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The teaching principal: From the shadowlands to a place in the sun

Simon Clarke
This paper outlines the reasons why the role of the teaching principal warrants closer attention by policy makers, system administrators and researchers. This outline is followed by a description of two strategies that have been adopted in Queensland to empower teaching principals as holistic leaders in small school environments. Finally, with a view to enhancing the impact of these strategies, a case is made for a research agenda that seeks to understand and articulate the essence of effective small school leadership.

The roles of the teaching principal are numerous and diverse and likely to conflict with one another unless managed effectively. These roles have become more complex and demanding, so that teaching principals need all the help they can get in becoming more effective (Education Queensland 1999, p. 1)
Education Queensland's acknowledgment that the role of teaching principals is becoming more demanding is apposite. About 25 per cent of the schools in the Queensland education system are small, catering for under one hundred students led by a principal who has a substantial teaching commitment. Indeed, according to Lester (2001), there are currently 416 teaching principals in Queensland catering for 30 per cent of the student population. Likewise, small schools with teaching principals comprise a significant element of other systems throughout Australia.

The importance of small schools is amplified further when it is recognised that they tend to play an extended and vital role in the community (Nolan 1998). Understandably, this characteristic of small schools is particularly evident when they are located in rural and remote areas which is often the case in Queensland and other parts of Australia. It is also in these more remote environments that parents may have little option but to accept the educational provision on offer from the local school. It is therefore critical to ensure that children in rural/remote small schools have as many educational advantages as they would experience elsewhere, a requirement that places an especially onerous responsibility on leaders who have to contend with these circumstances.

Notwithstanding the significance of small schools with teaching principals for many educational systems, it is often perceived by the community that policy-makers have a preoccupation with issues and challenges associated with urban schooling (Dunning 1993, Southworth 1999). On this matter, Southworth (1999) argues that small schools are relatively low status institutions because in the context of schooling it is size that matters and bigger schools are usually regarded as more important than small ones. According to Casey Hurley (1999, p. 141), this is an important issue because if small schools believe they need to emulate larger schools, not only do they develop an inferiority complex, but they also tend to lose sight of their strengths. Whatever the outcome of this 'pecking order', the relatively scant literature on the subject of change in small schools suggests that recent educational policy has underestimated the contextual factors applying to small schools that serve to compound the challenges of implementing change. It is axiomatic that these challenges have reverberations for the exercise of leadership in small schools.

Following recent educational reforms throughout the 1990s, the role of teachers in general has expanded to accommodate new problems and mandates. Nevertheless, as Hargreaves (1994, p. 4) has commented, 'little of the old role is cast aside to make room for these changes'. In this connection, few other role-holders in school systems will have experienced such an expansion of responsibilities and such limited change to the framework of their role as the teaching principal in a small school (Weston 2000). Contiguous with recent legislation relating to school-based management, small schools are now subjected to heightened expectations as well as growing demands for accountability from parents, administrators and politicians (Dunning 1993, Weston 2000). Hence, small schools are increasingly obliged to engage in planning, monitoring and reporting to provide an overall perspective of student and school performance. Furthermore, small schools are required to cope with an enlarged curriculum and additional prescribed testing, often within a context of multi-age teaching and learning. As a result, the leadership and management of change has been an increasing concern for teaching principals, especially as it needs to be combined with a substantial commitment to the classroom as well as the local community. The following section of this article examines some of the challenges encountered by the contemporary teaching principal derived from the literature.


In the wake of educational reform in England and Wales, Dunning (1993) has provided a succinct overview of some of the challenges that have been encountered by small school teaching principals. In particular, Dunning mentions the difficulties imposed on teaching principals according to the demands of the so-called 'double load', by which he means 'the conflict that inevitably arises between the professional concerns of teaching, and the growing demands of management and leadership' (p. 83). The impact of this double load can appear all the more daunting for the relatively young and inexperienced principals who are often appointed to small schools.

