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The Small Rural School Principalship: Key Challenges and Cross-School Responses

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Abstract

This article explores the responses of school principals of small rural schools in Victoria, Australia to leadership challenges they identify as characteristic of these contexts. The research is an exercise in grounded theory building, with the focus on the principalship as it is enacted in small rural settings. The article also seeks to trace the impact of macro and meso influences on micro rural contexts. While many very positive attributes of small rural schools are evident, this article speaks to principalship engagement with contextual problems - issues concerning work intensification, role multiplicity, school viability, new regulatory funding requirements and the abandonment of equity policies in education - since there is a dearth of information in Australia at this time about how school principals confront these challenges in small rural locations. The research exposes a growing culture of creative collaborative responses to the pervasive impediments of leading small rural schools.
We would like to thank Julia O’Brien and Karin Barty who
provided valuable research assistance for this project. We also
appreciate the involvement of the Country Education Project team
our partners in the professional development program.
All correspondence should be directed to Professor Karen
Starr, Director, Centre for Educational Leadership and Renewal,
Deakin University, Victoria, Australia (karen.starr@deakin.edu.
au).
and remote education cites the problem of denitional
inconsistency, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics
(ABS) dening “rural” as all residences and settlements of
less than 1,000 people, and the Commonwealth Government
dening rural as all non-metropolitan places with fewer
than 100,000 people. These differing denitions produce
profound population differences:
using the ABS denition there are approximately
2.3 million rural Australians (less than 15% of the
total population) while using the Commonwealth
denition, this number rises to more than
5.7 million non-metropolitan Australians
(approximately 34% of the total population).
(HREOC, 2000, p. 2)
For our purposes we have accepted the Victorian
education department’s denitions, with rural schools being
70 kilometers or more from Melbourne, the state capital,
or 25 kilometers from a regional center with a population
of 10,000 or more and small schools having an enrollment
of 100 students or less. Sufce to say, most of Australia’s
population is concentrated in a few coastal cities, hence
within a large land mass there are many rural locations.
Victoria is the smallest mainland state, with few locations
being dened as remote, but with many being dened as
rural.
Introduction
This article focuses on the principalship in small rural
schools in Victoria, Australia, who face context-specic
challenges in addition to those commonly experienced
in schools. Currently there is scant research information
about the enactment of school leadership in Australian rural
locations in response to immediate national, and global
issues. This is the void we seek to ll. However, while
this article focuses on the Australian context, we believe
that globalizing policy practices may create resonances
elsewhere in the world.
There are contested views about what constitutes a
small school and what constitutes rurality (Alston, 1999;
Coladarci, 2007). In the Australian context, the differing
denitions used by various levels of government confuse
matters. The seminal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission (HREOC, 2000) national inquiry into rural
This article explores the responses of school principals of small rural schools in Victoria, Australia to leadership challenges
they identify as characteristic of these contexts. The research is an exercise in grounded theory building, with the focus
on the principalship as it is enacted in small rural settings. The article also seeks to trace the impact of macro and meso
inuences on micro rural contexts. While many very positive attributes of small rural schools are evident, this article speaks
to principalship engagement with contextual problems – issues concerning work intensication, role multiplicity, school
viability, new regulatory funding requirements and the abandonment of equity policies in education – since there is a dearth
of information in Australia at this time about how school principals confront these challenges in small rural locations. The
research exposes a growing culture of creative collaborative responses to the pervasive impediments of leading small rural
schools.
Citation: Starr, K., & Simone, W. (2008). The small rural school principalship: Key challenges and
cross-school responses. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 23(5). Retrieved [date] from http://
jrre./psu.edu/articles/23-5.pdf
Karen Starr and Simone White
Deakin University
Journal of Research in Rural Education, 2008, 23(5)
The Small Rural School Principalship:
Key Challenges and Cross-School Responses
2 STARR AND WHITE
What do principals perceive the causes of
these challenges to be?
How do small rural school principals address
the major challenges they confront?
N-Vivo qualitative data software aggregated emergent
themes, with initial data informing subsequent questions
and forum discussions.
Considerations of Context
In order to fully appreciate the challenges faced by small
rural school principals, it is necessary to discuss contextual
matters concerning the changed nature of the principalship,
the issues that confront rural Australia at the current time
and the distinctive characteristics of the principalship in
small rural settings.
Educational Restructure and Reform
For more than two decades Australian educational
provision and administration has changed irrevocably
through structural reforms at the state and federal levels.
Structural reforms embrace the restructuring of the
purposes, nature and scope of government departments/
agencies, and reform of government policy and procedure
in line with free market and neo-liberal beliefs (Apple,
2006). The word “restructuring” is used frequently to refer
to fundamental recongurations of the dominant discourses
and philosophical, organizational, or budgetary bases of
public sector agencies.
Structural reforms in Australian education are a
response to globalization, particularly with concern for
international competitiveness in trade, workforce capacity,
innovation, and educational outcomes. Globalization
encompasses how we look at the world and the “…
processes which affect nation states and produce policy
mediations, which in turn have a direct impact on the
management and principalship of educational institutions”
(Bottery, 2004, p. 34). Structural reforms are informed by
neo-liberal precepts of individualism, consumer choice,
deregulation, the devolution of authority, and the rolled
back state, while emphasizing efciency and scal restraint
(Levin & Beleld, 2006). In collusion with these dominant
discourses are those supporting new public administration
based on corporate management. These involve centralized
regulation, compliance, and accountability, and emphasize
quality assurance, continuous improvement, and
performativity gauged through performance indicators,
standards, capability statements, and benchmarks (Ball,
2006; Duignan, 2006).
