Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The Importance of Educational Leadership

Written by johnleemk on 4:46:44 pm May 20, 2007.

When I was in primary school, I never really paid attention to the headmistress. I didn't see any real impact made by her leadership. The only thing that stood out about her was that everyone feared her strict discipline.

As a consequence, it never really occurred to me that principals play an important role in our school system. After all, in the first place, schools have hardly any autonomy — almost everything is centralised in the Education Ministry.

In secondary school, though, it began to become clear that despite the curtailment of autonomy, principals still have an important role to play. (Using the gender-neutral term of "principals" does feel awkward, however, since I have never studied under a headmaster — the principal of every educational establishment which I have attended has been a woman.)

In form one, the headmistress of my secondary school announced that they would be circulating a petition among all of us supporting Malaysians For Peace and their campaign against the Iraq war.

Now, this blatantly political activity was still okay with me (though I don't know whether the Education Ministry would have approved). But to my incredulity, the headmistress announced that signing it was compulsory for all students.

Later, when I talked with two of my friends who were class monitors, they confirmed that all students had to sign the petition — if they did not, the class monitors would be subject to disciplinary action.

The result was that despite my undecided opinion on the war's merits, and the actual support of a few of my friends for the war, all of us signed the petition against our will — something which makes a mockery of the democratic process which signing a petition is supposed to represent.

The following year, I transferred to a new secondary school. Here, the headmistress turned out to be almost as ineffectual — under her leadership, the school forced out the scout troop's scoutmasters (because they asked for troop meetings on Saturdays, instead of Thursdays when they were free), and rumours abounded that she was under the thumb of an overly dominating discipline teacher.

The year after that, when I was in form three, it was still this same headmistress, though, who approved my request for study leave to prepare for the O-Levels in October — which I used to circumvent fourth and fifth form, leaving school at the end of form three.

That same year, though, the headmistress was changed, apparently because of internal politicking. The new headmistress has been unremarkable, except for, oh, the blatant attempt of teachers under her leadership attempting to defraud a charity.

(And since I wrote that previous article describing the fraud, it seems that attempts from the students to correct the teachers have been met with scoffs along the lines of "Don't be so naive — the charity is corrupt and will waste the donations, so we should take them!")

Having gone through all this, I finally appreciate that even under our excessively centralised education system, there is a role for headmistresses to play. There is a place for dedicated and disciplined leadership, even at the school level.

It is sad that the leadership I believe my primary school principal displayed is not more common. But I believe that if we can develop the right system, the right culture, the right habits, we can do better than we have with the ineffective and/or corrupt bunch of educational leaders we have today.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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