Wednesday 29 March 2017

It's tough at the top -- why schools can't get a head

Primary teachers can't see the point of becoming principal

Picture posed
Picture posed

It is the job that few people seem to want. Irish primary schools are finding it increasingly difficult to find principals.

Longer working hours, increased bureaucracy and poor rewards are thought to be the main causes of the poor take-up of jobs.

Principals have stepped down at one quarter of all Irish primary schools over the past two years, and boards of management are now struggling to fill the positions.

"A few years ago a school could expect an average of five or six applicants for a principal's job,'' said Sean Cottrell, Director of the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN). "Now some schools are lucky if they get two applicants, and posts are remaining unfilled.''

Under the current system there may be little incentive for a rank-and-file teacher to become a head.

After 10 years, an ordinary teacher in a small primary school would be earning €46,000 per annum.

The working hours are relatively short and the holidays are very generous.

If the teacher took on the post of principal, he or she would earn an extra allowance of less than €10,000, and it could be less if they already have a post of responsibility.

But for that extra money they are likely to be taking on an enormous extra work load, particularly in a small school.

'In a small school the principal also has to work as a teacher,'' says INTO spokesman Peter Mullan. "So once the teaching day is over they have to do all the administration of the school and get involved in such things as upkeep of the building.

"When you consider the responsibility of the job, it is not that well rewarded. Principals were supposed to get more money under benchmarking, but they never got it.''

Many senior teachers who might be considered natural candidates to be heads are not prepared to make the sacrifices for the additional allowances.

"Poor level of remuneration is not the only reason why teachers are shunning the role of principal," says Mr Cottrell.

"Research shows that most teachers aspire to the position because they want to make a real difference to children's lives.

"However, constraints such as lack of autonomy, the dual role of teacher and manager, volume of legislation and a huge increase in workload are making this once sought-after position highly unattractive.''

The sheer volume of bureaucracy is believed to be one of the deterrents stopping teachers from rising to the top.

"There is now a huge amount of centralised control of school principals,'' says Mr Cottrell. "They have to deal with many directives from the Department of Education, and that requires a lot of time."

As well as the upkeep of buildings and fundraising, principals have to comply with a raft of legislation and directives frequently connected with health and safety.

"Primary schools are in danger of being strangled by bureaucracy,'' says Mr Cottrell. "In the last few years there have been up to 20 pieces of legislation that principals have to comply with.

'Developments such as the appointment of special needs assistants have been very positive in education, but this area also requires extra administration.''

In the last six months, 15 schools needed to advertise for a principal at least twice in a bid to fill the jobs.

Schools in Kerry, Clare and Galway have recently advertised vacancies for a third time, because they could not find suitable candidates.

Boards of management are finding it increasingly difficult to attract high-calibre replacements.

The demands of family life may also be curbing the aspirations of teachers, according to one principal. With women now dominating the profession at primary level there may be fewer applicants willing to give up their time for relatively meagre rewards.

There is, however, a solution to this problem, according to IPPN president Pat Goff: "The Department of Education should move to create a seven-year contract for primary school principals with an option to renew, pending satisfactory performance.

"This will lead to a greater level of interest among teachers, as it will dispel the notion that becoming a principal is the beginning of a lifelong sentence.''

Under the present system, principals may find it difficult to step aside, because if they become an ordinary teacher again they are immediately at the bottom of the pecking order.

Irish Independent

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