Strong principles for principals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2000, 12:00am

AS parents and teachers eagerly await the release of a key blueprint for educational reforms in a month's time, little public attention has so far focused on the likely effect upon school principals.

Even before details are released of the proposed comprehensive reforms, which will cover both the primary and secondary sectors, the Education Department is already inclining towards giving schools more decision-making power, so making principals a key force in the changes in their schools.

Continual support and training for the SAR's overworked principals has become more important in this new era of curriculum changes and more broadly-based education.

Enter long-time Australian educator Bruce Davis, who has just finished a stint at the department, with the mission of devising a framework for training the SAR's principals.

The mild-mannered 59-year-old came to Hong Kong last September, after retiring from the Australian Principals Centre in Melbourne. On his last day of work at the Education Department last week, he spoke with sympathy about the increased pressure principals are bound to face in the years ahead.

'School principals need to have a really good understanding of how to handle change. I don't think that's a skill they needed six years ago,' said Mr Davis, expressing sympathy for the heavy workload faced by principals and teachers working in crammed environments here.

'Looking after teachers in times of change is really important. Some teachers are worried about their future. Looking after staff is time-consuming and emotionally burdening.' The recent publication of an information guide on secondary schools may have created additional pressure for school heads. But, coming from a culture where public access to information is highly valued, Mr Davis does not see why principals should be antagonistic towards this unprecedented move.

Local principals may find this take-things-in-his-stride attitude inspiring as Mr Davis certainly well understands the anxieties that can result from changes.

In the first half of the 1990s, he witnessed a period of change as director of education in Tasmania implementing new education strategies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. In 1994, he helped draft a new education act for the island.

'Every time you think you have just got it together, something else is on the horizon which needs addressing. In my work with principals, I tried not to make it more difficult for them,'said the former architect. 'If you, as a school, collectively address issues that are happening, do not run away or be frightened by them, then you are far more likely to take on a normal pattern and begin to react and absorb change as a normal activity.' Scattered in-service training for principals on areas from supervision to problem-solving skills has been going on for many years in Hong Kong. Now the demand for training is greater than ever.

'More and wider educational changes are being introduced these days at a much quicker pace,' said Chan Yuen-sheung, a principal for 19 years at the Kowloon True Light Middle School.

Principal for St Paul's Co-educational (Kennedy Road) Primary School, Lee Tuen-yee, is another in favour of further training. 'The whole of Hong Kong is undergoing changes, we need to adjust to it too. One thing we need to learn is to get the co-operation of teachers,' he said.

That is certainly crucial amid plans by the Education Department to provide greater professional training for local principals, not all of whom are as well-educated as their counterparts in countries such as the United States.

In recent months the department has been conducting consultation exercises on two proposals: one on introducing a continual professional education programme for them and the other on setting up a management committee comprising teacher and parent representatives in each aided school.

The proposed committees are expected to have decision-making power over major school policies, procedures and practices, allowing key stakeholders in a school community to have a say in school affairs. The principal of each school, who will serve as an ex-officio member on each committee, will take up a more prominent role as a professional leader and chief administrator.

Drawing advice from people like Mr Davis, the department has drawn up educational plans for potential, newly appointed and existing principals.

It is proposed that from the 2004/2005 school year, professional accreditation will be required for appointment to the position of principal, whether in primary or secondary schools.

But it is the newly appointed lot who will have the most comprehensive training prepared for them. The department is recommending a two-part mandatory induction programme before and after they take up the appointment, plus a compulsory, broad-based continuing education programme covering leadership and self-knowledge in the first 18 months after they start the job.

Each will also be assigned to an experienced principal who will act as the newcomer's mentor.

In Australia there is a big push to develop management teams in schools to ease principals' pressure and workload, Mr Davis said. He is expecting the same trend to happen in Hong Kong. He has no doubt about the prime leadership role principals have in today's world. 'The first thing that a principal needs to have, and much more than in the past, is a good understanding of how children learn and how they can be taught,' he said.

'They also need to have a firm commitment to the ethics and values in a school. The society is challenging some of their traditional values and I think the school is a place which can stand up for all sorts of things.' Showing a flow chart listing the framework for continuing education, he looked pleased with these plans for the future. Since his retirement from his post in Tasmania in 1996, he has been involved in organising training for principals in Victoria, Australia, turning the Principals Centre in Melbourne into a professional establishment. And he now hopes a similar professional body, uniting secondary and primary principals, can be formed here.

The six months Mr Davis has spent in the SAR has also instilled in him a desire to resume learning. With a tinge of regret, he says one thing he and his wife had not seriously done was to learn a bit of Cantonese. So the couple, who did much sightseeing and attended the Methodist Church on Sundays during their time here, are taking some CDs on Cantonese home with them when they fly out this week.