PART A: The Role of the Principal



This section outlines a framework that describes the processes of change and the work of the Principal. If you do not wish to read this, go to Section B for an analysis of global - local issues and trends.

What is the Principal's Role?

There is no right or wrong way to describe the work of Principals. Educational administration journals, professional literature and organisational job descriptions use a variety of descriptors and categories to attempt to pin down exactly what it is.

The current job description for Principals in DETE (1) is organised around stated outcomes and four 'tasks':

    • Effective leadership of and collaborative work with people
    • Leadership in an inclusive whole school curriculum
    • Initiation and management of change
    • Management of school resources to optimise achievement of objectives

The leadership project undertaken by APAPDC(2) used clusters of competencies to describe what Principals do:

    • Educational Leadership
    • Organisational Leadership
    • Educational Management
    • Organisational Management
    • Cultural Leadership
    • Political Leadership
    • Reflective Leadership

Sometimes research projects lead to formulations of 'best practice' - the key actions of the ideal Effective Principal. For example, the Centre on Educational Governance (3) talks about:

    • Leading and Managing Change and Improvement,
    • Building a Collective Vision,
    • Developing a Professional Community,
    • Creating High Achieving Learning Environments and
    • Forging Partnerships and Practices.

There are further versions of the Principals' job in the management and educational administration literature (4).

One of the difficulties with most descriptions of Principals' work is that they set up a kind of conceptual fence around the job and focus almost exclusively what happens in the school. To read some educational management literature is to assume that the Principal works inside a black box and is able to change and shape everything that happens within the school. This ignores the impact of wider system arrangements, and significantly underplays the social context within which schooling operates. Schools are not islands and are highly susceptible to a wide range of influences, all of which impact on the work of Principals. (The APAPDC framework attempts to deal with this by looking at political leadership.) This paper places considerable emphasis on the ways in which social, cultural and political changes shape, endorse and limit what is that Principals do, at the same time as they also shape, endorse and limit what it is done by governments, families, communities and students. It also recognises that social, cultural and political change is partially shaped, endorsed and limited by the actions of governments, communities, students, families and Principals and teachers.

Conventional descriptions of the Principal's job develop a series of separate competencies or areas of activity. Leadership is separated from management and further, educational leadership from operational management. In the current climate there is an ongoing intellectual tussle about which is more valued by the employer and why both are necessary. This paper uses another theoretical construction in an attempt to get away from the binaries of leadership and management and education and administration.

The paper is based on a framework that moves towards explaining change and its effects. It tries to combine generic Principal actions and common issues together with the understanding that each school is in some ways unique. It builds in:

    • the wider changes in society that continually make new demands on schools and their Principals
    • adaptive Principal practices for different schools, staffs and students, and
    • the personal capacities and behaviours that are required to do the job

It starts from the position that the Principal's work is the exercise of socio-cultural practices.


The Framework.

Educational administration is not a simple matter. It is a complex, demanding and professional executive role. The sociocultural practices of the Principalship grow from three components:

(i) Particular knowledge and skills (5) such as:

    • Knowledge about schooling - how and why schools and education work, the history, and sociology of schooling and understandings about schooling as an institution
    • Knowledge about teaching and learning, and how it connects with young people and their motivations and needs
    • Knowledge about knowledge itself and assessment practices that support learning.
    • Knowledge about school organisation and management

(ii) The exercise of professional and personal habits and dispositions (6) such as:

    • Physical and emotional stamina
    • The capacity to make quick and correct decisions
    • Pragmatic tact
    • Ethical decision making
    • Reflective and intellectual work

(iii) Work across a number of sites - the system, the school, the faculty, and the classroom. Every task undertaken requires that the Principal understands and is familiar with each site.

The Principal brings, to each and every (work) task, a repertoire of professional practices that are the product of their knowledge and personal professional habits. They are:

    • Leadership - this includes working with the system, staff and the community in ways that ensure the school runs well and continues to improve and taking responsibility for change processes
    • Policy - in all its stages: development, writing, analysing, implementation, monitoring and evaluation
    • Management - this includes ensuring that resourcing supports educational goals, that staff are well supported in their work, that public funds and property is well looked after
    • Community and public relationship building - this includes building networks with local organisations, businesses and leaders, working so as to maximise student and parent participation in the school
    • Discipline and authority - working to ensure that the maintenance of good social order that is not only necessary for students to learn and staff to work, is also a part of students learning
    • Quality control - this includes ensuring that there are processes through which the school community and the system can look at the school's strengths and weaknesses
    • Meta - pedagogy - this includes a broad understanding of curriculum, an up to date understanding of student learning and teaching matters, and a knowledge of the educational basis of school structures, rituals, and symbols

