Conseil supérieur de l'éducation



The amendments to the Education Act adopted by the National Assembly in December 1997 are the outcome of a process of change initiated several years ago. The purpose of these amendments is to foster the emergence of educational projects and school organization models that better meet local needs and more fully ensure educational success in a world that is undergoing dramatic changes.

The objectives of Bill 180 were in keeping with recommendations of the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation. For several years, the Conseil had been suggesting that more responsibilities be transferred to players and institutions within the education system. In its opinion, if students are to receive quality instruction, the entire system must revolve around schools. In its 1994-1995 annual report, Vers la maîtrise du changement en éducation, which discusses ways of dealing with the many changes in education, the Conseil stressed that we need to review the management model currently in place, since it lays too much emphasis on strict regulation of administrative and educational activities.

The new legislation is a decisive step toward handing more responsibilities over to the local level. It refocuses the roles of the various players in accordance with the schools’ missions, and creates a new dynamic that places school administrators in a radically different context. The Conseil believes that school principals and vice-principals will play an essential role in ensuring the success of the education reform. By studying this group, the Conseil has attempted to analyze the changes under way and identify a number of future directions. This brief thus examines the many factors being brought into play. In its analysis the Conseil has considered the experience of other countries and interviews it conducted with school principals in an effort to determine how they view their responsibilities.


The New Context Facing Secondary School Administrators: Three Main Determining Factors

In the first chapter of its brief, the Conseil describes some of the factors that shape the role of school administrators at the secondary level. These factors have a direct impact on school life and determine the way in which principals and vice-principals perform their duties.

The brief begins by describing the new context created by the legislative amendments. It then discusses the historical and legal changes that have produced the current decentralization of responsibilities within the education system, and the movement to institutionalize schools.

Although the Estates General on Education paved the way for the amendment of the Education Act, the new legislation is the outgrowth of a series of changes that have occurred over the past 30 years or so. The laws and ministerial policies adopted over that period gradually laid the foundations of the present legislative framework, which is designed to improve the quality of education and ensure the educational success of as many students as possible. The brief discusses the main changes that have taken place over the past three decades and shows how schools acquired their own identity and became recognized social institutions in the process. It also describes how the roles and relationships of the various players within the school system have been refined.

The second factor that has an determining impact on the role of secondary school principals is the more rapid turnover of teaching staff. This situation is also associated with two important factors: major changes in initial teacher training and renewed emphasis on the professional nature of teaching.

In recent years, universities have revamped their initial teacher training programs for the secondary level. Previously, the professional identity of graduates was defined primarily on the basis of their qualifications. Now, although such expertise is still being taken into account, it is now viewed as only one part of a balanced mix of qualifications including pedagogical skills, which all new teachers must master.

Thirdly, the brief discusses the putting into place of new programs of study and regulations which dramatically alter the relationship between schools and the Ministère de l'Éducation with respect to pedagogy, special needs and enrichment programs as well as the monitoring of student progress. These factors have a marked effect on the situation of school administrators.

The next chapters of the brief discuss the main responsibilities of secondary school principals.


Administrative Responsibilities of School Principals

School principals deplore the fact that they have to devote more and more attention to a growing number of administrative and clerical tasks and that they do not have the resources they need to perform their duties properly. Some say they have little control over events, but merely strive to cope with them as they occur. This situation is a major source of dissatisfaction for those who want to exercise leadership in pedagogical matters. Apparently, their administrative responsibilities are so time-consuming that they limit their ability to play such a role. Secondary school principals are thus conveying an important message that must be acted upon if we are to attain the basic objectives of the education reform, particularly that of situating the decision-making process within schools in order to improve student learning.

The Conseil describes the administrative tasks of school principals and highlights the new responsibilities introduced by Bill 180. In discussing the current administrative environment, the Conseil makes a number of observations, which it groups into four sections focusing respectively on the current decentralization process, the allocation of resources to schools, the need for effective support in exercising responsibilities, and the double loyalty of school principals to both governing boards and school boards.

School principals should not have to devote most of their time to fulfilling administrative responsibilities. However, according to the Conseil, it is not always easy to identify purely administrative tasks, given that many activities, such as the preparation of student timetables, have both administrative and pedagogical components. In addition, the choice of time-use priorities is affected by an administrator's knowledge and nature. Principals and vice-principals help to improve teaching and student learning through their various administrative tasks. The education reform calls for their active involvement, encouraging them to offer guidance and support and to make decisions relating to pedagogical practices. Therefore, one of the main challenges of the education reform will be to ensure that school principals and vice-principals can fully shoulder all the responsibilities associated with their role. The speed with which the reform is implemented may depend on the principals’ priorities in organizing their work.

