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Fundamental Christian school principal turnover in Western Australia: A case study

Thomas A O'Donoghue and Vivian Hill
The fundamental Christian School Movement, a relatively young phenomenon in Western Australia (WA), has experienced a significantly high level of principal turnover during the past decade. The reasons for this situation are complex. This paper reports a research project which sought to begin to explore the issue from one perspective, namely, that of the former principals, while recognising that a comprehensive understanding of the situation can only be arrived at after studying the variety of perspectives which exist. Firstly, a brief background to the Christian School Movement in WA is presented. Secondly, the extent of principal turnover is outlined. Thirdly, the results of an exploratory study which attempted to begin to unearth reasons for the high rate of turnover are considered.


Schools run by religious denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, are not a new phenomenon in WA. Amongst those founded in the last century are Mercedes College, Hale School, St Hilda's, Aquinas College, Guildford College and Scotch College. Historians have classified schools of this type as independent schools. They were independent in the sense that, unlike state schools, they did not gain full government funding. Many other large independent schools were established in subsequent decades.

In recent years Fundamental Protestant Christians have become increasingly alarmed at what they perceive to be an eroding of Christian values in government schools. This group includes such denominations as Dutch Reformed, Baptist, Brethren, Church of Christ and Assembly of God, which rose to prominence in the latter half of the nineteen the century and which hold to a literal view of Biblical interpretation. The larger independent schools were seen by the members of these churches to be too expensive and to be little more than nominally 'Christian' - schools with the state curriculum dressed, at best, as it was sometimes put, 'in flimsy Christian garb'. Their rejection of Catholicism and their suspicion of Seventh-day Adventists left them with few satisfactory options. An alternative had to be found.

The Dutch Reformed Church offered some hope for the discontented as is evident in the following extract explaining the roots of a Fundamental Christian school (FC school) in WA which was founded in 1966, and which was, accordingly, one of the oldest in the State:

In the 1950s, amid the post-war influx of migrants from Europe, there were also many Dutch Christians from the large Reformed Churches .... for 80 years they have established Christian schools, albeit at a considerable financial cost, and saw this as an important part of their duty as believing parents to bring up their children in the fear of the Lord .... These parents took their command to train their children in God's ways, seriously .... In formulating their constitution and basis for operation, there was a strong desire to establish a school that was scripturally sound and unified in its work.
The earliest of the FC schools that began in Australia were of Dutch Reformed persuasion and many of those subsequently established in the eastern states of the country were of this tradition.

Unlike the situation in the east, most of the FC schools established in WA emerged out of the support of Christians with a non-reformed theology. A letter from a mother to the Deacons of a Baptist church in 1979 reflects the conviction of many in this theological persuasion at the time:

God has given us as parents, the responsibility to teach our children about Him. If we hand our children over to be taught by people who do not acknowledge God's sovereignty and actions in our world, then we are teaching our children that God is not sovereign or active in our World. Because God does not command us to do something without providing the means, I would like the church to provide a Christian school for us so we can obey God in the bringing up of our children.
By 1992, 29 FC schools existed in WA, 19 of which were in the metropolitan area of Perth. Of these 19, 11 were established between 1982 and 1985, and four have been established since then. The student population of these 29 schools totalled almost 4,400 in 1992. Of these, 1,400 were secondary school students. Just over 700 pupils were in attendance at country centres.

The 29 schools in WA can be categorised into three discrete groups: CPCS, CCS and "Others". Table 1 shows the number of schools and the student population in each of these groups:

Table 1: Number of Christian Schools and Student Population by City (Ct.) and Country (Co.) in 1992

GroupPr. SchlsStudentsPr. /Sec/ SchlsPr. Students*Pr. Students*Sec. SchlsSec. Students
Ct.Co.Ct.Co. Ct.Co.Ct.Co.Ct.Co.Ct. Co.Ct.Co.
CPCS631456 32223691165411 702162816
* Editor's note: An error in the original document that cannot be corrected. One of the two pairs of columns should be 'Sec students'.

