It sounded like the headline for a page-one story: Principal faces death threat after sacking 15 teachers.

Did Karen Money really receive death threats two years ago when she took up her first principal appointment at William Ruthven Secondary College in Reservoir? The college had been created from a deeply contentious forced merger of the former Merrilands College and Lakeside Secondary College after each experienced sharp falls in enrolments that had left them unsustainable – and with 15 teachers too many. Adding to the resentment was that Lakeside had more than twice as many students and staff, yet they were all “decanted” onto the Merrilands site.

As Mrs Money was explaining how both schools were over-staffed, I thought I heard her say she’d faced a death threat.

Not so! As the new head of the merged college, she actually said she’d faced a deficit.

Oops.

“To take on a new school like this, however, was frightening,” she says. “I was conscious of the troublesome nature of the merger, but students are at the centre of my work and I resented that the system had let them down in terms of the classrooms they were forced to learn in and the under-performing teachers. The deficit was $1.2 million – in an annual budget of $5 million – and that meant 15 teachers had to be declared in excess.”

Mrs Money has a degree in English and politics from Sydney University and a master’s in school leadership from Melbourne. Yet, as she says, any teacher in Victoria can become a state school principal – the only qualification required is a degree in education, and registration by the Victorian Institute for Teaching.

She is convinced now, though, that no university course can fully prepare a new principal to take charge of a school. Only by filling the role does a person learn how to tackle the multitude of daily tasks, including coping with recalcitrant students, disputatious parents and underperforming teachers.

An Education Department policy document notes that “of all the factors that impact on student learning, a principal’s leadership is second only to the influence of classroom instruction”.

Frank Sal, president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, says many countries require prospective principals to complete pre-accreditation courses and then are provided ongoing support “significantly beyond anything we have in Victoria”.

“School leaders in many overseas systems are recognised as pivotal to the outcomes of schools and to the development of education directions,” Mr Sal says. “We have a long way to go before state school principals here believe they have the support of government or that their views are appropriately influential in education planning.”

Gabrielle Leigh, his counterpart at the primary Victorian Principals Association, says newly appointed and acting principals have become increasingly vocal about the need for induction programs and ongoing support to help them cope with the “very diverse and pressured role of principal”.

The two associations run leadership courses and have experienced consultants to help new principals manage the demands of the job. Mrs Leigh says the department could do more to support them and dispel the notion that “you are left on your own to survive”.

For Mrs Money, telling nearly a third of the new college’s staff they would have to find jobs elsewhere was hardly a morale-booster, but that was only one of the challenges she’s had to confront. William Ruthven College, named after a World War I Victoria Cross winner and Reservoir-born member of Parliament, is in a low socio-economic, multicultural community of at least 45 nationalities. Nearly half the college’s students are from non-English-speaking families, many of whom speak Arabic at home.

But having spent 11 months as a project leader overseeing the merger of four schools in Heidelberg, Mrs Money knew how a sense of ownership and belonging among students and teachers dumped into a new school could be achieved.

Building a new language centre on the Merrilands site, and refurbishing the gymnasium and music and drama rooms made a big difference, as did the adoption of an innovative inquiry curriculum, along with greater emphasis on student literacy and numeracy.

“All the students are now in uniforms and they look terrific; the parents are happier and they feel the school is more orderly, that their kids are safe,” Mrs Money says. “The students also see it as a better place than it was two years ago, and the teachers say the kids are talking more about their learning than the politics of the merger.”

Problems, however, remain: to persuade the two former school communities to accept a merger, the then Labor government promised $17 million to upgrade the Merrilands site as part of a stage 2 and 3 development. But when the Baillieu government won the 2010 election, that promise was abandoned and Mrs Money says students are still being taught in 50-year-old classrooms.

“I had to make sure the students got the best teaching we could provide, so we did a lot of work around performance development of the teachers, getting them all to adopt the same teaching and learning model, with a lot of coaching to achieve consistency of practice from classroom to classroom,” she says. “I knew the change process would be hard, and that you have to bring people along with you, but sometimes the principal has to make tough decisions so I had to put on the armour each morning.

“Behind the scenes, though, I have a great family – a husband and four kids who are my personal support network,” she says.

Two years on and the change at William Ruthven has been substantial, with marked improvements in the year 12 results and in the NAPLAN tests for years 7 and 9. A remarkable 93 per cent of last year’s VCE students went on to university or TAFE, and the rest found jobs.

Old school ties

According to state Education Department statistics, more than three in every four of Victoria’s 1531 school principals are aged over 50, and more than 16 per cent are in their 60s. This suggests Victoria could be facing a serious shortfall in school principals in the next five to 10 years, although a departmental spokeswoman says this is not the case.

“Based on current workforce predictions, it is not expected there will be an overall shortage of applicants for principal vacancies. Whenever a principal or assistant principal position is advertised, an average of 7.9 and 12.3 people apply, respectively,” she says.

The Victorian Principals Association’s Gabrielle Leigh, however, says many more people apply online for jobs than end up being interviewed by school selection panels, and that the number of actual applicants averages three to five.

Also, schools often have to re-advertise several times to attract “the right candidate”, she says.

The VASSP’s Frank Sal says the department has created “executive principal class” positions with higher pay and benefits – indicating its chiefs have realised becoming a principal is not sufficiently attractive to teachers, at least for certain schools or locations.

According to an investigation by three researchers into the declining supply of principals in Victoria and South Australia in 2005, there was consistent evidence that significant numbers of teachers “are deterred by the modern principalship”. A report of the study says the numbers of applicants for principal positions had fallen and that many young teachers leave education within five to 10 years rather than staying in the system, “because that is the modern way of life. This is, perhaps, the most serious aspect of the supply issue.”