Exclusive: Principals slam ‘bureaucracy gone mad’

Principals are warning that the amount of red tape involved in their job can have serious legal implications – both for themselves and their schools.

Stephen Breen, president of the Western Australian Primary Principals Association (WAPPA) said many principals feel the situation is at “crisis point”.

“Across the board, I do not know of any principal who would deny the situation is at crisis point,” Breen told The Educator.

“It’s quite clear that over the last 10 years, the cost-cutting and various reforms have created a situation where there is now no middle-man and all the jobs of staffing, finance and management are all being done by the principal,” Breen said.

“This means that there has been an astronomical increase in bureaucracy.”

Breen said this posed a “high risk” not just for principals, but also their schools and the department itself, adding that principals’ understanding of departmental policies and procedures were often buried under heavy administrative workloads.

“School leadership professional learning is a major issue in Australia,” Breen said.

“Australia is the only country in the industrialised world that does not have a mandated professional learning qualification to become a school leader, and school leaders in this state are now calling for that.

“If you look at high-performing countries, they have a system with a middle layer…a support structure…where principals are properly supported and not left to handle jobs they shouldn’t be doing.”

Breen said WAPPA now has a lawyer to assist principals through the “maze” of policies and procedures.

“Should we do that? It’s a question of whether we should do it or should the employer do it? If something happens in the private enterprise and it’s a team thing then there should be a team solution to it.”

Breen said a nationally mandated training system would be a good place to start when it comes to addressing these issues.

Risk management ‘simply too high’
Breen said WA schools were running “million-dollar businesses” with a myriad of separate yet intersecting responsibilities, all of which were being run by one individual.

“Most million-dollar businesses would have a compliance officer, an accountant, access to legal help and other support, but the principal doesn’t,” he explained.

“This means that the risk management for principals is very high, and this is also true for education departments and schools. People used to love this job because it was an instructional leadership role. Now it is in many ways just a managerial role with too many liabilities.”

Breen said some schools have up to 80 staff, and that running such a school as a deputy could be “incredibly risky”.

“For example, if a principal goes on long-service leave and an acting principal steps in, that deputy is now the one who is fully accountable,” Breen explained.

Breen said that as a result of the changing nature of the job, there are now very few who want to take it on.

“We now have a situation where fewer and fewer applications are being put forward for the job of principals – and this is an issue in across all three school sectors,” he said.

Phil Lewis, president of Catholic Secondary Principals Australia, told The Educator that a look at the requirements for reapplying for the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS) was “an excellent example” of red tape.

“There is a 96-page online handbook to help you fill in the form if you want to apply to continue enrolling overseas students. You virtually need to employ someone for a week at least to complete it,” Lewis said.

“Accountabilities should be there to protect and support principals in their work to provide the best opportunities for their students – accountabilities should be an enabler – not a restraint.”

Michael Fay, president of Queensland Association of State School Principals (QASSP) said research suggests significant work needs to be done in the area of bureaucratic overload in order to reduce job demands and increase resources to allow school leaders to deal with the increased demands.

“There is a concern about the amount of red tape in schools. This has happened for a number of reasons and seems to have increased over the years,” Fay told The Educator.

“Over time, existing administrative processes can become unnecessary, either because circumstances or requirements have changed, such as through the introduction of new technology, or through duplication of expectations on schools.

“Today’s children are tomorrow’s nation builders. We owe it to them and ourselves to give them the best opportunities we can. School leaders need to be well resourced and freed from bureaucratic constraints to focus on the core job – teaching and learning,” he said.

Principals’ careers can be destroyed by “honest mistakes”
Last week, a former principal was found not guilty of acting corruptly as a public officer following a case which his lawyer lamented was an example of “bureaucracy gone crazy”.

Former principal Kevin Riordan, who headed Laverton School in WA, was sacked in 2013 after an internal investigation by the Education Departments' Standards and Integrity Unit found he had breached Departmental procedure by selling a demountable school building to a friend for $100.

Riordan’s lawyer, Linda Black, successfully argued that while Riordan did not follow correct procedure, he did not do so in a corrupt or dishonest manner.

Black said Riordan’s consultation with Education Department officials and the completion of necessary paperwork indicated that he was attempting to follow procedure, and merely made an error in failing to comply with procedure.

Breen said this case was “a symptom” of the lack of training that principals had in departmental policy and procedures.

“The bureaucracy was always there but they’ve cut out the middle layer. It has now it’s gone mad because it’s the responsibility of the principal to do everything,” Breen said.

He added that this was “a very overlooked issue” because it didn’t immediately affect anyone else but the principal.

“Some principals deal with the load compliancy paperwork by simply not doing it – or they do it, but make mistakes. This is bound to happen when you’re overloaded with administrative work on top of your existing duties,” he said.

“However, the impact this has on the system is quite important because a lot of people don’t want to do the job anymore and we have trouble getting bums on seats in this country, and even into good schools which are located in the city.”

Breen said he recently heard that Freedom Of Information-related workloads may soon be “hand-balled” to schools, which he said would be “a minefield”.

“Clearly, we will stuff this up too because we haven’t had training in this area,” he said.