The model of government for CPCS schools is one based on "parent-control". The parents are generally representatives of a number of churches in the district and their membership elects their boards of management which have the power to both employ and discontinue the employment of staff, to establish educational and other policies and to maintain the finances of the school. The school principal may or may not attend board meetings depending on the wishes of the board, and often when attendance is permitted the principal has no voting rights. The CPCS is a nation-wide movement.

The CCS schoo ls are very similar in philosophy and practice to CPCS schools, but because they have been established by individual Baptist churches they are governed predominantly by the Baptist church's local hierarchy. The CCS school movement is also nation-wide. The schools categorised as "Other" are similarly linked to individual churches and are subject to the authority and government of these churches.


In 1993, of the 56 individuals who occupied the position of principal in the 19 FC schools in the Perth metropolitan area, only 20 had occupied the position for two years or more. In contrast, an analysis of 12 of the large Anglican and Uniting church independent schools in the area revealed that there were only 15 principal turnovers during the past 16 years. The shortest period of tenure was three years. In the five Anglican schools established since 1985, all inaugural principals were still serving. Within the Catholic education system recent policy allows a head teacher a two year initial probationary period, followed by a five year term, and an option of a further five years before compulsory relocation. No Catholic school principal had been dismissed in the previous 16 years. From a comparative perspective, the head teacher turnover rate in the FC schools in WA can only be described as excessive. In an attempt to begin to unearth reasons for this high rate of attrition an exploratory study was conducted.


Seven principals, representing five dismissals and two resignations, were interviewed in the exploratory study. Two of the dismissals occurred in the CCS system, the remainder within the CPCS system. The period of tenure in three of the seven situations was one year. In two other cases it was two years. Another lasted for three-and-a-half years with the longest being six-and-a-half years. In order to maintain confidentiality the identity of the institutions is not divulged. In the extensive write-up of the study, pseudonyms are used for the principals whose experiences were investigated.

The methodology employed in obtaining data was by face-to-face semi-structured interview. In all but one case where the subject was uncomfortable with allowing his reflections to be recorded and asked that notes be taken instead, the interview was tape-recorded and later transcribed. While the interviewer had a number of basic questions which were asked to stimulate the discussion, the interviewee was encouraged to elaborate as much or as little as he or she desired. The experiences of three of the participants - who were given the pseudonyms John, Matthew and Mary - are outlined following as illustrations of the general 'story' related by all seven participants.

John's story

John had no previous experience in the FC school movement prior to taking up his appointment as principal, nor had he any experience in leading a school. He had chosen to forego his Head of Department status within the Catholic Education system, where he had been a highly efficient member of the humanities faculty. He perceived himself as being an unhappy victim in his initial years in FC school education. A number of Board members concluded that he did not adequately share their vision for the school after he had employed meditation in a devotion period and when some parents complained about what they alleged was the humanistic way he was conducting the 'human relations' classes in the school. The Board members dialogued with him and even gave him two weeks leave at one stage, asking him to think through his personal philosophy more deeply. He was perplexed by this demand, his period of leave became a pressure rather than a positive experience and he coped poorly with the resultant uncertainty. The Board members, meanwhile, were frustrated that he could not catch their vision and they formalised his dismissal in the final term of that first year.

Matthew's story

Matthew also came to his Christian school with no proven experience as a headmaster. Prior to serving as a church pastor he had taught for over a decade in the Ministry of Education schools, including one year as a Head of Department. Like John, his demise at the end of his first year as headmaster of a FC school came as a result of a clash of wills - in this case with the local pastor who also had a prominent voice on the school board. Finding himself having to compensate for the Board's lack of education experience, and having to fight for adequate budgetary consideration and reasonable educational objectives such as non-teaching time, his profile amongst the school and Church community rose to a point that, as he saw it, it became a worry to the pastor.

Matthew argued that when the pastor learned that people were approaching him with their concerns about him he decided that the best way to maintain his own profile was to eliminate Matthew's. At a board meeting to which Matthew was not invited even through he was constitutionally a voting member, the decision was taken to dispense with his services. Not only was Matthew denied his right to vote, he also perceived that he was denied natural justice in that he was given no opportunity to respond to the accusations that had been brought.

