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Sustainability of school leadership is the key to successful schools

A year in review

Damian White
President, Irish Primary Principals’ Network

All educational initiatives are introduced with good reason. They are based on good principles and are developed with the best of intentions by well-informed, driven people, whose only motivation is to improve the learning of children. Outcomes will decide whether the initiatives succeed or fail.

“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to his own secret.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I write this article, debate is raging on the radio as to whether Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, whose interest in the environment led her initially to begin protesting outside the Swedish Parliament with only a poster for company, should be back at school. Inside a year, she has mobilised the children of the planet into the most powerful force for change since the 1960s anti-war movement. She has voiced the concerns of her generation and those to come with simple, stark messages on what we must do to secure the future of the planet.

I want her back at school too – so I can sit at her feet and learn from her.

All educational initiatives are introduced with good reason. They are based on good principles and are developed with the best of intentions by well-informed, driven people, whose only motivation is to improve the learning of children. Outcomes will decide whether the initiatives succeed or fail. And we move on to the next initiatives.

A child in primary school in Ireland today, judged against Emerson’s assertion, is in a pretty good place. Teachers are striving to improve their schools through honest self-evaluation and consequent school-improvement plans, while Discovery Learning is at the core of what we try to achieve. Opportunities abound for children to learn, with the teacher steering the process through. Children are allowed to be expressive and have opinions heard. Children with special educational needs are guided and taught in ways best suited to support their learning, and individual support plans for them are drawn up with the views of teachers, parents, and the children themselves taken on board.

Children in Ireland can support the call of Greta Thunberg and strike for a better and more sustainable future for the planet, with the support of their teachers.

So how can schools themselves be sustained? How can principals, 55% of whom have full-time teaching duties, continue to run schools in a way sustainable to the school and to themselves? How can deputy principals, 90% of whom are full-time class or SEN teachers, support them in this?

Prioritise, Implement, Embed, Wait – PIEW

PIEW is a model of planning, proposed by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN), which will ease the burden on school leaders by assisting them to prioritise competing areas of school life. It offers a way to deal with all the initiatives on the school’s planning horizon. It also allows schools, after following the Looking at Our School framework, to plan for changes and the implementation of initiatives in a manner which is cohesive, transparent, and sustainable in the school’s context.

At the IPPN’s Deputy Principals Conference in 2018, Chief Inspector Harold Hislop urged school leaders to do things differently. He advised schools to consider identifying priorities bearing in mind their capacity and context – priorities informed by Looking at Our Schools 2016 and linked to the School Self-Evaluation/School Improvement Plan.

Taking this into account, PIEW represents a realistic and sustainable way for schools to deal with initiatives and the flow of new ideas that are constantly presented to school leaders as essential for their schools to embrace.

‘P’ stands for Prioritise. Each school should identify the key areas to be given priority in implementing new strategies or changes of approach, for example a new literacy curriculum. Depending on the school’s context and how far down the road the school finds itself in terms of implementing its objectives, it should set realistic targets for what can be achieved in two years.

Certain approaches may be trialled in individual classes or class groups, and close monitoring of progress will indicate how the initiative will roll out further. This will bring the school to ‘I’ for Implementation, a period that will consolidate the initiative. After four years, it will have been monitored, tweaked, and improved to reach the ‘E’ or Embedded stage and be firmly part of school culture.

All the while, other areas will have been prioritised in a cycle that continues over several years and through which many initiatives and practices will be introduced, at a pace and in a context that is sustainable for school leaders, staff, and most importantly pupils. The ‘W’ stands for Wait – a list of good initiatives and ideas to be introduced when capacity and need allow.

Of course, there are always imperatives that will trump other initiatives in terms of importance, such as Child Protection procedures and GDPR. The PIEW model provides for such situations and is further informed by the provisions of DES Circular 44/2019.

Supporting new principals

Meeting with a long-retired principal and listening to his astonishment as I filled him in on the supports available to new school leaders caused me to reflect on how supports have improved substantially over relatively few years.

The Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) continues to deliver the excellent Misneach course for all newly appointed principals. A two-year personal and professional development programme, Misneach seeks to develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and qualities of beginning school leaders, empowering them to respond effectively to the realities of managing and leading in the Irish school context. The training is designed to give them the confidence and courage to challenge and be challenged as they work for the betterment of their schools.

As well as focusing on the imperative to ensure quality student outcomes and ongoing school improvement, Misneach guides new leaders towards sustainable leadership, building capacity for self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-care. It fosters professional autonomy and local decision-making in collaboration with pupils, parents, and management, working towards a values-based shared vision. It supports the creation and maintenance of professional learning communities which promote highly effective networking and collaborative peer supports.

