Why the concept of the modern-day principal is wrong Part 2

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 (continued)

The year was early 1989, with Tomorrow’s  Schools officially imminent; the place a conference facility at Onerahi, Whangarei; the conference sponsored by the Whangarei Principals Association; the speakers Maurice Gianotti, soon to be head of the education review office, who spoke the first day, and me, to speak the second. Principals who attended still shake their heads in astonished wonder at the chasmic divide between the messages of the two days. Maurice Gianotti in his urbane way delivered a message of sunny vistas; I, in my barbarians-at-the-gate mode, of an education system going too far to the right and heading into series of calamitous storms. Both of us, of course, overstated our positions.

There was no doubt where the main point of difference lay: the role of the principal in curriculum matters in their schools. Maurice Gianotti spoke of the way goals should be set, administrative systems established, delegations made, reviews and accountability systems established, also systems for teacher assessment of children’s learning. He made much, of course, of the freedoms that would be available to schools, and the opportunities for initiative. In speaking of the role of the review office, he said that, in respect to the curriculum, their attention would be on outcomes; under no circumstances were officers to comment or give advice on classroom practice or the curriculum. He said that it was on school administrative systems and learning outputs that the review office would focus, and that under Tomorrow’s Schools that was where principals should be focused, too. The message was somewhat softened by his talk of the often-made distinction between management and leadership. In his references to leadership, the role of the principal inevitably became somewhat involved in setting up curriculum opportunities. While Maurice Gianotti’s talk was fairly much the standard neoliberal talk for the time, it was not as harsh as some other such advocacies. Indeed, Maurice Gianotti was only to last two years as head of the review office to be replaced by Judith Aitken. It was commonly held in teaching circles that Maurice Gianotti could not force himself to be as ruthless as the job specifications required.

The argument I developed on my day to speak (I have the notes in front of me now) was the damage about to be done: teachers would be marginalised; our child-centred and professional value system demeaned; attention would be to administration and away from the curriculum; we would have accountability; and they – the government and the bureaucracies – would have the power. However, I said the tactic now is ‘to make the best of what clearly isn’t the best and to act on the implications of the changed system and turn the situation to best advantage.’ I then suggested a number of ways this might be done: the first was that ‘if schools (that is, teachers and boards of trustees) can appoint principals, they can be in charge of what occurs in relation to learning and evaluation.’ Our full attention, I said, should on ‘reducing government interference in learning and evaluation.’ My tune, as you will have observed, has not changed. At about the same time as this conference, it is significant to note, Lange ruefully acknowledged that Tomorrow’s Schools was not about children and learning as was promised, which would now come later (but it never did). To be fair, a lot about children and learning did come later, but none of it freed teachers to be more creative and imaginative, which is what this posting is deeply concerned about.

The setting, about a year later, is the Waipuna Conference Centre; the occasion an Auckland Principals Conference; this time I had only an hour to say whatever I wanted to say. I launched into it in impassioned tones. I titled my talk: ‘Knowing who we are, knowing the new reality: Then taking the initiative and scaring the living daylights out of them.’ Fat chance, I know.

The emphasis was on the characteristics of the New Zealand way. I talked of Beeby, Richardson, Ashton-Warner, developmental teaching, the balanced reading system, and of directions in drama, the arts, social studies, science, mathematics, and writing. Particular attention was paid to the need to engage the affective as the basis for learning, the use of drama, clay work, and other parts of the arts; to teachers having the freedom to pursue children’s interests freely and imaginatively; and to the availability of choice for children in their learning. At the end, I was satisfied with what I’d said and the reception received.

When, however, I was in morning tea line, two principals headed to me; one of them spoke, the other nodded in agreement.

‘Kelvin,’ the principal said, ‘that was good, but we are past that now, the curriculum is not our real interest, administration is.’

The principals did not intend offence, and I did not take any. In fact, such comments from the front line can be a valuable source of clarity in evaluating complex situations. The comment is certainly germane to when and where the role of principals in relation to the curriculum turned to custard.

