Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

The Small Rural School Principalship: Key Challenges and Cross-School Responses

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

The Small Rural School Principalship: Key Challenges and Cross-School Responses

Article excerpt

This article explores the responses of school principals of small rural schools in Victoria, Australia to leadership challenges they identify as characteristic of these contexts. The research is an exercise in grounded theory building, with the focus on the principalship as it is enacted in small rural settings. The article also seeks to trace the impact of macro and meso influences on micro rural contexts. While many very positive attributes of small rural schools are evident, this article speaks to principalship engagement with contextual problems - issues concerning work intensification, role multiplicity, school viability, new regulatory funding requirements and the abandonment of equity policies in education - since there is a dearth of information in Australia at this time about how school principals confront these challenges in small rural locations. The research exposes a growing culture of creative collaborative responses to the pervasive impediments of leading small rural schools.


This article focuses on the principalship in small rural schools in Victoria, Australia, who face context-specific challenges in addition to those commonly experienced in schools. Currently there is scant research information about the enactment of school leadership in Australian rural locations in response to immediate national, and global issues. This is the void we seek to fill. However, while this article focuses on the Australian context, we believe that globalizing policy practices may create resonances elsewhere in the world.

There are contested views about what constitutes a small school and what constitutes rurality (Alston, 1999; Coladarci, 2007). In the Australian context, the differing definitions used by various levels of government confuse matters. The seminal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC, 2000) national inquiry into rural and remote education cites the problem of definitional inconsistency, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defining "rural" as all residences and settlements of less than 1,000 people, and the Commonwealth Government defining rural as all non-metropolitan places with fewer than 100,000 people. These differing definitions produce profound population differences:

using the ABS definition there are approximately 2.3 million rural Australians (less than 15% of the total population) while using the Commonwealth definition, this number rises to more than 5.7 million non-metropolitan Australians (approximately 34% of the total population). (HREOC, 2000, p. 2)

For our purposes we have accepted the Victorian education department's definitions, with rural schools being 70 kilometers or more from Melbourne, the state capital, or 25 kilometers from a regional center with a population of 10,000 or more and small schools having an enrollment of 100 students or less. Suffice to say, most of Australia's population is concentrated in a few coastal cities, hence within a large land mass there are many rural locations. Victoria is the smallest mainland state, with few locations being defined as remote, but with many being defined as rural.

The Research

This research arose out of our engagement in a state-wide professional development program for small rural principals of government schools, focusing on capacity building through collaboration on joint projects. It involved 90 principals from across the state, divided into three groups from the west, central, and eastern areas. We met face-to-face three times a year at residential forums in the three locations but maintained contact as they progressed on their collaborative projects and through a mentor program consisting of recently retired rural principals.

We engaged a socio-cultural position, privileging the lived experience of participants, who, in this case, became co-researchers. Epistemologically we drew on two interconnected assumptions: first, we assumed that large scale social structures constitute tangible realities; and secondly, personal and public aspects of life are constitutively linked (Connell, 1996). …

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