School principals in Australia are increasingly required to find a balance between improving student achievement on measurable outcomes (such as NAPLAN) and focusing energies on things that can’t as easily be measured; such as how well a school teaches creative and critical thinking, how it connects with its local community or how collaboratively teachers on its staff work together.
Governments and systems would expect a school leader to deliver across all of these policy areas, and many others.
It is a significant part of the work of school principals to continually take policies designed to apply to an often-vast number of schools, and find ways to make them work with their specific local community and context. Different policies can often have conflicting influences and pressures on different schools.
This is an issue of ‘policy enactment’. That is, how principals implement, or carry out, policy in their schools. It is of particular interest to me.
Policy Enactment Studies
My research takes up the idea of policy enactment. This approach to studying the effects of policy starts from the idea that school leaders don’t just neatly apply policy as-is to their schools.
Instead, they make a huge number of decisions. They ‘decode’ policy. This involves considering the resources, relationships and local expertise that is available to them. They also consider the local needs of their children, parents, teachers and school community. They consider the ‘histories, traditions,and communities’ that exist in their school.
It is a complex process that takes leadership expertise and requires wide collaboration within a school community and the principal’s network. Research in this area might seek to understand the local conditions that influence principals’ policy enactment processes.
My recent research had a particular focus on how principals enacted school improvement policies. This was a specific push by the Australian Government to improve student outcomes on measures including NAPLAN testing. I wanted to better understand how traditions, histories, and communities (and other factors) influenced the decisions principals made.
How did local contexts, and the things principals and their wider school communities valued, influence what they focused on? How did principals and schools respond to pushes for ‘urgent improvement’ on NAPLAN testing?
The reforms I studied stemmed from the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government’s ‘Education Revolution’. The education revolution reforms were referred to at the time by the government as some of the largest-scale reforms in Australia’s recent history. They involved the introduction of NAPLAN testing, the introduction of the MySchool website to enable publication of school data and easier comparison of schools, and spurred on local improvement agendas such as Queensland’s United in our Pursuit of Excellence.
My Case Study
My research involved a longitudinal study that spanned three school years. I worked closely with three public school principals, interviewing them throughout this period, and analysing documents (including school strategic plans, school data, policy documents, and school improvement agenda documents). The principals were all experienced and had been leading their schools for some time. They were seen as high performing principals and were confident in their approaches towards leading their rural and regional schools. One of the principals, ‘Anne’, was particularly interesting because she was emphatic about valuing the things that could not be easily measured on NAPLAN and the other tools being used to measure improvement and achievement.
Shift away from the focus on NAPLAN and other measurement tools
While research has shown the ways testing such as NAPLAN can narrow the focus of education to that which can be measured, Anne emphasised a more holistic view of education. She was able to resist some of the potential narrowing effects of school improvement. She prioritised the arts, musicals, social and interpersonal development, and individual student wellbeing and learning journeys. She had less of a focus on the data being ‘red or green’ on MySchool and focused instead on the distance travelled for her students. She was confident that unlocking student confidence and fostering a love of schooling engaged those students who were less confident in the areas being measured on improvement data – and she articulated the ways their engagement and confidence translated into improved learning outcomes, with school data that supported her comments.
How did the principal shift the school focus away from testing?
So how did she achieve this? My study found two main ways that she managed to resist the more performative influences of school improvement policies. Firstly, the school had a collaboratively-developed school vision that focused on valuing individual students and valuing the aspects of education that can’t be easily measured. The power of the vision was that it served as a filter for all policy enactment decisions made at the school. If it didn’t align with their vision, it didn’t happen. There was also agreement in this vision from the staff, students, and community members, who kept that vision at the forefront of their work with the school.
The second key aspect was that Anne had developed a strong ‘track record’ with her supervisors, and this engendered trust in her judgment as a leader. She was given more autonomy to make her policy enactment decisions as a result, because of this sense of trust. It was developed over a long time in the same school and in the same region before that. To develop her track record, Anne worked hard to comply with departmental requirements (deadlines, paperwork, and other basic compliance requirements). In addition to this, the school’s data remained steady or continued to improve. Anne was emphatic that this was due to the school’s holistic approach to education and their long-term focus on individual learning journeys rather than reacting to data with quick-fixes.
Case study shows a contrast to trends – what can we learn?
This case study worked in contrast to trends of how “teaching to the test” and NAPLAN in particular, is narrowing the school curriculum. This is important because research presented within this blog in the past has shown us how testing regimes can impact on students, can give less precise results than they appear to, and can further marginalise students and communities.
The school pushed for a wider picture of education to be emphasised, resisting some of the possible unintended effects of testing cultures. We can learn some lessons from this case study. It shows us that communities can collaboratively articulate what is important to them, and work together to maintain a focus on that. This shows us one way that schools can enact policy rhetoric about having autonomy to meet local needs and make local decisions.
The case study also shows us the power of a ‘track record’ for principals when they want to enact policies in unexpected or unusual ways. When they are trusted to make decisions to meet their local communities’ needs, the policy rhetoric about leadership and autonomy is further translated into practice.
These are just some of the insights these case studies were able to provide. Other findings related to how school data was guiding principals’ practices, how the work of principals had been reshaped by school improvement policies, and how principals felt an increased sense of pressure in recent years due to the urgency of these reforms.
If you’d like to read more about these issues, please see my paper The Influence of Context on School Improvement Policy Enactment: An Australian Case Study in the International Journal of Leadership in Education.
Dr Amanda Heffernan is a lecturer in Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Having previously worked as a school principal and principal coach and mentor for Queensland’s Department of Education, Amanda’s key research interests include leadership, social justice, and policy enactment.
Amanda also has research interests in the lives and experiences of academics, including researching into the changing nature of academic work. She can be found on Twitter @chalkhands