I suppose principals saw me as part of the ancien regime being swept away by the new order.

[In 2016, quite by chance a retired principal wrote to me and in passing mentioned that he had heard me speak for his first time at Waipuna and that he had sat by a person who was ebulliently supportive of my message throughout; he was to learn that that person, a later speaker, was Witi Ihimaera. Such are the small things one holds on to.]

And here I still am, by no means swept back though, better described as desperately holding on – and finding the situation more difficult than I feared. Accompanying the swing from the curriculum to administration has been a swing from our knowledge to their knowledge. Into the vacuum left by the emphasis on administration, egged on by the increasing commercialisation of education, has come an eclectic and quirky assortment of international education knowledges.

With that out of the way, I intend to focus on what I consider the most significant points in the Kiwi Leadership document, and the Principals Federation’s response to it. Unpromisingly, the Kiwi Leadership document mentions the 21st century, seven times in the first four pages, a sure sign of desperation for bolstering a weak argument. There is, however, in the early pages, one statement of clarity, but only in a footnote: ‘The term ‘educational leader’ describes principals who set the direction for, and are actively involved in, student learning and the professional learning of teachers.’

The Kiwi Leadership document begins with a detailed account of what the writers saw as the challenges for the future. This was to lead to a disastrously false premise for what was to follow: that is because, not one example of any challenge given for the future is in anyway different from challenges already being posed. But being a vacuous document, it does, of course, resort to the most vacuous education claim from the present. In fact, in a roundabout way, it resorts to the claim twice:

‘In the ICT age when there is an abundance of information teachers are less likely to be sources of knowledge than they were last century.’


‘Learning will need to be personalised to meet the needs of all learners in a 21st century knowledge-based society. Personalising learning involves a move away from traditional views of knowledge and learning. Instead of being passive recipients of knowledge, students need to be active participants and partners in the learning process.’

I want to tell the writers of this document to stop being ‘passive recipients’ of clichés about education. New Zealand education is a leader in personalising learning; it has been the primary tradition for decades – developmental education, in particular. I have spent the greater part of my professional life talking to receptive teacher audiences about personalising teaching, as have many others. What effrontery to our Kiwi-style of education. And, where have they read someone advocating what they pronounce as ‘traditional views of knowledge and learning’? Having said that, as a person who has been in the classrooms of thousands of teachers, I have observed on many occasions teachers providing just the right ideas themselves, at the right time, and in the right way to excellent education effect. Beware of radical chic by education bureaucrats who, unconsciously or not, use it to build their education sand castles.

There is, against the flow, one statement of significance:

‘While devolution has allowed principals to develop systems in response to the needs of their students, it has also increased their administrative workload. Research shows that Kiwi principals spend almost twice as much time on administration as do their international counterparts. For many, there is a tension between their role as educational leader and their responsibilities as managers and administrators.’

After the document’s vacuous start, here was the opportunity for the writers to do something real. But, no, as described above, the writers proceed to produce page after page of off-the-point jargon overdrive. Apparently, the hope was, by reiterating again and again what principals already know about administration, and using an excess of management-speak, readers would be confused into  thinking the document was addressing the issue.

A typical statement:

‘Effective principals get the relationships right and tackle the educational challenges at the same time – incorporating both, simultaneously, into their problem solving.’ Well, there we are.

There is not much else I want to say about this strategically maladroit document except for one matter that is developing into a major issue in school education, one of great importance to the status of teachers, but which, I believe, the teacher organisations are unwilling, or unprepared,  to do much about: the status of teacher knowledge. The issue was central to my recently posted series on ‘The battle for primary school reading’ in which the balanced reading approach, largely based on teacher knowledge, but supplemented and reinforced by academic knowledge, was described as under attack by advocates of the phonics-focused approach, largely based on academic knowledge. The status of teachers is considerably bound up in the outcome.

