Recruiting enough primary school principals ‘quite a challenge’

Noelle Buick, chief inspector at the Education and Training Inspectorate
Noelle Buick, chief inspector at the Education and Training Inspectorate

It is proving tough to recruit the numbers of primary principals required in the Province, leading to an “instability in leadership” for some schools according to Northern Ireland’s top inspector.

The Education and Training Inspectorate today publishes a report into the state of Northern Ireland’s education, summarising the results of hundreds of inspections over a two-year period.

Among its findings were that the vast bulk of schools inspected – 79% of primaries and 86% of post-primaries (including secondary and grammar schools) – had “a high level of capacity or capacity to identify and bring about improvement”; in other words, they are basically judged to be either good or outstanding.

It also cited figures showing that out of 19 primary schools which were found to be in need of a “formal intervention process” to bring them up to standard during the two-year inspection period.

Out of these, 14 – almost three-quarters – were from the Catholic maintained sector.

Although more Catholic primary schools were inspected than any other type, the figure is still disproportionately high.

Only a small proportion of the entire school network was covered in the report.

Inspection of the all the schools in Northern Ireland is done on a kind of rota-style system.

They are not selected for inspection based on whether they are maintained or controlled.

In the two-year period covered by the report, leading up to July this year, 219 primary schools – 116 Catholic maintained, 85 controlled and 18 others – were inspected.

Ahead of the report’s publication, its contents were set out at a briefing for the media.

Noelle Buick, the inspectorate’s chief inspector, was asked why Catholic primary schools made up the lion’s share of those needing special attention.

She said: “It was mainly around instability in leadership – [it] was the main issue.”

Asked what was meant by this, she said: “It means that leadership vacancies are being left too long without a permanent principal really, I suppose is what we’re saying.”

She went on to add: “I suppose there’s quite a number of maintained schools and, I think a general point I’d make [is] there are over 800 primary schools.

“It is quite a tall order in our small system to find 800 primary principals – I think that’s quite a challenge, and that’s one of the things we may need to look at going forward; some sort of structural changes.

“We have a lot of small schools, small rural schools.”

She raised the possibility of having head teachers looking after “two or three schools”, because “the system is just finding it really difficult to recruit the number of principals that are required”.

In total, there are more than 800 primary schools in Northern Ireland – 370 Catholic maintained ones, 367 from the state-run controlled sector, and 84 others.

In addition, there are over 200 post-primaries – 64 Catholic maintained ones, 65 controlled, and 72 others.

As well as the 219 primary schools which were inspected during the latest reporting period, 49 post-primary schools were inspected (including 18 Catholic maintained ones, and 10 controlled ones).

In addition, over 200 pre-schools were inspected, plus other educational establishments.