Gurr, D. (1996). Changing principals, changing times. Principal Matters, 8 (1), 42-44. Republished here with permission of the publisher.

Recently, Andy Hargreaves wrote a book entitled Changing Teachers, Changing Times. I would like to sub-title my article "Changing Principals, Changing Times." According to Caldwell (1995:1) the major change facing school education is no less than "the transformation of the school as a workplace for teachers and students." Off course, it is not only teachers and students, but also principals who are experiencing dramatic change in their work roles.

In this time of constant and unremitting change one of the constant features in schools is the position of principal and view that the principal has the main leadership role. Whilst changes in education, such as increasing teacher professionalism, may reduce the need for principal centred leadership, this world-wide feature of schools does not appear to have been seriously challenged in main-stream school situations. This suggests that there is something about the role of principal that is both necessary and, dare I say, beneficial for schools.

Whilst the position of principal appears secure, the principalship has been described as being in an era of transformation (Murphy and Hallinger, 1992). In Victoria, government school education is currently undergoing major reform through the program "Schools of the Future." Changes have been made, or are in progress, in areas which include P-10 curriculum, student assessment, school administration, school funding, accountability, principal and teacher career structures, school governance, school transitions, and use of technology. Considerable authority and responsibilities have been devolved to schools including control of 95% of the school budget, determination of staffing mix, etc. At the same time there has been tightening of central control of certain functions such as curriculum policy and accountability requirements. Clearly these changes have implications for the work of principals.

This article is based on interviews conducted in 1994 with 10 principals and 30 teachers about their perceptions of the leadership role of principals and how this was changing as a result of recent changes to school education in Victoria. This article highlights changes in the nature of the work of principals.

Leadership Role

In a time of such great change it would be reasonable to expect that the principal leadership role would also be requiring great change. However, the role is evolving rather than undergoing major change. In Victorian government schools this appears to be related to the ongoing nature of the current reforms. Whilst the method of implementation is different (notably in terms of speed and the extent of consultation) and some underlying assumptions are different (the current emphasis on efficiency), the antecedents for the reforms by the current Liberal Government are evident in the directions of the previous Labor Government. In effect this means that principals and teachers have been part of a reform effort that begun well over a decade previous, with their roles evolving as the school reform evolves. In particular, the leadership role of principals is evolving into a much more complicated model. No longer are simple conceptions of leadership sufficient to capture the complexity of school principals leading government schools in the current education climate. At a minimum principal leadership involves four broad leadership roles: learning and teaching, future orientation, symbolic and cultural awareness, and accountability. Within each of these areas there are a range of leadership functions; this model is elaborated upon in Gurr (1995, 1996) and will be summarised in a future article. One of the important changes found in this model is a de-emphasis in the instructional leadership role. Whilst principals remain focussed on learning and teaching, they do so in an indirect way by relying on others in the school to assume major responsibilities in instructional leadership. This is an important finding because much of the literature from the eighties emphasised that effective schools had principals that were directly involved in supervising the instructional process. For principals to have this involvement today is almost impossible given the work demands and complexity of their work.

Work Demands

Overriding all aspects of the work of principals are the changes in work demands. Principals work long hours with the average working week for secondary principals approximately 60 hours (Thomas 1995: 26). Workloads in the "Schools of the Future" reform are higher than most principals had anticipated (Thomas 1995: 26) and principals have reported that the demands placed on them have increased. For example, school accountability demands have increased, there are more administrative tasks, new skills to learn, increased system and community pressures to be involved in work outside the school, and increased time spent on School Council matters. In response to these demands, principals are delegating more functions and redefining the work of those around them. Additional strategies principals use to ease their workload include increasing the size of the leadership team, employing and contracting expert help (e.g. business managers, marketing consultants), and co-opting experts from the community and local business onto school council. One of the consequences of the increased work demands is that principals are now less visible around the school and have less interaction with students; principals often express regret at this change.

Business Orientation

Principals will need to become more business orientated in the way they lead and manage schools. With the trend to self-management comes increased organisational complexity, especially in financial and personnel management. In Victoria many schools now have full control of their recurrent and non-recurrent budgets. Also, schools are now responsible for personnel functions such as the approval of leave, including the approval and management of the sabbatical leave scheme, and many schools have now assumed full responsibility for the composition of the teaching staff. Principals are finding these extra responsibilities demanding, but many principals are altering the school organisational structure to reflect these changes. For example, schools are now hiring business managers to take control of financial matters, with the principal's involvement becoming one of ensuring that there are appropriate budget processes in place, overseeing the process and providing direction and leadership in aspects such as ensuring that the school budget reflects the school goals and priorities. It is evident in these changes that principals are now acknowledging the complexity of the organisations they lead and realising that they can not assume expert status in every area of school running. A further example of this is the use by some schools of marketing and public relations consultants. Competition between schools is now more explicit with principals expected to ensure that their school has a presence in the market place and that the school reflects the needs and values of the community. Also, school accountability to the parents and community has increased. In both cases, principals are acknowledging the need for additional help by buying advice from consultants.


