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Two at the top: Power sharing at Selwyn College

Malcolm Glenny, Dorothea Lewis, and Carol White

School management systems can evolve and change. This is the story of how two principals came to share the power and responsibilities of the top job at Selwyn College, Auckland.

Journal issue: 

Power sharing at Selwyn College


In the days of increasing stress on school principals—and a high rate of those leaving their jobs—a joint structure and real devolution of power seems common sense. This study of one secondary school’s switch to power sharing should inspire others to look at the advantages of having two at the top.


Selwyn College is a coeducational secondary school in Kohimarama, Auckland, with a roll of just over 1100 students and about 80 staff members. For more than two decades it has been associated with a progressive educational stance. Because of its broad senior curriculum and its distinctive liberal philosophy, it attracts students from all over Auckland and its senior school is considerably larger than its junior school.


In the third term of 1991, when the position of principal at Selwyn College was advertised, John Kenny and Carol White were both deputy principals who were, in fact, jointly running the school because of the illness of the retiring principal.

The staff, about 65 teachers and another 15 or so support staff, is a collection of men and women characterised by a deep interest in educational philosophy and practice. Several of them have an unusually keen interest in process—they place a high value on the way decisions are made and goals are realised. They are a very stable group of people with a significant shared history. The idea of a radical structural change in management seemed to come simultaneously from some members of staff and the two deputy principals. Neither John nor Carol was keen to apply for the position of a traditional principal. They associated the role with hierarchical power, combining inevitable loneliness with inevitable stress.

Both John Kenny and Carol White believe that devolution of power in the school system is essential. John Kenny believes that the professional staff, the support staff, and the students must have a stake in the management of the school. Carol White sees schools as powerful agents for social modelling and change, rather than reflecting the social status quo. School management systems have, in the past, been unquestioning in their acceptance of hierarchical power structures headed by a single principal, usually male in all but girls schools.

They both believe that when hierarchical power structures are devolved and those in positions of leadership work together with members of staff, students, and parents, the culture of a school changes.

John Kenny considers it vitally important in a coeducational school for young men and women to have sound role models in senior management. Men and women working together co-operatively provide these role models. Carol White points out that, since a major distortion of power is a lack of gender equity, co-principals (male and female) and a gender-balanced management team are educationally sound structures.

Despite the obstacles (including the belief that the legislation would make a co-principalship extremely unlikely) the board of trustees encouraged them to apply individually and undertook that, if in the end they were the two preferred applicants, the board might continue to investigate a dual appointment. This did in fact eventuate.

Rodney Harrison, a lawyer on the board, finally won approval from the State Services Commission (SSC) for a plan which was designed not to challenge the existing legislation. Because there were in reality two principals, each would hold the legal power of principalship on a rotating basis. The co-principalship was formed by putting together the principal’s and the deputy principal’s position and dividing the two salaries equally.



The senior management team (SMT), developed from the Tikipunga High School model, comprises six positions, with each member of the team carrying a portfolio which contains at least one “principal” function. The Selwyn model has three permanent and three rotating positions, each lasting three years. It is policy to have three men and three women. The current portfolios include resources, professional development, curriculum and assessment, guidance, community relations, and systems.

The senior management team works in a specially designed double office, separated by sliding doors so that one area can be made private. The co-principals work side by side. The offices are very open spaces, and the doors are almost always open. All members of the management team teach, including the co-principals who take one class each.


The decision-making model was another gift from Tikipunga. Where a decision on a substantive issue is concerned, or when a departure from the status quo is mooted, a small committee of interested staff members is formed. They must produce a recommendation or a strategy which wins approval from a significant majority of the staff. If this is not won, the committee reconvenes, encompassing if possible the dissidents, and together they look for a variation which will win the majority it needs.

