaching. I've done property maintenance. At ISR there were two trips this year and I ran both … it's part of the nature of a small school.'

He laughs when recalling his first principalship in New Zealand, where he was in charge of a two teacher school. ‘I remember getting to work at 7am to light the fire. The farmer down the road once gave me a ring because his milker didn't turn up to milk the cows and he knew I was finishing at 3.30pm! I found myself making hay one day, and fencing another time … I'm from a farming background and it was part of the community so it was fine, I didn't mind it – it's all about building positive relationships.'

Networking with others

Having a network that extends beyond the school gates is a feature of professional learning for many teachers. Maclean says it's particularly important to ensure this support and expertise is in place for staff in small schools. ‘[ISR is] managed by International School Services (ISS) and they manage 34 schools around the world, so the school is connected with the network for professional development.

‘We connected teachers with teachers – we had senior leadership executives come and visit us and also had strong professional development. Last year we brought Maths consultants in and inquiry learning consultants. Every year, teachers also go out to a conference in Asia somewhere, based on the school development plan and the needs of the school.

‘So, we didn't feel like we stood alone, we had support. That's vital too for a small school – if you're the only one teaching Grade 2 and you haven't talked to another Grade 2 teacher … it's important that you are up to date with current pedagogy.'

Maclean has now returned to New Zealand to take on a principal role in Dunedin.


Anderson, M., Davis, M., Douglas, P., Lloyd, D., Niven, B. & Thiele, H. (2010). A collective act: Leading a small school, Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

As a leader, how do you go about building positive, productive relationships with staff and the school community?