Crisis in recruitment and retention of school principals will only worsen

Responsible for everything from drains to contact tracing, why would anyone want to be a principal?

After the pandemic is over, will anyone want to be the principal of a primary or secondary school?

Since March 2020, principals and deputy principals have faced an enormous additional workload in addition to the punishing pressures they already had.

Well over half of primary school principals are teaching principals who teach a class all day and then do everything else. After the last recession, like secondary schools, primary schools grappled with serious funding cuts.  At the same time, functions previously carried out by other bodies became the responsibility of schools.

Principals need to be experts on school admissions, buildings and maintenance, child protection, data protection, school finance, discipline, family law, pupil education, employment and vetting of school personnel, leadership and management, and special educational needs.

How can schools that desperately want to be inclusive do so without an adequate supply of SNAs?

Yet another burden has come with the announcement of a 'frontloading' model for the allocation of special needs assistants. The process of application to the National Council for Special Education for the allocation of special needs assistants (SNAs) has changed. They will be supplied according to the school profile.

This sounds great in theory until you have a parent who is told their child should be in receipt of an SNA  who is then informed that according to the school profile, they are not entitled to one. School profiles change constantly. How can schools that desperately want to be inclusive do so without an adequate supply of SNAs? (Frontloading has been temporarily paused.)

The most stressed principals in primary schools are those who have one or more classes for students with additional needs.

The problem is not the children with additional needs, or their parents - it is the weight of administration. Some principals describe it as akin to running a second school.  They are responsible not only for meeting students’ complex educational needs but also for recruiting and retaining everyone from SNAs to bus escorts. Not to mention hectares of paperwork.

Principals are also responsible for everything from fundraising to meet shortfalls in State support to the state of the drains.

Imagine, then, when Covid-19 contact tracing is added to managing people, buildings and plants, finances, and the health and safety of all concerned. There are 14,000 students self-isolating, the majority at primary level.

It is all very well saying that this constitutes a tiny percentage of the total population of students. It looks very different when you are the one making the phone calls after a positive case in a school.

Decades of underfunding followed by educational initiative after initiative to be implemented have led to unprecedented levels of burnout

Before the pandemic, the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) conducted a survey of 1214 primary school principals. Some 60.3 per cent of them reported poor psychological wellbeing. Most of them were working 50+ hours a week. Their biggest source of stress stemmed from a lack of secretarial and administrative support.

Trinity College research with primary principals in October 2020 found that 77 per cent felt overwhelmed by the crisis during the pandemic, 71 per cent felt emotionally exhausted and 59 per cent felt isolated and disconnected.

At the same time, more than 90 per cent of the principals were full of praise for the adaptability, creativity and skill level of their teaching staff.

Many of the problems besetting primary schools also exist at second level but there are some additional factors, including bigger schools and staffs, and the pressure of State examinations.

The National Association of Deputies and Principals, which represents school leaders at second level, issued a prescient press release about a week before schools closed in March 2020. The headline was: Less than one in three secondary school leaders predict they’ll still be in a leadership role in five years’ time.

In early March 2020, according to the NAPD, nearly half of principals and deputies were experiencing ‘a lot’ of stress. They must have smiled bleakly just weeks later when stress levels rocketed.

Decades of underfunding followed by educational initiative after initiative to be implemented have led to unprecedented levels of burnout. Principals welcome needed educational innovations. They just need reasonable time-frames and resources to implement them.

An advertised post for a principal that a decade ago would have attracted ten candidates now may attract one or two candidates and in some cases, none. Fewer and fewer people want the grief.

Let principals do what they most want to do - lead learning in schools

It boils down to a lack of real support for principals, particularly in the areas of administration, human resources, information technology and the maintenance of buildings. Meanwhile, the additional areas of responsibility principals are expected to oversee continue to cascade.

There was a real sense among school leaders during the pandemic, that no matter how much water the ship was already letting in before the current storm, it had to be kept afloat. A kind of grim loyalty to students, staff and parents prevailed. But what happens after?

Let principals do what they most want to do - lead learning in schools. Right now, they are so busy dealing with everything else that this most vital of leadership roles is being neglected, through no fault of the leaders concerned.

Nonetheless, Irish parents routinely express high levels of satisfaction with their schools. The inhuman burdens being placed on those who lead them remain invisible but the inevitable consequences of years of neglect are looming.