The evolution of Selwyn College is determined by a series of working committees, some established to deal with a single issue, others, like the staffing and the curriculum committees, permanent. Membership of most committees is by volunteering, a small number involve voting. The co-principals can attend any committee meeting and play a full part in it. All committees report to a full staff meeting, which makes the final decision. John Kenny and Carol White see the decision-making model as the cornerstone of the devolution of power. John Kenny believes that the successful implementation of a decision depends on the extent to which staff feel they have been involved in making it.


One of the most significant changes in the school since 1991 has been the unity and cooperation of middle and senior management. The heads of department hold monthly meetings, which are open to any staff member.

A first key task of this group was to devise an agreed budgetary formula to ensure money was distributed fairly. The adoption of this system was a landmark in the devolution of power.


Since the establishment of the co-principalship and the senior management team, the student council has become a much more dynamic force.

Apart from student representation on the board of trustees, students are included as of right on many committees. They are always invited to staff professional development meetings. They act as peer supporters and anti-harassment counsellors, mediators, assistants to staff running Treaty of Waitangi workshops, and as organisers of social and cultural functions.

Their involvement is based on the co-principals’ belief that students should have a voice in the way their school runs, because schools exist for the education of students. Student ideas and perceptions are therefore important in ensuring that the school continues to fulfill their needs and prepares them for their futures.

Carol White finds that students in many schools have not until relatively recently had the opportunity to have their voice heard. There has certainly not been an assumption that they are of equal value with the staff. It is her belief that if we want to build a society in which each person is valued and made to feel worthwhile, schools must consult and negotiate with their students. Once their worth is reflected in the attitudes and structures of the school, students’ own self-esteem rises. Students with high self-esteem are more likely to recognise the worth of others and take responsibility for themselves and other people.


After nearly three years of operating under the co-principalship it seemed timely to undertake some research, in order to assess the situation. We were interested in exploring the perceptions held by teachers and students of the culture of a school in which power sharing is a stated aim of the co-principals; and to identify the values that underpin the management structures in the college, and discover to what extent they are shared by the whole school community.

It was decided that a series of discussions would best enable participants to talk freely with their colleagues and fellow students about how they saw the system within which they worked and learned. Four groups were established—two groups of teachers and two of students. Staff and students were asked whether they wanted to be involved, firstly because they would have to make a time commitment, and secondly, because we did not wish to require people to take part in a research exercise. We acknowledge that this single procedure meant that a true cross-section of staff and students was not created and that the research is not comprehensive, but time constraints and lack of relief time precluded a broader approach. Despite this we believe that the views expressed by individuals are representative of the staff and students as a whole.

The first group from the teaching staff consisted of seven teachers who had been employed at the college during the time of the former single principal, and thus would be able to compare the two administrations. The second group, also comprising seven staff members, consisted of people who had come to Selwyn within the last three years, either as beginning teachers or from other schools. The two groups of students were established on the same basis. The first group consisted of seven senior student volunteers, who have all played leadership roles in the school and who had been at the college for more than three years. The second group of six senior students was composed of newer arrivals to the college, either from other New Zealand secondary schools or from overseas. A number of these had come from single-sex schools.

The four groups held chaired discussions, using a set of questions. The discussions were recorded and later transcribed. The information gathered was analysed using a process very similar to “reflective deliberation” (see Notes).


For the purposes of this article, we take the term culture to mean that pattern of assumptions, unconsciously held and taken for granted, that is shared by the members of a particular organisation, as defined by Schein (1980):

…a deep phenomenon, merely manifested in a variety of behaviour.… For any given group or organisation that has had a substantial history, culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that the group has invented, discovered or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.

The main theme that emerged from all the discussions was that the changed management structures have produced a changed culture. Both staff and student groups described their perceptions of the culture of the school and the values that the culture is built upon. They described a culture in which each individual person participates and in which their views are valued. The teaching staff identified the major features of the management system—a flattened hierarchy, transparent and accessible systems that encourage participation, an emphasis on consultation, and structures that encourage teamwork and act as a model for the whole school as to how decision making can be shared. The students, too, identified accessibility and teamwork, and commented as well on the notions of equity and representation as being important in the culture of the school.

