Autonomy and accountability - Education Matters Magazine
Australian Secondary Principals Association, Leadership, The Last Word

Autonomy and accountability

Andrew Pierpoint, President of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA), and Dr Amanda Heffernan, Monash University Lecturer in Leadership, discuss their current research on school leader autonomy.

ASPA has for many years called for increased school leader autonomy – where the school leader has a goal identified, is given the resources to provide for this goal and then ‘left alone’ to deliver that goal. ASPA also recognises that the notion of autonomy has changed, with the rise for example of independent public schools and jurisdictional priorities.

The notion of principal (school) autonomy has been around in educational leadership for some time, with the definition and enactment of autonomy being varied both within and across jurisdictions in Australia. Philip Riley, in his long-term research into principals’ health and wellbeing, identified a lack of autonomy as being a contributing factor to school leader stress. Principals feeling a lack of autonomy or authority, when coupled with a perceived lack of support from their supervisor/line manager or department/employer makes for a difficult situation for the school leader (2018 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, Philip Riley, 2019). With that in mind, increasing workloads associated with autonomy have also been identified as a source of stress for principals.

Jurisdictions across Australia have, in some way, linked their respective school improvement agenda to school leader autonomy. This philosophy is to be applauded. Ideally, a principal should be able to work with their community to set their school’s vision and goals for improvement, and have the autonomy and authority to direct resources as needed to achieve those goals. However, the relationship between autonomy, accountability, and student improvement is extremely complex and needs to be balanced carefully. Inexperienced school leaders (including those in rural and remote locations without nearby or local support structures) sometimes struggle with the enactment of this. Research suggests that principals who are more experienced, or who have established a track record with their supervisors, are likely to view autonomy differently, and take up autonomy more confidently than beginning principals might.

ASPA has partnered with Monash University to conduct research around this notion of school leader autonomy.

What we know about autonomy
Our starting point for this research is from a place of inquiry about principal workload, wellbeing and job satisfaction. We know that many of our principals are stressed and at risk of burnout (Riley, 2019). We also know that high rates of turnover have implications as they hit hardest in our most vulnerable students and communities. We know that we have an ageing principal workforce, and that there are fewer people putting up their hands to take on the role of a school principal. We are therefore interested in how we can attract people to the role of the principal, and in how we can support them to stay once they join the principalship.

This is where autonomy comes in. Principals who feel that they have local influence over key aspects of their school (including achievement, focus and priorities, and curriculum) are more likely to stay in the role and to be satisfied in their work.

Autonomy then, is a central element of the work in keeping people satisfied and happy in the principalship. However, autonomy is complex and the promise of autonomy is often murky in practice. We want to understand the realities of autonomy for principals. Research suggests that autonomy increases workload for principals – but that even when they acknowledge this, they don’t want to give it up once they’ve got it. We also know that as autonomy increases, so do external accountabilities. We imagine these accountabilities serving as a box or frame around autonomy. Principals and schools do have autonomy – to an extent, or to the point where they’re still working towards the ‘right’ goals. We know that experienced principals, and principals who have built up a track record of trust, can push those limits a little further than new principals.

Amanda Keddie (‘School autonomy as the way of the future: Issues of equity, public purpose and moral leadership’, published in Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 2016) discussed the need for autonomous schools to negotiate their freedoms alongside pressures to work towards increasingly high-stakes external accountabilities.

We want to understand the nuances of how autonomy plays out in different school systems, different contexts, and for different principals. We want to know more about the alignment between perceptions and realities of autonomy for principals, and we want to bring system and policy leaders into the equation to better understand different perspectives of the people who design and enact school and principal autonomy policies. We want to understand how autonomy shapes the work principals do each day.

We hope to find the stories of success and of challenges relating to principal autonomy so that we can find pockets of hope and strategies or approaches that can better support principals to take up autonomy in their work.

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