Too young to lead?

Neil Bunting asks “How old do you think leaders need to be?” 

Leading a young international school.

We might think it’s a new phenomenon to achieve extraordinary things at a young age, but there is a long history of youthful achievement, from Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to the child prodigies, Mozart and Picasso.

Do you think it is too early for primary students to be leaders? Often being a student leader is a responsibility bestowed on the oldest secondary students.

In starting up our new school, at Shenwai Longgang International School, with only students from Grades 1-3, we haven’t wasted any time in looking for our student leaders. We believe these youngsters can already develop as leaders, but they need to see it modelled by, and distributed through, the staff. We also recognize that synergy in driving the school forward will come from asking our team to take on responsibility and empowering them to do so without micromanaging them.

We have therefore focused our initial vision statement on the four key words: learn, explore, act, develop – which create the acronym LEAD.

LEAD at all levels

Creating school leaders, when your oldest school child is just eight years old, might seem to be premature, but at Shenwai Longgang International School (SLIS) we are looking for leadership from all of our students regardless of their age.

Students can display leadership in the class room, or in the playground, or in bringing in a new school initiative. My old Head of PE assigned all of his students in all classes as leaders with positions of responsibility. His lessons were always outstanding.


When I developed school leaders in a previous posting in Oman, it was in the context of the country’s youtful population.  In recognition of this, Muscat held an annual leadership summit for young people, which all of the leading schools attended and which was held in exactly the same way that an adult leadership summit would work, just as the Model United Nations encourages young people to debate in exactly the way the United Nations works.


We encouraged the student council to design the examination schedules and the school menu, within agreed parameters. At first, I was dubious about involving the students in important examinations decisions, but when I assessed my reasoning it was because I hadn’t done it before, and to our students the examination sessions were very important and a cause of great stress. The decision alleviated stress and conflict. This sense of ownership and input into school decisions improved student behavior tremendously, and as a result, our student body engaged much better with the teachers and leadership team.


PYP and “agency”

We believe the leadership focus we are looking to develop at SLIS aligns well with the new developments in the PYP – the focus on agency: voice, choice and ownership. The Enhanced PYP will rightly recognize the capabilities of the youngest learners in schools, the role of agency in the early years, and how the youngest learners can develop and demonstrate their voice and their choice through play. We are determined to equip our students with the character and skills that are essential to succeed. Leadership can take many forms and we are looking for all aspects of our school community to show leadership in different ways – true distributed leadership.

Young leaders at a young school . . . . . 

I think the most important feature at the start of a new school is to build the driving forces of mission, vision and values. In all of the new school decisions and features  at SLIS,  we are looking to involve the students in the choice and decision making, to give them a greater sense of it being their school; to give them a sense of ownership.

And the not so young . . . .

Leading a small school has many pleasures – you get to know every student and family intimately, and there is a closeness amongst the staff that is essential and unavoidable, but we know it will be difficult to keep that feeling of ‘we are all in it together’ as the school grows and splits up into different sections.

When you are small you have time to greet and talk to every staff member on a daily basis. There is also the excitement and anticipation in the potential – the how, when, and where, the school might grow and the possibilities that a clean slate creates.


Neil Bunting
Founding Principal

You may also like