It is, however, the nature of the human relationships that have come into being as a result of the changed structures that have created a unique culture—there is an emphasis on collegiality, dealings between people are characterised by integrity and honesty, and power is exercised throughout the institution in a responsible manner.

During the second staff discussion, a longstanding member of the staff identified the culture as a “collegial culture”, a phrase that was echoed by others in this group. The collegial culture involves all its members showing concern for one another:

You’ve got to have a sort of colleague culture and we’ve got that now … and I think really as far as committees, discussion, reaching some sort of agreement in a larger sense, the same is operating, as a school we are healing ourselves and looking after ourselves.…

The collegial culture that has developed at Selwyn College has a number of characteristics that were elaborated upon in the discussion groups. These form the headings for the summary of the discussions that follow.


The concept of gender equity is formalised in the co-principalship, and in the membership of the senior management team. This notion is inherent in the structure, not one that is propounded by the co-principals, but the students still articulated it as a feature of the management structure:

The equity in choosing people for the team is really important. If one group is under represented, they may not feel that they can put their ideas.

The students felt that gender equity in the senior management team gives them access to the decision-making process. They commented on the lack of racial equity in the composition of the team. In a school with significant Maori and Asian minority groups, it was noted that there is no representation of these groups in the senior management of the college.


Another key element of the culture is participation in decision making. The decision-making model not only allows but encourages all staff members to play an active role in determining the direction the school will take. A new staff member commented:

The structures make you want to have your say.

One of the heads of department summarised the opinions of several staff members in his group:

… from first-year teacher through to someone who’s been here 30 years, you’ve got the opportunity in a pretty sort of transparent system to have a voice and have that voice heard, not just heard where there is some predetermined or prejudged outcome, but to know that your input can have a significant influence on where that particular view is going to end up.…

The phrase “having a voice” struck a chord with several members of this staff group. The underlying ethos that everyone in the school, whether teacher or student, is equally valued means that all opinions, whether they come from junior students, senior students, experienced or inexperienced members of the teaching staff, are taken into account and valued. The structures give teachers a voice, which in turn acts as a model for teachers to give students a voice in their learning.

A student commented:

There’s no tension between teachers and students, and you feel comfortable about speaking up, even if you disagree.…

The group of students who had been to other secondary schools before coming to Selwyn College made several comments about the difference between having a voice and what they had experienced in their other schools:

You get the idea you’re being listened to … teachers are interested in what you’re doing.


When the co-principals established the current decision-making model, they were motivated by the wish to ensure that every person in the school knew how decisions were being made, and had the opportunity to affect the ultimate decision. They wanted an open system that was well understood by the whole staff.

The newer group of staff members find the model open, and they all feel consulted. They remarked that there are no hidden agendas or attempts by the management team to foist a ready made decision on the staff. The key to the integrity of the model, in the eyes of the staff, is the open personalities of the co-principals and the confidence the staff have in them:

There is a sense of honesty about the whole operation.… I don’t always agree with the decisions that are made, but I know why they are made and what the process is.…

It’s amazing how a school takes on the personality of the leadership … the type of people you have leading is really what your organisation becomes like.


The group of newer staff members remarked that this open, consultative system is time consuming, which is a source of frustration for some. Both groups of staff mentioned that considerable time is spent in meetings. The same sense of frustration and impatience was not expressed by the group of longer-standing staff members, who emphasised in their discussion the primacy of process over outcome. A staff member who has been at Selwyn for over a decade identified following through the process as critical, because only then does every person have the opportunity for input into a decision. The final decision is thus only as important as the means of arriving at it, and the process ensures commitment to implementation:

