The NSI Process for Principals

The NSI Process for Principals

It is the role of leadership to establish school and classroom conditions that facilitate student learning … Leaders influence others by establishing school systems, routines, and resources that make a difference to how teachers teach and how students learn. Once these are established, leaders shift their focus to new targets.

Robinson et al. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why, p. 83

NSI works with principals and school leaders to examine and improve aspects of the school-wide climate, and to track changes in this climate and other student outcomes over time. Our process invites principals to engage in a process of reflective practice around feedback information that is collected from a range of important stakeholders: students, teachers, and parents / caregivers. We also support principals in developing an inquiry team within their school – a group of staff whom the principal will work collaboratively with to engage with the survey feedback and plan, lead and evaluate improvement efforts. This builds capacity within the school and allows the principal to engage in pedagogical leadership – a powerful leadership style “in which the principal participates as a co-learner with teachers in moving learning and the school forward” (Fullan, M.; in Robinson et al., 2009, p. 1).

The process below can be used with any one of our school-level surveys – the What’s Happening in this School? Questionnaire (student perceptions), the School Organisational Climate Survey (staff perceptions) and/or the Parent and Caregiver Survey. We recommend that our process be used over a five-year period, to allow time for an inquiry and improvement culture to be deeply embedded within the school and to ensure that positive changes are sustained over time.

NSI Partnerships’ Five-Step Collaborative Inquiry Process for Principals:

Baseline assessment and feedback (year one only)

The online survey/s chosen by the school are completed online.

  • For the What’s Happening In This School? Questionnaire (student perceptions), schools can choose to have all students complete the survey or to select a representative sample of students.
  • For the School Organisational Climate Survey (staff perceptions) and the Parent and Caregiver Survey, we recommend inviting all staff / parents and caregivers to complete the online survey.

We work through an in-school survey coordinator to support the process of administering the online survey/s.

After the survey/s close, we analyse the data and provide a detailed feedback package for each survey (usually sent to the principal within two weeks). This feedback package presents responses at both overview (snapshot) and detailed levels. These responses are seen as baseline data.

We also provide a principal’s companion booklet for each of our surveys that explains how to interpret the feedback graphs and gives further information about what is examined in each scale and why these aspects of the school climate are important.

Example of overview feedback
Example of overview feedback


Example of detailed feedback
Example of detailed feedback

Reflection and focusing

In the context of an inquiry team, the principal and a selection of school staff look at the feedback provided and reflect on what it is saying about the current reality at the school. The team try hard to ‘suspend judgement’ and to genuinely listen to the messages contained in the data.

The leadership team select one – or at most two – areas for improvement, based on the feedback package.

Our principal companion booklet provides useful information to the inqiury team at this stage, explaining the content and importance of each scale in the online survey. Many schools we have worked with in the past have also found it helpful to share some or all of the feedback with students, staff and/or parents/caregivers at this stage and to have further conversations to hear about these stakeholders’ experiences and views.

Planning an intervention

This step has three parts, as the inquiry team seeks to plan an intervention that is likely to help improve their chosen focus area.

  • First, the team develops a working hypothesis that explains what they think has caused the current issue or challenge in their focus area.
  • Next, the team accesses new learning, exploring information and insights related to their focus area and trying to keep an open mind. The team considers both old and new ideas and approaches.
  • Finally, drawing on the thinking and information above, the team develops a strategy for a targeted intervention that they will implement over the next 10 weeks. The team tries to ensure that their strategy is manageable and is likely to result in a worthwhile impact in their focus area.

Implementing and refining

The school, led by the principal and the inquiry team, complete three 10-week cycles of intervention and reflection (usually aligned with the first three terms of the academic year). This extended duration provides time for the new practices to be refined and embedded, and to allow them to begin to have a meaningful impact beyond an initial reaction.

New practices will be implemented and reflection on and in action will be used throughout each 10-week period, allowing the inquiry team to develop an understanding of what is working and why. The inquiry team hold short but regular (e.g. two-weekly) check-in meetings to ‘touch base’ about how things are going.

At the end of each 10-week cycle (or term), a reflection meeting involving the whole leadership team is held to evaluate the effect of the actions to date. This may result in some fine-tuning of the improvement strategy at the whole-school level for the following term.

Describing and preliminary analysis

Drawing on the notes made throughout the year, the inquiry team write a succinct account of what happened during the three 10-week implementation cycles and what effects were observed. This allows for reflection, celebration of successes, acknowledgement of challenges or refinements, and documentation of lessons learned. The team also record their preliminary thoughts about the extent to which the improvement efforts have resulted in changes in the chosen focus area/s, and any evidence (anecdotal or more formal) that they have of such improvement.

While the document created during this step should be concise, it forms a valuable record to inform future work and preserve ‘institutional memory’ (for example, in case key staff leave the school). The reflective conversations and the process of writing the document are also important for growing the principal and leadership team’s capacity in monitoring and demonstrating improvement.

Re-administering the survey to examine the changes

After the inquiry team have completed step 4, the original survey/s are readministered online. Once again, NSI provide detailed analysis and feedback including side-by-side comparisons of changes in the survey scores over time.

Using this feedback as well as the document created in step 4, the principal and inquiry team decide whether they feel that they have, as yet, made enough change in their chosen focus area. There will almost certainly have been some improvement, but the team may wish to continue working in this focus area in the following year if they feel there is still room to improve or that changes are not yet sufficiently well embedded. Alternatively, the principal and inquiry team may decide that they are happy with the improvement in their chosen area, and are now ready to select a new focus area for the following year (while retaining the good practices that generated improvement in their original focus area). This links seamlessly with the return to step 1 ready for the beginning of the next academic year, in which the five-step process will be repeated.

Click here to read case studies of real schools’ experiences and achievements working with NSI.

Measurable improvements over time

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