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«Catholic Educational Leadership in Small Rural Communities in Australia Bernard Cumming, Catholic Schools Office, Diocese of Broken Bay Andrew Chinn, ...»

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Cumming 5031P

Catholic Educational Leadership in Small Rural Communities in Australia

Bernard Cumming, Catholic Schools Office, Diocese of Broken Bay

Andrew Chinn, Butterfly Music

My name is Bernard Cumming and the paper that Andrew Chinn and I will present today

is looking at leadership is small rural communities.

Currently, I’m employed in the Mission Services department of the Catholic Schools

Office Broken Bay Diocese having arrived in the diocese at the beginning of 2005. I am an Advisor in Religious Education in Primary Schools. Prior to this all my teaching was in rural dioceses in NSW, the last five as principal of a school in rural NSW. I possess a Masters Degree in School Management and am currently enrolled in at Master of Arts in Theological Studies, having previously completed a Graduate Diploma in Religious Studies through Edith Cowan University.

My good friend Andrew was a teacher in the Sydney Archdiocese from 1984-2002.

Andrew has a Masters in Educational Leadership and has broad leadership experience in Catholic Schools. Since 2003 Andrew’s music has become his fulltime vocation and he visits schools all over Australia and New Zealand sharing his gift of music. The last five years has seen him visit more than 450 Catholic Primary schools around Australia and New Zealand.

The paper will address the following leadership issues in Australian rural communities:

Recruitment processes for beginning principals in rural communities Induction processes for beginning principals in rural communities Educational leadership issues: staffing; teaching roles; professional development Religious leadership in rural communities Moving on- career pathing for rural principals, inter-Diocesan issues.

Recruitment processes for beginning principals in rural communities Prior to becoming principal, I held the position of Assistant Principal in a primary school with an enrolment of more than 400 students in a fairly large regional centre. I had only just considered applying for the position of principal at that stage but after an unsuccessful advertising and selection process, the position was re-advertised and I received the proverbial “tap on the shoulder” from the Catholic Education Office. Would I be interested in applying?

The recruitment process can be as short as a tap on the shoulder or as long and as sophisticated as the leadership succession programs run by some Dioceses around Australia, including the Catholic Education Office Sydney. Such programs target prospective principals: people who the system believes have the potential to hold such a position and/or teachers who see themselves as future principals. Over the various stages of the course, the varied aspects of principalship are presented; experienced principals share their perspectives; and mentor relationships are fostered.

Obviously a system as large as the Sydney CEO have larger budgets for professional development and can afford a greater diversity of leadership education. They also have the advantage of geographical proximity to ACU Sydney to access staff and resources.

The irony is that rural principals, we would argue, face greater challenges when taking on first positions as principals. Not only do they face the challenges of educational leadership, but also the unique challenges of being a Catholic leader in a small country town, not to mention the issues of adjusting to community life in that same town.

“Taps on the shoulder” seem to be more prevalent these days. The position of principal is becoming an increasingly demanding one in an era of growing accountability.

Attracting suitable applicants is becoming more and more difficult. A Director in one NSW Diocese informed me that in recent years advertisements for principal’s positions were attracting less than 1.5 applicants per advertisement, and that statistic includes multiple applicants, ie, people who apply for more than one position.

In such a climate one would think the identifying and nurturing of quality leaders would be a high priority.

Between the interview and being offered the position I was speaking with another experienced principal. He said before taking the position, drive out to this town, 200 kilometres away, with my wife and children, to see if the town and our family were a “match”. Often in such situations panels assume that if the applicant is offered a position they will accept it. Relocating a family to a very different lifestyle is quite a decision.

Applicants should look at the process as a two-way interaction. Not only is the panel assessing the suitability of the applicant, but the applicant should also be assessing the suitability of the school and community to their own family.

This same principal warned me not to be overly flattered by any offers and to look carefully into the conditions, including pay and housing. I took his advice. My wife and my children and I went out to look at the town so see if it was feasible. I also investigated the pay scale– not that I became a Catholic teacher for the money, but one has to weigh up the financial impact of such a move. At that time, the fact was that I was being paid more as an Assistant Principal in a school of over 400 than a Principal in a school of less than 100.

And where would we live? In many cases the principals in Catholic Primary schools in rural areas are offered the old convent as a residence. In some cases these are quite grand, even heritage listed, but more often than not, they are old, drafty and in need of substantial repair, and often not conducive to family life.

Some Dioceses invest in the future and purchase a decent family home in the hope of attracting principals of quality in the future. In our case the Diocesan Director realized that it was time to do something similar and a home was purchased, albeit a threebedroom home- considerably smaller, in fact half the size, of the local presbytery housing one person. During our time in the house we paid a market rate rent of $110.00 a week, while the town’s policeman lived in similar accommodation at a subsidized rate of $10.00 a week. That additional available income makes it just that little easier to fund a trip home to visit friends and family, easing that sense of isolation.

My point here is that in rural dioceses, CEOs must make the position of Principal very attractive. Country towns have traditionally been very hard to staff. I stayed five years in the school I was in - the Principal before me lasted 18 months, and the one since me two years. The diocese must provide suitable and appropriate and attractive accommodation – in rural Australia a pool and air conditioning is a must. In February, the advertisement for a principals position in Northern NSW included the statement “Housing accommodation is available for a discounted rate”.

What does this mean? “A discounted rate”. CEO/CSOs need to stipulate in their advertisements, or on the web, the real advantages of the position including accommodation, extra study leave, monetary incentives etc. Don’t leave this until people have to ring up or ask for an information package. This is too late. Some potential candidates won’t get this far.

Overcoming isolation is a major factor in adjusting to life in smaller rural communities. I remember a teacher in Queensland who had spent a few years living in the town of Monto. On the family’s first night back in Bundaberg they ordered pizza to be delivered.

Why? Simply because they could.

One first year out teacher who worked at my school moved to the town from Newcastle, being Newcastle born and breed (some four hours drive away). To her surprise (but it brought a smile to my face) she went down to the local supermarket early on the first Sunday afternoon, but it was closed. I had to tell her that everything shuts at midday on Saturday. On another occasion, She spent time looking for an ATM – I said that when the local club opens, there’s one in the club (but they charge a $1 fee).

These may seem like small issues but represent a significant change, even sacrifice, in lifestyle. In my visits around the country I was really struck by the teaching community at St Michael’s on Palm Island. The only way on and off the island are the daily flights to and from Townsville. Teachers who accept a position on the island are on the same salary package as the teachers in Townsville yet face far greater cost of living expenses on the island, as well as significant educational challenges. If we cannot compensate teachers and principals for such sacrifices there is a risk that the great goodwill, that really helps to “fund” such places, will dry up.

Following our investigation and all the usual selection procedures I was offered the position of principal. During the course of the conversation around the job offer, I was advised that in accepting this position the Diocese would look favourably on my application to return to a larger regional school principalship in the near future. This is an important consideration as we knew that one day we would want to return to be nearer to family and to offer our younger sons the opportunity for a Catholic Education in secondary school.

Induction processes for beginning principals in rural communities

And so the journey began. I stepped out of a school where I worked on an executive with the Principal, Religious Education Co-ordinator and co-ordinators. Our decisions were collaborative ones. I stepped into a school where I was the executive (which made for shorter meetings). Added to this was that as we had fewer than 100 students I was also the REC and had a teaching load of 2.5 days per week. A steep learning curve followed, a curve which has been known to overwhelm some beginning principals.

Principal mentoring is such a high priority area. In the diocese where I was a Principal, there were a number of ‘small’ schools with enrolments under 100. A number of these Principal’s prior position included classroom teacher or even part-time teacher. It would be interesting to see how many principals in small country towns are in their first principalship. I would dare to say that most are.

When I became a Principal, it was quite an isolating and lonely job, as it continued to be.

There were calls of support from the Catholic Education Office - visits were few.

Thankfully, my own connections in the Diocese allowed me to set up some informal, mentor-like connections that were perhaps the greatest support of all, along with the advice and support of my wife. As I faced difficult decisions for the first time it was reassuring to sound these off one or two experienced principals who had walked in my shoes a few years before.

But what if I hadn’t had these connections and was an “outsider”. Who would I have found to mentor me then? Some rural dioceses have quite formal principal mentoring programs. The Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn runs a “Principals Development and Support Program” with a particular focus on “First Appointment Principals”. This includes a formal mentoring relationship between the First Appointment Principal and their Peer Principal, along with a Human Resources Officer. A significant part of the Archdiocese is rural with about ten schools having enrolments of less than 100 students.

David Eddy, from the University of Auckland, leads the “First-time Principals Programme” for New Zealand’s Ministry of Education. Under New Zealand’s integrated education system, the Catholic and government schools join together for all professional development, other than that which is specifically “Catholic”. So Catholic school principals take part in the program alongside their government school colleagues.


In 2004, Richard Nott was a first time principal having just taken on the principal’s position at St Peter Chanel, Motueka, on the South Island of New Zealand. The program involved two week-long conferences during the year, one during the Easter holidays and one in the September-October break.

An experienced principal was appointed to Richard and this mentor visited him in his school four times during the year, once each term. The mentor was someone Richard could ring or email to discuss all aspects of leadership but particularly to consult on those difficult issues. While Richard recommended all aspects of the program he indicated that it was the relationship with the mentor that was the most beneficial to him.

He also noted that some other first time principals did not enjoy the same quality of relationship with their mentor as he had with his and so mentor selection and pairing becomes a key issue.

Richard noted that the Catholic Education Office provided some support that complemented this program, particularly looking at the “Catholic Character” of schools and the role of the principal in supporting this.

Our Catholic Education system in Australia allows us to integrate our faith into all aspects of education including leadership. Mentoring programs, such as that run by Canberra-Goulburn can provide an integrated approach to principal development, founded on the principles of true Christian leadership.

Parish priests can be a mentoring resource in rural situations. I was fortunate that the priest in our parish had an education background before entering the priesthood and I valued his friendship and support. Yet priests in the bush are becoming an increasingly endangered species and often will have a big geographical area to cover, with a number of schools. If you do have access to a priest, or if their background is not in education then they can be of little assistance.

Educational leadership issues: staffing; teaching roles; professional development Being principal in a small rural school has several unique challenges. One of these is staffing. In rural Dioceses the “plum” jobs for beginning teachers are those located in the main regional centres. Young teachers can maintain connections with family and friends and continue a busy social and sporting life.

Once these prime teaching positions are appointed applicants are forced to look further afield to more remote centres. As a result they often land positions in small rural schools, which raises a number of issues.

Firstly, these beginning teachers, as they are in small schools, begin their teaching career on a multiage class, sometimes covering a wide range of ages and abilities.

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