This thesis presents and explains a range of forces impacting on the contemporary work environments of a sample of Queensland principals. Based on my informal observation that the concept of secondary school principalship had changed significantly since I commenced teaching in 1991, I set out to investigate this observation more thoroughly. From a basis in economics and political economy, I reviewed literature relating to neo-liberalism and the corporatisation of organizations, to provide insights into the complexity of the operating environments of principals. This was linked to a reading of the literature on educational change, where modernism/postmodernism provided a valuable prism. The vast array of literature on contemporary leadership theory also provided a means by which to view the complexity associated with contemporary school principalship. The literature reviewed thus enabled the thesis to draw linkages between neo-liberal economic thought,
educational change and leadership theory.
To investigate the working conditions of principals and their experiences (or not) of change, I interviewed all of the principals of the Grammar Schools of Queensland operating under the aegis of the Grammar Schools Act 1975 (Qld). The study was subsequently extended to include a convenience sample of Queensland State High School principals. These two groups of principals provided a contrasting array of data from which to understand the nature of contemporary principal practice. The two sectors were not treated as a binary, but were used to generate a deeper appreciation of contemporary principal practice than would have been provided by studying one sector alone. My positioning as both a product and an employee of the independent school sector provided me, from the outset of the research process, with a privileged knowledge of the worldviews and perspectives of independent school principals. Every
care was taken not to allow this to interfere with the way in which the study was designed, executed and analysed. The analysis of interview data draws heavily on Bourdieu’s thinking tools, particularly his work on habitus, field and capital.
What I was to find was that the forces impacting on contemporary principal practice proved to be much greater than the idiosyncrasies of any one principal or any one school. The forces at work were global as well as local and they were layered and far from linear. These forces emanated from both the economic field and the field of schools and needed to be considered as a whole if the principal leadership of schools was to be fully appreciated. While the personality of any given principal was of importance to their concept of principalship, there were many economic, social, historical as well as educational forces at work. The Grammar School principals appeared, at least superficially, to have an emphatic CEO
view of principalship. Their State High School colleagues did not share this view of principalship although it was of importance to a number of them. It seemed that the school-based management reform agenda had transformed the concept of State High School principalship but in a variety of unexpected ways. An analysis of the interview data revealed that there was an educator-in-chief element operating alongside the principal as CEO mantra. The State High School principals approached their work from a highly defined set of social justice perspectives that matched their socio-democratic concepts of schooling that were articulated so clearly during the interview stage of the study.
Both sets of principals in this study did not share the view that schools were unchanging modernist relics. In a Bourdieuan sense the Grammar School principals could point to the deepening of their capitals of pastoral care to debunk such a proposition. Their State High School
counterparts referred to the emergence of a capital of innovation underlying their operations. Contemporary leadership theory did not feature as prominently in the interview data as was first expected. While contemporary leadership theory may act as a guide when trying to understand or encode principal leadership, it does little to explain the array of complex forces impacting on school principalship. Rather, a Bourdieuan analysis of principal practice with its set of relationships between habitus, field and capital, provides a more dynamic framework.
The major finding of this thesis is that there is indeed a CEO element underlying the operation of contemporary principal practice, but there is also an educator-in-chief element. The CEO concept consisted of a multi-layered patterning that was much more complex than was envisaged at the start of the interview process. There are many reasons for this and a vast number of variations exist on this familiar
thematic material. In the analytic framework of this thesis, a significant finding of the research is that principals worldviews are inextricably linked to habitus and capital as much as they are linked to field. The complex organizational counterpoint underscoring what occurs in schools results in a cacophony which makes principalship complex, diverse and exhausting. Schools are far from modernist relics and in a Bourdieuan sense they are subject to the impact of a number of disparate fields of force that are unique to this era.