26 SES 08 A, Leading and Innovating in Rural, Remote and Municipal Spaces
Indigenous Australians form a growing segment of the national demographic and, whilst most indigenous students live in urban and rural areas, they make up a significant proportion of the school populations in remote and very remote Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). There has been little sustained improvement in results for indigenous students since the introduction of national testing in 2008 (Australian Capital Territory. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2015). Learning outcomes for remote, indigenous school students are significantly lower than for other students, including their urban peers, in all subjects and year levels, across all regions (Australian Capital Territory. Productivity Commission, 2015). With more than 170 remote and very remote schools in indigenous communities across Australia, the leaders of these schools play a critical role in the seemingly intractable problem of overcoming educational disadvantage for indigenous students in remote Australia.
Research links between school leadership and student learning is well established (Barber, Whelan & Clarke, 2010; Day et al., 2010; Marzano, Waters & McNulty, 2005; Robinson et al., 2008). However, principals face multiple challenges in ensuring improvement in the quality of student learning. For example, there has been a recent trend to ‘nationalise’ education in Australia with a national curriculum, national testing regime, national standards for principals and teachers and a National Tool for School Improvement (Dinham, Anderson, Caldwell & Weldon, 2011; Guenther, Bat & Osborne, 2014). In addition, states and systems across Australia have adopted a process of ‘decentralisation' with increasing autonomy for individual schools (Anderson et al., 2008). Furthermore, the context itself presents inherent challenges, not least being distance, isolation, language and cultural dissonance.
The research was conducted in the Northern Territory of Australia, an area of over 1.3 million square kilometres, and more than five times the area of the United Kingdom. It is the most sparsely populated state or territory, accounting for one percent of the Australian population with 245 000 people. The Northern Territory has the highest proportion (26%) of indigenous people of Australian states and territories. This contrasts with indigenous peoples representing less than three percent of the Australian population.
A majority of Australia’s 1200 small, discrete indigenous communities are located in the remote and very remote regions of the Northern Territory (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2009). Almost 75% of the indigenous people in the Northern Territory reside in such communities (Fogarty et al., 2015). The Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS) classifies geographic regions of Australia as major cities, inner regional, outer regional, remote or very remote, with time and distance between towns and communities a significant factor in this classification (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). Unlike any other state or territory in Australia, the entire population of the Northern Territory resides in outer regional, remote or very remote locations (Lee et al., 2014). Very remote locations have little accessibility of goods, services (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011) with some very remote locations in Australia situated over 1000kms from a small town with limited services, and over 3000kms from a major service city.
Little research exists on the tensions experienced by principals, especially as much of the literature about school leadership remains standardised, with little attention to the distinctiveness of individual school environments (Day et al., 2009; Dimmock, 2011). Jorgensen and Niesche (2011) assert that the role of a principal in a remote indigenous setting is so foreign to that of urban and rural school leaders that the models of school leadership espoused in mainstream literature are irrelevant. The study sought to understand the day-to-day experiences of principals in remote, indigenous communities and examined how they respond to this distinctive context.
The study investigated the question: How do principals of remote, indigenous community schools understand, adapt to and respond to their distinctive context? Three guiding questions assisted in framing the data collected from the case studies: i. What do principals believe to be significant contextual factors that impact on their role and why are they noteworthy? ii. What meaning do principals ascribe to these factors? iii. How do principals change their actions after becoming aware of particular contextual factors? A qualitative approach, using three comparative case studies, was used to explore the professional practices of three non-local, non-indigenous principals. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, non-participant observations and document analysis. Raw data from each case were re-organised under themes, and used to construct a first-person narrative for each case. As much of the verbatim text from the interview transcript as possible was used, thereby describing the reality of the response by the person in the place. Data reported as narratives have the advantage of bringing to life the role of context and illustrating the unique complexities of the work of principals in remote indigenous community schools. Stories link people, place and experiences (Clandinin & Huber, 2010) and understanding this intersection is the focus of the study. Deep understandings of the reality of leaders’ work in a distinctive context can be revealed when their story is represented as a whole and not dissected into parts. The first person was used to privilege principals’ perspectives (Pepper & Wildy, 2009) and to provide the reader with an authentic and believable insight into what may otherwise be described as the ‘unbelievable’ experiences of the remote indigenous community school principal. This research occurred in the setting of remote indigenous communities, notwithstanding the focus for the research being the school principal. For this reason, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Guidelines for Ethical Research (2012) was consulted in all ethics and approval processes. The study was approved by The University of Western Australia’s Human Research and Ethics Committee. Research approval was also sought from the Northern Territory Department of Education. Furthermore, approval was gained from the relevant indigenous land councils for special permits to enter, and to conduct research on, indigenous land. The land councils consulted traditional landowners in the approval of such permits.