Mary's story

Mary had taught in the state system, had served in overseas mission schools and had taught for a time in one of the metropolitan FC schools in WA. Although having no previous experience as a headmistress prior to taking up her position, she had taught all primary grades and had also done some teaching in secondary classrooms.

The year before her demise Mary had sought to have four amendments to the school's constitution, allowing for greater representation of educationists in the decision-making forums, passed by the membership. Unfortunately, this was contrary to the wishes of the board. Only one amendment - allowing for the presence of the principal at board meetings but still with no voting right - was passed. However, one success was one too many for some board members. A short time later Mary took a term's leave that was her due. That, as she saw it, was the signal for some board members to work for her dismissal. A lengthy memorandum of unsatisfactory performance was devised. She was charged with poor management, poor communication, poor planning, poor school discipline and a poor working relationship with one board member.

Mary was given two months to prepare a development plan and her tenure was stated to be dependent upon a satisfactory written response to this project. She was also "sworn to secrecy" and so was unable to tell her staff why she had suddenly become so preoccupied with paperwork. A few days after presenting her plan to the board and after getting what she felt were positive signals, she was given three days notice of dismissal.


Principal turnover in the FC school movement is occurring with great frequency. It appears that this frequency may also be having a negative impact on the principals interviewed in this exploratory study. John and Peter no longer serve within this subset of schools. While Mary, Matthew and James have chosen to remain within FC schools they admit to a regular scrutiny of the teacher advertisements in the employment section of the weekend newspaper.

Matthew conceded that if he could have had time over again he would not have taken on the headmastership when he did. He believed he should have served his apprenticeship as a subject head and then a deputy. John, likewise, acknowledged that he was inexperienced but he had been a head of department and felt that becoming a headmaster of a small school was one of the best ways of gaining administrative experience. However, all of the participants felt that it is not readily acknowledged by the boards of FC schools that the principalship of a school requires much more than classroom experience along with common sense.

All participants responded affirmatively when it was suggested to them that there could be value in formal management training. Elve (1982:11-12) concurs:

That a good teacher will automatically make a good administrator is a common misconception .... Being a good teacher helps, but being a good administrator is really an entirely different profession, and good teachers do not necessarily make the best administrators.
Another common ingredient in each of the experiences considered is that all principals felt that their workloads were excessive. In unhelpful contrast, boards have the notion that teachers have short working hours and long holidays and tend to disregard the 'I have too much to do' bleat. Elve (13) expresses it thus:
Many administrators .... view the parents, staff and board members as not always understanding the pressures associated with administrative jobs.
None of the subjects questioned believed that any of the turnovers known by them were the direct result of inherent incompetence or gross dereliction of duty. The one exception was the dismissal of a school leader for sexual misconduct which all agreed was unfortunate but justified.

Weeks (1988:92) makes the observation that:

many problems which appear in Christian schools have their origin in conflicts for control and dominance. Sometimes the push for control comes from a parent or other persons on the board. Sometimes it comes from a teacher or principal.
With the exception of Peter's first country experience, all the case studies reflect a power game being played out, yet none of the principals concerned appeared to be the ones afflicted with megalomania. Mary, Matthew and James all expressed regret, retrospectively, that they had not fought more assiduously for their rights at the time of their dismissals. The only battle that was engaged by James and Peter for a time was when their severance pay was initially withheld.

It would appear that FC school boards usually have inadequate educational representation and that only rarely has an educationist been available with first hand experience of Christian education, and usually then not experience at the managerial level. This view is supported by the evidence provided by each of the seven participants interviewed in this study. In one case, two board members were teachers. In two cases no board members were teachers. The other four had one board representative with educational qualifications.

Part of the explanation for the prevailing view that professionalism is unimportant seems to stem from a very fundamental and ultra-literalistic interpretation of the scriptures which suggest that 'if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all ....' (James 1:5), that 'the authorities that exist have been established by God' (Roman 13:1) and that 'whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven' (Matthew 16:19). They seem to ignore the concept of spiritual gifts as expressed in Ephesians 4:11:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers
This raises a number of questions. Should God's wisdom be discounted if it be made available via a teaching professional?! Why expect teachers then to have appropriate academic qualifications if all necessary wisdom can be received so easily via the divine conduit? Many Christian Education associations in the subset studied have relatively small memberships so the availability of teaching talent to serve on their boards is limited without adding other exclusion criteria.

