Why the concept of the modern-day principal is wrong Part 1

An account of the history of that wrongness

At centre, being a principal is about children and the curriculum, and being teaching, while the children are the recipients, and teachers the medium, the curriculum is the way – and the way in each curriculum area, before being laid out in straight lines in small boxes by national standards, quantitative academics, and bureaucrats, was a journey for teachers, an exciting, life-long journey – almost spiritual, but always stringently practical, a search for the truth, judged by way it was received by the children.

The idea in Tomorrow’s Schools was that if the government got the administration of education right, and principals follow suit with their schools, the appropriate curriculum implementation would devolve from that. And an appropriate curriculum implementation did evolve from that – a curriculum appropriate to the way the bureaucracies worked, a way to make easier the way the bureaucracies worked, and a way to extend managerialism to schools.

Kiwi Leadership for Principals was published as a draft in 2008 by the ministry 

What follows is my response written in 2008

Kiwi Leadership for Principals, a draft document put out by the ministry to get principals back to the curriculum, is an idea whose time should not be talked about as having come until there has been discussion of where and when it went in the first place. That aside, and accepting that a small number of principals have hung on heroically to their curriculum leadership role, it is an idea whose time is not about to come anyway. It would take a miracle of systems’ clarity and self-awareness for that to happen.

Kiwi Leadership for Principals, for all its good central intention, is a document that should never have seen the light of day. Early on, in a strangulated way, it proposes its main purpose: principals undertaking more curriculum leadership – a laudable sentiment. But then proceeds to drown this admirable purpose in vacuous reasoning about how school leadership in the future will be fundamentally different from school leadership in the present; followed by a repetitive and jargon-overdrive style description of administrative ideas.

What was needed was not a document about how to turn the administrative screws even tighter, but policies for reducing the administrative work load of principals to free them to concentrate on curriculum leadership, providing genuine curriculum advisory support, and allowing a heightened freedom of curriculum manoeuvre.  Kiwi Leadership won’t fly because it is sans the wings of curriculum inspiration.

This posting will take a look at the attitudes surrounding the curriculum when Tomorrow’s Schools was introduced – the dominant official attitude being a near contemptuous one towards principals playing a role in curriculum implementation. The view was that if principals got the administrative systems right, the appropriate curriculum implementation would devolve from that. This attitude towards the curriculum is most vividly displayed in review officers at the time being warned away from membership of subject associations. When you are a principal or review officer you put away childish things. The systems’ approach and near contemptuous attitude to the curriculum is also implicit in the way review officers were recruited from one part of the education system to be freely allowed to pass judgement on other parts. (The education system at the time, we need to remember, was being groomed to allow non-educationists to apply to be principals of schools.)

This posting will then consider the ministry document. It will argue that it reads like a travel brochure; in brochure-euphemistic terms it does admit to some rough spots, but nothing that can’t be overcome with good will, a sunny outlook  and, of course, the right systems. This document  has four ideas: setting goals here, there, and everywhere; communicating those goals here, there, and everywhere; reviewing and assessing outcomes here, there, and everywhere; and principals turning their attention (with all that available time they are assumed to have) to ‘evidence-based’ curriculum findings. And god help us, they advocate heaps more principal meetings. In my view, education in this country would take a substantial leap forward if we could lock principals into their schools for a while to think things through for themselves and confer more with their teachers. The document is prolix and as slippery as a banana skin. It is argued in this posting, that having grasped the fundamentals of education administration no further input is needed, other than that which develops organically from practice. This confirms there are no new ideas in administration, just new people saying the same things in a different way. The reason why principals can be unsure about what to do, is not because they cannot work out a way to do it, but because they have to second-guess what someone else wants – the bureaucracy.

