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The Paper Horses That Our School Principals Have Become

The Paper Horses That Our School Principals Have Become

Students listen to their teacher in a classroom, Central Model School, Barrackpore, June 2020. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

  • The training programmes available for school principals in India are out of touch with principals’ purpose.
  • These programmes, typically led by the corporate entities, to ‘lead’ and implement a ‘vision’ are futile because they ignore school administration.
  • When we train leaders to design classrooms to optimise instructional delivery, we need to pause and reflect if we are discussing manufacturing soda or running a school that helps children live meaningful lives.

I met Prabhat Kumar, a government school principal in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, during a three-day leadership training program. Here, Kumar and 30 other school principals were taught leadership skills to build out their schools’ visions, create annual school progress plans and motivate teachers to implement them.

The principals rated the programme highly. A month later, when I visited Kumar to check if he had implemented any of the lessons, he smiled. “Sir, today we have to report the weight of school bags for all the children. Tomorrow, we have to send vaccination reports. Friday is our weekly assessment result reporting. When do I build a school vision or make a plan?”

He gestured towards the three almirahs behind his desk that were filled with school records, capturing every document received and sent from the day the school was opened. Kumar’s remark highlighted the gaps between what we think school principals do, what we train them to do and what they actually do. In my experience – of working across 12 states, interacting with hundreds of educational leaders and shadowing school principals in Mumbai – Kumar is not an exception.

Even during the current times of COVID-19, when the physical schools have been closed, state officials are conducting programs to train school principals and teachers to organise and monitor online instructions. These well-intended programmes don’t acknowledge the reality that most school principals – especially women – are burdened with household responsibilities as well. At home with their families, and with a shortage of help, they must still negotiate patriarchal expectations.

By conducting such programmes, are we not simply ensuring that the reality of school principalship remains distinct from what we think it stands for?

Strengthening principalship in India can be a game-changer. There are over a million principals in the government school system, and an additional four lakh principals if we include private schools. We don’t have an exact number because many private schools remain unrecognised, but there is no doubt that we have the largest number of school leaders in the world. Second, principals shape school culture. Remember your own years of schooling and how principals influenced what happened in the classroom, the playground and even the corridors. Research in other countries has empirically demonstrated that when schools’ leaders care about teaching and learning, students perform better.

The possibilities offered by strengthening the million-plus cadre of school leaders attracts organisations to provide training courses. In what can only be considered a noble and well-intentioned exercise, these organisations pay heavy fees to have trainers and consultants train principals into becoming good leaders.

Unfortunately, my experience working with principals shows that these training sessions might be counterproductive. First, these programmes aim to improve leadership – whereas the real life of a school principal is encased in administration. Second, these programmes follow a pro-market or business perspective to organizations, which runs counter to the ethos and purpose of public schools.

Administrator or leader?

The daily life of a school principal is replete with brief, work-related administrative encounters. Within a couple hours of entering their school, a principal will have anywhere between 20 to 30 administrative tasks demanding quick decisions – a teacher ambushing the principal in a corridor to discuss a discipline issue, a parent entering the principal office with her child to request a new uniform, a midday meal provider checking about payments, a staff member requesting approval for a month-long leave, etc.

Add to this the servitude forced by technology – as WhatsApp channels ping with requests for reports by the end of the day.

One government school principal told me their kind are “but a kagazi ghoda” – Hindi for ‘paper horse’. He meant the principal both as a powerless figurehead and their role as primarily to document and deliver paperwork.

To be clear, administration is a worthwhile activity – and this is where training must be  focused. In India, teachers are directly appointed as principals without a formal induction programme or in-service support for being a good administrator. So the corporate-led training programmes that train the principal to ‘lead’ and implement a ‘vision’ are often futile.

Plus, the term ‘leadership’ has more bite than the term ‘administration’ – so a “leadership programme” is likely to be approved faster by a government official or a school board.

Not a CEO

The second issue that makes corporatised training programmes harmful is the framing of a school as a business organisation and its principal as a CEO. More and more Indian schools have been adopting this pro-market approach of late, even as it has come under fire.

Consider, for instance, India’s public schools that have embraced a number-driven auditing culture, with high-stakes accountability. All these schools are required to assess their students based on indicators devised by external consultants, and send weekly reports about every student, from test scores to the weight of their bags. The result, as I found in my own research, is an inordinate amount of time teachers and principals spend away from classrooms, and hunched over calculating results and often even massaging the data so that it looks ‘right’.

Private-school principals too often fetishise data to create ‘lean schools’ that aspire to efficiently fit children into variables. The human and social aspects of education, such as inculcating democratic values, collaborative skills and a social justice perspective, fade into the background because they are difficult to capture with numbers. When leaders are trained to design classrooms for optimising instructional delivery, we need to pause and reflect if we are discussing manufacturing soda or running a school that supports children to live meaningful lives.

So before we begin improving school principals, let’s consider three directions.

First, develop knowledge of what they do and what their real-life challenges are. Conduct research on where and how principals spend their time (as other countries have done with time and attention studies).

Second, pay attention to administration as a core aspect of school principal practice. Identify and share good administrative practices that wise principals follow. Support principals by reducing their administrative load or by creating an administrative support staff position within the school.

Third, decouple educational leadership from business leadership. Bring values like democracy, equity, compassion and social justice into school leadership discourse. Replace ‘stakeholder’ with ‘community’ and ‘customer’ with ‘student’. Establish partnerships between public universities and schools so that university faculty members develop an appreciation for principal practice, and so school principals can learn how to conduct action research and empower themselves.

The only silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has given us time to reconfigure school principalship. We have the time to pause to ask: what can we do to help the one million school principals find meaning in their work? What kind of work do we want our school leaders to do that will help the 150 million school children that depend on them? These are worthy questions to answer.

Gopal Midha holds a PhD in educational leadership from the University of Virginia. He is currently setting up a Center for Research on School Leadership in Goa.

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