On the basis of this observation, the Conseil concludes that secondary school principals and vice-principals must be provided with appropriate administrative support. Steps must be taken to streamline administrative standards and procedures, provide principals with modern, effective management tools, and ensure they have access to competent administrative staff so that they can offer appropriate services. In addition, special attention should be paid to the principals of small secondary schools.


Pedagogical Responsibilities of School Principals: New Challenges and Tools

The chapter on pedagogical responsibilities is central to the brief. The Conseil begins by examining how school principals and vice-principals view their role. It then identifies three factors that have a determining impact on the immediate future of secondary schools. First, it looks at the effect of Bill 180 on the sharing of responsibilities related to the exercise of pedagogical leadership among principals, governing boards and teaching staff. Second, it provides a more detailed description of the conditions associated with the recent rapid turnover of teaching staff. And third, it focuses on the changes made to the curriculum, in keeping with the recommendations of Québec Schools on Course. In discussing these factors, the Conseil stresses that students must constitute the top priority. The Conseil has noted that school principals find it difficult to devote enough attention to matters relating to teaching methods and practices. When the Conseil interviewed them, it was very hard to predict the impact of the curriculum reform. Although principals see themselves as agents of pedagogical change and realize that the curriculum will undergo a major overhaul, they are not always optimistic that the means will be available for effecting the changes required. Several school principals said that they would have to upgrade their skills for their pedagogical leadership to be recognized, particularly by teaching staff.

The chapter on pedagogical responsibilities also discusses each of the factors that have a determining impact on the role of school principals and vice-principals.

The Conseil stresses the importance of shared leadership in the area of teaching methods and practices. Forward-looking principals and vice-principals are anxious to share their leadership role and to encourage the ongoing involvement of a number of people. School teams need strong pedagogical leadership. Paradoxically, a school administrator's responsibility towards his or her school team in pedagogical matters is related much less to authority than to leadership. The role of the principal and vice-principals is to provide guidance and support for dynamic instructional initiatives rather than to develop and implement them single-handedly.

This type of leadership should also be exercised with respect to the educational services offered by school boards. These services are very valuable to school principals even though they have no authority over them. The improvement of teaching methods and practices depends above all on principals’ ability to convince and persuade, based on the authority conferred upon them by their particular expertise.

The second factor that has a determining impact on the role of school principals and vice-principals is the professionalization of teaching. The Conseil suggests that the rapid turnover of teaching staff provides school administrators with an opportunity to make certain changes regarding the recognition of teachers as professionals. Principals who fully acknowledge the professional nature of teaching adopt a radically differently style of leadership in pedagogical matters:

  • they keep their own teaching skills up to date and can thus act as mentors, in collaboration with experienced teachers, to teachers who have just entered the profession;
  • they allow teachers to take the initiative and do not try to maintain a monopoly over pedagogical creativity;
  • they establish ties between their teaching staff and outside sources with pedagogical expertise: universities, outside consultants and consolidated teams of education consultants from the school board;
  • they plan continuing education opportunities with a view to ensuring their staff’s professional development.

Young teachers need feedback and support in such areas as classroom management and teacher-student relations. For school administrators, relations with new teachers can serve as a model for developing professional support services that are not based strictly on decision-making and authority.

The third factor that has a determining impact on the role of school principals and vice-principals is their dual responsibility with regard to the curriculum. As a result of educational research, the official curriculum is now linked more closely to what is actually taught in schools. The position of school administrators in this regard is strategic.

The Conseil discusses two challenges. The first is related to the progress of students through the various courses and paths available in the education system. To date, special needs have been met by implementing programs offered as alternatives to the common path for learning. This approach stems from a combination of factors, such as basic school regulations, a tendency to remove students with difficulties from regular classes, academic delays at the end of elementary school, work allocation rules, and a desire to curb the movement of students from public to private schools. Québec Schools on Course is innovative in that it promises to include means for adapting and enriching programs of study in the programs themselves. The curriculum reform requires that we rethink the approach that has led to the current proliferation of programs, a task that is largely entrusted to school principals.