In education, structural reforms have taken two distinct
forms. First, there are those which have swept across
entire public infrastructures: corporatization, privatization,
outsourcing, re-engineering, and the introduction of user-
The Research
This research arose out of our engagement in a state-
wide professional development program for small rural
principals of government schools, focusing on capacity
building through collaboration on joint projects. It involved
90 principals from across the state, divided into three
groups from the west, central, and eastern areas. We met
face-to-face three times a year at residential forums in the
three locations but maintained contact as they progressed on
their collaborative projects and through a mentor program
consisting of recently retired rural principals.
We engaged a socio-cultural position, privileging
the lived experience of participants, who, in this case,
became co-researchers. Epistemologically we drew on two
interconnected assumptions: rst, we assumed that large scale
social structures constitute tangible realities; and secondly,
personal and public aspects of life are constitutively linked
(Connell, 1996). Social structures cannot be separated from
contextualized practice or from the historicity of the period
(Ball, 1994).
The research is the result of an exercise in grounded
theory building, an approach developed by Glaser and Straus
(1967), where theory emerges from the data gathered. Theory
is not derived deductively, but rather is generated through an
ongoing inductive process whereby emerging insights are
analyzed and continually tested, producing further evidence
and/or new theoretical insights (Hayes, 2000; Corbin &
Strauss, 2008). The research is data-driven rather than
theory-driven. This iterative process of developing claims
and interpretations determines its own end point when new
data does not reveal any new insights but conrms theoretical
elements that have already been identied (Punch, 1998).
We shared research data with participants collectively to
conrm our key ndings and interpretations. Grounded
theory is responsive to research situations and the people
in it, and it supports examination of individual standpoint,
complex contexts, considering the inextricability of macro,
meso and micro connections, inuences and consequences
simultaneously (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). Grounded theory
building endorses “studying up,” instead of “studying
down” (Harding, 1987, p. 8).
Data collection occurred through intensive, semi-
structured, recorded interviews with 76 principals (some
conducted face-to-face and others via telephone); through
whole group questionnaires; and through discussions and
observations recorded as eld notes. The research questions
were:
What are the major challenges confronting
principals of small rural schools?
How do principals perceive these challenges
to be particular to small rural school
contexts?
3THE SMALL RURAL SCHOOL PRINCIPALSHIP
also more prone to other dramatic climatic events such as
bushres and oods.
Radical social and economic change is also the result of
world economic re-alignment, especially the rise of China
and India. Global competition has encouraged many long-
standing rural industries to relocate commercial activities
off-shore to reduce labor costs, or to close altogether.
Alongside the effects of drought, this phenomenon has
created large-scale unemployment and population migration
to cities and mining regions for work, with concomitant
effects on the viability and survival of local rural businesses
and public services, including schools. The cost of capital
is increasing while downwards pressure is being exerted on
labor costs, hence many rural dwellers seek work elsewhere
to derive or supplement income, often leaving children to
be brought up primarily by a single parent. Rural schools
located closer to larger regional centers are noticing a shift
in enrollment trends as welfare dependent families relocate
to acquire affordable accommodation.
The Small Rural School Principalship
A signicant difference between principals of small
rural schools and their metropolitan counterparts is that
they spend a larger percentage of their time teaching cross-
age, multi-grade groups of students. There is little in the
way of administrative support, with ancillary personnel
such as receptionists, bursars, and grounds staff being
part-time employees. However, standardized compliance
requirements issued at the federal, state, and district levels
involve the same responses from all schools irrespective of
size or location. Principals of larger schools have greater
capacity to delegate and share management tasks, but this
is a luxury not afforded to their small rural counterparts.
The demands of life in small rural communities create
unconventional circumstances for principals.
The Major Challenges Confronting Small Rural Principals
The contextual differences encountered by principals
of small rural schools create either additional leadership
challenges to those experienced elsewhere or challenges
that are intensied in impact. While principals raised
many types of challenges, the most commonly raised
themes concerned: workload proliferation, educational
equity issues, the re-dened principalship, escalating role
multiplicity, and school survival. Each theme embraces
myriad challenges that manifest in diverse ways. These
challenges are recursively linked and exert signicant
inuence on the lived experience of principals in small rural
schools. They are discussed in turn below.
The Impact of Reforms: “They’re Making Things Worse”
Recent reforms in Australian education have
signicantly affected the way schools operate and the way
principals are positioned. The most obvious change and
pays principles which target costs to consumers. The second
form of restructuring concerns the devolution of authority to
service sites, such as local school management in schools.
These restructuring activities dovetail neatly together.
For example, as education bureaucracies downsize, it is
commonsense that the work once performed centrally be
delegated to individual site managers (Starr, 2000). These
prescribed tasks are overseen centrally via standardized
controls and accountabilities. As a result of structural
reforms the principalship has change irrevocably (Gronn,
2003).
