Secondary-school management is at breaking point

Change One Thing: Ferdia Kelly of the Joint Managerial Body says we need to re-imagine the role of principals

Stock photograph: Getty

Stock photograph: Getty


The most challenging issue for voluntary secondary schools is their management structure.

It is often noted that Ireland is very fortunate to have more than 30,000 wonderful volunteers who, in their roles as members of boards of management, govern our 4,000 primary and post-primary schools.

It is the very existence of this voluntary, community-based governance model that should create the impetus for complementing it with a well-resourced and appropriate school-management structure. Sadly, the reality is quite different.

Historically, the voluntary secondary-school management system evolved from a time when professed religious managed schools in their roles as principal and manager. In addition, the local community of religious in the convent or monastery provided much-needed support, free of charge, to the principal or manager and to the school community.

Today’s picture is much different, with a lay principal, supported only by a deputy principal and a group of teachers with “posts of responsibility”, whose numbers are shrinking due to a moratorium on filling such posts that was introduced in March 2009.

However, even if the previous system existed today, I would be making a case for the overhaul of the management system in voluntary secondary schools.

Before 2009, more than 50 per cent of teachers in voluntary secondary schools held posts of responsibility. Unfortunately, the title “posts of responsibility” is a misnomer as these roles represent discrete functions and all responsibility still ultimately rests with the principal.

Principals are therefore carrying a growing and impossible workload as they try to cope with running schools that aresuffering not just the impact of the moratorium, but a multitude of other cutbacks that have resulted in the principal being forced to become a guidance counsellor, year head, building-project manager, classroom teacher, and so on. In addition, the introduction of new legislation, regulations, top-down policies and disconnected educational initiatives such as a literacy and numeracy strategy, school self-evaluation and junior-cycle reform have all been added to the principal’s to-do list.

The ever-increasing workload has forced many principals to retire from the job at the earliest opportunity. Research conducted by the Joint Managerial Body (JMB) last summer indicated that 61 per cent of principals in voluntary secondary schools have been replaced within the past five years.

A consequence of this increase in workload and worry-load has been the emergence of high degrees of stress among principals. This has taken both a personal form, such as chronic fatigue and anxiety, as well as having an impact on working style. For example, many principals speak of the difficulties of prioritising their students and teachers in the face of an overload of administrative demands.

Their main vocation lies in teaching and learning but their main workload is increasingly concerned with compliance and the struggle for resources.

We need to reimagine the role of the principal in our schools in order to provide her or him with greater flexibility and autonomy to lead and manage in the local context. In particular, a structure must be created in which middle management responds to the real needs of each school and includes real responsibility for those undertaking such roles. To this end, the JMB and the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools have embarked on a project to develop a management structure in post-primary schools that is fit for purpose.

Many principals protest that decisions made at national level often ignore the real-time, real-life impact at school level.

It is essential that principals receive more practical supports, both nationally and locally, as well as experiencing much clearer channels of communication.

Ferdia Kelly is general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body, which provides advice and support and negotiates on behalf of school management in 400 voluntary secondary schools.

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