Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Questions (53)

Thomas Byrne

Question:

53. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills if there has been engagement with teaching principals on easing their workload; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29603/18]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

In light of the increased workload for teaching principals, has the Minister for Education and Skills had any engagement with the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, or the new organisation set up in response to this crisis, the forum for teaching principals in primary schools? What they are saying is not fake news, despite what the Government might want to believe.

I have discussed with teaching principals a range of their concerns and have had more formal engagement with the relevant stakeholders, including the IPPN and the INTO. I have also been in correspondence with the forum for teaching principals in primary schools on the issue.

The education system has certain characteristics, particularly the relatively large number of small schools, which have influenced the evolution of the principal’s role. In the case of principals in smaller schools, while management and administrative duties may be smaller in scale than those of larger schools, they must be undertaken in addition to their full-time teaching duties.

I am committed to increasing investment in leadership across the school system. The creation of the centre for school leadership, the new approach to middle management and the fostering of innovation across school clusters will all help support teaching principals in their work.

This year I am funding almost 4,600 additional release days for teaching principals in primary schools. This will see an increase in the number of release days available to teaching principals in the 2018-19 school year to 17, 23 or 29 days, depending on the size of the school, an increase of two to four days, respectively.

I also commenced the restoration of middle management posts as part of an agreed distributed leadership model to reduce the workload of principals, including teaching principals, which will see a new assistant principal post in most smaller schools. I announced up to 50 principal release cluster posts which will be put in place from the start of the next academic year. This measure will assist teaching principals to plan their release days more effectively for the benefit of the school.

Any additional increase in the number of release days will be considered as part of the next annual budgetary process, alongside the many other demands from the education sector.

I acknowledge a little bit of progress has been made on this issue. However, many teaching principals in small schools feel they are at breaking point. The Government is very much focused on Dublin with its recent announcement on schools necessary in the growing commuting areas. It is key, however, that it remembers the thousands of small schools around the country which have teaching principals. They are the lifeblood of their communities, providing the same education the larger schools, prioritised by the Government, do.

I have met with teaching principals - I am sure the Minister has even met some from time to time - who feel they cannot continue to absorb the stress and overload associated with the work and the administration they must do. I met one principal yesterday who is in a four-teacher school, yet manages a staff of 23, including part-time staff. The school has a large autism spectrum disorder, ASD unit, special education teachers and a large number of special needs assistants, SNAs, who all have to be managed. It is not possible to manage such a number with the particular teaching workload the principal in question has. Some regard needs to be given to the realities on the ground. It is not just the number of teachers in the school but the whole school community that the teacher principal has to manage.

I acknowledge this. I had a useful discussion in County Meath recently with teaching principals about exactly these points. It was at a similar meeting in Donegal where the idea of expanding the clusters, a small initiative in the past, to 50 this year was developed. I am glad we have been able to develop and implement it. It means teaching principals have a single person who acts as a substitute teacher to a range of principals so they can plan their work more effectively. We are expanding the release days to ensure principals with teaching duties can plan more effectively. We are increasing the resource in areas, such as special education, to ensure children are supported appropriately.

Besides the points referred to in my reply, we are investing in helping school principals to develop their leadership roles. This year up to 1,000 school principals will get mentoring, coaching or an opportunity to participate in a third level course in order that they can better manage this area. I acknowledge this is an area where we need to do better. It will have a significant impact on the quality of learning in schools. Leadership is key and I recognise that for teaching principals this is a particular challenge.

The exclusion of special education teachers when calculating teaching principals' salaries is unfair as well. The way it is set up acts as a disincentive to principals who wish to set up ASD units in their schools. It leads to a significant amount of extra management, as well as dealing with extra crises which sometimes occur with challenging behaviour from pupils in such units.

A strong case has been made by many of the teaching principals that one release day a week is a point which should be examined. Is the Minister considering it? I accept it has to be considered within the country’s financial constraints. However, we have to look at the constraints the principals have too. They are doing fantastic work but are not getting recognition for it. It is important we give them that recognition and allow them to fulfil their management and teaching roles. There has to be a better balance between the two.

The Minister should introduce a pathway for principals to be appointed on a temporary contract basis. For example, a school could offer a principal a contract for six or ten years. After that time, the principal could then step back into the workforce in the school. That should be examined for dealing with this issue, as well as a way of dealing with teaching supply.

I take the Deputy's point. A principal in a school with one or two mainstream teachers will get 17 release days. By contrast, a principal with five or six mainstream teachers will get 29 release days. The proposal would be to go to 36 for everyone without that grading across the different sizes of school. Whether that is a justifiable approach will need to be assessed. It will cost approximately €12 million across all schools. As there are 1,750 teaching principals, it would not be an insignificant cost.

All of these concerns will be factored into our work as we approach the budget.