This posting will argue that the idea of getting principals back to the curriculum is indeed a laudable sentiment, but one that will fail because of the characteristics of the education context. Readers of Developmental Network Newsletter, which I edited from 1990-1999, will know I undertook a long campaign against the way external reviews of schools were organised. I don’t want to go through all that here, but my point of attack was the pernicious effect the review office had on the status of the curriculum and the teaching of the curriculum. One of the ways out of the dilemma I suggested was to allow some other registered groups to undertake reviews, for instance, the Principals Federation, or schools of education. In the present situation, a more likely and immediate way to reduce the pernicious review office effect on the curriculum, is to greatly modify the number and nature of the compliances, especially in the area of evaluation and curriculum coverage. Evaluation practices and curriculum coverage, it is argued, should be negotiated between boards of trustees and principals within a very broad and permissive regulatory framework. Any regulatory references to evaluation should be based on the excellent statement in the new curriculum which famously contains no reference to the unnecessary evaluation categories of ‘summative’ and ‘formative’.

Overall, this posting will argue that the Principals Federation should play hardball, and not move on the document until some real concessions are made, in particular, that knowing the curriculum is the basis for being a principal, also reducing the administrative load on principals, and the advisory mess being sorted out. This posting will look at the Federation’s response to the ministry document and argue that it has some sharp elbows, but a full squaring off was required. Even though the new national president – Paddy Ford – seems an admirably straight talker, my prediction is that not an inch of structural change to the system will be made. The most likely outcome is that the document will, in fact, be bureaucratised and more regulatory demands placed on schools and, in a bitter irony, on the area of curriculum implementation, in particular.

For any effective switch to the curriculum, principals need the availability of a well-based, independent, and experienced advisory service – the advisory system, however, is in disarray. It never ceases to amaze me that academic bureaucrats can sing the praises of ‘evidence-based’ knowledge, yet display what adds up to a conveniently narrow focus to protect their assumptions from other ‘evidence-based’ knowledge. Take the precarious and hemmed-in situation of advisers. What do you think an education sociologist might say about the control of knowledge and power in the way curriculum advice is distributed? First, the emphasis has been on management advisers and advice – a kind of management advice that ensures a continuity of control to ministry and review office bureaucrats; second, in curriculum advice, the emphasis has been on people being contracted to dispense that advice; contracted advisers, as against long-term advisers, are much easier to control both in what they say and do; third, those giving advice, are increasingly aligned with academic knowledge as their main source of knowledge rather than teacher knowledge; finally, the few long-term advisers remaining are subject to numbing bureaucratic control.

Leaving aside these control characteristics, there is a further worrying trend that derives from the shredding of the long-term advisory service and the burgeoning of the contracted one. The strength of long-term advisers is the opportunity they have to learn from school experience, by listening to, and observing, teachers. Long-term advisers, in taking courses, are unlikely to have to resort to thinking skills in isolation, question taxonomies, cute de Bono-type questions or Costa-like learning packages; or the empty shell of inquiry learning – they are more likely to have the experience and grounding to know how to advise on basic curriculum activities such as reading, writing, science, maths, the arts, physical education, and social studies. Thinking skills and questions are likely to be referred to, but placed in contexts teachers can relate to. Because they are not contracted, therefore more secure, long-term advisers are much more likely to deviate from the official line and adjust advice to suit circumstances and the perceived needs of children. Long-term advisers are much better placed to be the guardians of teacher knowledge and less vulnerable to being conduits for the latest academic or bureaucratic fad. I know there are some impressive contracted advisers, and I don’t want to do them a disservice, but a great deal of information given to teachers by contracted advisers comes across to teachers as stale, cute, and playing safe. As a result, this posting argues for more long-term curriculum advisers and for greater freedom in their advisory circumstances. Such a policy would represent a contribution to the structural change required before there is any real prospect of principals, in general, being able to be more involved in the curriculum.

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One Response to Why the concept of the modern-day principal is wrong Part 1

  1. Bruce Hammonds says:

    Your posting reminds me of a book called ‘Corrosion of Character’ . The premise of this book was that decentralization ( as in ‘self managing’ Tomorrows Schools) while giving freedom to devolved organisation while at the same time requiring central compliance ( not clearly defined) leads to double guessing of what is required – hence the ‘corrosion of character’. Schools are still suffering from this audit and surveillance culture – it’s all now about compliance and control not creativity and diversity to suit local needs. There is in our schools, as a result, a lack of intellectual courage by school principals. This can hardly be called leadership!

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