The notion of the 'double load' is supported by Webb and Vulliamy (1996, p. 310), in their observation that head teachers in small primary schools consider their class responsibilities should have priority over other demands of their role. Nevertheless, these head teachers also expressed concern that widening responsibilities were causing interruptions to their classroom commitments and were beginning to undermine the quality of their teaching. It is evident from the literature, therefore, that because of the potentially competing demands being imposed on teaching principals, there is an emerging 'role conflict' (Law & Glover 2000) that threatens to cause tensions as the requirements of the role are exercised. In similar vein, Woods, Jeffrey, Troman & Boyle (1997, p. 96) refer to the 'composite' head created by the many different aspects of the contemporary primary principal's role which work at different levels and are attuned to different situations.

Another challenge mentioned by Dunning (1993) that influences the exercise of leadership in small schools is the so-called 'slipstream' syndrome. In this connection, he argues that policy-makers seldom consider small schools to be discrete elements within a diverse educational system. This oversight may engender dangerous assumptions being made by system administrators about the capacity of individual units to implement externally mandated changes. For example, the slipstream syndrome may be manifested in na´ve systemic assumptions about the ability of a small school to meet the full range of requirements of a new curriculum with only a small teaching staff.

Casey Hurley (1999, p. 147) has also acknowledged the existence of the slipstream syndrome in relation to small rural schools in the United States. It is argued that these schools have traditionally been expected 'to adopt the same structures, follow the same rules, and achieve the same goals as larger, urban schools'. She goes on to comment that such a uniform approach to the management of schools, may overlook the unique characteristics of rural and/or isolated communities, presenting particular demands for leaders working with the community.

According to Dunning (1993), the problems associated with role conflict and the slipstream syndrome are likely to be accentuated by the isolation of many small schools, insofar as it restricts opportunities for teaching principals to exchange views and practice. This impediment to professional development in small, remote schools is particularly disconcerting at a time when schools are grappling with the complexities and uncertainties of rapid change. This concern is highlighted by Weston's (2000) conclusion that isolated small schools can prevent new ideas from being assessed and leaders becoming relatively ineffective in dealing with pressure and decision-making.

In an Australian context, Nolan (1998) has also recognised that there are particular challenges facing teaching principals in the implementation of change. He reinforces Dunning's observations (1993) that the magnitude of the teaching principal's task and professional isolation may serve to make the process of change more problematic than in larger, urban school environments. In addition to these factors, Nolan (1998) identifies the conservative nature of many small school communities as a further contextual challenge that often needs to be addressed in the implementation of educational reform.


The issues identified by the literature examining teaching principals and the implementation of change are germane to the Queensland context. Commensurate with the recent move from a centralised system of education to school based management, all Queensland schools are now expected to engage in planning, monitoring and reporting (Education Queensland 2000). Furthermore, a new curriculum framework has been introduced which it is claimed, signifies a new era in teaching and learning (Varghese 2001). Given the dynamic circumstances of principals' work, it is hardly surprising that 'change' constitutes one of five key roles of the Standards Framework for Leaders implemented by Education Queensland in 1997. Nevertheless, taking cognisance of the findings already reported in this article relating to the challenges of teaching principals' work, recent developments are likely to have an especially noticeable impact on the role of the teaching principal.

Although no major study has been undertaken in Queensland of teaching principals and the implementation of change, a systemic awareness of the challenging nature of the role does seem to have emerged. For example, in the Teaching Principal's Guide (1999) issued to new appointees, the increasing complexity of the role is clearly recognised. It is also acknowledged that if teaching principals in Queensland are to be effective in the exercise of holistic leadership, they require considerable support. To this end, two recent initiatives have the capacity to enhance the efficacy of leadership in small schools. The first initiative is The Schools with Teaching Principals Project implemented by Education Queensland in 1998. The second initiative is the establishment of a Graduate Certificate in Small Schools' Leadership that has been developed as a collaborative venture between the School of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at Griffith University and Education Queensland.

The Schools with Teaching Principals Project

The Schools with Teaching Principals Project was approved by Education Queensland's Board of Management in April 1998. It aimed to examine models 'intended to relieve teaching principals of some administrative tasks and bureaucratic processes in order to empower teaching principals to fulfil their core role of educating students' (Education Queensland 2001, p.4). For this purpose, three models of small school collaboration were trialled throughout 1999 by 55 schools with teaching principals in Bands 4 to 7. The first model is known as the 'Hub Model' and provides an opportunity for a small school to contract or outsource services from a larger school or district office obviating the need for those schools to deliver certain functions. The second model is cooperative in nature and is formed by a group of schools sharing a range of functions. According to this arrangement, an individual school contributes its particular strengths to the cluster, but is able to benefit from services provided by others. Finally, the 'Combination Model' is an amalgamation of the Cooperative and Hub Models.

