International Confederation of Principals

Challenges of School Management - Sean Cottrell (IPPN Director)

 At the 2008 Conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network, Sean Cottrell, the IPPN Director, delivered a paper on the problems facing Principals in Ireland today. The paper was published in Leadership+, the IPPN newsletter, in March 2008, and it is reproduced here with the kind permission of the IPPN. We hope that you find it a useful description of the problems of school leadership and of the ways that Ireland and the IPPN is working to help school leaders overcome these problems.

In the paper, Sean discusses issues such as school governance, performance management, salary benchmarking, inclusion, and health and safety and self-care. He concludes by saying:

Let there be no doubt.

  • Principals relish change... if it makes things better.
  • Principals see children… not race or religion.
  • Principals are leaders... and will be heard.

Never has it been so important that the authentic voice of Principals be heard.

It is very significant that half of our 800 colleagues present at the conference were Teaching Principals. This is due in no small measure to the provision, for the first time, of 2 days substitute cover for the IPPN Conference. Minister, I want to thank you for making this happen.

I'd like to address school governance from the respective of leadership and management. The current BoM structure was designed back in 1975. More than a dozen Acts of legislation have impacted on schools since. In addition, School Development Planning, the Revised Curriculum, the inclusion of children with Special Education needs, newcomer children, DEIS and the Welfare Board, have all added their own incremental changes. My question is … can a management system established in 1975 meet the management needs of schools in 2008?

It has been said that Governance is about doing the right things and Management is about doing things right. I would argue that the priority of a school board should be governance. I say this also, because it neither has the core competencies nor the capacity to deliver a management function. Management cannot be delivered by remote control. In reality, it is the Principal who manages the school. Boards, or whatever we choose to call them, should be engaged in strategic planning, policy development and setting goals. Of course, such a model could only work if Principals are provided with skilled administrative support. Equally, professional services in the key areas of Finance, Human Resources, Health and Safety, Construction and Legal matters must be accessible to Principals and Chairpersons on a needs basis.

Our research shows that many Principals have a challenging relationship with their Boards of Management.

It is also fair to say that most Boards do not understand where their role finishes and the Principal’s role begins.

My concern is that, unless professional management services are provided on a needs basis, new governance structures will be no more effective than the current Boards.

In the longer term, for any new structure to be effective, the Department and management bodies must provide Boards with:

  1. absolute clarity about individual and collective roles.
  2. meaningful training.
  3. procedures to address internal board conflict.
  4. department employed full-time administrators.
  5. payment for out-of-pocket expenses for board members.

We must insist that our schools are given proper management capacity so we can return to our core responsibility – the leadership of teaching and learning.

Three years ago, with an eye to the future, IPPN made these points as part of our submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science. We have also undertaken a significant research project on school governance, lead by Caoimhe

In 2005, IPPN publicly stated that the issue of under-performing teachers and Principals needed to be acknowledged and workable procedures put in place.

I am actually not comfortable with the term 'performance management'. Teaching and learning is not a ‘performance’, it’s about the relationship of trust and confidence between the teacher, the child and the parent. Every Principal wants the best for every child and undoubtedly has a key role when it comes to the quality of teaching and learning.

We must also acknowledge that a small number of teachers do ‘under-perform’. Those that Can’t do their job – a competence issue; those who Won’t do their job - and those who Won’t let others do - which are behavioural matters.

Problems with under-performing teachers impact directly on children, other teachers and on Principals. For decades, the system has continuously failed Principals when they try to address under-performance.

The Department seems to be steadily shifting responsibility from themselves, the Inspectorate and the Board of Management, to Principals. This is despite the fact that, due to outdated thinking…, IPPN has not been professionally consulted in relation to these new procedures - procedures which cannot and will not work unless Principals are on board. It is totally unacceptable… that a Principals’ Professional Body… is not formally consulted… about such a key issue…

Addressing under-performance effectively can only be achieved by putting in place robust and realistic procedures where there are clear agreed roles for the Principal, the Inspector and the BoM. Of course, Performance Management applies
to Principals too! But who will monitor and assess Principals?

A properly-researched, professional submission was made by IPPN on your behalf to the Benchmarking Body in 2006. While the goal of a separate salary scale for Principals must wait for another day, it must be said that some progress
has been made.

It was unprecedented that one role – the Primary Principal – was singled out as deserving of a salary increase, albeit a very modest increase of between 1.7 and 3.9%.

The persistent highlighting by IPPN of the recruitment and retention crisis in Principalship proved to be a critical factor as it was one of the key criteria used by the Benchmarking Body in prioritising awards.

A separate salary scale for Principals is the only viable long-term solution to address recruitment and retention problems as it will encourage teachers to seek promotion through the grades and create a steady stream of future leaders. This is particularly important in the case of Teaching Principals.

