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Educational Leadership in Ottawa

Educational Leadership in Ottawa

“Of all the countries I visited for this book, Canada would be my choice for where I’d like to send my own children to school” – Lucy Crehan, Cleverlands

In the book Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan writes about her experience of visiting five high performing education systems. Her travels take her to Finland, Singapore, Japan, China and Canada. It is widely acknowledged that those countries perform well on the international stage, as measured by PISA and have many strengths. So for Lucy to comment that Canada, out of all the countries she has visited, is where she would send her own children, is high praise indeed.

So, what is happening in Canadian schools that led Lucy to that conclusion? The answer is of course in the book (which I highly recommend reading)…however ,I may be able to shed some light on a few aspects of the Canadian system which I believe are worthy of note.


Ô Canada…

I had the opportunity to visit Ottawa with the National Academy for Educational Leadership for a week in January 2020 in order to find out more about how they promote their bilingual education system, ensuring that the use of French is not only protected but grows and develops within this vast country. During the many meetings that took place during the week I also focused on leadership – specifically getting an understanding about what their leaders do and how they are supported and developed.

Canada is made up of 13 different provinces and each province runs its own education system. I visited the national capital Ottawa, which is the second largest city in Ontario (behind Montreal). Whilst different provinces have similar approaches, each province is able to make decisions and operate systems that are specific to their own needs. They are able to respond to their localised context which, given the size of Canada, the second largest country in the world, is a must.


So what does educational leadership look like in Ontario?

In Ottawa there are four school boards who support, co-ordinate and develop the provision within their schools, which may be French, English, Catholic or public. The school boards are responsible for the education within their school; they appoint leaders, offer professional development, provide resources and hold schools to account regarding their performance. School superintendents are allocated to a number of schools and work in partnership with the principles within those schools, looking at standards, pedagogy etc.


So, what makes this system distinct and what can we learn from it?

During my time in Ottawa I spoke to a number of school principals and met with representatives from two school boards. I made several interesting observations.

  • There is a very well-defined and coherent leadership strategy in Ottawa, which is delivered and reinforced by a clear support framework that is context sensitive and begins when teachers enter the profession.


“Your path to education leadership has already started. It began when you became a teacher. Leadership is fundamental to the role of an educator” – The Ontario Leadership Framework


  • School boards focus on appointing good candidates ensuring they attract the right people into leadership roles. They then support and develop those leaders to become the best that they can be by offering a comprehensive coaching programme, access to high quality professional learning opportunities and on-going support.
  • There is an emphasis on leadership for learning. Information about current research and evidence based strategies, which are aligned to the leadership strategy, are made widely available and used by principles.
  • Superintendents and principles work closely together and developing a positive relationship seems key. I spent time in a school where both the principle and the superintendent conducted the tour together. The relationship they had seemed very informal, warm and open. The role of superintendent seemed to focus on supporting schools so that they could continually improve rather than inspecting schools in order to hold them to account. Superintendents wanted all the schools within their family to do well and be successful – and if they weren’t there was a genuine desire for everyone involved in the school board to ensure that help was given in order for improvements to be made.
  • The importance of high levels of well-being amongst leaders was acknowledged.


“Taking care of yourself is your first priority as a leader. Everything else follows”. – The Institute of Education Leadership, Ontario


One of the ways school boards do this is by ‘buffering’ principles from unnecessary distractions, allowing them to focus fully on improving outcomes for learning. One principle I spoke to explained that he had no dealings with school maintenance or health and safety, explaining that those tasks are dealt with centrally by school board staff. This allowed him to focus on maximizing the achievement and well-being of all the children in his care. As someone who spent all of Sunday last weekend in my school as the fire alarms were set off by a faulty boiler, I do feel rather envious about this.


To summarise…
  • The educational leaders in Ottawa seemed to be carefully selected through structured and innovative succession planning. They were developed and supported by highly effective superintendents who were ex-principles that had a successful track record in school improvement and who understood their individual contexts.
  • Their professional learning seemed to be a priority and there was an abundance of high quality materials and resources to support that learning, all of it research informed.
  • The system seemed to have an appropriate balance between holding schools to account whilst also providing them with advice and support in order to help them improve. This clearly has an impact on the effectiveness of leaders and ultimately on the attainment and well-being of the learners.


In conclusion…

As Academy Associates we have been brought together to realise the vision of “Inspiring leaders and enriching lives” and aim to bring clarity and coherence to educational leadership in Wales. The experiences from our time in Ottawa will undoubtedly help to further strengthen our work with leaders and enable us to ensure that we are all best placed to realise the National Mission.

Dr Suzanne Sarjeant, Academy Associate and Headteacher Pencoed Primary School