The second challenge concerns curriculum renewal and the review of programs of study. Teachers are entitled to expect, as part of pedagogical support and advisory services, that school administrators can understand and explain the purpose any changes introduced. Those school boards that have maintained a core group of educational consultants will be able to provide better resources to school principals. The Conseil stresses that schools need appropriate ministerial support in matters relating to the curriculum.

The chapter on pedagogical responsibilities concludes with comments on relations between school principals and governing boards. A short section is devoted to the importance of making students a priority concern.


Political and Community Responsibilities

According to the consultations conducted by the Conseil, school principals believe that their role also includes a political dimension related to the existence of governing boards and a community dimension stemming from the relations that schools must maintain with the local population.

The interviews with secondary school principals reveal that they are acutely aware of the importance of governing boards and that their relations with these institutions have a distinct political flavour. The same is true of relations with the local community, which are marked by a certain ambivalence. Previously, the directors general of school boards attended to political matters, depending on the degree to which powers were decentralized. Now, schools are responsible for relations with the community.

After identifying the social equity challenges that face schools as they endeavour to fulfil their mission, the Conseil discusses the concept of citizenship as expressed in schools, now that they have become social institutions. Two unknowns determine whether the "political" dimension of the role played by secondary school principals will be positive or negative. First, power sharing can cripple relations between the various partners, and second, the means for exercising responsibilities at the local level are not always available. The first unknown is of a civic and social nature, while the second is related to government support.

To foster good relations, the Conseil stresses that those who serve on governing boards must participate not only as parents, teachers or students, but also as citizens. However, school principals must also contribute to the proceedings and propose appropriate areas in which the board may exercise its decision-making authority. School principals and governing boards are interdependent, particularly when the latter are in their start-up phase.

It might be asked whether governing boards have the means they need to fulfil their responsibilities. Ties with outside institutions (Ministry, school board) and local partners (municipal authorities, CLSCs, Direction de la protection de la jeunesse, etc.) are all the more necessary since the attainment of many of the objectives set by educational projects is contingent on such ties. Partnership must take precedence over divergent interests. The role of secondary school principals will thus naturally tend toward greater dependence on players outside the school.

The Conseil also stresses that schools need the support of the ministère de l’Éducation, particularly to deal more effectively with serious social problems and to implement the curriculum. To exercise these responsibilities, schools must be provided with financing standards and labour relations rules that will make it easier for them to take charge of school organization.


Future Role of School Principals and Vice-Principals

The last chapter of the brief reiterates some of the main challenges associated with the role of school administrators, and summarizes the Conseil’s comments and recommendations.


The Conseil recommends that the Minister of Education:

  • review the administrative standards imposed on school boards in order to streamline administrative relations between schools and school boards by fostering the emergence of more flexible management systems. It also recommends that administrative support services for secondary school principals be allocated resources tailored to principals’ increased responsibilities;
  • carefully evaluate secondary schools’ needs with regard to specialized staff and student services to ensure that principals and vice-principals do not have to devote an inordinate amount of effort to dealing with students with learning and psychosocial difficulties, without really being able to help them;
  • give priority to adopting and implementing a policy on preparatory and on-the-job training for school principals and vice-principals;
  • directly and systematically involve school principals and vice-principals, particularly at the secondary level, in the vast development of new curriculum already under way at the Ministère de l’Éducation;
  • re-establish department head responsibility in secondary school organization.

The Conseil recommends that school boards:

  • give priority to establishing, as part of more balanced relations with schools, stable pedagogical support teams able to provide principalsand vice-principals with the assistance they need to exercise pedagogical leadership.


The Conseil recommends that the school’s partners:

  • adopt a common approach to learning the basic principles and parameters of their new role.


The Conseil encourages teachers:

  • to work closely with school principals and vice-principals to discover the new approaches they can explore as a result of the changes to the basic school regulations and, especially, the review of programs of studies.


The Conseil encourages school principals and vice-principals:

  • to adopt a style of management that encourages all teachers to make a real professional commitment. In particular, principals should make every effort to promote ongoing professional development for those who enter the teaching profession;
  • to rank their duties carefully to ensure that their pedagogical responsibilities remain a priority.

Finally, the Conseil recommends that school principals:

  • encourage and support the consolidation or re-establishment of educational consultant teams at the school board level;
  • envisage the gradual development of closer ties between their school and the local community. For this purpose, they should not hesitate to enlist the support of people besides those who serve on the governing board, from both within and outside their school.

Document complet - in French (PDF)


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