Thursday, 18 November 2010


Are our principals adequately trained for their jobs, and is the job the same now as it was 20, 50, 100 years ago?

These are key questions and it is a task to get key people in education to think objectively and analytically about an issue that invariably evokes mainly a sentimental and emotional response.

The basic issue that needs to be realised in the early years of the 21st century, is that the role of the “head teacher” as experienced in the 19th century and largely maintained throughout the 20th - is dead. Being a principal is not being a teacher.

And behind that premise is the underlying truth that being a good teacher is no guarantee of being a good principal. They are different professional roles.

It is likely that the research will find some quantum of data to substantiate the position many traditionalists want to maintain, and that is that being a principal is being an educational leader and that really means being the head teacher.

Too many principals say how they enjoy getting back to the classroom. Sometimes this may be to avoid the role of principal and to retreat to what was familiar and safe. Sometimes it is a requirement because the system does not yet fully recognise the responsibilities of being a principal and in smaller schools requires a teaching load on the part of the principal. But after many years of not teaching, or teaching very little, can a principal be more than the equivalent of a visiting teacher which isn’t necessarily to the students’ benefit.

Many years ago the former head of the Strathclyde education service in Scotland (at the time a system roughly equal in numbers to SA’s) said without equivocation, that when he became a principal, he STOPPED being a teacher.

He explained this very unambiguously. He said that as a teacher his job was to create the best learning environment for his students.

But as a principal the job was different. It was to create the working and organisational environment in which good learning and teaching could occur.

And as he climbed the career ladder, he indicated clearly that each job was a move from the previous, and with a substantially different, although connected responsibility to the one he had had previously.

Until principals, or aspirants to the position, realise that their role IS to manage an organisation, some of which are large and complex, and that they are not a teacher with a part time administrative load we won’t witness the confidence and boldness which should be the hallmark of an inspirational leader and manager.

Certainly, administrivia should not be part of the principal’s load. Under local governance and management the principal’s job is to manage the resources, attract more, and to ensure the smooth running of the organisation.

Unfortunately, what for many public service managers and directors is de rigueur, is very new to many principals, and that is to run the organisation. For 100 years the public education system has been founded on a dependency model that saw many management responsibilities handled by central clerks and administrative officers. Now those responsibilities are part of the principal’s role, and those of his/her management team, as they should be. But most seem ill prepared for this shift in responsibilities.

The problem is that principals are manifestly untrained and some even unprepared to do the job required. There is no training of any integrated or coherent nature to which aspirants to the position of principal can turn to ensure they are suitably qualified and acknowledged as having the skills and attributes to lead and manage a school.

Nor is there any systematic exposure of existing principals to contemporary management and organisational leadership professional development, or to have the opportunity to be partnered with senior managers from other areas of work.

Principalship is the keystone to great schooling, and to ensure the public confidence they deserve, we must recognise the role of principal needs people prepared, confident and bold to take on the responsibilities.

There should be a comprehensive purpose designed qualification (Certificate of Principalship?) that brings together the elements of good management in respect of Human Resource management (the effective recruitment, management and retention of people), financial management, strategic planning and budgeting, physical resource management, project management, community liaison and public relations to name some of the areas of capacity that principals, in their life as a teacher, get no development in.

This qualification should probably be the responsibility of an external body to the Department, probably one of the Universities.

As well, they need to understand curriculum development and delivery, and policy development and delivery.

They particularly need development in their role as the “chief executive officer” of the school and how to effectively work with a Board of Governance. In New Zealand and the UK that means working with the Board that hires and fires the principal. In SA that relationship is still some way off.

If we had properly skilled and trained principals, with both the capacity and capability to do their jobs effectively, then we could ask the question – “do we need a multi-million dollar regional layer of Directors and Assistant Directors (themselves drawn from the ranks of untrained principals) to ‘supervise’ the work of our school leaders?”

In the private education sector there is no such layer. Principals there are employed by their boards, and maintain their jobs by performing according to their employment contract, and producing results.

Are all public school principals incapable of managing their schools? Of course not. Between 15 and 20% of principals are good to excellent, but are capable because of their own efforts in the main, and have learned from their experience and from looking more widely than the education environment from which to draw examples of good management practice.

But what is very worrying is the 20-30% at the other end of the scale who are struggling or worse still, failing.

And the equation is usually straightforward – good principal, good school, good student achievement, disciplined environment. Mediocre to bad principal and you will find problems with student achievement, poor discipline, staff problems and often an unhappy school community.

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