Throughout the Kiwi Leadership document there is continual reference to only one kind of knowledge – ‘evidence-based’ knowledge, in other words, academic knowledge. Bureaucrats are not disinterested participants in the issue; they see themselves as the repositories, gatherers, controllers, and purveyors of academic knowledge. Take, for instance, the latest fad of ‘best practice’ – of which this document apparently is an example. Because most foreign education systems are dominated by academic knowledge, ‘best practice’ publications involving sweeps of other systems become another way to have academic knowledge further dominate our system.

‘Evidence-based’ knowledge usually relates to experimental research which, in my view, makes a somewhat dodgy contribution to knowledge useful for classrooms. Experimental researchers always face difficulty in establishing their preferred paradigm. To standardise their methods they have to exclude a lot of variables – variables which are often of great significance to teachers. Experimental researchers set up artificial situations which they evaluate in an artificial, discontinuous way. My view is that there is a world of difference between controlled experimental teaching and the hurly-burly of classroom teaching.

I make a plea to teacher organisations, in the interests of teachers and principals, to challenge statements from the bureaucracies that refer exclusively to ‘evidence-based’ knowledge and speak up for classroom knowledge developed over the years and proved in classrooms.

The Federation’s response to the Kiwi Leadership document makes some excellent points, especially in describing the nature and diversity of schools in New Zealand but, nevertheless, seems generally to go along with the document’s resort to administrative-type ideas. I recognise that the Federation has a relationship to maintain with the ministry, and is a democratic organisation with a responsibility to be open-minded in receiving feedback from members. But in the end, though, this is not a time to be going down the ‘we-will-need-more-resources track’, so beloved of teacher organisations. This was a remarkable, even unique, opportunity fumbled. Decisive changes to the concept of being a principal needed to be at the forefront of the Federation’s response, in particular, the expectation and enablement of the principal to be closely involved in curriculum development and classroom practice. Kiwi Leadership put forward the idea of principals being more active in those matters, indeed, it was the document’s main purpose, but neither the Federation nor the ministry proceeded to do anything substantial in response. No structural changes were contemplated, for instance, in role of the education review office. There was simply a reversion to administrative verbiage already dominant in the system. I suppose I have been a bit ungracious to the ministry. To describe the intention as a ‘laudable sentiment’ is understated – it is a brilliant sentiment; but my response has been considerably affected by the knowledge that the processes set out in Kiwi Leadership, notwithstanding the brilliance of that sentiment, if acted on, would further imperil curriculum leadership in schools, not aid it.

There is one statement in the Federation’s response to Kiwi Leadership that was telling:

‘Principals may also question whether the KLP framework is suggesting there is something wrong with what is happening in their school.’

The answer is yes.

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3 Responses to Why the concept of the modern-day principal is wrong Part 2

  1. Brian Eales says:

    Any young principal with a torch ( their career ) in a tent will always spotlight ( be awed by the MoE, ERO, EduCanz and their spin ) that which is shiny and bright ( CoL’s , Nt stds Best Evidence etc etc). It has nothing to do with education and outcomes for children…

  2. Kelvin says:

    Wow! What a three and a half lines covering that side; the other side is the lack of close curriculum understanding that accompanies that and a general lack of comprehension of the resulting curriculum shortfall. As the first paragraph says, the curriculum is the way and should be the basis for everything that happens in school education.

  3. Bruce Hammonds says:

    Tomorrows Schools seemed to offer a chance for greater school leadership and local diversity but that chance was soon to be lost. Tomorrows Schools, it turned out, was to be all about imposing a competitive neo – liberal ideology on schools and it is this that explains the mess we are in. The primary school holistic approach to education has been sidelined. Now that the technocratic approach is being seen to fail we have a push to develop ‘personalized learning’ which was what the earlier holistic approach was all about ! Now there is a push to have schools share ideas and work together – the Communities of Schools policy – unfortunately these are not true communities – more a way to further impose the failing Ministry agenda – communities of control more like it. Sadly, to access finance, schools are falling for it.

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