The Pressure Cooker : Australian Education

metal pipes plumbing pressure
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Introduction from forthcoming publication: The Principal’s Scorecard: Friend Foe or Frenemy

At both a macro and micro level, the Australian educational landscape, is a pressure cooker of comparison and competition. At the macro level Australian policy makers compare student performance results with international jurisdictions through testing instruments implemented by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Gorur & Wu, 2014; Baroutsis & Lingard, 2016). Policy makers analyse the ‘high performing’ jurisdictions searching for their magical ingredient (Sellar & Lingard, 2013). As experienced in Australian school systems the ingredient in turn may be adopted and mandated (Harrison, 2008). State and territory governments also create their own regulated recipes for their school systems. In Australian jurisdictions performance results (from National Assessment Plan Literacy and Numeracy – NAPLAN) along with exit results can be publicly compared and ranked whereby schools are judged as worthy or unworthy (Thompson & Tomaz, 2011). At the micro level, to sustain funding by securing enrolments, principals and their school systems, market these results. Within this cooker of comparing, marketing and commodifying young peoples’ performance results, principals need to make decisions, often of an ethical nature.

Making decisions is fraught in these comparative cultures of performativity for any educational leader (Perryman, 2006; 2009). There are challenges for Australian principals when these external demands continue to drive for improved student performance  (Duignan, Burford, d’Arbon, Ikin, & Walsh, 2003; Ehrich, Harris, Klenowski, Smeed, & Spina, 2015). The leadership challenge positions principals in the centre of reforms (Gawlik, 2015; Volante, 2012) which calls for an analysis of leaders’ internal processes (Brezicha et al., 2015; Clifford et al, 2012), notably how they resolve external demands with their internal school commitments (Louis & Robinson, 2012). More so than in any time in Australian educational history a principal’s agency in producing successful student performances is public and understandably is highly accountable (Boies & Fiset, 2018; Robinson, 2011; Sun & Leithwood, 2017).

Defining Performance-Based Accountability

Our leaders should be held accountable! Our results should be better – if only teachers would be more accountable! Common cries as the soft power of the OECD creeps into our psyche. However, as educators we are not necessarily clear when we speak of accountability.

Stobart (2008) posits that ‘we are so familiar with accountability in many spheres of life that it is hardly defined’ (p. 117). His notes reviewed Herman and Haertel’s Uses and misuse of data for educational accountability and improvement (2005), finding no single formal definition of accountability, therefore ‘assuming we know what it is’ (Stobart, 2008, p. 193).

This blog goes some way in bringing clarity to the term. It settles on a definition for performance-based accountability in the context of Australian education. Speaking plainly this is the accountability for performance results from external assessment programs such as NAPLAN and Year 12 exit instruments. The definition presented here is deliberately specific avoiding general terms such as educational accountability. In Australia, educational accountability may include a multitude of accountabilities such as bureaucratic and market accountabilities or work, health and safety accountabilities. Given that a readily formed definition of educational accountability is obscure (see inset: Stobart, 2008) definitions in other spheres are explored. For this blog several definitions of accountability are analysed and synthesised into five key concepts, to form a usable definition which can be framed in educational terms.

The economic sector defines accountability as the obligation to provide information so that people can make informed judgements about the performance and financial position of an organisation (Halligan, 2007). In a corporate governance context, Huse (2005) defines accountability as defending one’s reasons for actions and supplying normative grounds by which they may be justified. Within a legal context, Bovens (2007) defines accountability as a ‘relationship between the actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgement and the actor may face consequences’ (Bovens, 2007a, p. 450).

Gray’s (2002) definition in a social context, similar to that of Bovens (2007), is clear about the persons involved and the consequences that are to be faced. Accountability is explained in terms of individuals and organisations presenting an account of the actions for which society holds them responsible (Gray, 2002). Kuchapski’s (2001) definition, from a political context, specifically identified consequences as ‘redress’, defining accountability as those in office providing information, justifying and explaining and providing redress to the people. Coghill et al. (2006), in the economic context, similar to Gray (2002), included the notion of relationship in the sense of ‘direct authority’, defining accountability as the ‘direct authority relationship within which one party accounts to a person or body for the performance of tasks or functions conferred, or able to be conferred, by that person or body’ (Coghill et al., 2006, p. 457). In the educational context, the definitions are less specific, explaining accountability as the processes involved in meeting goals (Leithwood & Earl, 2000) or as regulations for measuring educational outputs (Rowe, 2005).

Five key ideas from this initial sample of definitions that were deemed useful for this study were drawn from Bovens (2007) and Kuchapski (2001): (a) disclosure, making information known (Kuchapski, 2001); (b) transparency, providing clarity about the disclosed information and ensuring that this information makes sense to those receiving the information (Kuchapski, 2001); (c) consequences from the information disclosed, with some form of redress or appropriate action able to be taken from the disclosed information (Bovens, 2007; Kuchapski, 2001); (d) being obliged to explain and justify the information (Bovens, 2007); and (e) the notion of relationship between the person being held accountable and their constituency (Bovens, 2007a).

