Leadership crisis: Why do so few teachers want to be principals?

It used to be a highly sought-after post. But schools are struggling to attract applicants

Angela Dunne, teaching principal at Loughmore national school, Co Tipperary, holding a copy of the submission from the National Principals Forum highlighting the “unsustainable” pressure on principals. Photograph: Alan Betson

Angela Dunne, teaching principal at Loughmore national school, Co Tipperary, holding a copy of the submission from the National Principals Forum highlighting the “unsustainable” pressure on principals. Photograph: Alan Betson


In the past couple of years Angela Dunne has seen six fellow principals step down from their roles.

“Not because of age or retirement, but purely because the workload and its effect on their health,” says Dunne, a teaching principal at Loughmore national school, Co Tipperary.

“Many excellent school leaders are being forced out of their roles, having to choose between their health and family life and their jobs.”

Dunne, who has been a teaching principal for seven years, noticed that many of 64 principal jobs advertised back in May of this year were re-advertised multiple times. Schools either didn’t receive applicants or the small number who did apply weren’t of sufficient calibre for boards of management to hire.

The role of school principals used to one of the most sought-after jobs in education. But many schools nowadays are struggling to attract applicants for the role of principal.

One large secondary school – which declined to be named –- says it received just a single applicant for the role of principal.

Another large post-primary school said it was forced to re-advertise on a number of occasions before it could find a suitably qualified candidate this year.

Ask teachers themselves and most teachers say the extra money – after tax – simply isn’t worth it (see below) given the pressure that goes hand-in-hand with the role of the modern principal.

As far Dunne is concerned the trend is testament to a growing crisis at leadership level.

“It’s a terrible indictment of the current system. There’s no incentive for deputy principals when their principal is out on sick leave or maternity to step up to the position. That shows you the level of work that’s involved that nobody wants.”

Students suffer

She says all of this inevitably impacts on the quality of education experienced by pupils. Students suffer from having their daily routine disturbed by principals who are faced with a plethora of school management issues.

Dunne is part of the National Principals’ Forum, a grassroots lobby group whose aim is to highlight growing distress among the 1,765 schools in Ireland with teaching principals.

The group presented research to the Oireachtas Education Committee recently which showed that over 84 per cent of teaching principals surveyed have considered stepping down from their position.

It has been over 40 years since the job description of principal was issued by the Department of Education.In that time there have been enormous societal, economic and legislative changes.

One principal spoke in the forum’s submission of how “broken” they felt trying to “safeguard pupils from the dual-role as teacher and principal”.

Another warned of how “the quality of teaching and learning and the health of principals are in serious danger”.

Over 89 per cent said the job had negatively affected their health. citing problems such as depression and insomnia, migraine and high blood pressure among others.

The forum has recommended schools with teaching principals be given a minimum of one “release day” per week immediately to safeguard teaching and learning.

A release day, it says, allows a principal to take care of administrative duties while a substitute covers their classes, paid for by the department.

Release days

At present the amount of release days given to schools with teaching principals annually differs on how many mainstream class teachers there are, ranging from 17 to 29. By comparison, a school that has a full-time non-teaching principal has 183 days to do this work.

Dunne says as the system stands there is huge inequity for schools with children who have special educational needs.

In last month’s budget the department announced an additional release day for teaching principals in primary schools and four additional release days for those in schools with special classes.

A spokesperson said additional release days would have to be considered as part of future budgetary processes.

It has also pointed to developments such as the Centre for School Leadership, which is providing professional development for school leaders. The centre provides a coaching and mentoring service to principals, as well as deputy and assistant principals, on their leadership teams.

Many principals and post-holders who have availed of this training have raved about the quality of support.

The department has also pointed to other steps such as the introduction of a new post-graduate diploma in school leadership, and an additional 3,000 middle-management posts in schools.


For Dunne these measures are welcome but don’t go far enough. “We’re being so straight-jacketed by bureaucracy that all the additional things you could bring to your school to make it a real centre of excellence is being spread out because of all the paperwork now involved. And so much of it is box-ticking from a myriad of organisations.”

The consequences , she says, are serious.

“The system is being squeezed at the bottom by pay inequality of lesser-paid teachers, and from the top at leadership. There is not an endless well of expertise to avail of.

“We have so far protected children’s education. But it has come at such a high cost to our own personal health. We can’t guarantee it going forward.”


The €95,000 posts no one wants to take

Schools say they are facing a growing crisis because too few teachers are showing an interest in taking up the post of principal.Once a highly sought-after role, many teachers say the additional money simply isn’t worth it given the complexity and demands facing the modern principal.

Legal, child protection and administrative burdens are just some of the aspects of the role that have grown in recent years.

The shortage of applicants is particularly acute at primary level, especially in smaller schools where principals are also expected to teach.

A primary principal with about 20 years’ teaching experience can expect to be paid roughly between €75,000 and €95,000, depending on the size of the school and other variables.

However, for teachers who already hold promotional posts – such as deputy principal – the difference in salary after-tax can be as little as €200 per pay cheque.

Secondary principals are paid more, in relative terms, though many post-primary schools are also experiencing real difficulties finding applicants.

A secondary principal with about 20 years’ teaching experience can expect to be paid between €75,000 and €110,000 depending on the size of the school and a post-holder’s qualifications. Similarly, the pay gap between the principal and top promotional posts – such deputy principal – is relatively small.

“It’s just not worth it,” says one deputy principal, who declined to be named. “The principal carries the full weight of the school on their shoulders. They don’t have anything like the holidays teachers have, especially if there are summer works going on.”

Another source said there was a worrying trend in some schools where teachers opt for principal posts in the final three or four years of their career.“It’s attractive from a pension point of view if you hold the role for three years. But it militates against good management when you have that level of churn in posts.” Carl O’Brien