WHAT A LOAD OF OLD ROPE – The Fallacies and Pitfalls of NT

What a Load of Old Rope

Once upon a time in the late 1980s, Principals responded to an invitation that they consider becoming contracted. On offer would be dollars, a car and a context of importance. One could even negotiate a mobile phone.

Salary offers seemed huge in terms of quantum leap. Contracts would recognise the importance of “Principalship” and recompense accordingly. These employment agreements with enhanced remuneration would be four years long – what a stretch into the future!!!

Beware the Hidden Agenda

But, with the carrot came non-negotiable positions. Contract Principals would unhinge from the public service with no fall-back position. “Temporary” employees would face “the end-game”: Contracts would be up for renewal — BUT ….

Principal’s cars were not add-ons but leasebacks with salary contribution paying the lease — with “free” fuel card. It was the card that sold the option.

“Temporary Contract Principal’s employer benefits” were paid by employee contributions. So we as temporary officers pay the employer’s contribution to our superannuation: no longer salary plus super but salary minus super. The plus super came from the employer for those who are permanently employed but the super contribution designated as the employer contribution having to come from the employee was really a take! Mind you, it was said that this came as a salary sacrifice item so therefore it was supposed to be good!!

Holidays away!!! Twelve weeks (six on leave and six on stand down) now reduced to five weeks.

It is required that we contracted ones attend compulsory leadership forums and other programs to which we are called. How independent have we become? Temporary employees with no fallback position on contract end-dates?!?

Maybe, we looked from the viewpoint of it being a “good faith thing” believing that relativities would be maintained and that the benefits allegedly negotiated would always remain unaltered. That has not proven to be the case. The relativities between Principals and Assistant Principals in terms of salary parity have narrowed with the obligations by Principals on contract remaining and being increased. Isn’t that all about doing more for less?

There have been changes by stealth: they are radical and un-negotiated. The major one has been the reduction of four-year contracts to 2 years +2 on extension after a substantial review. The parameters around which the review is based are very extensive indeed.

Reassurances on this vexed question are sometimes offered. Are they genuine or pyrrhic? Principal deperchment (potshoting the officer from the tree branch) and positional challenge are alive and well. What principals (temporary employees) feel is insecurity. Keeping a watch over the shoulder becomes a common practice.

There have been a number of instances in the Territory where Principals have been told that they formally satisfied Performance Management criteria, only to be shot down a short time later over matters touted as being about their incompetence or inability.

In Western Australia (and I would believe elsewhere) those in Principals positions retain permanency and a guaranteed baseline salary with extra performance being recognised by Higher Duty or allowance payments. This recognises the jobs they do but from the viewpoint of assured future positional opportunity. What they have is a fallback position which is about substantive, permanent occupancy. When accepting promotions they don’t have to resign permanent Public Sector positions.

In the Northern Territory, those accepting Contract Principal positions are offered two pieces of paper. The first is one by which they are resigned from permanency with the Northern Territory Public Service. The second is their signature on a temporary contract offer.

I believe in hindsight that Northern Territory Principals were geese to “go contract” under such parlous and non-guaranteed circumstances. Yet those who initially engaged probably felt okay because negative consequences (noncontract renewal) would take a fair while to evolve! That’s my theory and I believe that those who involved in the beginning were happy. Others in smaller schools then wanted contracts. Some got them. We have in the wash-up, negotiated and accepted pyrrhic and one-sided outcomes.

With the passing of time, relativities have changed and contractual benefits have been eroded. “Shrinkage” means that the quantum between salaries paid to contract officers versus others has lessened. Further, permanent Public Service people have an award different to that applying to contract persons. Theirs tends to be superior to our award.

Often the contract award is the lesser award in terms of salary quantum and percentage gain. For example Executive Contract Principals at the lower end of contract opportunity (ECP1A) now get less in real terms than Assistant Principals Level Five (ST5) when one factors in the “employer benefit” obligation and holiday entitlements factors. The former position is responsible for the employer’s superannuation contribution and also has an entitlement to seven weeks less leave per year, with the gross salary quotients between the two positions being only around $20,000.

It is true to say that the extrinsic factors of benefit between contract and permanent positions have lessened. At the same time intrinsic rewards (feelings of job satisfaction) have hardly increased.

The Fear Factor

Maybe, Principals were never “Dare to be Daniels”. Maybe they should have spoken out more about issues over the years. However, I can recall when Principals were far more confident when it came to articulating viewpoints genuinely, openly and honestly than is the case these days. Without the shadow of doubt (coming from the observations of an older principal) my colleagues these days speak two languages more frequently than they ever did before.