These five understandings underpin the following definition of accountability, which works as a platform for settling on a definition:

Accountability is a relationship between a person who is held responsible for the delivery of certain outcomes (the actor) and the individuals and organisations from whom they receive their mandate for those outcomes. This relationship requires that the actor behaves transparently and discloses, explains and justifies their conduct and its outcomes in the area of the mandate, with the expectation that there will be consequences contingent on these.

The following definition now aligns the above definition through the educational lens. The definition situates the principal in the role of the actor, with the School system leaders as the mandating authorities for the Government.

Performance-based accountability is a relationship between the principal (person) who is held responsible for the delivery of favourable[1] performance results from external assessment programs (certain outcomes) and the School system (individuals or organisations) from whom they receive their expectations (outcomes). This relationship requires that the principal (actor) behaves transparently and discloses, explains and justifies their ways of accounting for the performance results (conduct and its outcomes) in the area of the mandate, with the expectation that there will be consequences contingent on these.

Figure 1: Key elements of performance-based accountability

Key elements of defn


The principal, with educators, are the persons who act with responsibility to another. In other words, the accountability relationship is a responsibility relationship. The principal’s and educator’s role in the accountability relationship can be defined as being obliged to be transparent, to disclose and justify their performance results to their performance results to their communities (parents, students, and state and federal authorities). In their accountability relationship, principals (as in the economic and political sectors) are accounting in different directions: to the government or school system, to parents and students, and to teachers. Essential in the relationship is the element of redress. If there is no evidence of redress, even if intentional, the view maybe interpreted that there has been ‘no accountability’.


Bovens, M. (2007). Analysing and assessing accountability: A conceptual framework. European Law Journal, 13(4), 447–468.

Coghill, K., Crawford, D., Cunliffe, I., Grant, B., Hodge, G., Hughes, &  Zifcak, S. (2006). Why accountability must be renewed: Discussion paper on reform of Government accountability in Australia [Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians (7th: 2006: Wroxton College, Oxfordshire).]. Australasian Parliamentary Review, 21(2), 10–48.

Gray, R. (2002). Thirty years of social accounting, reporting and auditing: What (if anything) have we learnt? Business Ethics: A European Review, 10(1), 9–15.

Halligan, J. (2007). Accountability in Australia: Control, paradox, and complexity. Public Administration Quarterly, 31(4), 453–479.

Huse, M. (2005). Accountability and creating accountability: A framework for exploring behavioural perspectives of corporate governance. British Journal of Management, 16, S65–S79.

Kuchapski, R. (2001). Conceptualizing accountability in education (SSTA Research Centre report). Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan.

Leithwood, K., & Earl, L. (2000). Educational Accountability Effects: An International Perspective. Peabody Journal of Education 75(4), 1–18.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2016). OECD better policies for better lives. Retrieved from

Rowe, K. (2005, August). Evidence for the kinds of feedback data that support both student and teacher learning. Paper presented at the The Australian Council for Educational Research 2005 Conference, Melbourne, VIC.

Stobart, G. (2008). Testing times: The uses and abuses of assessment. New York, NY: Routledge.


[1] As this blog is situated in principals’ understandings of accountability the meaning of ‘favourable’ is determined by the principal. Hence, favourability is a useful term to describe performance results, rather than high, mid or low results.


Thesis title: From metaphors to mantras – principals making sense of and integrating accountbaility expectations: a grounded theoretical model

System-wide assessment programs such as NAPLAN are introduced to determine the value added by schools towards student learning. This study investigates how secondary school principals in NSW accommodate the testing-based accountability within their views of learning. The findings indicate that these Principals accept the notion of school accountability though they reject reducing learning to a single score. They do not believe that test scored are adequate measures of student leanirng. The study offers a deep insight into the thinking of these Principals as they accommodate between their beliefs about learning and the demands of assessment regimes.

Judith Norris EdD (Conferred April, 2018)

