THE PRINCIPAL of Castletroy College has been elected president of an association whose principle function is to represent school leaders across the country.
Padraig Flanagan is the new head of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD). Originally from Roscommon, Limerick has been home for over 30 years.
In 1980, Mr Flanagan began teaching mathematics and economics in Salesian College, Pallaskenry. In 2004, he was appointed principal of Desmond College in Newcastle West and succeeded Martin Wallace in Castletroy College in 2011.
It is one of the biggest schools in the country and he is responsible for just shy of 1,200 pupils and a total staff of almost 100. A far cry from his own school of 200 in Elphin.
NAPD represents over 1,000 principals and deputies and Mr Flanagan’s key priorities during his term are supporting properly resourced ongoing curricular reform, whilst also seeking to secure stronger middle management structures and improved resources for schools.
It is supposed to be the student that is stressed about being sent to see the principal, but often it is the other way around.
“There is a serious amount of stress around the country, mainly around the erosion of middle management structures that leave school leaders having so much to do. I know principals who are working 12 hour days and on Saturdays. People are putting in extraordinary hours.
“NAPD focuses on the key requirements of school leadership, which we would say is teaching and learning as well as looking after the welfare of pupils.
“School leaders have major administrative responsibilities coupled with a considerable workload arising from an extensive legislative framework. School communities now are rightly expected to work in partnership and far greater accountability is required in all aspects of school life. Perhaps the single biggest change in Irish education is the rapidly increasing pastoral role demanded of schools much of which is caused by societal change.
“The system of middle management has collapsed in many schools and we are left in a situation where invariably principals and deputies are picking up the pieces. That is a very, very stressful situation, particularly in the pastoral care of students not to mention the whole need for direction and leadership skills in curricular changes like the junior cycle.
“Traditionally Irish second level leaders cope and we are very good at coping but that’s becoming increasingly difficult,” said Mr Flanagan.
The classic example is the recently issued guidelines on anti-bullying, he says.
“They are absolutely fantastic, they are very worthy, there is nothing more important in what we do yet to have a robust policy would involve considerable consultation with school partners. It takes a lot of time, it takes personnel and many schools around the country do not have the personnel to engage with the parents, students, board of management, community and draw up a strong robust policy,” said Mr Flanagan.
The most recent circular concerns the department deeming it worthwhile to survey parents to see do they want a school uniform.
“That’s going to be raft of work for a school to consult with all the parents and devise a questionnaire to get out for a response.
“All these initiatives are worthy and worthwhile but it is increasingly principals and/or deputies having to do more and more. That is really one of the key concerns of NAPD,” said Mr Flanagan.
Asked what the morale is like amongst fellow principals and deputies he says there are “certainly huge issues around the country”.
And this has the possibility of affecting pupils.
“The junior cycle change is very topical at the moment. I think the way we teach and the way students learn has to change significantly. There are great changes in the new specifications but the other side is we have to get significant support.
“Teachers need significant continuous development support and we need middle management structures to support the extra workload. They are really talking about major change.
“The Leaving Cert is still largely the same. There are concerns about a radically different junior cycle and yet the very traditional and narrow measurement of success that is the three digit CAO points number.
“That makes the changes at junior cycle all the more difficult to implement because many, particularly parents, will still view success not as an innovative junior cycle but as a traditional Leaving Cert.”
Mr Flanagan says there will have to be middle management appointments to facilitate curricular and, indeed, assessment change.
“These are major changes in Irish education. The Junior Cert as we know it will be gone, replaced by a school cert and the major change is teachers are going to be expected to assess their own students,” said Mr Flanagan.
Another challenge facing the NAPD is the number of experienced staff, who have retired in recent years with more to come.
“Over the summer approximately 100 new principals and deputies were appointed, many of them relatively inexperienced. There is no structure in Irish education for training or support of potential leaders. Many of those new appointees are in their thirties / early forties.
“NAPD is working hard to support those. We have a local support service where retired former principals are available to come to the school to chat about issues, decision making or advice in a non-threatening and supportive way.
“There have been a huge amount of retirements and even more to come. It is increasingly rare to see somebody in their sixties in senior management in Irish schools and even in their late fifties.
“The wealth of knowledge and experience that is going... Many times because of the demands being made by all of these circulars, it is never ending.
“The real indictment of Irish education is in many schools there are very few people who want to be principal. The deputy role does attract more interest but it is not unknown to have a principalship re-advertised a second and third time to get somebody to do it,” he explained.
Due to the size of Castletroy College Mr Flanagan says he is lucky in that he has two deputy principals - Esther Griffin and Joan McGarry Moore - to help share the workload.
“But I am representing and meeting people who are in dire straits. They have, maybe, only two year heads out of five,” says Mr Flanagan.
A league table published this Tuesday shows Castletroy College having 100 per cent transfer to third level. However, the former minor Roscommon footballer prefers to evaluate the school on more than points.
“Such high ratings are very gratifying and reflect the great work done here by our teaching staff. I would still argue it is a very narrow measurement of success. I would be much prouder that we are a hugely inclusive school, we have significant special education provision and we are a very caring school - that to me doesn’t get measured in these things.
“The challenge of a big school is that we have to work that much harder to know our students and to get them to integrate. We are very conscious of that fact.
“The academic success is well known as is our extra curricular achievements in rugby and hurling but the success of being an inclusive, caring school is something that you don’t get headlines for. The only people who are lucky enough to experience it are the pupils and parents.”