There is the language of Principals spoken “above the table”. That is a conversation taking place in public forums and around the ears of superordinates. That is the language Principals feel those who hold power in high places want to hear. It is usually about agreement with propositions and acquiescence toward viewpoints that are developed in a downwards direction onto the system from places on a high. In my opinion and based on observation, that is not necessarily a genuine language because it is not the way people really think. It is simply what they think their bosses want to hear.

There is the language of Principals spoken “below the table”. That is conversation which takes place when Principals are speaking privately to each other and is qualified by the fact that some don’t have confidence in others not to “report back to higher authority”. This impediment aside, it is the language school leaders speak that reflects the genuine concerns they feel.

It is true to say that part of the “fear” Principals feel grows from a perception of bullying coming down from above. Part of the dump is about the fact schools become the repository of every bright idea that anybody connected with education has ever had: Bright ideas go nowhere unless they are piloted or trialed – so enter the school.

We need new ideas and developing strategies. Schools also need to be steady state places offering students and teachers predictability. Too much change for the sake of change destabilises organisations and creates disequilibrium. That is a dilemma that confronts schools, with Principals and School Leaders often being a reluctant party, not because they want to but because they have to. School Principals receive e-mails that start off with … “congratulations! Your school has been chosen to participate in … “and the message goes on to talk about something of a new, unknown, untried and untested nature.

When one goes into the background about the reason behind such messages, the discovery is made that people on high and people who are higher again, have made the arrangement for this “school opportunity” to take place. Forget about prior consultation with the school and forget about agreements being reached with the school before formalization of the “opportunity”: That rarely happens! Only occasionally, are schools offered a small carrot by way of a payment of two or three hundred dollars for the time, energy, effort and commitment that will be made by staff to the project.

Principals and Educational Leaders all too often sit on the end of this educational process. Small wonder, that many of us in our schools metaphorically type our children as being guinea pigs, vessels used to test this experimentation. We rarely get to understand the benefits of these “ideas” to the creators. Feedback is scarce. However, it would not surprise me at all to learn about Masters Degrees and Doctorates emanating from these practices. Rarely, does the school gain any benefit from what has happened and quite often (in fact more often than not) you don’t hear anything about the outcomes of the study in which you have been “engaged”.

In this context principals and teachers don’t want for nothing to change, because if that were the case stagnation would quickly follow. However, there does need to be dialogue and meaningful engagement around ideas that are being floated when consideration of the way forward is under the microscope.

Bullying

While the above and below table conversations have been part of the Principal Psychology for many years, there now seems to be a magnification around this double conversational practice brought on by a perception of Principals becoming a Bullied Class. School Leaders are more and more being told how it will be, that is the way it will be, that’s why you will do it, these are the outcomes you will cause to happen and so on. There is often not much conversation about any of this — rather, command and demand filtering down from above through e-mail (rather than by conversational) awareness. My belief is that School Leaders find this to be a very de-humanising approach to information dissemination.

Temporary positioning, lack of permanent status and those insecurities outlined above are exacerbated by systemic tendency to command by whip-cracking.

In this context principals feel that trustfulness is departing and formal accountability requirements are magnified. This is hardly a context that will build toward a healthy educational system.

Concluding Thoughts

I know that it is easy to look at the past through “rose coloured glasses”. There is always a danger that as one looks back one will see things in hindsight more positively than issues were viewed at the time they were contemporary. To this end people rely a little on memory and hope that perception (how one feels things were at the time) doesn’t obfuscate fact (how things were at that time).

Nevertheless, it often seems that we go in circles coming back to a starting point going round, and coming back to where we started from in the first place. I have read that if in terms of the journey one traverses in a way that causes him or her to come back to where they started, that they are actually lost. I wonder sometimes if we haven’t become more than a little lost within our system. We revisit many things, models of operation we have been to and over through and around before — before coming back to where we started!

In the Northern Territory, our revisitation to regionalisation as an operational model is on the third occasion of return since the 1970s. The systems within regionalisation that did not work before are not really being looked at as we re-approach the model.
The major issue has always been the willingness of people who are regionalised to live within the region they are serving. Then, there is the issue of travel costs and invariably budgets are quickly exceeded. Then come statements to the effect of support being offered from the distance rather than being provided on the ground.

There may be an advantage in regionalisation this time round from the viewpoint of distance provision because of technological advances and communication online making separated contact more meaningful than in the past. However, this is largely untried and has yet to be assessed.

What hasn’t changed in my opinion is any lessening of the divide between schools and the corporate sector of our Department. In educational terms there continue to be “two worlds”. That separation is in part a result of systemic dysfunction arising from the way which things have evolved over the years. The concerns raised above while perceptual and anecdotal are not singularized to me alone. While good things do happen educationally with fine Territorian’s developing up the grades and through the years, these underpinning antecedents are diminuting and system weakening.

Henry Gray

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