Recently all Australian states have introduced leadership
frameworks, standards, or capability statements to guide
the work and professional learning of school leaders (e.g.,
Department of Education, Victoria, 2007). These documents
emphasize school improvement through the attainment of
superior student results and leadership capacity building
with a focus on distributed leadership models. These new
reforms require a re-balancing of principals’ work back to
the core business of teaching and learning and away from
managerial tasks. Comparative league tables and mandated
standardized student testing exercises will provide incentive
and ensure principals’ accountability in instructional
leadership (Starr, 2007).
As Bottery (2004) observes, nation states have responded
to globalization with policy interventions which impact on
schools. Like many other places in the world, Australia’s
neo-liberal and neo-conservative policy agenda has been
driven by economic restructuring, justied and legitimized
through political rhetoric about educational crises, the
erosion of social values, inefciency in the public sector, and
the need for parental choice and voice in education (Dale,
1989; Shapiro, 1990; Pusey, 1991). Education is bound up
with the nation state’s economic exigencies emanating from
capitalist modes of production, and their maintenance and
protection in globalizing de-regulated markets. Outputs
are to be produced at the lowest cost through budgetary
restraint, while outcomes are expected to improve through
policy coercion. As Apple (2006) suggests, crises within
the political economy have inuenced education policy
agendas, with a parrying of these crises downwards, from the
economy through the state and on to schools. Unfortunately
for small rural schools, globalization has created additional
deleterious effects, which are important contextual matters
to be considered before turning our attention to small rural
school principals.
Changing Rural Communities
The rural communities at the focus of this study are
experiencing various forms of social and economic decline.
Drought has been widespread in Australia for most of the past
decade and has taken a huge toll on economic livelihoods,
especially in agricultural communities. Rural locations are
4STARR AND WHITE
The work[load] has skyrocketed and resources
have disappeared.… There’s no time to do
anything thoroughly.… The Department’s on
about outcomes and improvement, but how do
they expect it’s going to happen? They’re making
things worse.
The support and money [from] the Department
isn’t there now. The job satisfaction isn’t what it
used to be. The demands are getting greater and
greater.… People are getting a lot more jaded than
they used to … they’re getting run down. There’s
too much expectation and responsibility put on
principals.
There are many aspects to these concerns, including the
side-lining of important educational matters to managerial
tasks, feelings of isolation, rising stress levels, decreasing
professional satisfaction, and unrealistic expectations of
principals. Small rural school principals unanimously state
they require additional human resources to enable incessant
workloads to be accomplished. There is also concern
that workload issues are creating succession problems
by detracting potential leadership aspirants who see the
principalship as requiring too much effort for too little
reward.
There is also consensus that reformed educational
management policies incorporate increasingly authoritative
and inexible hierarchical structures that are administratively
technical and constraining. One result is that much of what
principals do in the course of their work is also hidden from
view. Principals receive no tangible positive outcomes
for their schools after performing this time-consuming
labor on behalf of federal, state, and district education
bureaucracies.
We questioned principals as to what actions they take
in response to changes incurred through efciencies such as
local school management policies. All have simply absorbed
the extra requirements into their existing work lives, arguing
that they are too busy to engage with let alone ght –
reforms, especially in contexts where personnel time is at a
premium. They are too busy just coping with the local, the
everyday, the immediate, and have no time to participate
in broader politics or contexts. There is also a sense of
resignation that reform mandates are beyond the realm
of principals’ control, even though they wield signicant
inuence and effects. There is dismay in the thought that
workloads will probably continue to increase. The smaller
the school, the more severe this problem becomes for
principals.
Restricted Resource Allocation: “Jumping through the
Funding Hoops”
Principals of small rural schools complain that they have
to do more with less. Resources are declining, with many
common concern expressed by principals is the increasing
amount of mandatory administrative and compliance work
arriving from district, state, and federal governments.
All principals have experienced incremental additions to
their workload over the past two decades, with “function
creep” exacerbating this issue. With little time to lead and
manage school affairs, however, this is viewed as the most
undesirable challenge in contexts where principals teach for
a greater proportion of their time than their metropolitan
counterparts. Principals expressed concern about the
deleterious effects of workload expansion in the following
ways:
I’m running the whole day.… I nd it very hard to
close the door when someone wants to see me—
because who else would they see? … It’s getting
worse the longer I’m in the job.
It’s very tiring.… You just never stop.… It’s just
never-ending, I’m always busy.
[I]t’s the horrendous hours you put in to do things
well … so it’s huge.… You’ve still got to do all
the things you’ve got to do in bigger schools, but
you’ve only got one day of SSO [administrative
school services ofcer] support, and by the time
they pay the bills and get stuff ready for the
school council, what’s normally left … is left to
you.… I just put in the extra hours.
Principals express much anger about increasing
bureaucratic interference, which is changing the nature of
their role and controlling their work. Externally-imposed
tasks are unrelated to school priorities, take considerable time
to execute and take principals away from more enjoyable
and professionally rewarding activities concerning teaching,
students, and learning. Principals see their main role as an
instructional leader, but they are denied adequate time for
this most important aspect of their work (Barley & Beesley,
2007). Workload pressures also steal time from family life.
Small rural principals do not have assistant principals and
unanimously complained about a lack of administrative
support in undertaking increasing external demands. The
breadth of this problem is captured in these comments:
There’s a feeling of great frustration amongst
principals for the lack of support and care from the
Department.… I think we’re getting sick of trying
to make do.… Morale is terribly low for principals
… the role is busier and more complex.
