The persistent educational achievement gap and historically haphazard nature of progress for students in impoverished contexts in New Zealand primary schools is a deep-seated problem needing urgent attention. This multifaceted and interconnected problem has no distinct origin and no clear solution and is continuing to harm individual and collective futures. This thesis explores principal leadership practice and
how it intersects with the low socio-economic context, to improve outcomes for vulnerable students.
Using a case study approach, two principals and their schools are holistically described using a theoretical framework grounded in complexity theory. Both the approach and theory uniquely explores principal practice as an individual and collective phenomenon, as a living, evolving network of self-organisation where both parts and
wholes are significant, and as practice grounded in context. The theory also offers a unique way to arrange and interpret findings. The study
findings identified local notions of educational success as a way of understanding the trajectory of the ecosystem whole. The broad principal leadership patterns of practice included: building the network; integrating multiple perspectives; facilitating cohesion; and confronting and addressing injustices. These patterns evidenced a tight
coupling between theory and practice. In the spirit of complexity theory, principal leadership practice is additionally explained as a sum greater than its parts. The capability of the network is described through concepts of stability and flow and shows, that no matter how competent the principal leader and their network, the contribution to education reform grapples to be transformational.
Recommendations are made for principal leaders, professional development providers, community leaders, as well as the Ministry of Education and policymakers that offer hope and contribute to disrupting the current trajectory, so transformational change is more likely. Areas
of instability and important leverage points, include professional learning and development, community-school connections and resourcing.