Accountability, Change Management, Collaboration, Communication, Culture – Organisational, Leadership, Vision

Leadership that Makes a Difference

Five years before the writing of this article, Cessnock High School in NSW had earned the reputation for being violent, having high rates of truancy and poor academic achievement. The school was so bad that teachers were fearful of being placed there. Situated in a working class, regional community, where 70% of its residents were in the bottom quartile of socio-economic disadvantage, the school was renowned for negative and dysfunctional behaviour.

But now five years later since the arrival of Peter Riley, the new principal, Cessnock High no longer has a reputation of violence, truancy and poor academic results.

What made the difference? Leadership that was determined to make a difference! Principal Peter Riley demonstrated the kind of leadership that brought hope and transformation to his school community. By exploring what the principal did we shall identify the keys of successful leadership.

1.        A Passionate Purpose

Peter Riley left a much wealthier school to take on the mission of transforming Cessnock High. He had a clear and compelling purpose in mind. “We want to produce good citizens who are capable of adding to our community, that are employable, and that education and employability is a lifelong difference for them,” he said. Leaders who make a difference have a powerful purpose – a strong sense of mission they are passionate about achieving.

2.        Positive Basic Beliefs

Peter believes people matter – he believes children need not be trapped in a cycle of poverty, meaninglessness and unemployment. He believes children can change, blossom and grow and become positive contributing members of their communities if given the right encouragement and support.

Leaders who make a difference have strong basic beliefs that undergird their mission.

3.        Creative Core Values

Peter’s beliefs in the value and potential of people fueled some core values around love, respect, fairness and hope for his students. These values spilled over to teachers, parents and enriched the local community. They shaped the way Peter’s mission was expressed among the school community and parents, such as encouraging them all to become more involved in their local communities.

Leaders who make a difference are guided by core values that are life giving.

4.        Inspirational Vision

Peter’s mission, beliefs and values became focused in his inspirational vision of imagining his school community as an inclusive and welcoming family. As Peter expressed it, “When they’re preparing lessons, speaking with kids about being better human beings or their character development, we speak to them like it’s our own child.”

Leaders who make a difference discern and are able to help others gain ownership of a vision that inspires and motivates them.

5.        Effective Systems

However, leaders who make a difference do more than have a committed purpose, positive basic beliefs, creative core values and an inspired vision that everyone willingly owns. They also develop systems that effectively enable and empower the change they want to see.

Peter knew about the ‘Quality Teaching Rounds’ system developed by Newcastle University NSW designed to improve classroom teaching and student outcomes. Small groups of teachers take turns or ‘rounds’ to observe and critique a colleague’s lesson against three criteria:

•          Quality Teaching – the ability to demonstrate key understanding of the best way to teach
•          Quality Learning Environment – the ability to create optimal learning environments
•          Significance – the ability to make lessons relevant to students’ lives.

Peter collaborated with Researcher Drew Miller to see whether Newcastle University’s system could be effective in his disadvantaged school. And the adoption and adaptation of the ‘Quality Teaching Rounds’ system (named ‘The Cessnock Way’) delivered amazing outcomes.


Cessnock High now numbers amongst the most improved NAPLAN score schools in the nation. In addition, Year 12 students’ NAPLAN results have improved by 50%, there’s no longer a culture of violence and very few other negative behaviours.

But more importantly than academic successes, quality leadership has removed violence and negative behaviour, children and their parents now have renewed hope and are enriching their own lives and that of their local communities.

Now it would be a mistake to assume it was the ‘Quality Teaching Rounds’ system that alone was responsible for the change. Rather it was Peter’s courageous, mission based leadership nourished by his positive basic beliefs and creative, life-giving core values that helped to shape an inspiring vision that could be enthusiastically owned by the key stakeholders that instigated the change. The ‘Quality Teaching Rounds’ system simply served as the effective structure that enabled the vision to be achieved.  It’s the alignment of all those factors guided by positive and passionate leadership that facilitate hope and transformation to occur.

1 thought on “Leadership that Makes a Difference

  1. Thanks again Graham for a great blog – this is encouraging for wherever we are: school or church of business.

    The principle that “people matter” comes from God Himself and flows through us to others from our relationship with Jesus!

    I look forward to your monthly blogs, thank you. Meg

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