Leading the “different” school.

Year: 2018

Author: Longmuir, Fiona

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper reports on two multi-perspective case studies of principal leadership in government secondary schools in Melbourne, Victoria. Both schools serve communities of relatively high advantage and had developed reputations as providing alternative style programs that differentiated them from other local schools. Prior to the commencement of the research, each of the schools had a history of visible underperformance and threats to their viability. This study found that they developed innovative, student-focused responses and that these “different” approaches characterised the reinvention and success of each school.
The multi-perspective case study methodology included interviews with school leaders, teachers, students and parents as well as observations of the daily activities of the school and review of key documents.
The first phase of this study examined the leadership of each school within the context of improvement which was evidenced by growth in enrolments and enhanced reputation. The successful improvement of these schools has suggested a paradox whereby they are considered effective whilst still being categorised as underperforming or ‘cruising’ schools (Hattie, 2016). In this paper, further consideration of the evidence focusing on the socio-political influences in the local and broader contexts has uncovered several ideas that may help understand this paradox and the emergence of these “different” schools.
Firstly, the historical context factors of underperformance and ‘crisis’ enabled the disruption of traditional models to focus on alternative approaches. Conceptions of accountability, performance measures and marketisation indicated that the leaders balanced system compliance and counter-conduct (Foucault, 2007; Niesche, 2013) in the successful development of these approaches.
Secondly, the interaction of school choice policy and the likely level of family educational culture (Leithwood & Patrician, 2015) supported the capacity of these schools differentiate themselves. The evidence suggested that the schools attracted students and families that were committed to the alternative perceptions of success that prioritised equity and personalisation.
Finally, the highly engaged and influential positionality of students in the improvement journey challenged the ‘enhance-teacher-capacity-era’ of research and policy that is predominant in current school improvement strategies (Muijs et al., 2014). Prevalent research suggests the relationship between leadership and students is indirect and moderated through teacher variables (Hallinger, 2011). In these schools this relationship was a strong direct connection that prioritised student voice and recognised the capacity of students as a resource for school improvement.