31 Jul 2015

Caretaker, cleaner - and principal

9:49 am on 31 July 2015

Rural schools often struggle to hang on to their principals for more than a few years and their federation is becoming increasingly concerned about the difficulties they face.

There is no radio or cellphone coverage out here, but the principal of Tuturumuri School in the Wairarapa, Jo Mahoney, says she loves working in rural schools.

There is no radio or cellphone coverage out here, but the principal of Tuturumuri School in the Wairarapa, Jo Mahoney, says she loves working in rural schools. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

The Principals Federation says the schools also have to overcome problems of isolation and sometimes have trouble finding staff to help with special needs students.

There are 10 children at Tuturumuri School in the Wairarapa and sole-charge principal Jo Mahoney said she loved working in country schools.

But she admitted there were challenges that city schools did not have to face.

"One barrier we face is transporting students, because we give them every opportunity, so if there's events on we like to get them there. But again that relies on parents out here to provide regular transport in and out to different events."

The principal of Opoutere School near Whangamata, Clare Humphreys-Grey, said rural principals had to do a lot more than the usual jobs expected of principals and teachers.

"You're a gardener, you're a caretaker and you're a toilet cleaner because we don't have a cleaner on site all the time so if there's a mess in the toilet - 'get out your mop principal'.

"The power went off in the classroom the other day, so I'm looking at a fuse board and fixing fuses".

The Principals Federation says money isn't necessarily a problem - funding per student is often very high because the schools as so small - but support for isolated principals and teachers is.

Its president, Denise Torrey, said the organisation was still gathering information. However, she said most of the schools' challenges related to their small size and their distance from the main population centres.

"Because people are isolated, there are things like accessing resources for instance, good quality professional development, things like travel times, buses, there are a multitude of issues for them."

Winding roads contribute to the isolation of many rural schools.

Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

The principal of 10-student Rangiwaea School near Taihape, Fiona Duncan, said distance means extra costs for rural schools.

Tradespeople will charge $200 just to drive to the school, and teachers who go on training courses often need accommodation as well as travel costs.

She said rural schools might get a lot of funding per student because they are small, but it does not go far and it is hard to balance the school's books.

"Currently within our bulk grant there is an isolation factor. However it is nowhere near enough to address the issues that the isolation creates."

The Education Ministry's head of student achievement, Graham Stoop said the ministry was looking at the support rural school principals needed.

He said the ministry set up a rural principal advisor role in Te Tai Tokerau earlier this year and would be evaluating it to inform the ministry's ongoing work with principals.

Dr Stoop said rural schools should also benefit from the Investing in Educational Success scheme, which puts schools in groups to work on common problems.

"Forming a community of schools with other schools offers principals the opportunity to share information and tackle challenges together," he said.

Dr Stoop said the ministry believed rural schools' isolation funding does cover extra costs that rural schools face.