The results of the trial (Education Queensland 2001) indicated inter alia, that the models enabled small schools to concentrate more effectively on teaching and learning and facilitated the professional growth of teaching principals. These outcomes serve to reinforce Weston's conclusions (2000) about collaborative arrangements amongst small primary schools in Leicestershire. According to Weston, it has been demonstrated that clusters of small schools can lead to a reduction in isolation of staff, and pupils as well as allowing professional interaction and a sharing of resources for mutual benefit.

In addition to exploring models by which the administrative demands of teaching principals could be reduced, the Queensland project provided additional support mechanisms which aimed to promote the efficacy of the teaching principal's role. Of particular importance in this regard, is the development of sample multi-age curriculum resources available on a schools with teaching principals web site, a development that highlights the significance of information and communication technology for professional learning in the small school context. There has also been a refining of the recruitment and selection process for small school principals that has amalgamated Band 4 schools with Band 5 schools in order to create one classified principal banding - Band 5. Furthermore, there has been an improvement of the induction program enabling teaching principals to network with experienced principals during a three-day induction (Education Queensland 2001).

The Schools with Teaching Principals Project demonstrates a systemic awareness that the role of the teaching principal has been made more demanding in recent years as well as a resolve to explore ways of maintaining the teaching principal's focus on teaching and learning. This commitment to enhancing leadership in small schools has been given an additional dimension under the aegis of a Graduate Certificate in Small Schools' Leadership that is currently being trialled by the School for Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, Griffith University in collaboration with the Learning and Development Foundation, Education Queensland.

The Graduate Certificate in Small Schools' Leadership

The planning of the Graduate Certificate in Small Schools' Leadership commenced in late 2000 in response to a perception amongst academic staff that there was a need to enrich the professional development of aspiring and recently appointed teaching principals of small schools. This perception was gained largely from the links that had been established between the Faculty of Education, Education Queensland, and the small school of 'Old Yarranlea' that operates on one of the campuses of the University. In addition, the early discussions regarding the initiative refer to the value of the program as a complement to the Priority Country Area Programme (PCAP) that is used to place undergraduate students in a rural and isolated school setting for a practicum.

The Graduate Certificate in Small Schools' Leadership is intended primarily for principals already in a small school setting or those wishing to follow that career path. It comprises two courses designed to engage participants with leadership in the context of a small school and the management and implementation of multi-age teaching. A third component of consists of an advanced project in small schools' leadership presenting participants with the opportunity to explore an issue or problem of significance in their own environment. The project may be theoretically or empirically based and is informed by the content of the two previous courses in the program. For this exercise, participants are required to work independently on their projects with guidance from supervisors.

Participants are introduced to the first two courses by means of an intensive weekend seminar at the start of the study period. This seminar is followed by personalised learning through access to web-based materials and print resources. In addition, the program utilises web-based forums. These forums provide participants with the opportunity to engage in professional dialogue with course convenors and other participants. In doing so, understanding of issues and problems relevant to participants' experience of the course can be enhanced. Audio-visual materials have also been developed featuring teaching principals discussing issues that are directly relevant to small school leadership and classroom exemplars of effective strategies in multi-age teaching and learning. The grounding of audio-visual content in authentic situations that principals of small schools are called upon to deal with in the course of everyday work helps to foster teaching principals' capacity to practise and understand their craft.

At a fundamental level, the program seeks to recognise and value the role of teaching principals. Given the community perception that small schools are relatively low status institutions (Southworth 1999, Mohr 2000), this acknowledgment of the importance of leadership in small schools is helpful in itself. Nevertheless, there are other potential benefits of the program for both the participants and the University.

