school principals in disadvantaged schools

The invisible and invaluable work of female school principals

Women are more likely to be principals in schools serving highly disadvantaged communities. This has implications in terms of the invisible labour of women principals, how they might work within their schools and communities, and the way they perceive and react in their roles as school leaders.

Educational disadvantage is often residualised in geographic areas which correspond to multiple forms of disadvantage such as economic disadvantage and social exclusion. The mainly female educational leaders in disadvantaged communities have a critical role in addressing the social justice issues inherent in ideals about equality of opportunity in order to challenge the reproduction of disadvantage.

My doctoral research examined the social justice understandings and practices of three exemplary primary school principals and two assistant principals working in highly disadvantaged communities. My study investigated how the principal participants personal and career trajectories contributed to their social justice understandings and practices. It highlighted the gendered ways in which the two women principals, Rachael and Christine, approached leadership in their communities.

In this post I want to tell you about these two women and their work as principals.

Principals bring their own understanding of socially just practice to their work

The participants in this study expressed their understanding and belief that their role as principal was as an instrument of justice for the children in their communities. Their early life and career trajectories (as well as their subject location related to gender, class and ‘race’) influenced their social justice leadership practices. Both Rachael and Christine grew up in disadvantaged communities themselves and ‘found fit’ with the communities in which they are now leading.

Their earlier life experiences meant that they were reflexive about their position in the community, but they felt a great responsibility to “make a difference”, not just to the children, but to their wider communities. Both, in fact, commented that their work “is not rocket science”, with Rachael suggesting that “Anyone can do it. You just have to care”, downplaying the complexity of her work.

Principals challenge, reject and resist accountability measures according to their own moral and ethical beliefs about their work

Each of the participants in this study expressed the moral purpose of their work. However, Rachael and Christine led from a subject location shaped by an ethics of care and traditional notions of maternal care. These leading practices involved deep connections within their school and their school’s wider school community. They are practices not necessarily recognised or valued by the accountabilities connected to the high stakes nature of data collection in schools these days. What this means for educational leaders is that ‘success’ or conformability is measured by narrow indicators like high stakes tests such as NAPLAN, dismissing other critical functions of schools in the lives of children and families.

The resulting narrowing of educational focus from the broad and noble desires of holistic education to a focus on the datafication of children is an anathema to the moral beliefs about education that most educators hold.

Both Rachael and Christine considered their whole school community to be their responsibility, including children and their families, staff and the broader community. They had both made themselves responsible for the community.

In the past traditional welfare services such as health, housing, child services, and so on, would have stepped in. However, such services are reeling from increased privatisation and over one billion dollars of cuts since 2013, so these principals are working to help fill the gap. As Christine remarked, “How can I afford not to”.

The care that Rachael and Christine exhibited in their leading practices may be viewed as a subversive response to the managerialism expected of them. However, the emotional labour that was entailed in their ethics of care was greater for them, than for other participants in the study. Christine stated she was not prepared to give up her moral beliefs about her role as a principal so this extra community and social work was in addition to her administrative responsibilities as principal of her school.

The invisible work

Rachael and Christine valued interventions that addressed both the social and educational needs of the children. These come at a cost to these principals, for example they both spent considerable time applying for grants from government and philanthropic organisations, and both worked long hours (often until midnight) because they prioritised the invisible work in caring about the welfare of the children, staff and community during school hours, labour that is not valued or measured in performative accountability regimes and yet is crucial in enhancing students’ academic and social outcomes.

This meant that the compliance and administrative activities required of them were undertaken when their working day at school was done. Their decisions to do so suggest the invisible ways in which their caring practices have been co-opted and exploited and the system profits from the ethics of care that the habitus of these women principals bring to their professional work.


While my research is a small sample, it suggests that principals are carrying the burden of years of neoliberal policies that have eviscerated welfare support in the schools and in residualised communities, while also rendering schools, principals and teachers as responsible for the effects of these cuts.

In the disadvantaged primary schools in the region where this study took place two thirds of the principals were women. This has highly gendered implications because, as my research suggests, it may be women who carry more of this burden. Ultimately, teachers and assistant principals who see the gruelling workloads and increasing responsibilities of their own principals may make the (wise) decision not apply for promotion into the principal class. As a consequence, this points to a looming shortage of principals.

Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education, Deakin University. Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, justice and the sociology of education. She has recently completed doctoral study examining the social justice understandings and practices of principals working in some of the most disadvantaged locations in Australia. She is a former anthropologist, archaeologist and primary and secondary teacher in Victoria, Australia. Katrina can be found on Twitter @drfeersumenjin

If you’d like to read more about Katrina’s study of educational leadership, please see her paper Robinson Crusoe and the Island of Despair: heroic metaphors and contradiction in leading for social justice in the Journal of Educational Administration and History.

Katrina MacDonald is presenting on The profiting from and exploitation of principals: The challenge of leading in disadvantaged public primary schools in Victoria, Australia at the 2019 AARE conference 2nd to 5th Dec. #AARE2019

Katrina is also presenting on In the name of social justice with Amanda Keddie, Jill Blackmore, Jane Wilkinson, Richard Niesche, Scott Eacott, Brad Gobby and  Caroline Mahoney at the 2019 AARE conference 2nd to 5th Dec. #AARE2019

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd  Dec to 5th Dec. Check out the full program here. #AARE2019