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Is autonomy for schools a step in the right direction?

Today, the Irish Independent announced that there are plans for remodelling the entire structure of finance for schools. Rather than all monies being controlled by the Department of Education, schools will be given a budget and can then decide how best to spend the money on staffing, resources, SNAs, classroom assistants, ancillary staff, etc. There have been calls for a number of years for more autonomy in primary education from the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) but this front page news has been met with caution from the union.

As a principal, I wonder whether this sort of autonomy is a welcome step. On one hand, I see huge advantages. I can see how the system will allow for lots of flexibility. However, I can also see the disadvantages, particularly if the role of the principal is not examined and properly defined. Let’s go through some of the issues.

The grant itself

Brendan Howlin, the minister who has come up with this idea, has suggested giving a block grant to each school to  spend in whatever manner they see fit. Right now, if we total up the amount of money that is given to schools by the DES, it doesn’t go anywhere near the total cost of running a school, which is why most primary schools run a voluntary contribution scheme and endless cake sales. How will this grant be calculated? Howlin suggests it will be based on a matrix of options, such as DEIS status, numbers of pupils, numbers of pupils with SEN, etc., which sounds good. However, the grant is also going to have to cover the various wages that various people will require.

Given that there is a 25 point pay scale, will schools be more tempted to hire staff with little experience to save a few thousand euro per year or will the grant ensure that teachers who have more experience get rewarded accordingly? What about teachers with posts of responsibility? Will they now be scrapped in favour of a different model? What about pay for cleaning, care-taking, secretarial work, etc.? There’s then the huge complication of SEN, which I’ll go into later.

Maybe there’s plans to change the pay structure of teachers. I have no idea how this would work but possibly, there would be a minimum set wage for being a teacher who basically performs normal teaching duties. Depending on a number of factors, extra income would be given for fulfilling various roles. Let’s say the set wage for being a teacher is €35k. Therefore a 10 teacher school might receive €350k + a certain amount to dole out as they please. This could be doled out based on experience, duties covered, etc. I assume that this isn’t going to happen as most teachers would immediately get a reasonably big pay cut so I don’t really know how it would work in practice.

SEN

With regards to Special Educational Needs, schools are currently allocated resources via the NCSE. This model is being reviewed at the moment as there are massive problems with it. Right now, a SENO has the power to decide whether a psychologist’s recommendation for extra support is valid or not. This is a very dangerous situation and I wouldn’t like to be the SENO who is taken to task for refusing an allocation of an SNA to a school based on his/her opinion. Therefore, it seems to make sense to move the problem to the school.

Will a school now be in a position to decide if a child gets access to an SNA or not based on the grants received? This has the potential to be as messy as the current system.  Effectively, this won’t change in a model where the school decides. A massive overhaul of the NCSE will be needed before schools are lumped with the responsibility of deciding who gets access to SNAs or not. My suggestion would be that the NCSE might be scrapped in favour of a decent public NEPS service where there would only be a short wait for a psychological assessment.

Once there is a decent system for calculating resources for children with SEN, schools should be able to gain grants to pay for whatever services are recommended, be they SNAs, Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Therapy, etc.

Staffing

As mentioned above, staffing will be an issue with temptations to save money as much as possible. Inexperienced teachers cost a lot less than experienced ones so the DES will have to look at this carefully to avoid the problems outlined above.

As well as this, what happens when a school has to lose a teacher or SNA? Right now, the system, while a bit complicated, is fair. If you haven’t got a high enough enrollment, you lose teachers. When schools can decide how to spend their money on staff, it’s difficult to say to a colleague that they won’t be keeping them on. This might not be complicated for teachers but for SNAs, given that allocations are not based on enrollment and more so on needs, the school will have to make very difficult decisions. Ultimately, in my opinion, every classroom should have an SNA or classroom assistant. However, it’s highly unlikely that enough funding will be given for anything near this. I’m not sure how this will work, but I think principals are going to need a degree in HR!

As for other staff, there is already so little funding available for secretaries, cleaners and caretakers that I’d be surprised if the grant covered the cost of this. This may mean that ancillary staff may find themselves either unemployed or on less than minimum wage.

Given the diversity of school sizes, needs, etc., staffing is going to be very difficult. Perhaps, solutions may lie in smaller schools being able to pull their budgets together to hire shared staff? It may even suit schools to pull some money together to hire a substitute teacher that can be called upon whenever the need arises. With this autonomy, there comes interesting ideas. It will also see an end to the stupid rule that full-time posts cannot be created by combining General Allocation hours with Resource hours.

Another example, right now, all classes are supposed to have an average ratio of 29 pupils to 1 teacher. Schools also get a support teacher for every 5 classes they have. Resource teachers are hired based on the diagnoses of children with SEN. Sometimes, things like this don’t suit and perhaps if there is a time where a class may have to take in 36-40 children, it might be better to split the class in two and use a support teacher to take half the class.  I also like the idea of flexibility in hiring classroom assistants, if this were possible, like they do in the UK.

According to the Irish Independent, Brendan Howlin has the idea that a school might have decisions around class sizes and teacher numbers would be among those to be taken by individual schools. He says:

“At school level, to say, well actually, we will have more SNAs and fewer resource teachers or more resource teachers and fewer SNAs or this is the mix,” he said. “And teachers, yeah, I’d like to see that. We’ll have two fewer teachers and. . .

Performance Related Pay

We’ll be writing a separate article on this but I feel I need to mention it here too. I don’t think rewarding staff for results in standardised tests should ever happen. It is wrong to judge a teacher on the results of their students at primary level. A much more in-depth of analysis of success is needed rather than some over-simplified model like this. However, as I said, this is for another blog post.

School Hours

Aside from budgeting, will schools have the autonomy to decide on school hours? For example, while we will have to cover the minimum tuition per week, will the Croke Park Hours be abandoned in favour of getting paid for working after hours? Each school could have a minimum expectation for a working week and then anything extra could be rewarded. It would be an interesting model though, obviously open to all the various problems that the private sector have.

The role of the principal and Board of Management

Effectively, this decision would change the role of the principal from being a colleague to being “the CEO” of a school. They will have to make lots of decisions that will determine people’s careers and they will now have to take control of budgets and HR. Is this possible for a teaching principal? What about Boards of Management? If we are to be reviewing the way grants are provided to schools, thus completely changing the role of the principal, we must also look at the Board of Management. Decisions at Board level will undoubtedly involve financial rewards. It is unlikely that many Boards have qualified people in this area. I think it has to be time for an examination of the role of the Board of Management in primary schools. While a Board of Management is necessary for a school, perhaps it needs to be devolved to a model similar to the ETBs (though without all the politics!) I’m no expert in this area and I am privileged to have a wonderful Board of Management but there are plenty of exceptions out there.

There’s probably hundreds of other questions yet to be answered and this article is an immediate reaction to today’s news so I’ll probably come back to this issue again. I have a feeling that this idea is going to go nowhere even though I think it has huge potential for success. However, it’s such a big change that it is going to take many years and many negotiations to get it through. The major sticking point is that primary education is vastly underfunded right now and until this is fixed, there’s probably not going to be an appetite for change as it will be seen as another way to cut funding even further.

Last Update: August 17, 2017  

January 3, 2014   54   simon    Leadership  
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