work of school principals

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

How school principals respond to govt policies on NAPLAN. (Be surprised how some are resisting)

School principals in Australia are increasingly required to find a balance between improving student achievement on measurable outcomes (such as NAPLAN) and focusing energies on things that can’t as easily be measured; such as how well a school teaches creative and critical thinking, how it connects with its local community or how collaboratively teachers on its staff work together.

Governments and systems would expect a school leader to deliver across all of these policy areas, and many others.

It is a significant part of the work of school principals to continually take policies designed to apply to an often-vast number of schools, and find ways to make them work with their specific local community and context. Different policies can often have conflicting influences and pressures on different schools.

This is an issue of ‘policy enactment’. That is, how principals implement, or carry out, policy in their schools. It is of particular interest to me.

Policy Enactment Studies

My research takes up the idea of policy enactment. This approach to studying the effects of policy starts from the idea that school leaders don’t just neatly apply policy as-is to their schools.

Instead, they make a huge number of decisions. They ‘decode’ policy. This involves considering the resources, relationships and local expertise that is available to them. They also consider the local needs of their children, parents, teachers and school community. They consider the ‘histories, traditions,and communities’ that exist in their school.

It is a complex process that takes leadership expertise and requires wide collaboration within a school community and the principal’s network. Research in this area might seek to understand the local conditions that influence principals’ policy enactment processes.

My recent research had a particular focus on how principals enacted school improvement policies. This was a specific push by the Australian Government to improve student outcomes on measures including NAPLAN testing. I wanted to better understand how traditions, histories, and communities (and other factors) influenced the decisions principals made.

How did local contexts, and the things principals and their wider school communities valued, influence what they focused on? How did principals and schools respond to pushes for ‘urgent improvement’ on NAPLAN testing?


The reforms I studied stemmed from the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government’s ‘Education Revolution’. The education revolution reforms were referred to at the time  by the government as some of the largest-scale reforms in Australia’s recent history. They involved the introduction of NAPLAN testing, the introduction of the MySchool website to enable publication of school data and easier comparison of schools, and spurred on local improvement agendas such as Queensland’s United in our Pursuit of Excellence.

My Case Study

My research involved a longitudinal study that spanned three school years. I worked closely with three public school principals, interviewing them throughout this period, and analysing documents (including school strategic plans, school data, policy documents, and school improvement agenda documents). The principals were all experienced and had been leading their schools for some time. They were seen as high performing principals and were confident in their approaches towards leading their rural and regional schools. One of the principals, ‘Anne’, was particularly interesting because she was emphatic about valuing the things that could not be easily measured on NAPLAN and the other tools being used to measure improvement and achievement.

Shift away from the focus on NAPLAN and other measurement tools

While research has shown the ways testing such as NAPLAN can narrow the focus of education to that which can be measured, Anne emphasised a more holistic view of education. She was able to resist some of the potential narrowing effects of school improvement. She prioritised the arts, musicals, social and interpersonal development, and individual student wellbeing and learning journeys. She had less of a focus on the data being ‘red or green’ on MySchool and focused instead on the distance travelled for her students. She was confident that unlocking student confidence and fostering a love of schooling engaged those students who were less confident in the areas being measured on improvement data – and she articulated the ways their engagement and confidence translated into improved learning outcomes, with school data that supported her comments.

How did the principal shift the school focus away from testing?

So how did she achieve this? My study found two main ways that she managed to resist the more performative influences of school improvement policies. Firstly, the school had a collaboratively-developed school vision that focused on valuing individual students and valuing the aspects of education that can’t be easily measured. The power of the vision was that it served as a filter for all policy enactment decisions made at the school. If it didn’t align with their vision, it didn’t happen. There was also agreement in this vision from the staff, students, and community members, who kept that vision at the forefront of their work with the school.

The second key aspect was that Anne had developed a strong ‘track record’ with her supervisors, and this engendered trust in her judgment as a leader. She was given more autonomy to make her policy enactment decisions as a result, because of this sense of trust. It was developed over a long time in the same school and in the same region before that. To develop her track record, Anne worked hard to comply with departmental requirements (deadlines, paperwork, and other basic compliance requirements). In addition to this, the school’s data remained steady or continued to improve. Anne was emphatic that this was due to the school’s holistic approach to education and their long-term focus on individual learning journeys rather than reacting to data with quick-fixes.

Case study shows a contrast to trends – what can we learn?

This case study worked in contrast to trends of how “teaching to the test” and NAPLAN in particular, is narrowing the school curriculum. This is important because research presented within this blog in the past has shown us how testing regimes can impact on students, can give less precise results than they appear to, and can further marginalise students and communities.

The school pushed for a wider picture of education to be emphasised, resisting some of the possible unintended effects of testing cultures. We can learn some lessons from this case study. It shows us that communities can collaboratively articulate what is important to them, and work together to maintain a focus on that. This shows us one way that schools can enact policy rhetoric about having autonomy to meet local needs and make local decisions.

The case study also shows us the power of a ‘track record’ for principals when they want to enact policies in unexpected or unusual ways. When they are trusted to make decisions to meet their local communities’ needs, the policy rhetoric about leadership and autonomy is further translated into practice.

These are just some of the insights these case studies were able to provide. Other findings related to how school data was guiding principals’ practices, how the work of principals had been reshaped by school improvement policies, and how principals felt an increased sense of pressure in recent years due to the urgency of these reforms.

If you’d like to read more about these issues, please see my paper The Influence of Context on School Improvement Policy Enactment: An Australian Case Study in the International Journal of Leadership in Education.


Dr Amanda Heffernan is a lecturer in Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Having previously worked as a school principal and principal coach and mentor for Queensland’s Department of Education, Amanda’s key research interests include leadership, social justice, and policy enactment.

Amanda also has research interests in the lives and experiences of academics, including researching into the changing nature of academic work. She can be found on Twitter @chalkhands