For the practising and aspirant small school principals who are participating in the program, it is hoped that a rare opportunity will be provided for them to reflect on their roles leading to enhanced meta-cognitive awareness and the likelihood of improvements in practice. The program also aims to facilitate professional dialogue relating to issues of small school leadership, teaching and learning. This capacity for collegiality offered by the program appears more significant when it is considered that because of the isolation of many Queensland small schools, teaching principals may lack opportunities to share ideas and expertise. They may also have little contact and professional development in collaboration with colleagues outside the school focussing specifically on small school needs. Collegiality enables them to recognise that they are not alone in having to deal with problems and issues that are integral to the complexity of the contemporary teaching principal's role. This recognition develops powers of resiliency in meeting the multiple demands placed upon them in the leadership of the change process. Furthermore, an awareness amongst teaching principals that small schools are not working in isolation is likely to promote a culture of professional interaction. In the long-term, this culture will help to encourage small schools in their efforts to share good practice, broaden their horizons and raise expectations (Weston 2000).

From the perspective of the University, it is anticipated that the program will highlight the fact that there is much to learn from people working in the 'real' world of small schools. The professional conversation that is likely to be prompted by the program enables teaching principals to make explicit the craft knowledge and skills of their work which has historically remained tacit. Consequently, the University's engagement in the practices of teaching principals aims to promote an intimate understanding of small school leadership that can be used as a foundation for a research agenda seeking to articulate effective leadership as defined by the practitioners themselves. In connection with this objective, Hargreaves (1994, p. 4) has argued convincingly that 'teachers' voices have their own validity and assertiveness' which play a critical role in developing theoretical positions.

The potential of the program for engaging with teachers' voices has already been demonstrated through discussion and workshops held at the intensive weekend seminars. These exercises have generated a rich source of data relating to issues considered relevant to small schools' leadership in Queensland, as well as the means of addressing these issues and the fundamental qualities of effective leadership in contemporary small schools. For example, in the first area, a peculiarly Queensland version of the 'composite head' (Woods et al. 1997) is beginning to surface. In the second area, a clear exhortation has emerged from teaching principals to raise the profile of small schools. Finally, in the third area, a useful repertoire of interpersonal skills and dispositions has been generated that is pertinent to effective leadership in small schools.

Hence, the Graduate Certificate in Small Schools' Leadership is intended to facilitate the construction of knowledge about educational leadership in a context that allows the interests of both small school practitioners and the University to be maintained and also connected. Indeed, the capacity of the trial of the Graduate Certificate in Small Schools' Leadership to generate research in the field is especially timely. Southworth (1999) for example, has recognised, the scant literature that does focus on leadership in small schools (Dunning 1993, Nolan, 1998, Webb & Vulliamy 1995) has tended to concentrate on the challenges of the role rather than examining the factors that determine successful leadership or successful schools. This paucity of research into leadership of small schools (Wilson and McPake 2000) means there is a limited knowledge base for informing an understanding of what constitutes successful leadership in the contemporary small school environment.

The gap in the literature on small school leadership is difficult to explain. One of the most convincing findings of the research into school effectiveness is the importance of leadership in facilitating school improvement (Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, Ouston & Smith 1979). Furthermore, there is convincing evidence to indicate that leaders' performance is contingent upon context and environment (Leithwood, Jantzi & Steinbach 1999). Indeed, Mohr (2000) contends that principals of small schools are much more immediately important to the day-to-day running of their schools than their counterparts in larger schools because of the different way the small school community relates to its leaders. Commenting on small schools in England, Weston (2000) argues that the paramount influence of the principal is underlined by inspection evidence. According to this evidence, the principal of a small school has 'more than usually direct influence on the quality of teaching and standards achieved and this provides powerful opportunities to bring about change and improvement' (p. 5).

Notwithstanding the acknowledgment that teaching principals are in a strong position to promote change, relatively little research has been undertaken examining leadership in the specific context of small schools (Dunning 1993, Southworth 1999, Wilson and McPake 2000). As Southworth (1999, p. 3) has pointed out in relation to this matter, 'although leadership matters, we have yet to learn from those who are effective leaders of improving small schools how they actually conceptualise their work'. To this end, there seems to be a genuine need for a res earch agenda that investigates leadership of small school improvement and depicts what this leadership looks like to those principals who are accomplishing it with success. In this connection, Southworth has already completed some pioneering work with his Teacher Training Agency project on Successful Heads of Small Primary Schools (1999). Furthermore, Wilson and McPake (2000) have attempted to identify a distinctive small schools' management style. Nevertheless, in accordance with Southworth's argument (1999) that empirical research into school leadership should be sensitive to context, it is important to recognise the differences that exist between small primary schools in Britain and their counterparts in remote and rural Queensland.