The much-promised parity with second-level Principals was not achieved. According to the Benchmarking Body, only secondary schools have more than 36 teachers... and furthermore, the role of the Post-Primary Principal is ‘more demanding’ than ours!...

I wonder how many consultants it took to make such a blatant benchmarking blunder?

The Department has never had greater expectations of schools and school leaders, never had more tools of assessment of teaching and learning, never had greater emphasis on inclusion and integration.

Minister…we need to learn from other high performing education systems worldwide and see how they have successfully used salary structures to incentivise teachers towards school leadership.

The majority of Principals have displayed exemplary commitment towards including the vulnerable, be they children with special needs, Traveller children, the New Irish, or the exceptionally able. Yet when Principals call for greater resourcing for Inclusion, it is disheartening to hear the same mantra over and over again about the number of SNA's and LST's that have been put into schools at great expense. The tone of this message seems to imply that Principals and Teachers should feel guilty for this extra cost burden.

How can such a critical service as NEPS be delivered on a quota basis like war-time rations and, in some cases, withdrawn arbitrarily?.... Few people outside of schools understand the real impact that mainstreaming of children with Special Needs has had on schools during the last 10 years. The level of change introduced to classrooms in terms of children’s’ learning,
behavioral and language needs, has been unprecedented. The absence of a meaningful reduction in class numbers to balance the increased need of some children means one thing for certain: the child in the mainstream suffers. Perhaps this truth will not be recognized until some day the parents of such a child will successfully sue the State for neglect.

Principals want successful Inclusion. To make it happen, we need access to services for all the children in our care, not just those who fit into predefined categories. In addition to the psychological services provided by NEPS, there is a pressing need for clinical psychologists, child psychiatrists, language therapists, counsellors and translators.

Our population is growing rapidly but over 99% of the children who enroll in our primary schools are born in Ireland and are kind enough to give us 4 years to plan for their education.

We have a moral duty to include all children in our schools which is why IPPN congratulates Archbishop Martin and the Boards of Management of St. Patrick’s and St. Mochta’s, and their Principals Padraig Clerken and Terry Allen, for showing leadership in piloting enrolment policies that reflect the diversity of their school communities. All Principals are duty bound to ensure that there are no barriers, real or perceived, that discriminate against any child in any school.

We acknowledge that significant investment has been made but it requires strong moral leadership, with clear vision, planning, resources and especially…, action.

The health and safety of Principals is a matter of growing concern to all of us. Three years ago The Minister told us in Citywest that she was going to prioritise the reduction of Principals’ workload which is the primary source of stress for Principals especially Teaching Principals. Colleagues, have we noticed any difference?...

In the meantime not a single positive outcome for Principals has been achieved. It now looks as though the North Pole will have melted… before Principals get an ISM circular!

What about the health and safety of Teaching Principals? The 400 among us who have the unenviable task of being both Principal and Class Teacher experience a level of challenge that can only be appreciated by someone who has been in
that role.

‘Ní féidir leis an gobadán an dá thráigh a fhreastal’…

In 2005, IPPN’s research paper ‘New Horizons for Smaller Schools and Teaching Principals’ broke new ground and provided brand new thinking on viable alternative structures for the multitude of small schools.

A recommendation in that report is worth mentioning. In the pupils’ best interests and your own as teaching Principals, I strongly advocate that, where feasible, and with the approval of the Board of Management, you should not allocate yourself to a class teaching role but instead to a role of SEN, Learning or Language Support. But what about the circular that says you can’t? What about it? Maybe it’s not a good circular? Maybe someone should change it. Maybe you shouldn’t wait until its changed! Maybe you should focus instead on the bigger picture… The quality of teacher and learning in your school... And maybe, one day, policy will yet again follow good practice.

Being a Principal is like being on a treadmill. No matter how fast or fit you are, the treadmill can increase its speed to challenge you … up to and beyond the point of total exhaustion.

In my experience, the school leaders who have been most effective and who have gained the most job satisfaction are those who apply fresh thinking to their role and have a very strong instinct and self-confidence about what is the
right thing to do for children.

They do not have a habit of seeking permission before making decisions and instead, rely on the chances of forgiveness if they do get it wrong.

It’s time that The Minister and her officials began to realise that their interests and ours coincide... Your department has worthy ambitions for primary education. All the experts say that Principals are pivotal to successful schools. Why is it that your Department flies in the face of international best practice... by failing to meaningfully consult the Professional Body that represents Principals?

Each school day, 3300 Principals are responsible for the leadership of half a million children… and their 25,000 teachers in communities throughout our country. Colleagues... This operational phenomenon is a reflection of your leadership.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Principals live in ‘the fierce urgency of now’.

We refuse to be trapped by old thinking, patterns of the past and outdated structures. Let there be no doubt.

  • Principals relish change... if it makes things better.
  • Principals see children… not race or religion.
  • Principals are leaders... and will be heard.

Never… has it been so important that the authentic voice of Principals be heard…



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