The Principalship in Australia Today: Autonomy, Accountability, and Workload - Education Matters Magazine
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The Principalship in Australia Today: Autonomy, Accountability, and Workload

The Australian Secondary Principals’ Association partnered with Dr Amanda Heffernan from Monash University to investigate the current issues facing secondary school principals in Australia’s public schools.

We wanted to understand the ways current policies were impacting on principals’ work, with a particular focus on how autonomy was playing out in different ways around the country.

We found that these issues were broadly similar across each of Australia’s states and territories. Some states have ‘better’ support structures for principals, opportunities to be more autonomous, different levels of control over budgets and staffing, but there was not a significant amount of difference between states with formalised autonomy policies (such as the Independent Public Schools program in WA and QLD) when compared to those without such policies. We explore four key findings of the study here.

  1. Role of the Principal

It was clear that the role of the principal is deeply complex and intense. Workloads continue to rise, and there are significant issues of work extension (into traditionally ‘personal’ time) and intensification (increasing in pace and intensity).

The importance of role clarity was evident. Over time, schools and the principal have continued to pick up new responsibilities, meet more and more accountabilities, and have oversight over areas of community services that other government departments might have been responsible for in the past. The Principalship continues to expand, and this is particularly challenging for principals in rural areas where support that might have been provided to communities has been removed and placed onto the school in many ways. This is not new, but the intensity, and the complexity of the issues being faced by schools and principals is at a critical point. Principals are continually being asked to do more, with less resourcing, funding, and support.

There was a significant focus from participants about the level of administrivia involved in school leadership now. Participants wanted to be able to focus on leading the school, and (in the words of one principal) ‘give the gift of education to young people’. The sheer depth of reporting, paperwork, accountabilities, and administrivia was described as a threat to principals’ ability to focus on students and learning.

  1. Sustainability of principals’ work

Workload and wellbeing are at a really critical point for participants. We heard a common refrain of comments about people not being sure how much longer they could maintain the current pace of their work, how long they could actually remain in the Principalship itself, and not encouraging others to go into school leadership due to the intensity of the work.

Where there are formalised principal wellbeing policies, principals were more aware of their options for support and resources that might have been available to them. However, overwhelmingly, the extension and intensification of the work were clear in principals’ comments about the significant number of hours they work each week and the emotionally-draining nature of the work at times. We heard, frequently, that people’s own health is coming last in their list of priorities.

  1. Principals’ perceptions of autonomy

We heard very different perceptions and definitions of autonomy depending on where participants were located. There were state and territory differences, as well as geographical distances (e.g., remote principals spoke about being left alone because of the tyranny of distance). A general definition of autonomy from participants was about being trusted and supported to set priorities that met their school community’s needs, even when they diverged from the Department’s priorities.

We heard comments from participants about the increased workload as a result of autonomy – which isn’t new. The ‘newness’ of this finding is around perhaps the sheer amount of compliance and accountability and reporting that is required of principals now – ‘at least half [their] time’ is spent on operational matters that aren’t necessarily best suited to be the responsibility of the principal now. Principals spoke about the limits to how autonomous they could really be as a public-school principal, as part of a larger system. At the same time, it was clear that, overwhelmingly, participants recognised the importance of a strong public education system, and felt that they had an important role to play in maintaining that strength.

  1. Policies, Structures, and practices that support principal autonomy

We found significant differences in the ways principals in different locations are using autonomy to address the big challenges they were facing. For example, in states where principals had autonomy to create new leadership team structures and direct resources to where they were needed, they felt that their workloads were more manageable.

A significant focus for principals in most states and territories was the inclusion of a wellbeing specialist, providing targeted support for their students. We suggest these roles could be complemented by a position focusing on wellbeing for staff as well, given the findings described earlier of work intensification and extension. It is not a great surprise that principals who had more control over their school structures seemed to be more satisfied with their work, but it is important to find ways forward, when we consider the earlier points we’ve made about the reports of stress and burnout in our school leaders and their staff.

To address rising administrivia, Principals in some jurisdictions described using retired principals to take up some of their admin load so they could focus more on the strategic leadership of their schools, sharpening their focus on teaching and learning and school strategy. These innovative approaches are enabled by autonomy and

Many of you currently reading this column participated in the study, and we want to thank you. We appreciate the time and insights you shared, which are already having an impact with policymakers and education systems. We see a need arising from these findings to work on issues of attracting and retaining school leaders, and we look forward to continuing this work into the future.

This article was co-authored by Dr Amanda Heffernan and Andrew Pierpoint.

Andrew Pierpoint is President of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association – the peak body for School Leaders across Australia. He previously was President of the Queensland Secondary Principals’ Association for four years. 

Andrew has had extensive experience, over 35 years, in High Schools as a science teacher, Head of Department (Science), Deputy Principal and Principal as well as having several system positions in the support of Principals. Throughout his career, Andrew has worked in complex rural and remote communities through to large regional and metropolitan schools. He has led communities and reference groups at district, regional, state and national levels. 

Andrew’s special interests are the provision of high quality professional learning for school leaders, school leader wellbeing and is persoanally highly active in school sport – particularly cricket and golf. 

Andrew has demonstrated a passion for State education in Queensland for many years and possess an excellent understanding of the Principalship from first hand experience. Most importantly, Andrew has a genuine desire to make a meaningful difference for school leaders in the application of their ever increasing, complex roles in schools and the broader communities they work in. 

Dr Amanda Heffernan is an expert in educational leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Her research focuses on the contemporary challenges of principals’ work, and what that means for how we can better attract, support, and keep school leaders within the profession.

She has a particular interest in leadership in complex school settings, including those in rural and remote areas, and the skills and knowledges that are needed to successfully lead those schools.

Amanda is a former public-school principal who now works with future and current leaders, policymakers, and international researchers to highlight the important and complex work of educational leadership today. She is an award-winning researcher and public speaker.

Amanda tweets at @chalkhands.