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Primary boards need an overhaul


Sean Cottrell,Irish Primary Principals' Network

Sean Cottrell,Irish Primary Principals' Network

Sean Cottrell,Irish Primary Principals' Network

Almost 40 years ago, the country's primary schools established boards of management to organise their affairs. Then, no legislation regulated primary education, and the school board reported to the patron who, in almost all cases, was the local bishop.

Since then, about 20 acts of legislation have directly impacted primary schools across legal, financial and human resource areas.

Across the country, 26,000 volunteers manage the country's 3,330 primary schools. The positions are unpaid, requiring no expertise, experience or skill pre-requisites. Each school board has eight volunteers representing parents, teachers and the local community, as well as two nominees of the patron.

Is it fair or even wise to expect volunteers to take employer responsibility for human resources, financial, legal, technological and construction issues that routinely cross their desks?

In the modern work place, each of these areas has its own professionals but volunteers on school boards are expected to pick it up as they go along. Over the past two decades, the Department of Education has devolved almost all responsibility to school boards.

If you factor in declining volunteerism, dwindling school resources, and managing diversity and special needs, it is clear that the current management model is unsustainable.

Most school board members are not aware of the responsibility their role carries. A report carried out in 2011 by IPPN, 'Primary School Governance – Challenges and Opportunities', surveyed 500 schools. It found that half felt boards lacked the required skills.

The absence of any paid professional services to support governance in schools leaves many principals, already experiencing management overload, filling the governance gaps.

The report also finds that the large number of small primary schools, combined with the voluntary nature of boards, leaves many of them struggling to fill positions. While training is available, many feel that it falls far short of what is required.

We need to reform how primary schools are governed. Does every school need its own board? Almost 1,000 schools have three or fewer teachers.

We should acknowledge that the voluntary management efforts of thousands of people over many years have supported our primary schools well. But it is neither practical nor fair that the employment and accountability of staff and the quality of children's learning continue to be devolved.

We need a new paradigm for primary-school governance that reflects our changing society, new legislation affecting schools, the diverse school-going population and a school system that is now more community-based than parish-focused. Education Minister Ruairi Quinn's next step in his reform agenda should be to tackle our outdated primary-school governance structures.

Sean Cottrell is director of the Irish Primary Principals' Network

Irish Independent