Since the democratic majority apparently sees no compelling reason for adequate educational representation, it becomes the best-known or the most-vocal or the most politically-motivated who poll best in elections. So, as the participants in the present study see it, the principal is destined, in the absence of support from other educationists in the board room, to the role of hard salesperson and to the incessant playing of the game of petty politics, if the educational objective is to succeed. Add the potential for a board member to take exception to the principal disciplining that member's child (as happened to Peter, James and John) or to the board member becoming upset when the child is not granted preferential treatment (as happened to Peter and James) and the principal's performance comes under scrutiny for reasons which have little to do with professional prowess or competence.

The suddenness with which four of the principals found themselves sacked showed a dramatic lack of Christian compassion and sensitivity. Elve (17), back in 1982, indicated that this was also a feature within the Christian School scene in the United States of America:

Occasionally an administrator who has served a Christian school for many years is suddenly notified that he or she is no longer wanted. Usually the board has some vague reason for such action; suddenly the matter has become urgent and cannot wait. 'They told me they heard complaints', one administrator (principal) said. 'A few just wanted a change', explained another. Others said, 'They felt I was not giving any leadership', or 'They said there was not enough order in the school'.
When Peter was asked his opinion as to why the Rehoboth organisation and the larger private school experienced such infrequent principal turnovers, he suggested that in both systems the principal is given the authority that is their due. There is no going behind the principal's back if one is disenchanted. The principal is the ultimate authority and the board is the principal's supportive servant. Further, the boards have a clearly defined role, they operate within their given parameters, and they take notice of the wishes of their constituency. In the case of the participants in the present study, if the legitimate democratic process had allowed the parent's wishes to be followed, it is unlikely there would have been any dismissals.

In some of the participants schools it appears that financial acumen was lacking. Not only had three of the principals to endure less-than-award salaries for a time, but attempts to establish a sound debt-servicing program in one school and the acquiring of real estate in three schools added hardship to the whole school community. Matthew recommended that a professional administrator be appointed for around $30,000 for a year in order to properly manage a $300,000 building program. His advice was disregarded. Similarly, James suggested that a fund raiser be hired to oversee the capital development program at his school. The community still languishes for facilities.

In the interest of balance, however, it must be said that some of the FC schools in Perth appear to have been adequately managed and seem financially sound. The Rehoboth organisation is one that has proceeded cautiously but progressively. The Swan organisation has negotiated a number of capital grants and acquired low-interest loans which have permitted them to expand faster than Rehoboth. There most certainly are others also whose financial foundations have solidity.

While the focus in this study has been upon an extreme aspect of FC school operations and politics in WA, it is difficult to argue against Peter's critical assessment of the management of these schools in an open letter to the present writers:

'I see the deficiencies .... as follows:
Opportunity was given for James to view the contents of this open letter, and he expressed total congruence with Peter's summation.

Mary and Matthew, principals from CCS schools would not see Peter's fourth point (regarding extremist splinter groups) as applicable to their subset of schools, since the Baptist church hierarchy would disallow such involvement, but they concurred with his other arguments.


It would appear that FC school boards in WA require a greater degree of representation from people with educational expertise. That is not to say that only educationists should serve on boards, or that educationists should be in the majority on these boards. But to have only one person, on average, with experience in this now highly professional field, is to see management starved of the educational perspective. For organisations with a limited clientele, two suggestions are possible. Either the rule prohibiting spouses of employees to serve of boards could be relaxed (often teachers are married to teachers), or perhaps an educational manager from outside the direct community could be hired at minimal cost to complement the available talent from within the community.

