Heads they lose! Who'd want to be a principal today?
Running a school has become tougher – with an avalanche of bureaucracy. Damian Corless reports
'I just want to start by saying that I do love my job, and I don't want to come across as a whingebag."
The speaker is Carmel Hume, principal of the Presentation Primary in Dublin's Terenure, and she's reflecting on the fact that the lot of a school head these days is fraught with stress.
Like many principals, Carmel finds she's being yanked in different directions by the demands of the job.
As principal teacher, her job description is to monitor and guide the teaching and learning process, but during her nine years in the post that vocation has become buried under an avalanche of administration duties.
She explains: "I never know what the working day will bring. It could be a distressed parent, blocked toilets, no milk in the fridge, someone looking for a psychologist's report.
"I have 26 teachers who try to keep me focused on the learning and teaching, but things like school maintenance are always taking you away.
"Later today I've a meeting about getting the matting and flooring done. The role of leading the teaching process gets less and less."
Declan Kyne, principal of St Joseph's National School in Rehins, Co Mayo, tells the same story. He says: "I inherited a school in a bad state of disrepair, and I've tried to improve the infrastructure and the teaching, and it's very hard to do both."
Declan points out that while boards of management can have a big input into maintenance and administration, much of the work still falls on the school staff.
He explains: "Board members are volunteers and generally the administration falls on the school leadership team.
"In our case, that's me, my deputy and special-duty teachers. Before, I could assign pastoral and admin duties to people in four special duty posts, but now they've been cut to two. One thing we've had to drop is our Green Flag programme (for eco-friendly pursuits)."
Having spoken to other school heads, Declan believes that "a major revamp of board of management structures" would help redress the admin imbalance. However, instead of helping, he says the Department of Education's policies are making things much worse. He reflects: "Both my parents were teachers so I'm steeped in it, and over the past 40 years I've seen the priority move away from teaching to meeting an ongoing compliance with Departmental paperwork.
"The demands change with each new minister, and every new initiative falls by the wayside when the next initiative comes along. It's got to the point where my teachers are very concerned that their paperwork is being tested rather than the work of their pupils."
Mr Kyne's words are echoed by Sean Cottrell, of the Irish Primary Principals' Network (see In My Opinion facing page), who notes: "Every term there are hundreds of Departmental circulars covering everything from special needs to bullying to filing VAT returns for building work.
"The board only meets four or five times a year, and with the middle layer of admin cut from the schools it all falls back on the principal. The roles of principal teacher and chief administrator are incompatible because they don't have powers of bilocation."
Carmel Hume reels off a long list of forms that must be filled and reports filed, adding: "You try to follow up something or you've a query, but it seems the Department don't answer the phones on certain days of the week.
"They deal with a lot of stuff by email only, which is OK as far as it goes, but meanwhile we're on the front line. I know we're a caring profession, but some days it can be overwhelming."
She elaborates: "We're being cut back left, right and centre. It's hard to have to say to parents 'I'm sorry, but we don't have the resources for this' or 'we've no funding for an SNA (Special Needs Assistant) for your child'."
Sometimes it's the things a principal can't say that's most stressful of all. Carmel explains: "You're always conscious that you're being told things in absolute confidence, by pupils, parents, staff. Sometimes someone will complain to you about someone or something and you can only reply that there's a good reason for that, but I can't tell you what it is.
"Sometimes you have to just take it all in, and you can't spill your guts to anyone. That's the bit I find difficult."
How does she cope?
"You try to do the right thing all the time, but you have to accept there's only so much you can control.
"So you try to have a happy and contented staff, and to make the physical surroundings a happy place to be. You focus on the children. You get great joy from the children."