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.

Men­tal health

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%.

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence

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

Stu­dent Learn­ing

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

IM­AGE: © Eva Ri­naldi-flickr

IM­AGE: © Bidgee-wiki

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