This paper explores the lived experience journey of two former public education principals leaving the public education sector to establish new independent schools in South Australia (SA). The Statement on Public Education in South Australia defines the distinguishing characteristics of public education as “quality, equity, diversity, cohesion, collaboration and trust, community, and democracy” (Reid, 2017, p. 5). It is these characteristics that the two former principals left the public education sector to defend. In choosing to leave the public education sector to establish independent schools, the principals responded with care, innovation and courage to meet the needs and concerns of parents and students for an education that engaged their children in democratic and sustainable forms of education in a way that had been “against the grain” in the public education system.
As teacher educators, and advocates for public education, we have found ourselves wondering whether we are taking for granted some essential understandings of “being” a public-school leader in current times. Our wonderings are a consequence of our own experiences as students, teachers, teacher educators and school leaders witnessing the erosion of the social justice roots of our belief in public education and from the stories we are eliciting from our research with school leaders, teachers and students.
Our research also went into experiential accounts of what it meant to be “in” public school leadership. In Part 2 of this paper, we turn to the experiential accounts of two former public-school leaders to explore how their school leadership life worlds were impacted by standardising policy discourses and departmental compliance decrees. Ethics was gained through Flinders University under the “Growing Ngutu” project with one principal consenting to be identified in the paper and the other wishing to remain anonymous. Both principals are committed to the characteristics of public education, which provoked our key exploratory question:
In Part 1, we employ policy historiography (Gale, 2001) cast across four significant policy changes that impacted on principals’ work and their professional identities, to better understand the public schooling context in which our two school leaders worked. Given word limitations, the historiographical approach in this article is abridged. Gale (2001) suggests that undertaking policy historiography entails three key questions which we pursued: (1) What were the “public issues” and “private troubles” within a particular policy domain during some previous period and how were they addressed? (2) What are they now; and (3) What is the nature of the change from the first to the second? (p. 385)
In Part 2, we use hermeneutic “lived experience” methodology as espoused by van Manen (2016), using data generated through three 90-minute conversational interviews over three months with our two subjects to capture the subtlety of lived human experience of organisational life and relations, opening the ontological dimensions of their decision to leave public education, and examining the circumstances and meaning of their leaving and their planning for a new future. Hermeneutic phenomenology is concerned with the lifeworld or human experience as it is lived. The focus is toward illuminating details and seemingly taken for granted aspects within experience in our lives, with a goal of creating meaning and achieving a sense of understanding (Wilson & Hutchinson, 1991). It is attentive to the philosophies underpinning both hermeneutics and phenomenology (van Manen, 2016), described by Smith (1997) as a “research methodology aimed at producing rich textual descriptions of the experiencing of selected phenomena in the life world of individuals that are able to connect with the experience of all of us collectively” (p. 80). From identification of the experience of phenomena, in this case, the lived experience of being in public school leadership and then leaving public school leadership, a deeper understanding of the meaning of that experience was sought (Smith, 1997) by collectively reading and rereading the narrative interview texts and drawing out key themes of the experiences revealing the phenomenological essence or deepest meaning (Giles et al., 2015). This involved increasingly deeper and layered reflection of our two principal stories. In Part 2, following each sourced interview extract section, a phenomenological paragraph of meaning is provided. Our overarching research question asked participants to explore the central phenomenon concerning their decision to leave the public-school system.
South Australia has a deep history of active participation of teachers and school leaders in the development of policy going back to the 1970s where principals were afforded “the widest liberty to vary courses, to alter the timetable, to decide the organisation of the school and government within the school, to experiment with teaching methods, assessment of student achievement and in extra-curricular activities” (Memorandum to Heads of Departmental Schools, as cited in Kaminsky, 1981, p.198). This became popularly known as the “freedom and authority memo.”
Out of this “freedom and authority,” a uniquely South Australian curriculum settlement emerged as a “prioritising of social justice; a focus on the individual student and his or her development; and a quest for a commonality of curriculum provision with an alternative to academic subjects as its core foundation” (Collins & Yates, 2009, p.127). The last three decades have seen the “freedom and authority” of principals to shape their schools, inform their district priorities, and be heard in a central office eroded by successive waves of neoliberal educational reform.
The South Australian Department for Education (DfE) embraced the efficiency and effectiveness logics of New Public Management (NPM) in the early 1990s, bringing private business institutional acumen for cost reduction into how education bureaucracies should best function and behave. Welch (1998) indicated that all Australian education departments in the 1990s “ramped up” an agenda of business and market principles of efficiency and quality control upon schools and, in so doing, began to reposition the principles of social justice and equality towards ones of economics and business management. In South Australia, the freedom and autonomy granted to principals to shape their schools was constrained by the DfE prioritising literacy results over social justice initiatives.
