Ontario principals do so much administrative work, such as managing the school building and staff, it is a “challenge” to find time to improve student learning, according to a report released Wednesday.
The findings are based on a survey of 1,244 principals from publicly-funded schools by research and advocacy group People for Education. Among the more “startling” figures, says executive director Annie Kidder, was when principals ranked the amount of time spent on various tasks, including managing facilities, staff and individual student issues.
Just 9 per cent of elementary principals, and 13 per cent of secondary principals, said the most time-consuming task was supporting professional learning and improving the instructional program. By comparison, 22 per cent of elementary principals said managing the facilities, and 27 per cent of high school principals said managing staff, took up most of their time, according to the report, now being reviewed by the Ministry of Education.
“One would hope that principals would say the task on which they spend the most time would be leading the instructional program, and it is not that,” Kidder told the Star. “When principals talk to us about the competing priorities, their concern is that the management tasks end up overtaking the learning tasks.”
She says principals are “hamstrung” by having to focus on managerial issues and not educational ones. One solution is adding more vice-principals — most high schools have them, but just 45 per cent of elementary schools do. The report, which expands upon survey results that were released in June, notes that vice-principals help out with managerial duties, allowing principals to spend more time on the instructional program and school improvement planning.
Also, 11 per cent of elementary principals, and 18 per cent of high school principals, said most of their time is spent addressing the needs of individual students, such as behavioural and mental health issues. They say there aren’t enough mental health resources in schools, such as social workers, psychologists and guidance counsellors.
“They’re sort of putting out fires in terms of individual student issues, rather than leading the instructional program,” says Kidder. “They need more staff support.”
That’s why the group is calling on the Ministry of Education to meet with principals’ councils to address these challenges and consider providing schools with more resources and administrative staff.
“The ministry will continue to work with its partners to hear recommendations on how the province can support principals and vice-principals,” says ministry spokesperson Heather Irwin.
In March, the then-Liberal government in Ontario announced $181 million in funding, over four years, to hire more mental health workers in high schools, but it’s unclear if that money will be distributed by the current Progressive Conservatives.
“The government is currently reviewing all investments of mental health resources within schools with a view to building a more integrated and responsive system,” said Irwin. “The government understands the importance of student mental health and is continuing to work with school boards to grow the capacity of school administrators, educators, and school mental health professionals to recognize when students may be struggling and to intervene early.”
Larry O’Malley, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council, says hiring compliance officers to complete some administrative work, giving the custodian more responsibility for managing the building and training more adults to help supervise students, for instance during the lunch hour, would help free up some time.
“Principals are one of the key factors in student success, so they need to be able to do their leadership role, in terms of providing instructional leadership,” he says. “That’s what they need to be able to focus on.”
Jennifer Yust, president of the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario, says the report underscores the feedback they regularly receive.
“Evolving roles of principals and vice-principals have resulted in an alarming increase in workload,” she says. “Our school leaders, at both the elementary and secondary levels, are spending a disproportionate amount of time handling administrative tasks, rather than improving student learning.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74