These practices do not operate separately and can not be divided off from the others. All Principal tasks involve more than one professional practice, most will combine several. Even what appears to be a simple and trivial task, such as ordering new furniture, involves several practices at once. Purchasing new chairs may require thinking about the pedagogy of room arrangement, working with committees and School Council, negotiating with Central Office support staff, examining a range of options to ensure safety, quality and price considerations are met, doing deals with local suppliers, arguing that chairs are more important than sports equipment and so on. Everyday, the Principal mixes and matches professional practices, working across and with the sites to meet a particular policy or management requirement and to suit the particular circumstances of the community, staff and students. At any one time the Principal is undertaking a number of activities, all of which demand specific combinations of practices and attention to sites, in highly focussed ways. Furthermore, these activities are not isolated from one another but are connected in the school ecology. Difficulties in one area have a habit of affecting others. Putting practices into action across sites therefore is not a technical or fragmented activity, it is holistic and complex.
(For an example of an analysis of the way that practices work across sites see(7))

Some educational policy reforms emphasise or require, reward or punish some professional practices above others. At the same time, their success depends on the exercise of the full range of practices. The impact of current educational reform on Principal practices is outlined in Section D.

The Principals' job - the exercise of practices across sites - varies according to what is happening in the wider society, and according to government reform imperatives, and policy and management practices. It is also highly responsive to the specifics of each situation and each task.

This paper is based on the notion that three overlapping layers are key to understanding contemporary educational change and the changing nature of the Principal's job. These three layers have a significant impact on the ways in which Principals can work. Firstly, they shape the spaces within which schools, governments and communities live. Secondly, the ways in which we understand and label the layers of social change also create and de-limit the ways in which we can act. This is the socio - cultural aspect of professional practices. This theorisation partially dismantles the black box erected around the Principal's work. The implication is that changing the current formation of the Principals' job cannot be achieved by simply looking at what happens within the job description but must also involve considerable policy and political debate, action and negotiation. (This approach is theoretically grounded in the sociological conceptualisation of social and cultural fields (8)). The three layers are:

We are in the midst of major global changes that impact on nation states, individuals and local communities- all are affected and they respond as they can and believe to be appropriate. These are described in Section B.

The State.
The prevailing view of schools and their purposes changes over time to respond to national and state circumstances and interests. The parliaments and public service interact with local communities, who are variously consulted, polled, persuaded or otherwise, and who in turn applaud, complain and/or try to ignore. The bottom line for parliaments is that they are, or are not, elected on the basis of their policies and practices. At times school reform is a highly significant political issue about which there is much manoeuvring and on which government survival at least partially depends.

Despite being subject to political winds, school reform is an ongoing project- it is managed by both Commonwealth and state and the Education bureaus, which are part of the wider public sector. Reform is framed through law, regulations, management practices, policies and programmes.

Ideas about what schools must do are often contradictory, and there can be significant differences between states and the Commonwealth, among public sector bureaus, within governments, and between the public sector and parliaments. This is outlined in Section C.

The School
Each school has its own history, culture and traditions, specific needs and ways of doing things. Particular communities have their own expectations of the neighbourhood or chosen school and demand their own particular educational foci, institutional processes and Principal responses. The specificity of each school and school community is a powerful influence on professional practices.

The socio-cultural practices that comprise Principals' work may easily be reduced to generic lists of competencies but the everyday reality and lived experience of Principals is that such neatness rarely comes anywhere near what actually happens in its complexity, and in its rich mixture of competing demands and multi-focussed activities. This paper argues that the Principal's job is primarily educational and professional and that social and policy trends demand the full range of Principal practices, but emphasise and recognise some more than others. Policy reforms rely on a rich set of Principal knowledge and skills, habits and dispositions while offering an incoherent learning and career pathway and a minimalist approach to classification and remuneration. The framework provides the basis for both a macro and a micro analysis.

Commissioned Paper.
South Australian Secondary Principals Association.
March 1998.

[ About this paper ] [ Executive Summary ] [ The Role of the Principal ]
[ Changes in Society ] [ Changes in Australian Government Policies ]
[Implications for the Work of Principals ] [ The Paradox of Policy and Pay ]
[ Footnotes ]