Principal autonomy was further eroded by South Australia's version of local school management called “Partnerships 21” (P21). Following the introduction of P21, the words “social justice” no longer featured in the DfE bureaucracy policy discourse. Schools had the ability to innovate within their region and tailor their organisation and curriculum to reflect their student cohort only on the proviso that they met the metrics dictated by the DfE for improved literacy and numeracy. Overall freedoms were eroded but principals could still find the gaps to pursue freedom and authority in the name of social justice.
At this time, schools were organised into “regions” that enabled geographically bounded groups of schools to collaborate on resources and ideas. DfE central office saw the regions as a barrier between the central bureaucracy and the schools, with this concern addressed in new policy which removed the “regions” and asserted direct control over schools through the appointment of Educational Directors (EDs) responsible to enforcing the decrees of the centralised bureaucracy.
In 2018, the DfE adopted the aim of becoming a “world class education system,” using both the definition of world class (as a single number featuring on a McKinsey designed Universal Scale) defined by McKinsey, and featuring in McKinsey designed road map and compass. (Mourshed et al., 2010; DfE, 2018) The McKinsey Company is one of the many private multi-national consultancy firms that sells its ideas of free market reform across all areas of government, taking hold in Australia at both a federal and state level. In 2007, they turned their attention to high performing school systems. Their first report concluded that good teachers make good systems and so to improve the outcomes of schooling, the system needed to improve the quality of teachers (Barber & Mourshed et al., 2007). Their second report concluded that it was the top-down command of leaders that made systems great and that the success of any system could be determined by a simple algorithm (Mourshed et al. 2010). The McKinsey formula for school improvement is compelling in its simplicity. School improvement is reduced to a single number calculated by McKinsey consultants with a top-down focus on attaining that number driving everything that the DfE and schools do. Local school innovation and autonomy is constrained by the superiority of central office bureaucratic knowledge, beholden to McKinsey, over the knowledge of leaders and teachers in schools, with system measurement now determining “good” schools from “bad,” compliant leaders from non-compliant, and competent teachers from incompetent (Lingard, 2013).
The move away from school autonomy in SA now sees principals grappling with the
Our two principal “subjects.” Andrew and Judy, were principals throughout the latter part of these policy change junctures. Their schools had performed well against DfE metrics, had good “word of mouth” in the community, and attracted positive media attention in the educational and wider community. These schools were feted, illustrated in the two extracts from published articles provided below.
Ten years ago, with a visionary principal at the helm, Alberton Primary School in South Australia began to reinvent itself. Now celebrated by the OECD and others as an exemplar of a dynamic 21st century learning ethos, it embodies much of the innovation talk about education. It's been grassroots, whole-of-school effort, with staff and students making highly practical interventions to the traditional school routine, the school community, and even the school grounds. (Dusseldorps, 2015: Review Report of Alberton Primary School)
Nature schools are increasing in Australia and teachers say they’re achieving amazing results. In South Australia, “Nature Community School” has steadily grown since it started… in 2014. Principal Judy… said it was the first school of its kind in Australia and has steadily grown as parents looked for alternatives to mainstream schooling.
We wanted children to be in a learning environment that was about children. We have found enormous benefit from the children being outside and learning outside and having unstructured time for play … and by allowing children to experiment and use natural things to answer their wonderings.
Andrew and Judy talked about young children being at the centre of the conception of schooling that informed the development of their public schools:
Andrew and Judy's leadership work and professional identities were driven by all-abiding “care” for young people. Leadership work that was caring as an ontological way of being defined the essence of these two leaders’ professional identities.
Both Andrew and Judy were committed to using time and place creatively to put children at the centre of education and trusting them to do the right thing.
Their “care” respected young people as learners, demonstrated by taking steps to ensure they could participate in an education that was meaningful to them. This drew into play their efforts to restructure school learning and to foster pedagogies of engagement imbued with relational responsiveness to keep more young people connected to learning.
The first indicators of success came from the word of mouth of parents and children as they talked about what was happening at the school.
Care and courage meant a willingness to listen deeply to the community and then respond in practice with experimental work trialled in the interests of parents and young people. Care and courage that overrode possible failure became a modus operandi for Judy and Andrew to carry on.
Andrew and Judy's initial approaches to EDs allowed new ideas for schooling restructure and growth if it fitted with the broad aim of improving outcomes and didn’t work against departmental mandates. Andrew's beginning school restructure was to enable work with the community to integrate students into broad groupings, rather than age related grades. Judy too found support in looking to build enrolments through developing a nature-based curriculum that challenged early childhood students.
Andrew and Judy embodied the courage to care in their leadership agendas for school growth and structural change. They were driven to speak with courage emboldened by their care for community to the department's powerful bureaucrats. Care was overwhelming in their professional identities and “ways of being” as leaders—a dogged determination to hold “care” in place, manifesting in all of their organisational relations.
The changes that Judy and Andrew pursued in their schools were supported within their school and community because they were better meeting the learning needs of students. However, in regional Partnership meetings, they were regarded with scepticism and suspicion by other school leaders. Andrew uses the words “ripped to shreds” to talk about the gossip and undermining that occurred in meetings after other school leaders came to visit. Judy echoes this; rather than try to understand the theory and practice of bush learning, leaders in her Partnership leadership group dismissed the school as doing “weird stuff.”
Andrew and Judy experienced support from their school communities but encountered scepticism from their colleagues. They felt this very deeply—a rejection of who they were as people and professional leaders from the very leaders with whom they had worked and once trusted. Care in being a leader can mean facing and feeling the fear of others to unfamiliar ideas and practices. This emanates from imposed managerial leadership norms where anything beyond the habitual ways of doing and thinking about leadership in schools is viewed with suspicion.
Under the latest iteration of NPM schools were required to act in concert, measured by their ability to contribute to the metrics that would contribute to a world class education system in a decade. At the centre of the metrics were increased outcomes in the federally mandated standardised tests called the National Assessment Plan for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). Each teacher and principal was to be held accountable for delivering increased outcomes on the test. Attainment in the test became the proxy for a good teacher and good principal. Both Andrew and Judy saw the test as a distraction from much needed reforms in their schools. Pressuring them to conform to the idea that test results meant progress took both of them away from the work they needed to do. Workload intensification became one of the tools by which that compliance was enforced.
Coercive pressure from above and support from below drew Andrew and Judy into an ontological state of professional tension and anxiety. This was because their “felt” leadership need and purpose was under attack by the policy and practice discourse of the Partnerships. Despite this, they persisted with their agendas, holding in place the courage to care.
The principal's job is always hard emotional and intellectual labour (Day, 2017; Santoro, 2021)—work that does not add to children's learning but is mandated by Education Department compliance demands often gets principals doing the “system's” work. The two schools’ increases in enrolments demonstrated that they had the support of the community and that support was formalised through the schools’ locally elected school council (the equivalent of the New Zealand school board of trustees).
For Andrew and Judy, the injury that this fight inflicted upon their professional identities and work pushed them out of the SA public education system. They recognised that there was no way forward but “out” if they were to stay true to themselves as caring leaders who also cared about their own wellbeing.
Changes to the educational economics in Australia opened a door for Andrew and Judy. Their ability to seek to open a new and socially just form of schooling is an anomaly of decades old funding wars where Australia's state governments were seen as having responsibility for “public education” and the federal government adopted the responsibility to fund private education that included both the Catholic and independent sectors. Under what became known as Gonski Gonski 2.0 SRS (2013) consists of two parts: base funding and loadings. Base funding comprises a standard amount for each student – which in 2018 is $10,953 for primary students and $13,764 for secondary students. These amounts grow over time. For non-government schools, the SRS takes into account a school community's capacity to contribute. The School Resource Standard (SRS) is an estimate of how much total public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs, and is based on recommendations from the 2011 Review of Funding for Schooling, led by Mr David Gonski.
Gonski 2.0 SRS (2013) consists of two parts: base funding and loadings. Base funding comprises a standard amount for each student – which in 2018 is $10,953 for primary students and $13,764 for secondary students. These amounts grow over time. For non-government schools, the SRS takes into account a school community's capacity to contribute.
The School Resource Standard (SRS) is an estimate of how much total public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs, and is based on recommendations from the 2011 Review of Funding for Schooling, led by Mr David Gonski.
For Andrew and Judy, new hope opened to creatively care for students by doing public schooling another way. Hope became present upon leaving, dreaming with others who had similar hopes and aspirations for young people buoyed their imaginings.
Andrew and Judy face the daunting task of reviving and reaffirming their vision for a public education that meets the needs of the children and families for whom they have worked over the last two decades. They hold true to a vision of education that serves the public and their embodiment of care and courage (Stengel, 2018; Trout, 2018) in leadership through practice now outside the system.
Imaginings expanded and creativity exhumed—needs could be addressed with innovation now enabled. Freedom to be and do for young people based upon their presenting needs was now available.
