Managing schools – challenges before school heads

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There has been a sea-change in the functions and the leadership styles of the Heads of schools. From icons of wisdom, role models in classrooms and the social marvels of nobility, they are expected to be corporate thinkers, pragmatic leaders, strategy managers, trained public relation executives and crisis managers. Here’s more on what is expected of the school heads.


When R.K. Laxman drew the caricature of the headmaster of a school a few decades before, one could see a reasonably old man with a turban and wearing a classical Indian dhothi carrying an umbrella with him. Those caricatures will certainly not fit today with the profile of a Principal who can be described with a narrative – a smart T-shirt along with a Jeans and an Adidas Sport shoe, a gentleman sporting a suit or an impressive lady with a professional outlook. Times are changing and so is the profile and the functions of the head of schools.

If the recent happenings in schools across the country are any indicators, one could foresee a sea-change in the functions and the leadership styles of the heads of schools. From icons of wisdom, role models in classrooms and the social marvels of nobility, they are expected to be corporate thinkers, pragmatic leaders, strategy managers, trained public relation executives and crisis managers. They are hardly to be left with any time for planning the curricula, academic initiatives or trainers of pedagogical competencies. If they could add some of these along with the emerging profiles, they may be excellent performers in their chosen field.

What are the emerging concerns for School Heads?

Managing the School Brand:
Given the school competitiveness in the existing social set-up, managing a private school is indeed becoming a very challenging issue. Every school intends to be a brand in the local community and then in a larger geographical set-up because of the huge investments made by the entrepreneurs who would like to make a conscious impact about their presence in the local community. In turn, this brand is an indirect input to the financial health of the schools as it would reflect on the numbers in the school and the process fee. Developing and sustaining a brand of this type is indeed a major responsibility of the School Head. It calls for a coordinated effort with several stakeholders, both direct and indirect. The challenges to be faced in this task is not easy and requires a set of skills which are never a part of their previous experience in their academic domain and nor are they usually exposed to such skills in a professional manner by any agency traditionally. Therefore, the School Heads are required to learn and use these skills on a continuous basis to ensure sustainability of the brand. To add, the emerging TRP patterns for schools due to interventions, patronages, rewards and recognitions given by the media and business agencies forces the school heads to remain fully conscious and in pursuit of such quests, whether they like it or not.

Managing customer needs:
Customer needs of schools are different and varied in a school situation. There are primary, secondary and tertiary customers for schools. Though students are primary customers, the school heads are required to satisfy the needs of both secondary and tertiary customers which include parents, social activists, school boards, governmental agencies, investors and public interest bodies. Examined closely, one could find that sometimes these needs have conflicting intents and strategies required to meet these needs are also mutually exclusive. Therefore, the skills required to manage these conflicts are often perspiring, frustrating and painstaking. Possibly the effort required to deliver these requirements may make the school heads to breathe heavily and measure the blood-sugar and blood pressure more frequently than the normal people. Often, they are forced to press some panic buttons which are stressful and might land them in avoidable situations. To be precise, the definition of quality education is under serious debate, thanks to different perceptions of the various stakeholders. The School Heads, therefore, are required to adopt multi-faceted strategies to keep everyone happy and this indeed would require exhaustive resources both financially as well as in terms of human investments. The School Heads, are therefore required to adopt a challenging balancing act. To do this, I am sure, they don’t forget to offer their prayers wherever they are!

Managing the existential obligations:
The School Heads are required to meet and satisfy many the existential obligations. Though they are not exclusive architects of the resources that are defined in such obligations, they are the front desk managers of these obligations and hence bound to give appropriate accountability for the delivery of these obligations. Hence, they become accountable to law, though in many of these deliveries they are only agents of the primary stakeholders. In a developing school architecture, many of these obligations are not met either fully or adequately and the affiliations are granted on a mutual acceptance of the delivery over a period or on a promise of a brighter future. But the failure of such deliveries of the investors for one or the other reason puts the School Heads in an avoidable embarrassment when they are asked to face critical situations to explain such failures. Yet, they become accountable.

In several cases, the state agencies which are equally responsible to ensure such deliveries sleep in their comfort zone till a challenging situation arises and then use all their power and strengthen to engage into punitive actions against the School Heads or other stakeholders, absolving their own responsibilities undelivered over an extended period.

Several issues like school infrastructure safety, child abuse, mental and emotional safety of students in schools, compliance with financial directives, issues relating to staffing patterns, their welfare and job security are indeed a few to mention.
But it is important to note that these are not issues which are exclusive to private institutions but do apply to almost all governmental institutions, both state and central. Who would be accountable for several government schools which do not have basic support systems for safety of children – like absence of proper toilets, water supply, absence of boundary walls, day time security for entry of unwarranted people? Imagine schools where dogs and cattle stray in the school grounds where the children are expected to play! It is important for the enforcing authorities to apply the same yardstick for all those are certified by them immaterial of the fact whether they are governmental or non-governmental.