Five themes were generated from the data analysis: ‘encountering uncertainty’, ‘heightening sensitivity’, ‘developing confidence’, ‘tolerating ambiguity’ and ‘strengthening professional identity’. Collectively, the themes portray the trajectory of how these principals understand, adapt and respond to the context of remote, indigenous community schools. The study confirms that schools in such contexts generate highly unconventional leadership circumstances due to a complex and dynamic interrelationship of idiosyncratic factors. Despite confirming the need for intercultural competencies, productive relationships with families and community members and a deep sensitivity to the needs of their students, compelling dilemmas emerge for leaders for which there are no known solutions. Further interpretive research embedded in the day-to-day reality of the remote, indigenous context is required. Furthermore, policy that is reflective of, and responsive to, the distinctive linguistic, cultural, political, economic, geographic and historic characteristics of the remote context is vital for educational improvement efforts. Significantly, the research has implications for the more effective preparation and support for principals in remote, indigenous community schools.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Estimates and projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2001 to 2026. (ABS Cat. no. 20263238.0). Canberra, Australian Capital Territory. Australian Capital Territory. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. (2015). Closing the gap: The Prime Minister’s report 2015. Retrieved from http://www.dpmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/Closing_the_Gap_2015_Report.pdf. Australian Capital Territory. Productivity Commission for the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision. (2015). Overcoming indigenous disadvantage: Key indicators 2014. Barber, M., Whelan, F. & Clark, M. (2010). Capturing the leadership premium: How the world’s top school systems are building leadership capacity for the future. London, UK: McKinsey and Co. Clandinin, D. J. & Huber, J. (2010). Narrative inquiry. In B. McGaw, E. Baker & P. P. Peterson (Eds.), International encyclopedia of education (pp. 436–441). New York, NY: Elsevier Ltd. Day. C., Sammons. P., Hopkins. D., Harris. A., Leithwood.K., Gu. Q., Brown. E., Ahtaridou. E. & Kington. A. (2009). The impact of school leadership on pupil outcomes final report. Nottingham: University of Nottingham. Dimmock, C. (2011). Leadership in education. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. Dinham, S., Anderson, M., Caldwell, B. & Weldon, P. (2011). Breakthroughs in school leadership development in Australia. School Leadership & Management, 31(2), 139-154. Fogarty, W., Lovell, M. & Dobson, M. (2015). A view beyond review: Challenging assumptions in indigenous education development. UNESCO Observatory Multidisciplinary Journal in the Arts, 4(15), 1-23. Guenther, J., Bat, M. & Osborne, S. (2014). Red dirt thinking on remote educational advantage. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 24(1), 51-67. Jorgensen, R. & Niesche, R. (2011). Curriculum leadership in remote indigenous communities. Leading and Managing, 17(1), 45-58. Marzano. R., Waters.T. & McNulty. B. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Pepper, C. & Wildy, H. (2009). Using narratives as a research strategy. Qualitative Research Journal, 9(2), 18-26. Robinson, V. M. J., Lloyd, C. & Rowe, K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(5), 635–674.
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