Rural school principals:
Professional development and getting the 3Rs correct
Remember how your principal knew your name, the names of your siblings, parents and grandparents? No? Perhaps that’s because you went to a city school.
Principals of rural schools are integral parts of their communities. They know everyone. They work twenty-four hours a day in the “fish bowl” environment of a country town. They support our country families: those kind folks who protect Australia's iconic bush environment, our waterways, and grow our food. Principals address a myriad of needs of all the families in the entire district. I briefly examine 5 of these needs in this paper: domestic violence, juvenile justice, mental health, issues relating to indigenous students and, of course, student learning. Principals often address these issues with only the resources within their community at their disposal.
With all the complexities of the job, why would anyone be a school principal, let alone an isolated principal in the country? Rural school principals do an amazing job and are generally highly respected by community members; but who supports them?
In a 2011 survey, 46% of Australian
46% of Australian school principals reported having undertaken no training before taking on the job.
school principals reported having undertaken no training before taking on the job. 1 But why should training for country principals' matter? For starters, we know that in schools where Australian principals have been trained, students achieve higher results.2
Rural school principals deserve ready access to professional development and training that empowers them to enact their best work. Only when principals are supported can they get their 3Rs correct: Relationships, Responsibilities and Resourcing. In turn, principals can then support students get their own 3Rs correct, thereby lifting education attainment of rural students.
Australian research shows us that teachers in the bush can accelerate to leadership quickly and early in their career. But being an excellent teacher
3 or being the only person in a small school who is interested in leadership does not make that person an effective school principal. The job of the school principal requires skills that are in addition to, and different from, that of a teacher. School principals work best when enacting educational leadership styles that reference what current research tells us makes a difference to the work of the school principal.
It cannot be denied that rural schools deserve quality school principals who are armed with contemporary knowledge in educational leadership. Or that rural students deserve to receive, at the very least, an education comparable to their urban peers – the opportunity to achieve the same rates of educational attainment as their urban counterparts. Therefore it is necessary for all principals to have convenient access to professional development (PD), where the content offered in PD – and the nature of the andragogy used to deliver the PD – is informed by peer-reviewed, evidence-based, international best practices. Yet the job of a country school principal is significantly different to that undertaken by their urban colleagues and, as such, we are failing to support rural principals if we
do not differentiate their PD for the rural contexts in which they work.
To accomplish this, I recommend a process whereby principals and training organisations (e.g. universities and employers) co-create the content of the PD and the andragogy used to deliver the PD. I propose that this will arm the rural school principal with knowledge in ways that enable them to develop what I call a palette of educational leadership styles from which they can choose; empowering them to be discerning when enacting leadership.
Rural is important and different from urban
In this paper, rural Australia is defined as that which encompasses four areas: inner regional, outer regional, remote and very remote. These areas are illustrated in the map provided, the Australian Standard Geographical Classification Remoteness Area Map – Australia. In Australia, a significant
number of young people (27%) attend Australian rural schools. That is, the job
of the rural school principal impacts on the learning of a significant number of our young students.
The scholarship about the differences between rural and urban schooling fills many a textbook; it is not the aim of this paper to convince you of the inherent differences. For now, I offer a brief reference to 5 indicators: mental health, crime, domestic violence, issues relating to indigenous students, and learning. I reference Australian data, to confirm the claim: Australian rural schools operate in contexts that are different from the urban. By extension, the Australian rural school principal operates in schools that are different from urban.
Australian Federal government research6 states that schools play a
significant role in providing services to young people with mental disorders. The data confirms country kids have higher levels of major depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and conduct disorders. And while the rates of mental disorders are higher amongst country children and young people, we know they are less likely to access a service, with nearly 25% of country families too far from mental health services to access help. The report confirms students with higher levels of mental disorder have more days absent and achieve less at school, especially in core subjects like maths, English and science.
Federal government data7 highlights that more than half of Australia's juvenile offenders come from the country. With those from remote and very-remote country areas being
4 – 6 times more likely to be issued court-ordered supervision. Males are over-represented in the data, at a rate in excess of 80%.
A parliamentary report8 notes that nearly 20% of Australian women have experienced domestic violence, where loss, grief, alcohol and drug use are all connected with the crime. Yet in the country there is lack of access to support options for victims or perpetrators.
Less than 6% of our young people are indigenous. However, when compared with non-indigenous students, they are 17 times more likely to be under court-ordered supervision and 25 times more likely to be in gaol. Additionally,
ABS data10 clearly highlights if you are indigenous, you are less likely to attend preschool, your school attendance decreases the older you are and decreases the further you are from a city.
Can country principals fill the role of mental health expert, probation officer, domestic violence counsellor and indigenous cultural experts? Should we expect them to address all these matters as part of their job? Is it reasonable to assume it is the role of the rural principal to find the Resourcing and build the Relationships in order to fulfil these Responsibilities without adequate professional development?
Whether we like it or not, it is inevitable that rural principals will encounter some, if not all, of these issues. Yet as well as being a pivotal member of the community and supporting students and families to access services for these complex social needs, rural principals are wanting for the PD to help them Run a Remarkable, Revolutionary school.
Countries such as Kenya and Israel insist on principals having formal qualifications. Why doesn't Australia insist on compulsory educational leadership qualifications for school principals? I recommend Australia create policies that ensure a shift to formal educational leadership qualifications for all school principals and that this starts ASAP. We cannot afford to procrastinate on this matter, for as Fink11 tells us, developing leaders of learning takes time, resources and energy because prospective leaders require a range of ongoing support.
While the rates of mental disorders are higher amongst country children and young people, we know they are less likely to access a service, with nearly 25% of country families too far from mental health services
The more remote a school principal is, the more support they require.