It follows therefore, that a research agenda investigating leadership of small school improvement in Queensland is required that will complement strategies already in place for recognising, clarifying and valuing the role of teaching principals. Not only will this exercise draw attention to the complexity and richness of teaching principals' work, but an explicit depiction of effective small school leadership will also inform the preparation, selection and professional development of principals in small schools. In the first instance, a deeper conceptual understanding of small school leadership and a more explicit articulation of the craft knowledge and skills entailed in teaching principals' work will enable identification of appropriate learning experiences that prepare aspirant small school principals for the contemporary role. As far as selection is concerned, revealing what successful leadership in small schools actually looks like will help clarify leadership potential and represent a vital reference point for selection decisions to be made (Southworth 1999). Finally, an explicit articulation of what is involved in small school leadership may be useful for informing the development of professional standards for principals at a time when the 'standards' movement has become such a prominent feature in the educational landscape (Clarke, Wildy, and Louden 2000). In this connection, it is highly desirable that any attempt to establish professional standards for principals should be firmly grounded in an accurate and comprehensive understanding of principals' work that also acknowledges the significance of context.


Teaching principals in Queensland as well as in many other systems of education are too important to be ignored. Not only do they assume significance by virtue of their numbers, but they are also in a particularly strong position to influence the quality of teaching and standards achieved, providing powerful opportunities to bring about change and improvement (Weston, 2000). Moreover, the role of the teaching principal in a small school warrants closer attention because of its increasing complexity as educational reforms continue to engender colliding expectations. Indeed, the challenges faced by teaching principals in the contemporary small school environment constitute a common theme in the limited literature related to leadership in small schools (Dunning 1993, McRobbie 1990, Nolan 1998). A combination of these factors determines that the time has come to focus attention on the teaching principal's role and provide it with 'a place in the sun'.

This article has outlined some strategies that have been adopted in the Queensland context designed for assisting teaching principals to perform effective leadership in small schools. Although these strategies are valuable in themselves, their positive impact is likely to be strengthened once a clear portrayal of effective small school leadership has been established that is grounded in the empirical world teaching principals inhabit on a day-to-day basis. For this purpose, there is a need for a research agenda that identifies the substantive issues facing teaching principals in their pursuit of change in Queensland small schools. In light of these issues, it also needs to be ascertained what 'successful' practitioners consider to be the hallmarks of effective small school leadership and whether the acquisition of these qualities have been connected to specific professional learning experiences.

At a local level, the outcomes of such research may promote effective preparation, selection and ongoing professional development of teaching principals. Given the high attrition rate of teaching principals in Queensland (Lester 2001) this contribution would seem .to be of vital importance in itself. However, in accordance with Southworth's argument (forthcoming, p. 4), detailed studies of teaching principals along the lines suggested also have the capacity to be synthesised and related to large scale surveys in order to develop a convincing national perspective on small school leadership. A national study could then be used to inform an international comparative project for making contrasts and comparisons. Hence, the potential significance of the proposed research agenda extends well beyond Queensland to the national and international spheres. This level of rigour in approach to researching small school leadership is necessary because as Sarason, Davidson & Blatt (1986, p. xix), have pointed out, 'you have to know and experience in the most intimate and tangible ways the situations your actions purport to affect'. Ultimately, it is only this depth of understanding that can prompt appropriate strategies for empowering teaching principals into the future.


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Weston, P 2000, 'Working together in partnership: Collaboration, confederation or federation: What's best for small primary schools in Leicestershire.' http://www.pqa.org.uk/small_schools.htm

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Author details: Dr Simon Clarke, is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning and Deputy Director of the Centre for Leadership and Management in Education, Faculty of Education, Mt Gravatt Campus, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia 4111. Phone 61 (0)7 3875 5893; Fax 61 (0)7 3875 5991. Email: simon.clarke@mailbox.gu.edu.au

Please cite as: Clarke, S. (2002). The teaching principal: From the shadowlands to a place in the sun. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 18(1), 23-37. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer18/clarke.html

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Created 12 Sep 2004. Last correction: 31 Dec 2004.
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