Education 

Is running an Irish primary school a job for a principal or CEO?

Opinion: a policy that sees everything in our schools as little more than a problem of management has taken hold in Irish education

In education policy in Ireland today, the leadership role of the primary school principal is described as little more than the CEO of a business firm. This is rather than a caring and ethical leader tasked with assuring the education and flourishing of the youngest children in society. How did we sleepwalk ourselves into this policy that sees everything in education as little more than a problem of management? How did we get to here so rapidly? And what is at stake for our children and society into the future?

A school principal or a CEO?

The CEO of a business firm works towards a definite end game, namely a bottom line of profit and measurable output. The focus is on achieving a streamlined production of ‘things’ that rely on technical planning and project management.

But the leader of an Irish primary school aims to assure the education and lifelong learning of the youngest children in society. It is a relational, ethical, intelligent, cultural and care endeavour that simply cannot be reduced to an end game of success or failure.

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Education aspires to nurture the development of an inner (soul) life as well as preparation for a social and material world. School leaders are concerned with a complex weave of moral, social, and intelligent aspects of human flourishing and change, ‘leading out’ (educo) the child in their first delicate steps to a lifelong journey of being and becoming a subject in their own right.

We want children to learn to be in the cockpit of their own life, to think for themselves, to have the wherewithal to face a future of uncertainty and to make their contribution to the world. We want children to become a person for others, but not an imposed being for others, a commodity for the markets, the system or the organisation.

How did we get here?

In the last decade, Ireland experienced a perfect storm of events that quickly reshaped the direction of education policy and saw us engulfed under the influence of global economic organisations such as the OECD and World Bank. The events included a world recession in the 2000s, the economic collapse of Ireland in 2008, the subsequent arrival of the troika in 2011 with their clipboard of austerity measures and a sharp decline in the moral authority of the Catholic Church due to a tsunami of abuse scandals.

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From RTÉ Archives, Tommie Gorman reports for RTÉ News on a 1984 survey which shows discrimination against women when it comes to the appointment of primary school principals

In 2008, the OECD set a new international agenda for school improvement in 22 countries, including Ireland, through reframing the rules, roles, responsibilities and legislation in relation to school leadership. The school was likened to the running of a ‘small business’ and the responsibilities assigned to the school principal were to be distributed among the teaching staff, who were to engage with a new project of management based on evidence and data analysis. The heart work of teaching and learning, the moral and care work with the youngest children in Irish society, was rapidly jettisoned favour of this ethic of the marketplace.

From 2008 onwards, Ireland changed its primary school leadership policy drawing directly from the policy influence of the OECD. It kept social partners in line through a positive language of empowerment that brokers no discussion of contrarian views and takes its touchstone of research from either big data studies or business reports.

The Department of Education’s Circular Letter to the management of primary schools in 2018 offers a glimpse into this human capital reframing. It states that school leaders ‘manage the school’s human, physical and financial resources so as to create and maintain a learning organisation’.

If the CEO style leader prevails, Irish society will pay a heavy price for framing education as nothing other than a mere commodity

What is at stake here is not so much that education is framed as a political project of management. There have always been multiple and contradictory purposes brought to bear on education. What is at stake here is that the priority of education policy is for the primacy of the system and the organisation and not for the primacy of the holistic development of the child. When the State moves too close for comfort into primary schools and classrooms and starts to mandate a certain ideal type of child, it pathologies the ‘other’ who is in any way different.

Why should we care

In the research from which this article is drawn, the majority of primary school principals reported that they were just clinging on to their moral obligations in securing the ethos of their schools. Instead, the pressure is mounting for a new generation of CEO-type school principals to exchange the heavy workload and personal commitment involved in a child-centred philosophy of education, and instead move into the far less messy work of project management in distributing tasks and setting up reporting lines.

If this new CEO style leader prevails, our youngest children and Irish society will pay a heavy price for framing education as nothing other than a mere commodity. We stand to lose many if not all of our public interest values of social cohesion, the common good of a vibrant democracy and the community building needed for securing a generous and just outlook for future generations.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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