There is increased pressure for schools and principals to be more accountable for their performance to the Government and to the school community. This is manifest primarily through the school annual report and triennial reviews which are part of the Schools of the Future reform. It is also evident in such areas as principal employment contracts, principal performance reviews and in increased pressure for principals to make unilateral decisions and thus assume full responsibility for these decisions. A dilemma for principals is that whilst accountability to the community has increased, the resources available have decreased, and principals are not necessarily in control of the resources that affect the outcomes that they are held accountable for. For some principals this has meant that they have had to become more politically astute in understanding community wants, in allocating resources and in explaining to the community the school's actions.

Personnel Management

In the personnel management area there is increased responsibility and flexibility. Principals can now alter the work situation of teachers through the use of incentive payments, local selection of staff, and greater control of the mix of teachers (e.g. junior/senior and permanent/short-term teacher balances); although there remain many system constraints that hamper these processes. Principals have increased responsibilities for industrial relations, staff welfare, staff professional development and staff leave. These personnel responsibilities may be further differentiating principals from the teaching staff with some teaching staff viewing the principal as more of a line manager, and principals having less time to be involved with teaching staff in non-administrative roles.

Decision Making and Communication

Principals value the contribution teacher, parents and students make in the school decision making processes and principals are reluctant to make decisions without first seeking discussion with others. For example, even though principals had the opportunity to abolish teacher centred decision making committees made compulsory by the previous government, most chose to retain them, albeit in modified form to increase participation from all teachers. However, whilst principals valued participative decision making processes, there was a need expressed by teachers that principals should become more directive and less participative. This contradiction may be explained by increased teacher workload, decreased union influence and increased isolation of the principal from staff and students due to increased work demands.


The power of the principal has increased in a number of areas including system sanctioned authority, decision making within schools, setting of school direction and staffing. In addition, the waning in the power of the teacher unions has also contributed to increased principal power and authority. Even though principals have increased power their use of this power is constrained with, for example, principals electing to retain collaborative decision making processes. There are areas where the power of the principal has declined. In particular there is a perception that the central administration is exerting more control over principals and there is also concern that whilst principal accountability has increased, principals are not in control of the criteria upon which they are judged.

Vision, Planning and Change Management

Principals are expected to have a vision for the school and to be able to articulate this and generate a school vision. They are also expected to be able to plan ahead (as much as ten years) and to anticipate educational trends and successfully manage the implementation of change.


One of the certainties of the principal role is that it will continue to change and evolve. The aspects discussed here are a few of the more important areas where there is evidence of change. With commentators such as Caldwell (1995), Hargreaves (1994), and Murphy (1994) foreshadowing profound changes to school education, principals will have to be continually assessing their work practices, not only to ensure that they do justice to their schools, but, perhaps more importantly, so that they personally survive the pressures of the job.


Caldwell, B. J. (1995). Beyond the self-managing School. Paper presented at the Education Forum, Faculty of Education, Monash University, May 5, 1995.

Gurr, D.M. (1995). Principal and teacher perspectives on the leadership role of principals in schools of the future. In: Cotter, R. & Marshall, S.J. (1995). ACEA Pathways No. 6: Research and Practice in Educational Administration. Hawthorn, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Administration.

Gurr, D. (1996). The leadership role of principals in selected "schools of the future": Principal and teacher perspectives. University of Melbourne, Doctoral Thesis.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teachers' work and culture in the postmodern age. London: Cassell.

Murphy, J. (1994). Transformational change and the evolving role of the principal: Early empirical evidence. From Murphy, J. & Louis, K.S. (Eds.) (1994). Reshaping the Principalship: Insights from Transformational Change Efforts. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin.

Murphy, J. & Hallinger, P., (1992). The principalship in an era of transformation. Journal of Educational Administration, 30(3), 77-88.

Thomas, F. (Chair). (1995). Taking stock: The third report of the co-operative research project leading Victoria's schools of the future. Melbourne: Directorate of School Education.