Principals are on the frontline too

It is critical that we invest in school leadership, and help principals to lead learning


School leadership is a critical part of the investment formula for our schools. As each of us helps to shape the recovery of our society and economy, school leaders can play their part in building a strong foundation for the future, provided they are properly supported.

Class teachers deliver learning outcomes, but how a school performs over a period is determined by the principal. The role of the principal and deputy principal is often misunderstood. Principals motivate colleagues, create a supportive learning environment and provide instructional leadership. They are on the frontline for society in the battle against prejudice, ignorance and despair. Much of the country’s success will depend on how well principals equip young adults for later life. Their impact on student achievement is indisputable.

It is critical that we invest in school leadership, and help principals to lead learning. But the gradual withdrawal of management resources, coupled with a rising administrative burden and new reform initiatives, have undermined the principal’s role. In turn, this is weakening our education system.

The structures for senior and middle- management, especially in second-level schools, are outdated, and the embargo on middle-management appointments since 2009 has made this worse. Principals are tied up with endless paperwork when they should be leading learning. Added to that is the pressure to implement countless directives, or circulars issued by the Department of Education and Skills. Since 2007, the Department has issued more than 450 circulars.

Principals routinely lead teachers and others in their school communities in combating threats to students’ well-being – bullying, poverty, drug abuse, obesity, parental and social neglect, and so on. Across the country’s 700-odd second-level schools, principals are working to deliver a new attendance strategy, the literacy and numeracy initiative, the Department’s latest advice on school self-evaluation, and revised guidelines on combating cyberbullying. They are preparing for much-needed, radical curricular reforms at junior cycle, with change on the horizon for senior cycle. All at a time when principals’ salaries are in danger of further cuts.

Continuous professional development (CPD) that attracts, develops and sustains school leaders is critical, particularly when over 80 per cent of principals have fewer than five years’ experience. Almost all other areas of education have access to some form of national policy think tank. The Teaching Council regulates teacher education, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment covers the curriculum, and the Department monitors teaching and learning through school self-evaluation and other strategies. But there is no meaningful Government-led vision for school leadership and development that defines the role of principal and puts in place proper supports.

That needs to change. We should start by appointing principals to the Professional Development Service for Teachers, the body responsible for teacher in-service and training, and draw on the expertise of recently-retired principals. As well as that, an accredited framework of programmes for principals would underline the importance of leadership development, practically and symbolically.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals is working on plans for a centre for leadership and planning, drawing on expertise shared among principals’ professional bodies, colleges, and the Department, that would meet the need to properly resource school leaders in doing their jobs. As well as developing a cohort of aspiring leaders, the centre would mentor new appointees, provide personal and professional development for serving school leaders, compile Irish-based research and circulate international research.

Strong school leadership, supported by Government, can effect better learning outcomes. If we accept that education is the foundation for social and economic progress, then strengthening the link between leadership and learning must be a national priority.

Clive Byrne is director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals