“I just try and be nice to them, I tell a few jokes”: Principals explain their changing roles and support for staff in two devolved Australian schooling systems

Year: 2016

Author: McGrath-Champ, Susan, Wilson, Rachel, Stacey, Meghan, Fitzgerald, Scott

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Shifts in schooling policy have had substantial impact upon the role of Principals and the form and degree of support that Principals provide their teaching staff. As part of a larger study examining teachers’ working and employment conditions, we explore the impact of these shifts in Principals’ roles.We report on interviews with thirty public secondary school Principals from a diverse range of devolved schools, including from schools undergoing educational reform as pilot schools in Local Schools Local Decisions (LSLD) in NSW and Independent Public Schools (IPS) in WA. Using a Labour Process theory lens we examine how Principals have responded to their additional authority over staff in schools. In interviews we asked: how had the Principal’s role changed; how adequate was their own professional development; and what conditions they sought to create to support their teaching staff? All Principals reported a substantial change in their role; however the nature of new freedoms, through shifts in autonomy, was frequently constrained by the needs dictated by school characteristics. The most extreme example of this is seen in remote schools, which remained subject to limited options in terms of hiring staff. We map out the various shifts in Principals' role and professional development in relation to these school characteristics, including geography and school socio-educational status. Furthermore, somewhat surprisingly, we found that the majority of Principals were unable to articulate the conditions they sought to create for staff – but were instead oriented to lifting capability through a focus on student outcomes. While this is consistent with much of the devolution rhetoric and autonomy reform publications, it raises questions around the managerial capacity needed for schools to be sustainable, positive workplaces. Further research is needed to replicate findings in a larger and more representative sample. If confirmed, both the constraining nature of school characteristics and Principal’s hesitancy, or lack of opportunity, to engage with well understood conditions for support of teaching staff have implications for the evaluation of devolution policy and for the professional development of school leaders.