Misneach is guided by the five core principles that underpin good practice in school leadership:

  1. Moral purpose (the improvement of learning for every child in your school)
  2. Courage to act
  3. Modelling of good practice
  4. Sustainability (by empowering others to develop leadership skills)
  5. Situational awareness (knowledge and consideration of your school’s context).

The Centre for School Leadership (CSL), since its inception in 2015 as a partnership with the IPPN, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), and the Department of Education and Skill (DES), has acted as a catalyst for collaboration in the system and introduced mentoring and coaching as leadership tools. To date, almost 700 newly appointed principals have accessed support from 450 trained mentors, 700 principals have accessed one-to-one coaching, and more recently 100 schools have accessed team coaching.

The CSL Post-Graduate Diploma in School Leadership (PDSL) began in 2017 in collaboration with UL, NUIG, and UCD, and 800 aspiring leaders have engaged with this course. CSL has also researched and developed a Model of Professional Learning for school leadership, and has identified a continuum of leadership in Irish schools. It plans to invite providers of professional learning to engage with the CSL endorsement process to ensure that Irish school leaders have access to the highest quality of professional learning. It is also supporting 101 schools in 24 leadership clusters nationwide that are focusing on building leadership capacity both within and between schools.


Since the publication of the government’s Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice 2018–2023, schools have been anxious to ensure they are in line with best practice and recommended pathways for the best results for children. It is also significant that the document contains a significant section on the welfare of teachers.

Well-being is present ‘when a person realises their potential, is resilient in dealing with the normal stresses of their life, takes care of their physical well-being and has a sense of purpose, connection and belonging to a wider community. It is a fluid way of being and needs nurturing throughout life’ (adapted from the World Health Organisation’s definition of mental health).

For many schools, planning around well-being will involve acknowledging good practice already in place and building on that. It will be an intrinsic part of school self-evaluation to identify strengths, gaps, and weaknesses. Schools will require the commitment of all sectors of the community to implement good well-being practice towards sustainable benefits for all children and education staff.

It must be remembered that schools operate in different contexts. PIEW is the best model for successful and sustainable school welfare initiatives to be introduced and maintained.

Primary Education Forum

The Primary Education Forum was established to facilitate the exchange of information between the DES, its agencies, other public bodies and agencies, school management bodies, school leadership organisations, and teacher representative organisations regarding actions in the Action Plan for Education and their implementation in the primary school sector. It is chaired by a senior DES official, and the Minister for Education and Skills has attended a number of meetings.

This forum has provided a credible platform for the IPPN, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), and the management bodies to highlight the issue of principals’ workload and the need for a ‘calendar of reform’ for introducing new initiatives and policies. This is in keeping with the aim of the Forum: ‘to support the planning and sequencing of change in the primary school sector and to exchange information on the intent and impacts of the actions in the Action Plan in order to look for synergies and opportunities for schools to streamline implementation and address workload issues’.

In July 2019, a symposium on ‘Strengthening and Supporting Small Schools’ was attended by all relevant agencies and, significantly, by Joe McHugh, the Minister for Education and Skills, and Michael Ring, his counterpart in the Department of Rural and Community Development. IPPN CEO Páiric Clerkin gave a well-received outline of the challenges facing teaching principals as regards workload, initiative overload, and teacher well-being. Other issues discussed included the difficulties schools face in filling board of management (BOM) positions, funding and school transport, the value of schools to the life of rural communities, and innovative ways of sharing resources.

Admissions to Schools Act 2018

New entrants to schools will now be governed by the Admissions to Schools Act 2018, certain sections of which will be implemented immediately, while others will be phased in over a number of years. Thanks to contributions at the Primary Education Forum, certain aspects of the Act will be delayed to give schools adequate time to prepare for them.

Every school must make an explicit statement in its admission policy that it will not discriminate against applicants for admission on any of a number of grounds specified. The Act includes provision for single-sex and denominational schools to reflect, in their admission policy, exemptions applicable under equality legislation.

Section 62 provides that a school must prepare its admission policy after consultation with the school community and must publish the policy. It provides for a default position that all applicants must be enrolled if the school is not oversubscribed. It also sets out the selection criteria that schools are prohibited from applying.

By the start of 2021/22, all schools will be required to prepare and publish a notice each year prior to accepting applications for admission. This annual admission notice sets out important information on how the school’s admission policy and enrolment application forms can be obtained, the relevant dates for the admission process, and the number of places available for the school year concerned.

