Principals spending too much time as managers, new report on Ontario education finds

Principals are spending too much time doing menial managerial tasks and school boards are struggling to adequately support students' mental health, according to a new report on education in Ontario.

Report makes recommendations aimed at Ontario's incoming PC government

The report found that students' mental health is a major area concern for schools. (CBC)

Principals are spending too much time doing menial managerial tasks and school boards are struggling to adequately support students' mental health, according to a sweeping new report on education in Ontario released Monday.

Those are two of the most pressing issues identified in People for Education's annual review of the province's publicly-funded schools, entitled The New Basics for Public Education. The non-profit organization assembled the report from survey results garnered from 1,244 schools in all but two of Ontario's 72 public boards.

People for Education hope the report's recommendations will serve as a blueprint for Ontario's incoming Progressive Conservative government. 

The authors found that only nine per cent of elementary school principals and 13 per cent of secondary school principals said "Supporting professional learning and improving the instructional program" — ostensibly their primary function — as their most time-consuming task.

Some 22 per cent of elementary principals instead reported "Managing facilities" was the most-consuming task they handle, where as 25 per cent of high school principals surveyed said "Managing staff" took up most of their time. 

"Those are problematic figures," said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education.

"Principals talked a lot about it in the comments they provided — the feeling that their job is becoming more managerial and less about focusing on their students."

Annie Kidder is the executive director of People for Education. (peopleforeducation.ca)

Meanwhile, there was a "dramatic increase" in the number of instances in which a principal tells a student with special education needs to stay home from school. In 2018, 58 per cent of elementary and 48 per cent of high school principals reported doing so, up from 48 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively, in 2014. 

The vast majority reported those requests were made for safety reasons, whether for the student in question or for other students. 

The organization first began watching the issue after a growing number of parents began reporting that they'd been asked to either pull their children out of school early or keep them home altogether, Kidder explained. 

The current system is evidently struggling to cope with the growing number of students receiving special education services, she added. The report found 17 per cent of elementary students and 27 per cent of secondary students currently qualify for such services, figures that are nearly twice as high as those reported in 2000.

Kidder said that it's not entirely clear what is behind the increase, but said the issue "definitely needs to be looked at."

"It seems as if it's possible that there aren't enough educational assistants, or existing educational assistants may not have the kind of support that they need in order to make sure that kids are safe," she explained. 

Mental health should be key focus, report says

A need for more support staff also appears to pose challenges for schools struggling to address the mental health of students.

"Students' mental health is a clear area of concern for schools. Principals note limited access to guidance counsellors, educational assistants, psychologists, and other mental health professionals, and express concern about their capacity to address growing mental health needs among students," the report reads.

While school boards have made significant progress on this front in recent years, Kidder notes, Ontario risks falling behind other jurisdictions. It's not only about helping children maintain mental wellness in school, but also giving them the tools necessary to ensure their mental health down the road, she added.

"Inside schools, we need to do more for prevention so that we aren't just dealing with kids who are already struggling with mental illness, but rather building mental and physical wellbeing into curriculum as a core basic," Kidder said. 

"To make sure students will be able to deal with the complexity of the world that they are going to live in."

This is among a group of principles that the report's authors call "the new basics." They say that Ontario is indeed doing quite well, by national and international standards, when it comes to the traditional core competencies: reading, writing and arithmetic (sometimes called the 'three R's.') 

But there is an emerging consensus among educators that, increasingly, schools should be taking a more holistic approach to learning so that children are prepared for the realities of a changing world, Kidder said.

"If we think of the world today and what kids need to know in order to be successful in multiple jobs — which they will most likely have — there is a sense that there are new basics," she told CBC Toronto.

"Those new basics are competency and skills in creativity, in citizenship, in social-emotional learning. We have to make sure these things are embedded in curriculum and available for all kids."

With files from The Canadian Press