Principals are seeking the “right to disconnect” as a new study shows most are working long periods outside the school day, at weekends and during holidays to deal with challenging workloads.
The findings are contained in research based on feedback from more than 1,100 school leaders and 4,000 teachers at primary level, organised by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).
An audit of principals’ time and a study of teacher workload found that nine out of 10 teachers report that their jobs have become more “stressful”, “demanding”, “challenging”, “inflexible” and/or “hectic” in the last five years.
Many respondents also highlighted the increased use of digital communications such as WhatApp, Aladdin Connect and other platforms from parents and within schools.
They reported that messages outside school hours had increased significantly in recent times and commented that it was impossible to disconnect from work in these circumstances.
Among some of the study’s key findings are that:
- School leaders work an average of 15 additional hours a week on school-related work outside their normal hours and they work just under eight hours per week, on average, during holidays;
- Principals report a detrimental impact on their occupational health and wellbeing, stemming from the difficulties in meeting the expectations of the role;
- Ninety per cent of teacher respondents said they struggle with a challenging workload;
- Teachers say they are spending too much time on paperwork with no demonstrable effect on the quality of teaching and learning;
- Teachers and school principals expressed deep dissatisfaction with a lack of planning for teacher supply and the removal of substitute cover for a number of approved teacher absences.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said that if the Department of Education wants to ensure Ireland retains its reputation for having a high-quality education system, it must reduce the burden on teachers and school leaders in primary and special schools.
“The right to disconnect is not sector-specific — all workers have this right and the Government must ensure it is delivered to all those working in primary and special education,” he said. “Government must recognise the damage that is being done to the profession with a never-ending list of new demands placed at the school door.”
Mr Boyle said there continues to be a lack of middle-management support structures in many schools, along with an overload of initiatives. He said the union is seeking a root-and-branch review of the systems which underpin the delivery of primary education, along with recommendations to support teachers and principals.
These include the appointment of administrative principals in all schools with more than 10 staff and to schools with special classes, additional leadership and management release days, and full restoration of assistant principal posts lost to schools since 2009.
One principal’s story: ‘You have your eye on the door as the years go on’
When Carmel Dillon first signed up to be a principal 20 years ago, she imagined the role would be about leading teaching and learning at the school.
These days, she says, the job is increasingly consumed by a “deluge” of paperwork, plugging staffing gaps, fixing boilers, sorting out leaks, resolving IT problems, unblocking toilets, liaising with child welfare services, engaging with health authorities, fundraising and meeting parents of vulnerable students.
Just trying to find cover for teachers who are out sick or on leave at short notice, she says, can often feel like a full-time job in itself.
“You’re checking messages just before going to bed and first thing in the morning to see if anyone has texted to say they can’t make it in,” says Dillon, principal of St Mary’s Junior School in Blessington, Co Wicklow.
“We don’t have access to substitute teachers; we don’t even bother looking for them any more. So, we’re contacting support teachers to step in or split up classes … The Friday before last we had four teachers out and not a sub was to be found.”
She says the 245-pupil school would be lost without the school secretary and caretaker who help to keep everything running as smoothly as possible.
One thing she has learned with experience, she says, is that you never know where the next curveball will come from.
“You might think you have all your ducks in a row, but then something unexpected to do with teacher allocation, finance, special education support or a new circular lands on your desk.”
The job would feel more sustainable, says Dillon, if middle-management posts cut during the recession were restored, along with more release days for school leaders to catch up on administration, and greater support and guidance when seeking special education resources.
“We’re lucky to have children of many and varying needs ... We’ve a wonderful team here, we’re always open and welcome all pupils, but there isn’t enough support on the ground,” she says. “It really is a privilege to work with children and to be part of their development and to work with such excellent professionals ... but you have your eye on the door as the years go on.”