Managing Relationships
Relationship Management has acquired new perspectives, thanks to the changing social dynamics and expectation patterns. Passionate relationships have given way to professional relationships wherein the life-cycle of relationship has become more contractual spread over specified period, for a given purpose to achieve a defined objective. Though the teacher- student relationship still has imprints of the legacy handed over from the past, it is slowly transforming into an engagement of mutual support and assistance bereft of any emotional angle. This transformation is happening on both sides of the spectrum. In such a situation, the School Heads are required to be watchful of both the activity and the passivity of such engagements so that the professionalism does not violate the basic tenet of ethics on which such relationships are built or viewed. Any verbal or punitive action is considered as non-compliance with law and hence the school Heads are required to exercise maximum restraint in their engagements and ensure that such restraints are followed strictly in letter and spirit.

Increasing parental awareness about the performance profile of their wards is indeed a welcome change. But there appears to be a declining ‘Trust’ between the stakeholders and the system. One of the challenges the Schools Heads face and will continue to face is to be sensitive to the personal interest of the parents rather than a common interest or a social perspective. The relationship is increasingly becoming ‘investor’ or ‘customer’ pattern who expects certain assured returns immaterial of the process requirements or the performance profile of the child. “Fairness” is getting redefined and is becoming personalized to the individual. Managing new patterns of emotions and consequent relationships will indeed call for newer learning for the School Heads. It will be worthwhile to learn from some global school systems where such relationships are managed in an extremely professional manner wherein each stakeholder knowns expectations, responsibilities, processes and limitations of engagement.

Relationship with the administrators of diverse kinds is indeed taking a larger slice of the work time of the School Heads. In a situation, where everyone wants everything to be done instantly with accuracy and speed, the data management requirements of the schools are fast increasing. As such data analytics in schools is becoming an important and purposeful activity. School Heads are required to become efficient and effective leaders of data analytics and data interpretation to deal with several of these regulating agencies. Indeed fire-fighting with the data is an art which they are expected to master and deliver.

Managing Crisis
The schools have become centers of public importance where every single event and incident is attracting a public opinion, view or criticism. The sensitivity with which the school events need to be handled calls for specific skills and cannot be taken for granted. Whether a school is organizing a field trip or a tour, whether the school is conducting an annual day or a sports event, whether the school is inviting a film star or a political luminary–is indeed being watched by the local community with interest to make their own opinions. Further, how the school bus is being driven on a road, how the school construction is taking place without any inconvenience, how a school is attending to a simple fracture of a student who had hurt himself while participating in a cricket match – is being considered judgmentally by the local and the parent community. Hence any mishap, any unexpected event that could be predictably harmful should be handled with care and sensitivity. Crisis Management skills have become integral part of the school management skills – to manage violent groups, to satisfy a curious media, to assuage the hurt feelings of the stakeholders and to restore normalcy. School Heads need to be trained in the above skills as the absence of these skills would have serious costs both the individual and the school.

Managing the Future
Given all the above challenges, the School Heads are left with only a small slice of time to attend to other school priorities. In a fast-changing academic scenario, it is increasingly becoming a team game to run a school. With increasing expectations, the management of the future is both enterprising and challenging. Any amount of excellent work done over decades, would fall short, in uneven play with stakeholders where emotions rule rather than knowledge. Anticipatory and preventive strategies which are not regressive, retrograde and reactionary should be carefully planned and put in place to manage schools. While some good learning can happen through corporate thinking, one should also know that schools are not factories where quality systems put on paper are totally relevant, because the operating field is human systems and hence one needs to be conscious of human welfare and related to sensitivities. While one need not be pessimistic about the emerging challenges of managing schools, it is also not good to be overtly optimistic about managing them.

Special institutes of management focusing on imparting these skills for this field with experts might be relevant in the future. Boards of education and administrative agencies dealing with the process of regulating schools need to examine whether the qualifications and experience detailed for these posts in the last few decades would be good enough for the future too?

G.Balasubramanian, Editor-in-chief of The Progressive School Magazine is a leading educator in the field of school education, curriculum designer, author, HR trainer and educational administrator. Widely traveled, he has authored several books for schools, educational administrators and is a premier teacher-trainer both across the country and abroad. He has authored – Mindscaping Education, Case Studies in Classrooms, Quality Spectrum – A school’s bandwidth and Safety in Schools – Issues & concerns.