Managing Our Schools: Are Principals Set Up to Fail?

By Jayne, Vicki | New Zealand Management, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Managing Our Schools: Are Principals Set Up to Fail?


Jayne, Vicki, New Zealand Management


The effectiveness of a school is closely linked to the caliber of its leadership. just how well led are "today's school"? And what help do state school principals and their front-line managers get to cope with a task that makes managing a business look like a doodle?

They may operate under similar structures and nowadays even use the same language--but compared to most businesses, schools present a veritable feast of management dilemmas. For starters, schools are staffed by a bunch of savvy, often sassy professionals. The customer base ranges from hyperactive five-year-olds to the local kaumatua, and the composition changes constantly. And every stakeholder thinks he or she is an expert on the product and right now most of them think it's sub-standard--including some of the aforesaid sassy staff. And while schools may be answerable for the product they deliver, they can't effectively change it (at least in the state system) because they are really only a franchisee.

Managing change is now a business norm, and educators have been facing a fair whack of it in recent years. About a decade and a half ago New Zealand schools were cut loose from the great Ministerial mother ship to adopt a self-management model--Tomorrow's Schools--with its more business-like structure and market-led outlook.

The shift was a biggie, both structurally and culturally. Top teachers were suddenly cast into business executive roles; enthusiastic bands of parents began struggling with the complexities of board governance, including the vitally important role of employer to the school's "chief executive".

There wasn't much preparation provided for either role and, inevitably, some schools--notably the larger, better resourced, or socio-economically advantaged--fared better than others. Some principals segued gracefully into managerial roles, discovering hitherto untapped change management skills, entrepreneurial flair and a capacity for visionary leadership. Others floundered.

Management in smaller schools tends to suffer because principals must also teach and there are simply too few hours in a day. In poorer or rural areas, principals also frequently find themselves consumed by bringing an inexperienced board up to speed on its duties.

There are, at least in the state sector, other warning signs that management in some schools is problematic. One North Island high school is currently under investigation by Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) after complaints from nine staff members that stress in their work environment reached an unhealthy level. These included claims of harassment and bullying by the principal. One of the complainants, who has since resigned, notes that in one year 11 people took stress leave. Some never returned. Staff turnover rose to 59 percent with 18 of 31 staff either moving on or moving out of teaching.

This is not, apparently, an isolated case. Phil Smith, president of the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA), says his association knows of several schools where management practices are such that stress is at dangerous levels. "In secondary education in particular you see

a lot of managerial bullying going on. The PPTA would say teachers are some of the most bullied workers in the country. The bullying is subtle because it's emotional. 'If you don't do this, the school won't be competitive, the kids will suffer', that sort of thing. Too little attention is paid to the human resource in secondary schools."

Smith sees a crisis in middle management in state schools as one likely outcome.

"There's quite a lot of support now available for new principals but the situation one layer down is not good at all. New Zealand secondary schools are going through a mid-management crisis because people are not offering themselves for those roles or are leaving [the management positions] to go back to being teachers."

Senior teachers find it increasingly difficult to juggle an expanding management role with their primary role of classroom teaching. …

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