Threads, bricoleurs, leadership and leaders

Having a blog that just posts about everything and anything about educational leadership probably is far too broad, not useful for anyone and results in a huge time drain. The is about the interior world of educational leaders. By education we are meaning school settings. This blog may be of interest to the practitioner leader such as principals, assistant principals, coordinators and teacher leaders along with students from masters programs of educational leadership, management and administration.
The content  of this blog privileges the psycho social processes of educational leaders. By ‘psycho’ processes we mean the way a leader individually constructs meaning of events and experiences – through cognition i.e. speech acts, feelings and moods and body (Sieler, 2015). With regard to ‘socio’ processes we mean how leaders construct meaning in social relationships with and through others – again this co construction may be through cognition, mood and body (Fairhurst & Grant, 2010). Such psycho social processes contribute to educational leaders’ professional identities. While teacher identity is a common and essential emphasis in initial teacher education programs little has been researched about the educational leader’s or principal’s professional identity (Danielewicz, 2014). Moreover there is a paucity of research about the internal world of educational leaders in a general sense. As external pressures press down on leaders it raises the question to what extent these pressures influence leaders’ own sensemaking, carving out educational leaders’ identities and inducing enactments – such as how leaders build coherence in their learning communities from such pressures.
The purpose of this blog is to connect and weave others thoughts together about this particular aspect about educational leadership – hence the namesake of the blog which is borrowed from the Chinese proverb: ‘The invisible red thread connects those irrespective of circumstance or place. The thread may stretch or tangle but will never break’ (author unknown). Resembling the red thread, this blog may expand to other knowledge areas, our thread may become interwoven and on occasion dormant however the blog will endure. However the goes further than connecting it weaves ideas, concepts and theories. I draw on Jill Koyama’s (2014) metaphor of the educational leader. In Jill’s research the principal is the bricoleur. She situates the bricoleur within the actor-network theory. The bricoleur within the assemblage aligns with the ANT by focusing analytic attention on disparate members and practices to form dynamic associations (Koyama, 2014). In this sense, we can equate the blogger as the bricoleur weaving ideas together to form a bricolage. The bricolage is the construction of an array or diverse range of thoughts, often what just happens to comes to hand or available at the time (Thesaurus).
Those who study, research and practice leadership undisputedly would argue that there is a plethora of meanings, theories and adjectives about leadership However, for this blog and the blogger defining terms may be helpful – even if for provocative purposes. To establish this platform I would like to make several comments about the term itself. First, the concept of leadership can be broader than, yet at the same time can be inclusive of, the concept of leader. Second, leadership may be referred to as a noun, an adjective as well as a verb. As a noun leadership could be referring to a position – for example the leadership of the organisation ‘the leadership of this school community is awe inspiring’. As an adjective it may describe the person or team – for example the leadership team. As a verb leadership may be referred to as the enactments of the ‘doing’ – for example a reasonable ‘doing’ of leadership could be mobilising or influencing.
There are several reasons for privileging the verb idea. The first is that leadership as a verb diminishes the seduction of narrowing leadership to a hierarchical position. The second reason is that leadership could belong to the ‘doing’ between and with people. The third is that conceptualising leadership as a verb frees us from possible binary thinking, such as ‘leading or managing’ (Bloxham, Ehrich, & Iyer, 2015) or between ‘transforming or transacting’ (Jung & Avolio, 2000).
Let’s apply the verb concept to the mobilising and influencing idea of leadership. While mobilising has various meanings when referring to leadership it could also be likened to, yet not limited to, managing or organising. Importantly mobilising connotes moving from one position to another. Influencing could include meanings of, yet also not limited to, persuading, transforming or empowering. If we continue thinking that leadership being enacted between and with people it can be viewed as a relationship. If we add to the recipe the reasonable notion that leadership is mobilising and influencing we could say that leadership is a mobilising and influencing relationship. This definition holds elements of similarity with Patrick Duignan’s ideas (2008; 2015) where he describes leadership as an ‘influence relationship’ and Branson, Franken, and Penney (2016 in Press) who examine the relationships of middle leaders as up and down – notably a trans relational approach of middle leaders. Eacott (2015) examines leadership relationally yet in my interpretation Eacott’s conceptualisation is as distinct from or different lens to Duignan and Branson, Franken and Penny.
To this point this discussion has led to our thinking of leadership as a verb with a certain mission – one of mobilising – one point or positon to another point or position and one of influencing. Mobilising and influencing is in the context of between and/or with people. Hopefully you will find this a useful orientation for engaging in the One other area however that requires deliberation is the educational bit of the leadership. Education can be quite a broad term. We leave such definitions to the blogger to describe their context of education or educational.

Bloxham, R., Ehrich, L. C., & Iyer, R. (2015). Leading or managing? Assistant Regional Directors, School Performance, in Queensland. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(3), 354-373.
Branson, C. M., Franken, M., & Penney, D. (2016 in Press). Reconceptualsing middle leadership in higher education: A transrelational approach. In J. McNiff (Ed.), Values and Virtues in higher educaiton: Critical perspectives. Abington, Oxon: Rutledge.
Danielewicz, J. (2014). Teaching selves: Identity, pedagogy, and teacher education: SUNY Press.
Duignan, P. (2008). Leadership: Influencing Relationships and Authentic Presence: Centre for Strategic Education.
Duignan, P. (2015). Authenticity in educational leadership: History, ideal, reality. Leading and Managing, 21(1), 1.
Eacott, S. (2015). Educational leadership relationally: a theory and methodology for educational leadership, management and administration: Springer.
Fairhurst, G. T., & Grant, D. (2010). The social construction of leadership: A sailing guide. Management Communication Quarterly, 24(2), 171-210.
Jung, D. I., & Avolio, B. J. (2000). Opening the black box: An experimental investigation of the mediating effects of trust and value congruence on transformational and transactional leadership. Journal of organizational Behavior, 21(8), 949-964.
Koyama, J. (2014). Principals as Bricoleurs Making Sense and Making Do in an Era of Accountability. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(2), 279-304.
Sieler, A. (2015). Ontology: A Theoretical Basis for Coaching, from