…the criticisms of time you brought up, that’s really the corollary to the pleasure that we get out of the system, I think. I mean, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and if we are going to have this extraordinary flat, non-hierarchical system, and a lot of autonomy, then, there’s going to be a cost, and the cost is going to a lot of meetings, but meetings again are processes, not outcomes really.… I get very annoyed with people in [a] staff meeting when they finish a meeting and say, “Well I don’t know why it took the rest of you an hour-and-a-half to get to this decision.” That’s the bloody point of the meeting, that it did take an hour-and-a-half to get everybody to that decision, rather than just having the tablets just handed down from on high.… I’d rather spend the hour-and-a-half making sure everybody understood it.…


The relationship between the co-principals and the manner in which they work so closely with one another serves as a model for the members of the senior management team. This style has also become a part of the culture to the extent that some of the middle managers in the college run their departments in the same way.

The student body has also organised itself differently. In each of the last three years there has been one male and one female student president, and in the last two years, one of the presidential positions has been shared. In 1996 there are three student presidents—two young men sharing a position and a young woman.


The senior management team is seen as a non-hierarchical group of people by the staff. They are regarded as equal—distinguished from one another by their areas of expertise.

It was some months into 1992 before the staff fully realised that many of the traditional functions of a single principal had in fact been devolved to the members of the team. Now that the team is a well-established element in the management structure, the responsibilities of each member are well known to the staff and the students, so that they know who they should approach for help on any particular issue:

Each of those people has a particular area of expertise, curriculum, timetable, relief, whatever, so you know, if you’ve got a particular grumble, then there’s one person, and yet the others will know a little bit about it.…

The student leaders discussed the importance of the representative nature of the team. They saw this as ensuring that more channels into the decision-making process are available and a wider range of views would be heard by the co-principals:

The more people they have involved, the more chance there is of people being pleased with what happens because they are more in touch with things and they get more feedback.

The organisation of the management team office is perceived as a clear symbol of the democratic management style, and an expression of the personalities of the team members. A newly arrived staff member finds it refreshingly open:

…the way that the SMT’s room is arranged, a big open plan room, very accessible, I always feel I can walk in, and even if one side’s shut off, you know that you can go to someone else.… Also you’re able to walk in there, whenever you want to too, which is not something you can do in other schools, I wouldn’t think.… I mean, you can go in to Bill’s desk and write your relief in the book. In most other schools, you have to knock on the door and quietly ask if you can come in … that links back to the personalities so much, the style impacts so much on whether people perceive a school to be a democracy or not.


The heart of the management system is the relationship of total confidence that exists between the co-principals:

The particular advantage in the co-principalship is because the two principals have to trust each other absolutely, it, the arrangement, wouldn’t work if they didn’t, and so that trust is so strong it’s absolute, embodying that, and the rest of the staff can see it working every day, every minute really.… (Carol White, co-principal)

That relationship of trust is echoed throughout the organisation. The co-principalship models a form of relationship that also exists among members of the teaching staff. Two longstanding members of the staff believe that some aspects of formal management structures can be dispensed with when the trust teachers have in their colleagues pervades the organisation:

… but I think when you’ve got a consultative model and people get used to doing things in a certain way, that a lot of the formal structures disappear after a while.

The students interviewed echoed the staff trust in the way the school is managed:

I trust the management team … even if you don’t trust the whole team, there’s always someone you believe in.



Power sharing is at the heart of the structures and systems that have been set in place at Selwyn College. Because all individuals are regarded as having equal value in the school community, a sense of personal empowerment is embodied in the school’s value system. Devolution of power in an educational institution is only purposeful if it has an impact on the learning of students in the school.

Bates, in discussing a study by Seeman and Seeman (1976), writes that it is the teachers’ sense of power and their involvement in decision making which most strongly correlates with positive pupil attitudes:

Teachers who are deeply engaged in the dialogue, decision making and action process have pupils who in turn are more favourable towards their school, their learning and toward themselves … participative staff procedures are not merely a democratic nicety, but have repercussions on the school’s inherent task of education.