The patron or Minister may issue direction to a BOM or Education and Training Board (ETB) in relation to the admission of students and may appoint an independent person. The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) or Tusla may designate a school if a child cannot gain enrolment.

There will be an amended appeals process for student expulsion, suspension, or failure to gain admission. The Act amends the Equality Status Act in relation to admission, and there are further amendments in relation to admission for students of minority religions. The Act requires school principals to administer the enrolment directly and be accountable to the BOM in that regard.

All applicants shall be admitted unless the school is oversubscribed or parents fail to give a written undertaking to accept the code of behaviour.

Schools must outline their characteristic spirit. They must give details of arrangements for students who do not wish to attend religious instruction. They must provide details of selection criteria where there are excess applications for available places, and procedures for appealing refusal to admit a student. The siblings rule continues to apply, but a cap of 25% has been fixed on places allocated to children of past pupils.

Changes to standardised testing

Standardised testing is monitored through the Educational Research Centre (ERC). The latest review began in 2016 with a review of existing tests and followed with piloted new versions, analysis of results, the establishment of norms, and the development of certain elements of the test to be taken online.

The new tests were designed to reflect changes in curriculum, society, and engagement and to develop the possibilities of computer-based testing. It was also essential to establish up-to-date norms, allowing for the phenomenon of ‘norm drift’, whereby tests become easier over time as familiarity with their content increases. With older tests, most pupils were scoring above the mean, which skewed the national bell curve and gave increasingly improper readings of capabilities. National standards had also improved beyond these tests, as reflected in National Assessments in 2014 in Mathematics and Reading, TIMMS 2015 testing in Mathematics and PIRLS, and ePIRLs tests in 2016 in Reading.

Student and Parent Charter

In September 2019, the DES published the Student and Parent Charter. It is clear that the DES has taken a legislative approach to the development of this charter, which will influence how schools interact with parents and pupils. Relationships are central to the work of schools, and a positive school culture is paramount. For the vast majority of interactions between pupils and parents and their schools, those relationships ensure positive, empathetic, and pleasant exchanges, where the views of all are respected and the child is kept at the centre of the conversation. ‘The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil’ is a central tenet of how we approach each day as education professionals.

It is the view of the IPPN that the charter largely ignores this reality. The charter was an opportunity to promote the sharing of responsibility between schools, parents, and pupils. The way the press release and draft charter are framed makes it clear this is not the Department’s preferred approach.

Partnership for Schools

Partnership for Schools Ireland is a joint initiative by the National Parents Council Primary (NPC) and the IPPN. Better outcomes for children are the main objectives of a ‘Partnership School’, achieved by the whole school community planning and working together on agreed activities.

The model originated in America and is becoming very popular around Ireland. It seeks to encourage children, school staff, parents, and community partners to work together to form an effective partnership in their school for the benefit of the children. The Partnership Schools Ireland programme is now in its third year, with twenty-nine schools participating. It hopes to develop further and involve more schools across the country.

When setting up the first Partnership Team in the school, the principal chooses the membership, ensuring that those involved will be committed to this partnership style of working. After training, the Partnership Team will then:

  • develop a one-year action plan with activities linked to goals selected by the partnership: two curricular, one behavioural, and one to improve the welcoming climate in the school
  • monitor each goal and work together to overcome any barriers in achieving it
  • recruit and invite others to help and achieve goals each year
  • at the end of each year, identify how each goal has benefited the children and the school’s partnership progress
  • ensure the board of management, parent association, and parents are informed of the Partnership Team’s activities and celebrate its achievements.

Getting honest input from children, parents, teachers, and community members is both refreshing and informative and brings richness and vitality to projects which may otherwise be difficult to achieve.

School secretaries – placing a proper value on their work

If there is one thing all parties involved in primary education would agree on, it is the value to the school of a good secretary. Comparing the role of the secretary today with that of yesteryear, when typing, answering the phone, and photocopying formed the bulk of the work, reveals a vastly changed and infinitely more complex role.

Today’s secretary is central to the recording and storage of vital data, to maintaining the school’s day-to-day accounts and keeping within the parameters of the Financial Support Services Unit (FSSU) regulations, and to handling numerous visitors, callers, emails, and letters. It is a key role which should have proper remuneration and paid holidays in line with civil service personnel with similar duties.


Primary education in Ireland is mostly in a good place. However, for sustainable results, we must have sustainable leadership. This must come from realistic expectations of what schools can deliver and the timeframe in which reforms, where needed, can happen. Those expected to lead change must be given the time, professional respect, and supports to do so.

When school leaders are given the time to lead in a sustainable way, the children will be the great beneficiaries as they face the uncertain world of tomorrow.

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