I had a discussion a few months ago with a preschool principal regarding teaching matters. She revealed that she spends the bulk of her time doing administrative tasks like answering phone calls, collecting school fees, and processing government subsidies to parents, in her job. As a result, she has no time to monitor the teachers at work in the classroom, let alone provide guidance or assist them in solving the problems they encounter in their teaching life.
To ascertain how widespread the problem is, I verified the situation with some teachers and discovered that many among them think that their principals do indeed spend a lot of time dealing with administrative matters. Whenever the principal does speak to the teachers, it is merely to brief them on work matters, or to convey instructions from the management.
A few years ago, mainstream primary and secondary schools increased the number of administrative staff in order to lighten the workload of teachers and principals. At this juncture, we cannot ascertain whether this policy has worked. However, there is a real need to review the role of the principal in the development of preschool education that falls outside of mainstream education, failing which proposed improvements to early childhood education would not achieve their intended effect.
The government and preschool operators have, in recent years, actively promoted the necessity to raise the qualifications of the teachers. The government has even offered scholarships to encourage preschool teachers to study for a bachelor’s and even a master’s degree in early childhood education. The objective is to increase the ranks of those who can occupy managerial roles and improve the overall standards of early childhood education.
However, from what is understood of the work actually performed by preschool principals who have undergone specialised training, their energy has mainly been wasted on work that does not call on their professional training; in fact, much of what they actually do could easily be done by other staff members. More significantly, the aspects of their job that could not be taken over by others are neglected. If these principals who have received tertiary-level training in early childhood education are unable to find the time and opportunity to put their professional knowledge to practice, specifically in the areas of curriculum development and education theories, wouldn’t one conclude that the expensive training that they had undergone have yielded low efficiency and returns on investments?
To determine value and assess efficiency, one could use the concept, ‘replaceable’, as a measure. For instance, daily administrative matters like answering phone calls, collecting school fees, and processing government subsidies for parents should be handled by an employee who is given basic administrative training, thus leaving the principal to deal with the key aspects of his or her job, which could not be easily assumed by others, as they require specialised training. The core functions of the principal’s job include: leading the teachers in their work; developing the schools’ curriculum; raising the teachers’ capabilities; and developing parental education.
So why do preschool operators deploy their staff in this inefficient fashion? I believe that it has something to do with their alternative definition of the role of the principal. From their perspective, the sole purpose of the principal’s higher educational qualifications is to boost the parents’ confidence in the preschool. Their role remains that of an administrator for the most part while handling all matters related to the recruitment of students. Essentially, the principal has to ensure strong enrolment and take responsibility for the retention of the students as these aspects are directly related to the operators’ profit levels. This creates a source of conflict between the teaching staff and the principal, which is particularly true in profit-driven preschools.
Principals who have received professional training in early childhood education should be spending their energy on the development of the school’s curriculum, as the leader of their preschools. Their priorities should be centred on coaching and building the capabilities of the teaching staff, as well as the execution of any plans to ensure the development, implementation, and sustainability of the curriculum.
As the parents’ support of the school’s curriculum is critical to its successful implementation, principals must also do whatever within their power to win the former over. Hence, seminars and workshops should be organised to boost the parents’ understanding, so that they would be willing to lend a hand in building and enhancing the school’s curriculum. Only then would preschool education be of good quality. In fact, the stability of enrolment in a preschool is closely related to the quality that it can offer. And if the principal is unable to build, sustain, or even improve the quality of education, it is vital to get to the bottom of the problem. Is this situation the reflection of the principal’s ability, or are there conditions that are undermining his/her endeavour to perform their job?
Much has been discussed about raising the capabilities and qualifications of the teachers when reviewing the quality of early childhood education. The government has also responded by making changes to the relevant policies. What has not been brought up adequately for discussion is how the school’s management could help in providing the teaching staff with the necessary operational conditions. In fact, the management of both privately-run preschools and mainstream schools plays a crucial role as a facilitator of the teaching staff. It should provide the necessary conditions for the teaching staff to realise and improve their capabilities, as well as allow them to pursue and fulfil their aspirations of what education should and could do.
Since preschools are almost all privately run, it may be difficult for the government to intervene. Yet the first thing that the preschool management could do to foster the development of principals and the teaching staff is to relieve the principals from their administrative work load. Hence, they may finally be able to embark on the work that they are meant to do in the first place and for which only they are able to perform well.
However, for the moment, it looks as though the principals of these privately-run preschools would have to rely solely on their own initiative. As we strive towards the goal of “every school is a good school”, perhaps it is an opportune time for the government to review the management of the mainstream schools under its purview.