Richard Teese (2006) wrote that disadvantaged schools are the engine room of productive change because they are “condemned to innovate” (p.1). Our two principals indicated socially just innovation and inclusion is no longer celebrated in our current public education state system—something that will leave our state poorer.
Andrew and Judy have found a space outside of public education where their vision for public schooling and the ability to care for students in practice can be enabled. They must meet the standards to be certified as a school, which includes following the national curriculum framework and reporting against national benchmarks, but as independent businesses they are responsible to their board and community and not a top-down bureaucracy (Reid, 2020). They have found a space “to be” as educational leaders, where the communities with and for whom they work, value their innovative contributions.
Judy and Andrew are now pursuing their socially-just school aspirations outside of the public education system. Their reason for leaving public education is that the characteristics that defined public education as socially just are being swept away by a system intoxicated with “econometrics,” sameness, and command and control from the centre. Our historiography and lived experience phenomenological analysis indicates the characteristics of SA public education are being overridden by a bureaucracy pursuing school principal compliance within a neo-liberalised education system (Connell, 2013), taking the life out of “life in schools” (McLaren, 2015, p.1). What is being silenced? The humanity of education and the ability for leaders and teachers to think, create and educate differently … the defining characteristics of principals who care deeply for students, fostering a healthy public school and a healthy public education system.
Andrew and Judy were closest to knowing what is best for their school, their students and their community. The courage and care in their professional ways of being, meant they were unable to serve and speak the required corporate discourse. Caring, for them, meant resistance to the narrowing of public education. Their journey of courage and care to attend to student and community needs within a risk averse public education system, is clearly on show in their exchanges with ED disciplinary command and control management decrees. However, they still they carried on, being true to themselves, young people, and the community they served. The pressure to be a “good” departmental citizen meant reduced time to respond to the students and the community which led to an ontological tension in their professional lives, between service to students and serving the official knowledge and requirements of the bureaucracy (Dolan, 2020b).
Feelings are of “fundamental importance in teaching and to teachers” (Nias, 1996, p. 293) and of course equally so for school principals. School leaders and teachers experience a vast array of feelings throughout their careers (Hargreaves, 2005) and in their daily practices. Moreover, according to Nias (1996), when teachers invest their selves in their profession, their feelings and professional identities can become merged with each other. This was the case for Andrew and Judy; their in-school identities of caring, creative and courageous leadership defined them as people both in school and out. Authentic school leaders don’t let go of who they are at work when they leave work—it is always there. This was clear in Andrew and Judy's conversations and this is why, when their efforts to develop a better place for students to be and learn became lived as daily tensions, they perceived no choice for but to leave and start again.
Andrew and Judy embodied and enacted the courage to care (Maister, 1999) and held to this deeply moral way of being throughout their contestations with the Education Department, where they found themselves caught in an ontological state of paradox, told to work “with the grain” of official policy but compelled because of who they were and the ethics of their being, to “work against the grain,” when they discerned policy was not in the best interests of their students or community. They felt this tension deeply and of course they left.
Both found a way to address this paradox by courageously taking their public-school aspirations into another sector. They have been lost to the Public Education system as have the families who have enrolled their children in Ngutu. The creativity of these children won’t inform other public schools in the system on how to live socially just and sustainable lives. Alongside Andrew and Judy's decision to leave public to do public education, significant changes are presenting across Australia's schooling ecosystem. In the last seven years, other independent small schools have grown in number since former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's Liberal National Coalition Government ratified the introduction of the Gonski 2.0 SRS in 2013 along with the introduction of Special Assistance Funding in 2015. Special Assistance Schools cater for students with behavioural or mental health issues and receive the full SRS funding amount
Special Assistance Schools cater for students with behavioural or mental health issues and receive the full SRS funding amount
Two and a half years after leaving the Education Department, Andrew's independent school (Ngutu), has grown from 90 students in 2021 to 170 in 2022. Judy is now working with schools and parents to develop creative nature play and recently held a formal community event for her proposed nature school, which opens its doors to young people in 2023. During this time, public school principals have witnessed the steady erosion of the characteristics of public education, namely; equity, diversity and inclusion. For many, like Andrew and Judy, this erosion has meant they are working in a system and a “state” of paradox (Dolan, 2020b),
Andrew and Judy's story of leaving public schooling for new work in the independent sector echoes a changing educational landscape underway in Australia. Given that all schools in Australia now receive substantial government funding, traditionally the domain of the public schooling sector, their independent status offers more opportunity to meet the needs of their students free from the shackles of compliance to a single ideology. What presents is a new way to honour the social justice characteristics of public education by creating new schooling entities in the non-government sectors.