Up to half of school principals could quit job, survey finds

Close to half of all primary school principals could leave the job in the short or medium term, a survey has found.

The Irish Primary Principals’ Network has warned of the serious repercussions that could follow for schools if the findings of their study among more than 800 principals and deputy principals were to take effect.

Close to one-in-10 of the country’s 3,300 primary schools will have a new principal this year, and around two-thirds of those in the job must teach as well as manage their school, a dual role whose viability the Economic and Social Research Institute flagged concerns about in 2011.

The IPPN survey found 12% of existing principals will reach retirement age by the end of this school year, but another 13% are considering early retirement.

One of the main reasons is that they find the role too hard, the biggest challenges being the dual teaching-management role. This, along with financial implications of staying on — because of Haddington Road Agreement effects on public service pensions — were factors for those thinking of retiring early. In addition, the IPPN found one-in-six principals are considering going back to full-time teaching. The only things preventing them doing so were loss of seniority and difficulty finding a teaching job in another school, or the financial loss in some cases.

“The notion of being trapped is draconian and puts good people off even applying for principalship,” one replied to the survey.

The organisation also described as very worrying the fact that more than two-in-five principals are actively considering leaving their leadership role behind by stepping back or retiring.

“This is despite the implications for their income and pension, not to mention the potential loss in status, self esteem and so on that such a decision could entail,” wrote IPPN research manager Geraldine D’Arcy in an analysis of survey findings.

While a principal may get a teaching job at the same school if they give up the post, they could be first in line to be redeployed elsewhere if falling enrolments or budgetary changes mean the school loses posts.

The IPPN told the Oireachtas Education Committee in April that the Department of Education has not updated the job description for over 40 years. A principal with 15 years’ teaching experience earns around €62,000 for leading a school with between eight and 11 teachers.

The study also found that, while more principals are preparing for the role through postgraduate study, fewer are stepping up from deputy principalship. This means new principals face a steep learning curve in terms of managing staff, working with the school board, Department of Education inspectors, parents’ association, and others, in most cases while still teaching full-time.

While nearly one-third of all principals had been a deputy principal before getting the job, more than 50 had less than five years’ teaching experience before taking on the role, 22 of them having taught for less than a year.

The highest proportion of principals considering stepping back was the almost one-in-four of those aged 31 to 40, which IPPN said may reflect the impact of school leadership on very busy personal lives. Younger principals were twice as likely than those aged over 50 to find the dual role extremely challenging, with staff management also a major challenge for those in the 21-to-30 age group.

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