In order to compensate for managerial or educational deficiency, boards should undergo regular and systematic in-service training. At present, board members, most of whom have day jobs, are very busy people because of their commitment to Christian education. They are encouraged, from time to time, to undertake a little reading in Christian education. But an occasional spot of reading as the brain is disengaging late in the evening is no serious substitute for training in educational, financial or managerial matters. Principals, although employees, could be encouraged to participate, if not direct, the in-service training of their superordinates. Otherwise, hired or volunteer consultants are available to lecture on a myriad of topics.

In a similar vein, principals should be encouraged to undertake management training. Whether this be by way of a formal tertiary degree program, or the regular attendance at relevant professional development conferences, the principal needs time and opportunity to confront the latest in educational or managerial thought, and to re-assess the direction in which the institution is being led. Despite the cash-flow limitations, board members need to view their own in-servicing and the principals' professional development as items of high priority.

Further, principals require realistic, not excessive workloads, in order to lead creatively, and while it may not be easy to accurately prescribe what constitutes a realistic work expectation, the Ministry of Education and the large private school systems have guidelines that they would happily make available. These organisations could also offer assistance in the areas of principal selection and evaluation. Elve (1982) indicates in a study undertaken by Christian Schools International in the United States of America in 1980, that thirty-six percent of the principals surveyed felt 'that the selection process used in their hiring was in need of improving' (p.20). The present authors sense that a similar deficiency exists in the subset of schools under review in this study.

Concerning evaluation of principal performance, the case studies that have been the subject of investigation, would suggest that reviews have adopted rather more a salival, than a cerebral methodology. FC school organisations have a major challenge to ensure that 'power plays' and 'petty politics' are controlled, and that professional talent is not lost in the jostle to assume or exercise authority. There appears to be some evidence to suggest that improvement is occurring in this direction.

Miskel and Cosgrove (1985:87) highlight that studies show that there is:

a curvilinear relationship between longevity and organisational effectiveness. That is, as the length of time in the position increased (leaders) experiences increased effectiveness for a period followed by decreased performance.
What is FC school management to do when they legitimately perceive that a principal who has served them well is ceasing to perform as effectively as before? The autonomy of each school organisation has meant in the past that a principal is discarded in favour of someone who is hoped will perform better. A structure could be established whereby inter-school transfers are possible, where the retiring principal can be relocated with dignity, and can regain the vigour and enthusiasm that often accompanies a new challenge.

The authors of this research project acknowledge that a piece of research conducted over only a ten week period of time is inevitably limited, both in terms of the data obtained, and the quality of the conclusions drawn. Also, it is acknowledged that while the concentration has been on some negative aspects of FC school management, it would be incorrect to give the impression that everything that happens within the FC school community and FC school classroom, is of a negative nature. There are many dedicated and competent staff, many dedicated and well-meaning board members, many satisfied parents, and many fine students who have performed admirably, who would testify to having received much joy and considerable positive benefit from their participation in, and involvement with, FC schools.

At the same time, this study creates many interesting questions that could provide a focus for a broader study. Does the phenomenon of excessive principal turnover in FC schools exist in other states of Australia? A broader study, ideally, should include opinion from board personnel, staff, parents and students. The effect of principal turnovers on the whole FC school community, (parental support, staff morale and student performance) is another area for fruitful consideration. Finally, a comparative analysis of factors including board composition, selection criteria for principals, evaluation procedures and appeal mechanisms, with the large private school systems, could also offer some meaningful insights that may assist in the future administration of FC schools.


Elve, P. 1982, Managing Christian Schools: A Handbook for Administrators, Teachers and Board Members. Michigan: CSI Publications, pp. 11-12.

Miskel, C. & Cosgrove, D. 1985, 'Leader succession in school settings', Review of Educational Research, 55(1), 87-105.

Weeks, N. 1988, The Christian School: An Introduction. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.

Author details: Thomas O'Donoghue and Vivian Hill are from the Graduate School of Education, University of Western Australia.

Please cite as: O'Donoghue, T. A. and Hill, V. (1995). Fundamental Christian school principal turnover in Western Australia: A case study. Queensland Researcher, 11(1), 28-39. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr11/odonoghue.html

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Created 17 Aug 2005. Last revision: 17 Aug 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr11/odonoghue.html