The staff and the students reported that the changed management structures in the college have had an effect on how teachers teach and students learn.

The matter of power within the institution emerged as a major topic in all the discussion groups. We found that both staff and students wanted to theorise about the nature of power in the organisation. The staff commented that they work in an environment where people exercise control over their lives, and are able to influence what happens around them. A head of department drew a parallel between working within these structures and how he teaches his students:

It’s exactly the same thing we do to the kids, we try to do, it’s that cliche word empower, we try to give them a voice and to trust us and the system, and eventually the power is your own, and for the staff it’s quite an empowering place, I think. And when you have confidence, it doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, the point is that you’re doing it, and because you believe in it, then it makes it right.

Another head of department finds that power sharing gives her control over her work:

I think one of the reasons why I like Selwyn, because you do not see what I see as power here, like having power over people, in its negative sense of people having power, do this, you know, being told what to do … the power is shared here, that’s what I like about it. I feel more powerful here than I have than at any other school I’ve ever taught at.…

Several staff members in both groups find that the empowerment of teachers has had an impact on the learning of students:

The kids are quite powerful, they wouldn’t recognise it possibly, but we can see that they are powerful, if you think of the sixth and seventh formers [NZ Years 12 and 13, Australian Years 11 and 12], they are quite happy to come and talk to you at any time about anything to do with their learning, whereas the kids who are the powerless ones are the ones who often come from other schools in the sixth and seventh form and cause merry hell, because they are so powerless, and that’s why they’re doing it, they don’t see that they have the power to influence their education.…

Both groups of students discussed the issue of power at length. One student echoed the previous staff member’s comment:

Students have the opportunity to have power—some of them think they’re having power over their lives by wagging classes, because they don’t see how they can have real power.

Senior students who have come from other schools often find the openness quite different from their previous school, and some have initial difficulty coping with it. However, the experience makes many of them reflect upon power and its use.

One of the things I started to do when I came here was question the abuse of power, which I would have never done before. There were some dreadful abuses of power in my old school and I accepted them. Now I can see them for what they were.

In this environment, students gain direct experience of participating in a social group and of influencing it. The leaders among the believe that this experience prepares them fo responsible citizenship in a democratic society:

If I was leaving from my old school, I’d b really nervous as it was so sheltered, but now I can see lots of opportunities. I don see myself as a little person against all the world.

* * * *

On a personal level I doubt that anyone from here goes wild at tertiary level, because you’ve already had the personal power.

* * * *

You learn you have a voice here and that will carry over as a community member you’ll know you can get things done.

The vision that the college holds for its young people is that they leave school able to take their place as fully functioning members of society. We hold that the culture of the college has been significantly influenced by the management structures put in place since 1992, and that the culture has a direct effect on the educational experience of Selwyn students.


MALCOLM GLENNY is the head of languages, DOROTHEA LEWIS is the head of the counselling department and CAROL WHITE is co-principal, at Selwyn College, Kohimarama Road, Kohimarama, Auckland 5.

Other New Zealand schools with power sharing include Penrose High School, Auckland, and three Wellington primary schools—Clifton Terrace (who began a shared management structure in 1993), Wilton, and St Anthony’s.

This research is also available as:

Glenny, M., Lewis, D., & White, C. (1994, December). Power sharing: The case of Selwyn College. Paper presented to the New Zealand Association for Research in Education, Christchurch.

The reflective deliberation process used to analyse the data is described in:

Bonser, S.A., & Grundy, S.J. (1988). Reflective deliberation in the formulation of a school curriculum policy. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 20(1), 35–45.

The definition of culture used here is from p.30 of:

Schein, E.H. (1980). Organizational culture and leadership. New York: Jossey-Bass.

The correlation between teachers’ involvement in decision making and positive pupil attitudes is from p.110 of:

Bates, R.J. (1979, April). Towards an analysis of school climate. Seminar at Massey University.