Subscriber OnlyOpinion

School principals are burned out, depressed and overworked. Something needs to change

In interviews principals are asked what they would do if two students were trapped in a lift, a parent calling about a child alleged being bullying and three teachers are off sick when the inspector arrives. That’s a quiet morning

Louise Tobin of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) recently described in The Irish Times a near-crisis situation among primary school principals. Levels of burnout, stress and depressive symptoms among Irish primary school leaders are more than double those of the healthy working population.

Principals and deputies are being buried under a mountain of work. Think of all those small rural schools integrating traumatised Ukrainian children, for example. There are now 17,501 Ukrainian children in Ireland.

And the refugee crisis is just one stressor. There are ongoing teacher shortages, which in a small primary school can lead to a principal growing an ulcer when a teacher calls in sick on Monday morning. More and more children are being diagnosed with additional educational needs. The emphasis is on integrating children with additional needs into the mainstream classroom, which is laudable and important – but when children, through no fault of their own, exhibit challenging behaviours sometimes the support infrastructure is just not there.

School leaders are fundraising for day-to-day expenses. Some are managing huge building projects. All are managing staff, including teachers and special needs assistants.


They face a tsunami of circulars from the Department of Education, all of which demand action of one kind or another. Many arrive late on Friday, a timing designed to raise groans from school leaders who wonder what new initiative or administrative burden the latest circular will announce.

This situation is not unique to primary schools. IPPN, in conjunction with the post-primary National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) commissioned a three-year research project, the Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey. Led by Prof Phil Riley of Deakin University, Melbourne, it is both confidential and independent of all employer groups, professional associations and unions.

Prof Riley led a similar study in 2014/2015; the deterioration in working conditions is striking. The picture at post-primary is just as stark as at primary level but with some differences in that post-primary schools are far larger than the average primary school and the pressure of State examinations is constant.

Both physical and mental health are being affected. The usual riposte from the public is that these school leaders have short working days and long holidays – plenty of time to recover from these alleged stresses.

That may have been true decades ago but no longer. For example, the first tranche of research led by Prof Riley in 2015 found that half of school principals at second level and one quarter at primary worked up to 25 hours a week in their holidays to keep up with administration.

Something is being lost in the welter of demands and not just the health of people in management.

There are questions beloved by interview panels for school leaders, which present scenarios like this. It is 9am. Two students are trapped in the lift, a parent needs to speak to you urgently about a child who is allegedly being bullied, three teachers have just called in sick, and an inspector has arrived for an unheralded inspection starting immediately. What do you prioritise?

An aspirant principal may blanch and flounder. An experienced school leader would just reply – that’s my world on a daily basis – except that you forgot that a toilet is also blocked and overflowing and I have a board of management meeting this evening until 9pm.

The full title of a principal is principal teacher. It is a recognition that young people learning, thriving and growing under the care of educators constitute the heart of all schools. Instead, principals – including principals in primary schools who also teach classes – find that focusing on vital aspects of education gets squeezed out by everything else.

Change is coming, if only because the Department of Education now recognises that the situation is unsustainable. Put bluntly, no one will want to be a school leader if it continues.

While it is great that post-primary and primary are joining forces, the needs are different in each sector. For example, the Deakin report of 2022 recommends the recruitment of additional school administrative personnel to ease the burden on principals. This would ease stress immediately at post-primary level. It would have to be carefully managed because so much of administration is also intimately connected to the wellbeing of the school, such as recruitment of teachers.

However, you cannot have a school administration officer in each of our little primary schools. (And no, the answer is not amalgamation. The amount of social capital generated by our small primary schools is vital to our communities.)

Clustering of small schools might work instead of amalgamation and there are several interesting pilots taking place from Donegal to Waterford. Practical solutions are already emerging from these clusters.

But mostly, we need to ask: do we want severely stressed school leaders suffering burnout from overwork or do we want leaders focused on the best possible teaching and learning?

Despite everything school leaders report high levels of self-efficacy, a sense that they are doing a good job. Imagine the strides in Irish education if the job of school leader did not routinely demand sacrificing health, home life and wellbeing.