The best job in the world…with some of the worst days imaginable

Chris Presland was recently announced as the new president of the NSW Secondary Principals Council (NSWSPC). He takes over from Lila Mularczyk, who had held the position since 2012.
Presland, who was principal of St Clair High School for the past eight years, said the biggest challenge in his new role would be to maintain the positive momentum that’s been operating in NSW since Minister of Education, Adrian Piccoli, was appointed.
“What we’re seeing in this state is a fairly unique blend of a very proactive Minister, a bureaucracy and our principals associations being on the same page. That doesn’t often happen,” he said, adding there was a “determined attitude” from those three sectors to work closely together.
“The NSW Teachers Federation has also been very positive in the way they’ve engaged with the educational reforms. We want to maintain our capacity as an organisation to contribute in such a positive fashion to that partnership.”
Presland said the NSW public education system was one of the “most highly regarded education systems nationally and internationally”.

“Key researchers and education gurus in other countries – particularly from within the OECD – talk about our state’s education system in glowing terms,” he said.

However, Presland added that discussions around “an alleged decline in school performance” had only served to distract from the great work the state’s schools were doing.

“When you talk about things like PISA, people get so hung up on the so-called decline in school performance. However, the declining performance that people are talking about is not the performance of our schools – it’s the declining performance in a literacy and numeracy tests,” he said.

“Prominent researchers such as Michael Fuller and Nancy Hargreaves tell us that we shouldn’t be trying to copy systems like the US and UK when the Australian system is the envy of the world.”

He added this was particularly interesting as the PISA rankings of those two countries were “way behind” Australia.

“Most importantly, our system is a huge system which takes all-comers, and I see this as a key strength. NSW takes pride in being a public education system.”

Major HSC overhaul necessary

Presland said there had been broad support from within the NSWSPC to the overhaul of the HSC, which was announced yesterday.

“The HSC is highly regarded, but having said that, we can always refresh it, sharpen it and make it more responsive, which was what the latest changes are about,” he said.

“The move to put maths on a common scale was certainly a no brainer. Similarly, the introduction of a science extension course is a great step forward.”

He said that the proposed changes to literacy and numeracy standards may be a challenge to roll out, but saw them as a step in the right direction.

“It will be interesting to see how this gets implemented, but there will be some positives to that too. For some kids, it’ll give things like NAPLAN more purpose, and reasons to do well in those exams,” he said.

Biggest challenges for NSW principals in 2017

Presland said that the biggest challenge he envisions for principals heading into next year was much greater pressure in terms of accountability and the managerial side of leading a school.

“In the era of Local Schools Local Decisions (LSLD) in NSW, there is certainly increased capacity and increased flexibility at the school level, but with that comes additional responsibility,” he cautioned.

He said some principals feel that the managerial responsibilities of the job are pulling them away from pedagogical leadership.

“Personally, I don’t see that in my role, but I know that many principals do. There is certainly no argument that principals are expected to lead and manage a much broader range of responsibility than when I first started as a principal 16 years ago.”

Presland said the title of a 2007 report – ‘The best job in the world, with some of the worst days imaginable’ – “perfectly encapsulated the challenge of principalship”.

“It is an incredibly stressful job and there is no hiding from any number of things that can happen, but it really is a brilliant job. There is no other place where someone can enjoy a greater level of autonomy than as a principal in a NSW school,” he said.

The job of principal needs to be ‘talked up’

As rising levels of burnout and stress cause many educators to shy away from the job of principal, there are questions about how to make the role more appealing.

According to Presland, the job needs to be talked up so that aspiring principals are not too focused on the negative aspects of the role.

“We need to talk the role up. It is a hard job, but it’s also a fantastic job. We need to constantly tell our aspiring principals to see the upsides of the job.

“Beyond that, there are some practical things that can be done, and that is built around the way aspiring principals are being prepared for the role.”

Presland referred to the work being done by the Education Department in delivering principal preparation programs.

“The role that the principals associations play in supporting the department in those roles is extensive. As an association, we have a direct role with the department in developing and delivering programs and materials for our aspiring principals – and I think that’s a huge advantage,” he said.

Presland added that there is only one point in the entire education system where “all duties come together and meet at a single point” – the job of principal.

“If you stop and think about it, the people working in OH&S, curriculum development and finance are all important people and experts in their fields, but there is only one point where all of those fields meet – and that’s at the point of principalship,” he said.

“Thankfully, our state’s education department understands that.”
Presland’s appointment is for an initial term of two years.