The profiting from and exploitation of principals: The challenge of leading in disadvantaged public primary schools in Victoria, Australia

Year: 2019

Author: MacDonald, Katrina

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In this paper, I outline the subtle ways in which the leadership practices of principals working in some of the most disadvantaged areas in Victoria, Australia, are structured by and structuring of a public education system increasingly influenced by neoliberal ideologies and performative accountability cultures. This contention is based on a doctoral study that examined how social justice is understood and acted upon by educational leaders in socially disadvantaged public primary schools. The data in this study were generated through biographical interviews, observations, and autobiography. The interview and autobiography process prompted leaders to reflect on the unique experiences that had brought them to a leadership position in their current school and asked them to reflect on how their early lives, family and career had influenced their beliefs and understandings about education and justice. In this paper, I suggest principals’ leadership habitus intersects in terms of their gender, class and race. This intersectionality has consequences for how the participants of this study practised leadership in a public school system shaped by neoliberal influences. In particular, these experiences were highly gendered, with the public education field exploiting and profiting from the ethics of care that the habitus of the women principals brought to their professional work. This can be considered to be invisible labour, which is not valued or measured in performative accountability regimes but is crucial in boosting students’ academic and social outcomes. All participants were willing to resist external accountabilities to varying degrees, contingent on the reflexivity of their habitus and their own particular understandings of justice. I argue that participants had taken on board neoliberal subjectivities leading to an acceptance of particular deficit discourses of their school communities. This structuring of their habitus has implications for continued symbolic violence visited upon disadvantaged communities and their children, as well as for normative understandings of social justice leadership evident in the social justice leadership scholarship.