It goes without saying that our principals also support student learning. 2016 NAPLAN results highlight that country kids achieve lower scores; the more remote a school is from the capital city, the lower the NAPLAN result is in, for example, year 3 reading. Figure 213 reinforces this 12 notion, illustrating a linear learning trajectory from the early years, through to senior school. Clearly, and without deviation, the data shows us the further children are from the major city, the less likely they are to meet educational milestones. By extension, this data shows us that the more remote a school principal is, the more support they require to support students. It is only when we support the rural school principal, through PD, can we hope to address the inequity in learning that is evidenced between country and urban students.
The Dropping Off The Edge 2015
report14 consistently highlights that the more rural you travel, the greater the level of disadvantage. I've only referenced 5 indicators; this 2015 report looks at 22 indicators. Important to my argument is that:
• The further you travel from a capital city, the higher the level of disadvantage in an indicator.
• Coupled with this, the further country you go, the greater the number of indicators that come into play.
It is the compounding impact of these two features in the data that is the most compelling reason that rural school principals require support and training. Added to this, is the lack of resources country schools can access. 15
Content of PD for school principals
Research over the last 15 years shows us that the principals who develop knowledge and skills in educational leadership, improve schooling; from Hewitt, Davis and Laskley in 201416 , to Tucker, Young and Koschoreck in 201217 through to Fullan in 200218. That being the case, what content should be in courses that train people for the role of school principal? Should principals engage in PD that teaches them different educational leadership styles?
Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd19 found that pedagogical leadership was three to four times more effective in improving students' outcomes than transformational leadership. Kocolowski20 investigates ‘shared leadership', Harris21 studies ‘distributed leadership' and the list of educational leadership styles goes on. Which style or styles should we include in the PD we offer school principals?
Then there is the consideration of the Australian Standards for Principals22 that people must meet in order to pass their performance review and stay in contention for their jobs. Do we teach to the test, where the content of PD covers the elements in the standards? We also need to think about ways the PD can address the elements that research tells us are different in the country schools. Are these elements domestic violence, juvenile justice, mental health, aboriginal education and of course, student learning? Or are they professional isolation, lack or resources,
Are we content that out of 96 countries, Uzbekistan is the only country where rural students achieve higher than the national average?
lack of access to PD, closeness to parents and community, supporting teachers, the added load of teaching23 – and importantly, how to fix the toilets and the roof?
Andragogy for school principals
Research by Yakavets, Frost and Khoroshash24 and Giles and Smith25 shows that certain andragogy, or ways of delivering PD, are more successful than others. Learning through university is one method of instruction. Eacott26 found Australian education leaders engaged in PD with an average impact university would be 6.72% better at improving student outcomes when compared with people not engaged in PD. Alston and Kent highlight that in Australia, there are opportunities to be innovative and use technology when delivering PD27; so technology can facilitate a different andragogy. Patrizio and Stone-johnson extol the virtues of the ‘self-study method'. Mcculla reminds 28
us that mentoring and coaching are important in leadership development. 29
The dynamic range of andragogy, or ways of delivering training, can be as innovative as we can make them, given access to reliable IT. Which andragogy should we enact when offering PD to school principals?
Current policy direction from across the globe is clear: school principals will increasingly be required to engage in PD and gain formal qualifications in preparation for the role. Getting PD correct for rural school principals is critical. Research tells us the elements that make for effective school
principalship are broad. It is these elements that inform us about what needs to be included in the content of PD and what andragogy to use when engaging school principals in PD.
Data sets from a range of sources tell us that rural schooling is different from urban, placing unique demands on rural principals. I propose that the secret to getting PD correct for country school principals is to work with them to co-create the content of the PD and the andragogy used to deliver the PD, thereby ensuring it meets the needs of the end user, the consumer, the rural leader.
Through differentiating PD for the rural context, rural school principals can create what I call a palette of educational leadership styles from which they can draw upon to enact their daily work. Current research, published in 2017, states that rural school leadership demands differentiated attention and there is a “paucity of research on this specialized focus”. We need to enact 30 research and use the findings to inform policy and funding decisions.
Hattie31 has created a list of elements that impact on student learning. He has been able to assign an effect size to these elements. He has then been able to rank each element in order of least effective to most effective. This ranking highlights the elements with an effective size of 0.4 and above, where we know anything 0.4 and above makes a measureable difference to student learning.
In the same way that Hattie and his team investigated and ranked the impact of elements of teaching on student learning, it will be important for future research to enact a meta-analysis that investigates the impact of educational leadership styles through their effect on student learning. Creating a list of educational leadership styles that impact on student learning will enable the assigning of an effect size to each educational leadership style. We can then rank each style in order of least effective to most effective, where the effective size of 0.4 and above make a measureable difference to student learning. Once we know the educational leadership styles that make a measurable difference to student learning, that can informs us as to what content to include when co-creating the PD offered to rural educational leaders.
We can do the same process with the andragogy. We will then be empowered to know what andragogy to enact when co-creating the PD offered to rural school principals, because we will know which andragogy has the greatest effect size, thereby making a measureable difference to student learning.
The future of country education will be bright when we support rural school principals to get the 3Rs right: Relationships, Responsibilities and Resourcing. Are we content that out of 96 countries, Uzbekistan is the only country where rural students achieve higher than the national average? 32
Or will we encourage policy and funding changes to support the training of country principals? You never know, one day when you're out in the bush, one of them might help fix your tyre... and they may even remember your name.
It is timely to advocate for research, policy and funding changes that support Australian rural school principals to get the 3Rs correct so they can Run Remarkable, Revolutionary schools.
FIGURE 1: ASGC Remoteness Area Map 2006
FIGURE 2: Percentage of students meeting educational milestones by location