I … work every night of the week. You work most
Sundays.… If it’s for the school you don’t mind,
but if it’s for the Department you tend to put it off
… otherwise you’d be working all of the time.…
You can’t take a day off.
5
equality in educational provision and outcomes. They
believe that macro and meso policy morality is disappearing
with deleterious effects at the micro school level. One
principal stated her frustration in this way:
I get the impression that if you’re [a] small
[school], people think you can cope.… You
haven’t got that many kids to deal with, so you
don’t need extra resources. You should just get
on with it. I think we’re disadvantaged from a
perception point of view. I think we’re viewed as
so insignicant as to not matter very much.… So
you start to think, “Why bother?”
There is a prevailing sense that fundamental,
incontrovertible values about equity should underpin
education policy and the work of schools, yet these have
been abandoned, further disadvantaging students already
less advantaged through location. Similar observations have
occurred overseas, such as the debate about the effectiveness
of the No Child Left Behind policy in the United States
(Darling-Hammond, 2007), demonstrating that contextual
difculties in practice and provision do affect the ability of
some schools to meet policy expectations.
The Marginalization of School Principals
Principals feel dislocated and alienated from debates
about education policy-making, whereas previously they
felt more involved, connected, and integral to the business
of making a difference and setting direction. The consensus
is that principals are marginalized and ignored by education
bureaucracies.
A related issue concerns a lack of professional contact
or support. Many principals do not feel supported by the
education system at the state or district level. The majority
view is that a division exists – with those on the inside
having very little understanding about small rural school
life and leadership challenges. Some small rural principals
suggest that regional and central education ofcers feel
antipathy towards them, although a similar level of
opposition and division is evident in the other direction.
Comments concerned principals feeling ignored, “being on
the back foot,” being “hauled over the coals,” or being the
subject of negative judgments which affect future career
options. There is also the sense that the system is not set up
to assist schools or principals, but rather is there to mandate,
appraise, control, and admonish when expectations are not
met. The system is a nuisance; it is unsupportive and detracts
from the most important work of schools. These sentiments
are intertwined with concerns about incessant waves of
structural reforms. The following comments reveal overt
and covert examples of inimicality with the system:
As for disadvantages probably the lack of
understanding from the hierarchy and that would
be from my Deputy Regional director upwards.
being dependent on the preparation of successful funding
submissions, whereas in previous times schools received
these resources as a matter of course. “Targeting” funding
to supposed areas of need is a controversial change, since
some of a school’s most important resources for addressing
educational equity appear to be totally dependent on a
principal’s ability to prepare a strong, convincing case via
standardized templates. For example, stafng for students
with special needs is now a submission-based exercise, with
strict criteria to be addressed, resulting in fewer students
qualifying for extra support. Funding for special education
is an area identied as being out of the reach of general
school budgets. Paradoxically, principals in small rural
contexts are able to relate to students on a one-to-one basis
yet do not have the human resources to provide intensive
individualized instruction and programming due to work
intensication and role plurality. Centrally-derived resources
are difcult to obtain despite increasing learning support
needs as homogeneity decreases in some rural populations.
If funding submissions are successful, the work attached
to the exercise does not end there. Suitable teachers have
to be sourced, and progress and nal reports are required,
detailing evidence of learning improvements. This takes an
enormous amount of extra time and effort for every special
needs student on the part of principals who do everything
themselves. One long-standing principal stated:
It’s so hit and miss, you get to the stage where
you can hardly be bothered. The schools that get
the goodies … can write good submissions, and
they’re usually larger schools where they share
the leadership load.
“What Happened to Equity?”
An allied concern is that equal opportunities, social
justice, and equity policies in education are viewed as so
diminished as to be practically defunct. Principals say that
these previously publicly-espoused policy goals have been
silently passed over and have slipped off the policy agenda
over the past decades without debate or announcement.
Asked how the social democratic agenda disappeared
without furor or fanfare, one leader said:
People … were too consumed with new realities
to protest, so … equity [programs] expired along
with the resources they used to bring.
Another accused work intensication and time constraints:
It was one less thing to have to worry about, one
less meeting to attend.... I can’t remember how it
happened, but it … vanished and we just kept on
going.
Principals perceive that discourses concerning
competitive individualism and efciency have overturned
the previous social democratic, welfarist consensus about
THE SMALL RURAL SCHOOL PRINCIPALSHIP
6 STARR AND WHITE
what’s happening in the community that might
spill over into the school, and you have to watch
how staff in the school are faring with pressures to
do as much as a large school does. It’s a juggling
act that’s a lot about survival.
Others commented on the recent shift in policy emphasis
back to measurable teaching and learning achievements.
This change does not entail a swing of the pendulum, but
rather an expectation that the current managerial focus will
continue on top of new demands for demonstrably improved
student learning outcomes:
I think it’s a really big task to have quality results
in both areas [teaching and administration]....
Something has to give at some point.
I can guarantee I’d get better results and I’d be
proud to have them published, but I can’t even get
to really thinking about this unless I ignore all the
administrivia.… That’s where you spend most of
your so-called “leadership” time on laborious
paperwork that has nothing to do with teaching
and learning. We are constrained from achieving
the best for students – we can’t spend time with
them.
Commonly principals complain about a lack of privacy and
space. For example, the great majority of small rural schools
do not have a dedicated principal’s ofce. Ofce space is
shared with occasional administrative staff. Condential
conversations or telephone calls are difcult to handle (and
mobile phone access is unavailable in some areas).
School Viability and Survival: “Don’t Get Caught Riding a
Dead Horse”
Issues of school viability are a constant source of stress
(Eastley, 2004; Goode, 2007). If schools become too small,
they will be closed. One positive outcome of prolonged
drought in Australia, if there is one, is that governments are
more reluctant to close schools in communities experiencing
hardship on so many fronts, although through the period of
this study, one of the 90 schools involved closed and several
other principals believed their school’s longevity to be under
threat. In more auspicious times, perhaps many more small
rural schools will be deemed unviable and sacriced.
Viability concerns enrollments but attracting students
amid widespread diminution of many rural populations is
impossible. Many schools face continual enrollment decline
and population growth trends show no immediate solution to
this problem. The following comments reveal the pervasive
inuence of student numbers on small rural schools:
You’re concerned all the time about survival.
[The school is] … an asset in the community,
you wonder what would happen if it closed. So
you watch the enrollments and fear every time
She has brought to her position no understanding
of being a principal let alone a small [rural]
school principal and that’s a criticism.… She just
doesn’t have the background. She doesn’t get lots
of stuff.
It’s no good taking problems to the District Ofce.
They’ll think you’re not coping, or tell you what
to do and make sure you do it their way. [I]f you
complain or ask for help, you’re considered to be
a nuisance or ineffective.
[T]he Department is just out of touch. They have
no idea what we do because they’ve never done
it. Everything they want us to do just gets in the
way of what you’re really here for the kids. It
makes the job very frustrating and … it’s getting
worse every year.
A lot of emotion is caught up in these statements. The
commentary speaks to veiled modes of sanction, punishment
(or fear of it), inducement, and coercion. The principals are
concerned about having to implement policy they perceive
to be irrelevant or inappropriate to the needs of small rural
schools. Overlaying all of this is not only physical isolation,
but also a sense of psychological alienation from the new
policy hegemony.
The Constraints of Role Multiplicity
Many professional frustrations are intertwined with
concerns about the effects of ongoing reforms. Small rural
principals who also spend a substantial amount of their time
teaching face multiple conicting work demands in ways
that far exceed those of their non-rural peers. Small rural
principals wear many more hats (Buckingham, 2003), having
to be generalists and straddling a line between the demands
of teaching, leadership, and administration. The necessity
of teaching multi-grade and ability levels concurrently
and the absence of personnel such as assistant principals,
business managers, student counselors, specialist teachers,
and maintenance staff make the job more labor intensive.
Conicting role demands and resource constraints
create tensions, and incumbents feel stretched to the limits
by myriad roles that cannot be executed thoroughly due to a
lack of time for any particular task. And while all principals
complain about being constantly interrupted, this is even
more of an issue when only a handful of adults work at the
school. Role complexity, the multi-directional and multi-
focused demands, and the worries they create are difcult
challenges. One principal described his disparate workload
in this way:
You have to constantly be on the front foot.… You
try and keep up with what the Department wants,
you have to watch your numbers [enrollments],
you have to keep an ear to the ground to know
7THE SMALL RURAL SCHOOL PRINCIPALSHIP
revenue when six students left. While costs increase, income
often fails to adjust upwards, so schools have to employ
very sound nancial practices. Cash ow problems occur
regularly, especially when government grants sometimes
arrive too late to cover many operational costs. There are
widespread concerns about budget shortfalls, with necessary
maintenance work being put off and expenditure on resources
or new initiatives being delayed. Higher poverty rates and
lower incomes limit fundraising possibilities.
These key challenges are affecting how small rural
principals operate, with trends emerging in response to
structural reforms and their concomitant accoutrements.
Responses to Challenges: Emerging Trends in
Collaboration
While feeling marginalized systemically, principals
are empowered within local contexts. Challenges in
leading small rural schools have led to creative initiatives,
proving that sometimes educational obstacles may be
opportunities in disguise. As a result of some seemingly
insurmountable challenges, rural communities are moving
beyond traditional pathways to deliver educational benets
for their students. These include community involvement,
cross-school activities, and extensive use of information
and communication technologies.
Working Together within and across Schools
School leaders are working collectively to cover
teaching, learning, leadership, and management
requirements, with collaborations being on the up-take
and seemingly increasingly essential. Collective activities
have been prompted by the requirements of structural
reforms and problems of limited resources and are aided
by new technologies and a renewed sense of community
“self-help” brought about by years of rural hardship. As the
following principals explain, pragmatism is at the basis of
collaborative efforts:
We decided to combine our collective funding to
hire a teacher for six schools, and share learning
resources. [The literacy focus] was critical so we
went from there, starting with “how can we solve
this problem rather than re-inventing the wheel?”
There’s a range of activities that are organized
across the schools – drama days, inter-school
sports days, combined professional development
days.
The job is getting bigger all the time. You can’t do
it all yourself. You can’t get caught up in all the
red tape about parents needing police checks and
not being out of sight of teachers.… You just have
to be pragmatic – do what needs to be done and
take on any help that’s on offer.
a family moves out of the district taking several
kids with them. You can’t get caught riding a dead
horse.
The numbers went down quite rapidly … due to
local demographics. We had big groups – well big
for us, say 10 in each class. Then those students
went off to high school and we were left with only
3 or 4 kids per class.
Our numbers are decreasing. Because we’re
isolated, there’s not much up here anymore
employment-wise. We get a few transient families
who will stay for 4-6 months and leave again.…
[This school] is not cost effective … and that
makes you worry about what [will happen] in the
longer term.
We have to make do and do more with less. There
should be differential stafng that recognizes the
real needs.… But while we’re losing numbers,
the stafng formula makes things worse. You
lose teachers and it’s even busier. We should have
more control over human resources.
While stafng levels are tied to enrollments, specialized
school programs become very precarious.
There have been more school closures over the past three
decades than ever before in Australia, and communities that
lose their schools struggle to survive (Alston, 1999; Eastley,
2004). One leader cited the situation where a family left
the district, taking several children out of the local school
leaving only one girl remaining on the roll. Concerned
about this occurrence, the girl’s parents decided to have her
schooled in a neighboring town. This concerned the boys’
parents since the co-educational school experience they
expected was no longer available. The school community
decided the school should be closed with extra resources
provided for transportation arrangements to the neighboring
school. Hence, if a rural school closes, it usually means that
children are forced to travel long distances to alternative
schools. This affects their time, energy levels, and
educational ambitions (Alston, 1999). A signicant issue
in closures and amalgamations is that a school principal
has to lose his/her job, making this very difcult option for
principals to agree upon.
Another major issue concerning size and viability
is that of negative economies of scale, with a far greater
cost per student for schooling provision in small rural
locations (Picard, 2003). Schools receive recurrent funding
and stafng levels based on per capita formulae, meaning
that in small schools annual budgets and staff count may
change noticeably as enrollments uctuate even slightly.
For example, one principal in this study complained that his
school lost a teacher and $46,000 AUD ($43,200 USD) in
8 STARR AND WHITE
We prepared a list of all the things that need to
be done and have shared the costs of hiring
people to do them. Grounds and maintenance,
nance people, people to do newsletters.… If we
get people who can turn their hand to many things
and are willing to travel – all the better.
The bureau will also seek sponsorships and donations,
acquiring and sharing community facilities, facilitating
equipment exchanges, and lobbying for greater state and
federal government support, including collaboration on
submissions for special purpose funding. Comprehensive
collaborations such as this one are making the running of
schools more efcient and cost and time effective. One
principal explained:
Our team share leadership tasks as far as we can
– combined learning programs, administration
stuff – nances and stafng and publicity and
then we set the whole year’s calendar with things
that we’ll do together rather than on our own. The
kids benet and get excited about going to other
schools and having visitors. We know a lot more
about each other’s schools and many heads are
better at solving a problem…. We learn a lot from
each other. There’s benets all round.
While there are limited hiring pools for specialist
teachers and few full-time or permanent positions available,
job sharing across schools is becoming common practice.
Ancillary staff positions and emergency teachers are also
mobile across schools. Although schools are one of the
few sources of employment in small rural locations, when
availability becomes an issue, schools cooperate to attract
recruits to multi-school positions from elsewhere in the
state. Retirees with all manner of skills and experiences are
being used to mentor, train, and ll-in.
Emerging collaborative governance structures are
appearing across clusters of schools. While each school
retains its own active council, they instigate regular
combined council meetings and planning days with other
district schools, as the following principal explains:
Our councils meet regularly with the principals.
We’re all small and vulnerable and feel more
powerful as a larger group. We have a district focus
and the regional ofce has been quite supportive
– they send people to talk about specic topics.…
Sometimes we get guest speakers to see how they
can help us.… [The] community spirit is boosted.
Planning is more organized – more exciting –
really positive things have happened.
Combined leadership amongst principals, school
councils, and education department ofcers enables schools
to engage future scenario planning, to share expertise, and
to devise combined strategic plans to affect community
The nal comment demonstrates how pragmatism gets tasks
achieved but at times presents policy dilemmas.
These sorts of activities strike a chord with the levels
of clustering identied by VicHealth, the state’s government
health department, who identies similar activities occurring
amongst health professionals. The “levels of clustering”
(VicHealth, 2008) are classied as follows: Networking
involves exchanging information for mutual benet.
This requires little time or trust between participants.
Coordination embraces, but goes beyond, networking to
include transformative practices towards a common purpose,
such as coordinating a district event. Cooperation embraces
but extends networking and coordination to include the
sharing of resources, requiring more time, a higher level
of trust and sharing (personnel, resources, and facilities).
Collaboration is the highest level of clustering and extends
all of the above even further to include enhancing the
capacity of other partners for mutual benet and towards a
common purpose. This requires partners to give up a part of
their “turf” to another partner to create an improved or more
seamless approach. In the schooling context, giving up a
part of one’s turf may mean relinquishing an activity being
done well and passing control to another school in order to
focus on a leadership strength on behalf of the cluster.
This research identied all the levels of clustering
described above, with many examples of the higher level
collaborative clustering. High level collaborations include
many players: participants from government (local, state,
and Commonwealth); business (chambers of commerce,
local businesses); community services (such as youth,
sporting, health, and other community groups); and other
education providers (from pre-school, vocational education,
and tertiary institutions alongside informal providers such as
neighborhood centers). Small rural schools want to promote
community pride and educational opportunity and have
assurance of their on-going viability and stafng stability.
They are therefore more inclined to seek the expertise
and involvement of community members and service
organizations through necessity. At the same time, school
involvement in community-building activities accentuates
a two-way dependency, with schools being institutions
providing local employment and consumption of many
goods and services alongside the provision of physical
resources such as meeting places, sports venues, and a
location for the integration of many community services.
One cluster of schools is establishing a combined
administrative bureau, hiring multi-skilled personnel to
manage communications, nances, maintenance works, co-
operative purchasing, and to service co-operating school
councils:
The best idea we’ve put into practice … is to hire
expertise to do some of the difcult and time-
consuming things through our admin bureau.…
9THE SMALL RURAL SCHOOL PRINCIPALSHIP
ideas and goals to provide links between people,
organizations, and projects to create change and renewal
towards collective goals. These individuals enhance school-
community programs and collaborations. A variety of formal
and informal leaders and leadership styles contribute to the
effectiveness of collaborations within and across schools.
It is very evident that successful small rural principals are
community builders who make strong partnerships with
community operatives.
Many principals highlighted the special afnity they have
with the community via issues concerning environmental
protection and beautication projects. We evidenced a large
number of cross-disciplinary environmental and cultural
or community-building projects in the curriculum of small
rural schools. For example, a common goal is for schools to
engage with an emerging ecological economy, harnessing
human and natural capital. One principal explained how his
school takes responsibility for a localized environmental
cause:
Our kids look after our section of the river –
recording wildlife evidence, keeping the habitat
clean, checking for pollution, and alerting the
authorities. It’s a funded community project.…
The students are very keen – really interested in
their environment and climate change and how
it’s affecting us here.
In this way, there is a recursive positive relationship
between small rural schools, their communities, and the
environment. There is concern that a new class of problems
has been created through climatic change, with country
regions bearing the brunt of its negative effects, which are
insolvable through the practices that created them.
Small rural schools are readily using information
and communication technologies (ICTs) to connect them
to worldwide sources of expertise for learning programs,
professional support agencies, blogs, government ofcers,
and to each other. ICTs are essential resources in these
contexts:
You absolutely rely on technology – couldn’t do
without it. Webcams are great. You need to be
connected and in touch with the world.… Our
cluster meets in person and virtually to save time
and travel.
Distance learning opportunities through ICTs allow
broader curriculum options and are paramount to enable
the transmission of lessons for students and meetings for
teachers, school councilors, parents, and students (Schafft,
Alter, & Bridger, 2006).
Through their collaborations and collective efforts,
all schools benet. Collaborative enterprise across small
rural schools makes signicant sense when unearthing the
pressing challenges confronting their principals.
educational provision—including making decisions about
what is educationally viable and what is not. Communities
are, therefore, working towards enhancing the services and
provisions of entire regions by taking a prospective view of
educational and other human services needs across whole
districts (Country Education Project, 2007). School planning
is spanning Preparatory to Year 12, and in some cases
includes co-located pre-schooling and health provisions.
Rural community development plans are commencing,
requiring the services of community builders and “boundary-
crossers” (Centre for Research and Learning in Regional
Australia, 2001). A principal explains:
You rely on people’s goodwill and sense of
community. Small places like ours need people
who put in, otherwise small towns die.… It’s
surprising how much a group can do – and if you
can’t do it, someone will know someone who can
and rope them in.… We’ve looked at education
from birth right through so no kid loses out from
living out here that’s the main goal ... and the
same for health services. It’s a different culture
[than in city schools] – there’s a benet for
everyone involved.
Several clusters of principals participating in the
leadership professional development program made use of
university expertise to devise, collate, and interpret statistical
and qualitative research data. Principals are being strategic
in using evidence-based information to attract further funds
and resources or as the basis for collaborative curriculum
developments. Many rural schools made special arrangements
to attract student teachers during their compulsory trainee
teaching rounds. We became aware of student and teacher
exchanges, widespread volunteer engagements, and exible
congurations of school timetables being implemented to
enable such exercises. There are also collaborative efforts to
attract enrollments through public relations and promotion
exercises and public information meetings.
Educational capacity is being built alongside community
development so that sustainability replaces fear about school
closures. Local people already feel their communities
are under-serviced, the hardest hit by climatic events and
abandoned by governments and industries, but still in need
of excellent education provision. The collective resistance
of rural communities, ghting to keep their local services
including resistance against efciencies and economies of
scale, is viewed as a necessity.
Falk and Mulford (2001) argue that distributed,
participatory forms of leadership and decision-making
enable a shared vision, in contrast to traditional forms of
leadership concentrated on the solitary individual with a
singular vision in a stand-alone setting. However, it appears
that collaborative clustered leadership requires community
builders—individuals who have the ability to communicate
10 STARR AND WHITE
level who are managed and marginalized. The principalship
has been reinvented through the global market hegemony
and mediated through policy at the public level. Small
rural principals believe that their opinions and concerns are
silenced, their voices ignored, and their plight abandoned.
Rural decline alongside structural reforms and
connective technologies are creating new rural principalship
practices with the involvement of a range of community
players. In order to best service their schools and to help
themselves, small rural principals are turning to each other
and their communities for support and collaboration in
conducting their complex roles. There are many emerging
moves afoot for addressing issues of smallness and rurality.
Small rural schools are enhanced by strong community
linkages and the attendant shared school-community
leadership practices. These have arisen through informal,
locally-derived, and pragmatic means. Many people play
an important part in running small rural schools in which
leadership is increasingly viewed as a collective community
responsibility in an environment of diminishing and more
tightly controlled resources. Hence, paraprofessionals or
willing amateurs take on a greater signicance in small rural
schools, assisting with all manner of activities. Small rural
principals have to be cognizant of, and diplomatic in using,
localized formal and informal power structures to get things
done.
We are witnessing a trend towards collaborative
councils that oversee education and other social services
within a whole district. These groups of volunteers are
concerned about developing and preserving broad coverage
of educational provision from pre-school to post school
education, alongside other social service provisions within
their geographical location. These groups have not replaced
individual school councils but are evolving as an adjunct
to them. Larger, combined governance structures assist in
overcoming the usual limitations of smallness, rurality,
and resource scarcity. School principals are pivotal players
in these groups, with their involvement taking school
leadership into the realms of community leadership.
In order for education and other social services to
survive and thrive, local rural people are making the best
of their new circumstances and the challenges they bring.
According to principals, these collaborative arrangements
should be supported actively and systemically with formal
recognition and funding. These partnerships are proving
to be of benet for communities, schools, students, and
small rural principals in tough times. Small rural principals
understand that performing in their jobs is not just about
what they do, but how they do it.
As a result of this study, we would recommend that
Australian federal and state governments fund further
investigation into, and special support for, small rural
school principals, encouraging new forms of governance,
Summary
We are left with several conclusions from this research.
The most obvious is that context matters. Principals of
small rural schools face distinctive challenges such that
what works for Melbourne (population 3.6 million) does
not necessarily work for Mallacoota (population 1,000).
The principals in this study highlight how one-size-ts-all
education policy and practices often disadvantage them,
while there is also a general lack of policy or provision
that relates specically to small rural schools. Resultant
challenges are generating new distinctive rural leadership
responses and collaboratively derived outcomes.
Globalization is radically changing rural life in
Australia, in both positive and negative ways. It has
integrative community-building effects, as well as effects
of rural degeneration and further rural-metropolitan
polarization. While some rural regions have experienced
economic growth, most have experienced economic decline
and subsequent social problems. Globalization has brought
about new inequalities.
Principals of small rural schools believe that their
working conditions have deteriorated and that they
have subsequently been relegated to the lower strata of
the education employment hierarchy. Simultaneously,
globalization has enabled worldwide communications and
information access. We note that the experiences we cite
in this article are not unique to Australia, as globalization
and neo-liberalism have shaped and are shaping similar
educational policies and practices in many places including,
for example, the United States of America, the United
Kingdom, and Canada.
Small rural schools are not immune from macro
and meso inuences of policy and the micro impacts of
structural reforms. However, the challenges faced by all
school principals appear to be amplied in rural areas, in
particular, work intensication, role diversity, and school
viability have more dramatic effects. Small rural principals
are fully aware that while recent reforms focus on the core
business of teaching and learning and are holding them
accountable for improvements, in contradictory fashion their
time is taken up with ever-increasing externally imposed
administrative requirements that frustrate these efforts.
Hence new reforms are viewed as counterproductive in the
current policy context. There is agreement, however, that
improved student learning outcomes should be the focus of
educational leaders.
This conict for principals is rooted in the inimicality of
their educational beliefs with the fundamental philosophical
changes and concomitant alienating leadership practices
that have arisen on the wave of market-driven forces in
education. Structural reforms have created a demarcation
between those who have the power to control and develop
broad policy decisions and policy implementers at the school
11THE SMALL RURAL SCHOOL PRINCIPALSHIP
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STARR AND WHITE
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Thesis
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This study was undertaken to analyse the educational experiences of Grade four language learners in selected rural primary schools of Zambezi District of Zambia. As a qualitative study, the descriptive research design was used to provide a detailed analysis of the phenomena under investigation. Data was collected through interviews and lesson observation in the target schools. The data was analysed thematically by grouping related data together into main themes. The population comprised all primary schools, all primary teachers, and all primary pupils of Zambezi District. The sample size comprised four primary schools, four primary administrators, four primary teachers, four parents and forty pupils from the four primary schools bringing the total participants to fifty-two (52). Purposive sampling was used in the selection of the teachers while convenience sampling was used to select the pupils. The objectives of the study were to; (i) establish the educational experiences of Grade four language learners in selected schools of Zambezi district, (ii) ascertain the views of teachers on the educational experiences of Grade four pupils in Zambezi district, (iii) determine the views of parents on the educational experiences of Grade four pupils in Zambezi district of Zambia, and (iv) establish pupils’ and teachers’ experiences on instructional experiences for Grade four classes in Zambezi district of Zambia. The findings of the study were that learners faced diverse educational challenges ranging from inadequate teachers, lack of teaching and learning materials or having outdated materials, negative attitude of some teachers towards work as they were not available for class at times, distance to schools, family pressure with their emphasis on traditional education and bullying by fellow pupils. The study recommended that head teachers should be monitoring their teachers effectively. The government should build more schools to reduce the long distances that learners cover. District educational officials should sensitize parents in rural schools to balance modern and traditional education. Key Words: Educational Experiences, teaching and learning, rural hardship, pupil challenges
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Chapter
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Full-text available
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Chapter
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