Dr Katrina MacDonald, Professor Amanda Keddie and Professor Jill Blackmore write:
In Victoria, recent media attention has been given to misconduct by education bureaucracy staff and principals uncovered through investigations of the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, the Victorian Ombudsman and the Victorian Auditor General’s Office. The misconduct investigated has ranged from the failure to follow school financial and procurement processes, allegations of nepotism and alleged corrupt conduct of senior education bureaucrats.
In our ARC-DP research project, investigating the social justice implications of school autonomy reform, we have interviewed 42 stakeholders including representatives from educational bureaucracies, government, parent organisations, principal associations, principals, professional organisations, academia, and teacher unions across four Australian states (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia). These interviews have provided some insights into the daily realities of principals working in public education systems across Australia.
In terms of the alleged misconduct uncovered in recent Victorian investigations, we believe it is important to ask questions such as, ‘what motivates a principal to engage in the mal-administration of school funds?’ Some findings from the research and our data would indicate important factors to consider:
Some principals are inexperienced and not fully aware of supports available to them from their education departments
The demands associated with principal’s work are constantly escalating and principals are under considerable stress (compromising their health and wellbeing)
Some schools (especially, those in rural and remote areas, low SES schools and small schools) with fewer resources do not fare as well as more advantaged schools in devolved systems (given these schools require more support than is readily available, e.g. through the community, parents). Principals in these schools may experience higher workloads and greater stress than in more advantaged schools
The competitive system (of audit and accountability) creates a culture that pits schools against each other and forces principals to ‘do what it takes’ for their school to succeed (there is evidence that this culture creates a ‘gaming’ of the system)
We are particularly concerned with how the current demands associated with principals’ work are undermining their health and well-being. Professor Phil Riley’s research (2018) provides a particularly illuminating account of this impact. He points to the high incongruity between the number of tasks principals are required to do and the time available to perform these tasks; the emotional demands of the job; and demands for hiding emotions as nearly double what is generally expected in other jobs. The health and wellbeing impacts of these demands are extremely worrying and bear out (when comparing principals’ experiences with the general population) in principals experiences of: greater trouble sleeping; poorer general health; higher levels of physical and mental fatigue; higher levels of stress and higher levels of depressive symptoms (Riley, 2018). Also worrying is the subjection of principals and assistant principals to far higher levels (than the general population) of offensive behaviour at work including threats of violence and actual violence (Riley, 2018).
Greater devolution coupled with increasingly restrictive systems of compliance and accountability from the centre does not tend to work for principals. While most principals welcome autonomy in decision making for their schools (indeed, they want more autonomy), such systems intensify workload, are often punitive and reflect a sense of professional mistrust. The Victorian Auditor General’s Office is currently undertaking two audits that are directly related to system support of principals in their work. The first is an audit of the Management of the Student Resource Package, and the second, Systems and Support for Principal Performance.
School autonomy, as our stakeholders (including principals) have consistently argued, cannot be mobilised in productive ways (i.e. for social justice) without sufficient resourcing and assistance. Consistent with much previous research in this space, we would argue the significance of greater support for schools so that principals can devote more of their time to being pedagogic not managerial leaders by:
Strengthening regional support for schools/principals to respond to the needs of schools in contextually sensitive ways (devolution tends to decimate regional support) especially for rural and remote schools, small schools and low SES schools;
Providing ongoing and targeted professional development for principals including mentoring;
Strengthening school capacities to manage their financial resources and responsibilities (more professional support for principals and bursars);
Promoting systemic collaboration rather than competition through strengthening professional networks (developed by and for principals, not imposed from above);
Avoiding punitive forms of accountability and monitoring of principals;
Reducing principal workload (e.g. greater support to manage administrative tasks).
Riley, P. (2018). The Australian principal occupational health, safety and wellbeing survey 2017 Data. Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Faculty of Education and Arts, Australian Catholic University.