skip to main content

Research Developments from ACER


Image © Business Images

New directions for Australian Principal Certification

Current methods for assessing and evaluating school principals based on performance management systems are not up to the challenge of promoting and recognising successful leadership practices, as Lawrence Ingvarson explains.

Recent research on principal evaluation indicates we have a lot to learn. Although research confirms the importance of effective leadership to a school’s success, and despite more than a hundred years of research on principal evaluation, it has not been easy to establish valid and reliable methods for distinguishing principals who have attained high performance standards from those who, as yet, have not.

Why Principal Certification?

A professional certification system can promote widespread implementation of effective practices. Certification is the way most professions drive continual improvement in their members’ practice; in their own and in the public interest.

With greater school autonomy, there is an increased need for systems that establish and ensure profession-wide standards. The work of principals is complex and methods for capturing relevant evidence of effective leadership, and assessing and evaluating it need to reflect that complexity.

Certification has the potential to provide a valuable service to the profession and to employing authorities seeking a sound basis on which to reward principals who have achieved high professional standards. It also has the potential to provide successful principals with a highly respected and marketable form of professional certification. The success of such a scheme will clearly depend on the rigour and fairness of the procedures used to verify evidence.

The profession in control

The appropriate role of governments, employing authorities and government agencies such as the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is to provide support and recognition for a profession-run certification system, not to operate or control it. This is standard practice with other professions. Australia is more likely to build an effective evaluation system if the profession is entrusted with one of the key responsibilities of a profession – to define its own standards for accomplished practice and to develop credible methods for recognising those who attain them.

What should a professional certification system look like?

While annual performance management models have an important role to play, there is considerable research indicating that they have struggled to gain professional credibility, especially when linked to bonus pay schemes.

A professional certification system should be:

  • profession-wide, with certification provided by an independent professional body;
  • based on a standards-based assessment of performance by professional peers – not an academic qualification;
  • voluntary;
  • portable; and
  • owned by the individual – not a job or position specific to a school or school system.

Principals Australia Institute (PAI) in consultation with Australian principals has been leading the development of a voluntary Australian Principal Certification Program. Extensive national consultations were conducted early in 2014 in each state and territory. Participants affirmed the central purposes and value of principal certification as being to:

  • gain professional recognition for exemplary leadership;
  • affirm that principals are integral to student success;
  • make formal contributions to leadership research;
  • elevate the status of the profession;
  • build and sustain expertise within the profession;
  • demonstrate achievement of the Australian Professional Standard for Principals (Australian Principal Standard);
  • address the National Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians; and
  • participate in a national network of leading learners.

The way forward

In 2013 PAI commissioned ACER to review recent research on principal evaluation, resulting in the report, Professional certification for accomplished principals: directions for Australia.

The review contained two main recommendations: that PAI develop an Assessment and Evaluation Framework, and that portfolio initiatives form the main source of evidence for assessment.

Structured portfolio initiatives can measure changes over time, such as changes on measures of staff collaboration, or changes in student behaviour or achievement. Methods for gathering evidence relevant to standards for certification should be reliable and authentic. Portfolio initiatives should be based on meaningful, typical work that accomplished principals perform over time.

Portfolio initiatives have the capacity to encompass the full story of leading and managing to improve specified areas of professional practice. No other method has the capacity to incorporate multiple forms of evidence over time demonstrating change or improvement.

The purpose of the Assessment and Evaluation Framework would be to design and field test portfolio initiatives that provide valid and reliable evidence about a principal’s accomplishments in relation to the professional practices and leadership requirements set out in the Australian Principal Standard. It is recommended that a team of experts in standards-based performance assessment and highly regarded principals undertake this work.

The assessment process should be challenging, if it is to be valid and valued. The period of time from initially applying to completion will be determined as part of Principals Australia Institute’s prototype, to be trialled in 2015. Principals will be actively engaged in gathering evidence to show how they meet the Australian Principal Standard.

Ideally, a principal certification system would have the following features:

  • it will be voluntary;
  • only practising school principals will be eligible;
  • eligible candidates will need to have been school principals for a defined period of time; and
  • there will be one cycle of receiving and evaluating applications each year.

Work on developing an Assessment and Evaluation Framework and field testing portfolio initiatives will begin in late 2014. â– 

Read the full report:
Professional certification for accomplished principals: directions for Australia, by Lawrence Ingvarson, is available from the ACER Research Repository.

2019 update:
As of late 2018, Certified Practising Principal is now supported and administered by ACER. More details can be found at its website:


About the author

Dr Lawrence Ingvarson is a Principal Research Fellow in ACER's Teaching and Learning research program.

More [rd] articles by Lawrence Ingvarson

View selected works of Lawrence Ingvarson

Related articles

Higher Education
University completions and equity | RD

University completions and equity

06 May 2015

University students from disadvantaged groups have a lower completion rate than their more advantaged peers, but most disadvantaged students do complete their degrees, research reveals.

Evaluation, Quality & Standards, Higher Education, Indigenous

Education & Development
Teacher absenteeism in Indonesia | RD

Teacher absenteeism in Indonesia

16 March 2015

A comprehensive new study reveals that teacher absenteeism in Indonesia is declining, and provides evidence for policy makers focused on improving teaching and learning, as Phil McKenzie explains.

Evaluation, Quality & Standards, Survey, School, Education & Development

Assessing learning of students with disabilities | RD

Assessing learning of students with disabilities

13 February 2020

ACER and NEQMAP reviewed existing inclusive education policies and practices in the Asia-Pacific region with a particular focus on learning assessment of children with disabilities.

Assessment, School, Education & Development, Featured school, Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia