The concern was raised by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) at an Oireachtas education committee hearing into increasing challenges in the running of schools.
The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) told the same committee that a crisis in school leadership requires urgent redress. Its proposals include a reformed middle-management structure to make up for the loss of posts in most second-level schools due to recent cutbacks.
IPPN director Sean Cottrell said many school leaders wish to step down and remain as teachers, in the interests of pupils and the school. But if they do, they return to the bottom of the seniority ladder, meaning they can be redeployed up to 30 miles away if the school has to lose a teacher due to falling enrolments.
“They want to step aside and they get punished, it is a very undignified treatment of someone who has led the school, and led it quite successfully for several years,” he said.
Cork South-West Fine Gael TD Jim Daly was made a primary principal 13 years ago, and said the inability of a teacher to step down from a school leadership role should be tackled: “If that in itself was made available to people, when they get tired, when they get burned out, when they have no more to give, that they can stand down without going to the bottom and in all likelihood.... ending up going to a different school; if we were to have one progressive issue to deal with, that would be one to take on.”
Mr Cottrell said the job description for principals has not been updated by the Department of Education since 1973, and suggested extra credit be given to applicants for the job with qualifications in school management, an incentive supported by assistant chief inspector Deirdre Mathews.
IPPN is developing a National Centre for Leadership and Innovation to offer professional development for principals, and supports for parents, children and school boards.
With focus at the hearing on how non-education workload impacts on principals’ work as learning leaders, Department of Education principal officer Eddie Ward said policy must address barriers that prevent them making quality teaching and learning the absolute priority.
Mr Ward said the finding in last year’s report of the department’s chief inspector, that leadership and management needed to be improved at 18% of primary and 11% of second-level schools, is concerning and will inform planning and policy development.
Dublin Labour TD Aodhán Ó Riordáin, also previously a primary principal, said fixing the photocopier and many other non-education jobs were left to him in school, meaning the essential role as leader of learning gets unfairly lost. He suggested that consideration of aspiring to principalship be encouraged through a module in initial teacher training.