School governance and leadership in France: an interview with two school principals

10 July 2019

As part of the IIEP specialized course Organization and management of the education sector: systems and institutions, two French school principals shared insight from their daily professions as well their thoughts on what it means to be a leader and how to foster a strong connection with the community-at-large. 

Cécile Roaux has been a teacher since 1995, and head teacher of a primary school in Paris since 2003. In November 2018, she obtained her doctorate in educational sciences. Since 2019, she has been academic advisor in mathematics at the Paris Rectorate. Aurélie Journée has been working for 15 years in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. She has held a variety of positions from senior education advisor in a high school, deputy principal of a lower secondary school, as well as her current position as a principal of a lower secondary school. 

IIEP: First, could you comment on the difference between the positions of primary school head teacher and secondary school principal? 

Cécile Roaux: The head teacher runs a primary school. He or she ensures the proper functioning of the school and assumes responsibility for both the property and people within the school. Unlike a secondary school, a primary school has no administrative and financial autonomy or a statutory school head position. Furthermore, initiatives of local and regional authorities are increasingly numerous and diverse. Thus, the school depends on two parallel hierarchical lines, the National Education Inspectorate (IEN) for pedagogical management, and the local elected authority at city level  for functional management.

The primary school relates to three groups of actors: actors directly linked to the school (parents, teachers, pupils, and head teachers), actors in the "chain of command" (inspection), and actors linked to the municipalities that oversee the school premises. The primary school head teacher is at the intersection between these actors, but with very limited powers as the dependencies are very strong.

Aurélie Journée: The lower or upper secondary school principal runs a secondary school (collège or lycée), and his or her responsibilities are comparable to those of the primary school head teacher, however, with certain specificities. The first prerogative of a lower secondary principal is, as for the primary school principal, to ensure the safety of individuals (staff, users, and others) and premises. To do this, he or she works with external partners: the police, fire brigade, and the security commission. However, whereas the primary school depends on a single institution, namely the municipality, lower and upper secondary schools are under a joint authority. For infrastructure and budget, lower secondary schools depend on the department (département), and upper secondary schools on the region (région). On the pedagogical side (course schedules, for example), lower secondary schools depend on the Academic Direction (Direction académique), and upper secondary schools on the Rectorate (Rectorat). Therefore, depending on the school institution, layers of decision-making and interlocutors vary. 

IIEP: What does leadership mean to you?

Cécile Roaux: In my opinion, leadership is a skill that can be acquired; it is the ability to bring together a group of individuals. A head teacher must have leadership skills. They must be able to bring the teaching teams together around the school development project, create team cohesion based on trust, and set long-term goals. A leader is a bit like a conductor.

Aurélie Journée: Leadership is essential for the school principal. The majority of his or her working time concerns the management of the school's pedagogical policy. Depending on the specificities of the territory, he or she must be able to develop a school policy that corresponds to the needs and skills of the students, the core objective being the success of the students. Within my school, showing leadership implies knowing how to lead teams that are very young, and most of them do not know the specificities of their assigned territory. It is a question of accompanying them in the discovery of the territory and helping them to develop skills in contact with students and staff. In terms of communication, listening, career management and daily advice, the principal must be the main contact for the teaching teams and school life.

IIEP: How can these leadership skills be acquired?

Cécile Roaux: When I became primary school head teacher, I only had one week of training at the end of the year. Today, the training of the head teacher remains limited to five weeks compared to that of the secondary school principal, who receives two years of training. It is not so much a question of leadership. The ability of primary school head teachers to develop a team, to facilitate collective work in order to be closer to the field, requires real steering levers, other than "conviviality" or a possible charisma. This certainly requires a special status that would allow, in addition to a certain recognition of the profession, a legitimacy - a positioning - to act in the different worlds in which the primary school head teacher is called upon to intervene. But this requires first and foremost a solid training. High-level pedagogical training, identical to that of management staff (i.e. two years) and validated by a competitive examination to certify the head teacher's expertise. A core training with secondary school principals on the theories and practices of collaborative and cooperative models could be considered, based on strategic analysis of organizations. It is essential to be trained on attitude and communication before considering working on leadership. 

At the same time, it would be advisable to consider networking among head teachers for a better sharing of practices. An adequacy between the work requested and the resources, particularly human resources, is also necessary. The lack of secretariat, stewardship, and school life makes the management of a school inefficient on the ground, as the head teacher is caught up in a multitude of tasks that could be entrusted to a third party on a daily basis. 

Aurélie Journée: In France, the Ministry of Education defines an academic training plan, and each academy can set up training courses for teachers and school principals on a voluntary basis, which makes it possible to exchange ideas with colleagues from other departments. In addition, for a school principal, two years of training are provided from the moment he or she takes on the position. In parallel with the management of our school, we therefore have training days on leadership, organization of the school, pedagogical organization, and budget management. 

These trainings allow us to regularly question our practice, but it cannot replace field training. Being a leader means first and foremost meeting the people with whom we work, because the needs are never the same, and our environment influences our leadership. Over time, we learn to listen more to others. Over time, we also see that not everything depends on the leader: without the support of staff and parents, nothing can be done. The place of parents is crucial in school management, and investing them in projects, facilitating exchange between them and teachers, is part of leadership. Of course, we have training, but it is first as human beings that we must learn on a daily basis and benefit from the versatility of our professions, and from the experience of others.

Although we are a public institution, dependent on the Ministry of Education, I also think it is important to learn from the private sector in terms of leadership, and to observe the management of staff in large companies, where a sense of belonging develops and where staff enjoy coming to work.

IIEP: To what extent can leadership be shared with teachers? 

Aurélie Journée: In lower secondary education, the management of the school is already shared between the principal, his or her  deputy, and the director of SEGPA (General and Vocational Adapted Learning Section) where it exists. The management team is completed by an officer in charge of budget issues. In lower and upper secondary schools, we also share tasks with teachers, thanks to a mechanism that does not exist at the primary level: allowances for special tasks. For example, we have mentor teachers for pupils with learning difficulties, and mentor teachers in charge of the school's cultural programme. 

The school principal cannot carry alone the responsibility of management. Of course, he or she drives school policy, but they also delegate by necessity to his or her deputies, who also have specific skills (experience in primary schools, cultural openness, liaison capacity, budgetary expertise, etc.) because they will probably become school principals later on. This shared management makes it possible to maintain a critical eye, and to promote the sharing of skills.

Cécile Roaux: The notion of leadership implies by definition precise goals, and a sustainable orientation and mobilization towards these goals. However, it is not at all clear that these goals are precise, conscious, and shared. It is difficult to talk about real leadership for the primary school, which is above all a municipal school without a hierarchical director. The work is essentially cellular with one teacher, one classroom; the work is very affinity-based and often constitutes an obstacle to real cooperation within the school. In addition, at primary school level, the power to act individually and collectively is limited by the inspector, whose control functions may possibly limit collective action. 

IIEP: Concerning the relationship between the school and its environment, who are the actors with whom you collaborate?

Cécile Roaux: The head teacher is at the interface between parents, the hierarchy and the municipality. The partnership is very broad and always under the supervision of the hierarchy (the inspection) and the municipality. The first partnership is with the extracurricular field. The primary school management is then divided between: 1) the head teacher of the school, representing the institution (for school time), and 2) coordinator of extracurricular activities, who has a real hierarchical status over the activity coordinators. The head teacher also works with other partners for education difficulties (psychologists, speech therapists, etc.), social services, the police, associations, etc.

Aurélie Journée: In lower secondary schools, the first partners are the Academic Direction, the Departmental Council and the other schools. In the case of my school, we work a lot with primary schools and upper secondary schools: this link from kindergarten to upper secondary school, even to university, is facilitated by the status of a priority education area, which allows for tutoring between lower secondary and university students. 

When we become school principals, the mission letter we receive invites us to open the school to its external environment, which we do out of necessity because we cannot function without our partners. The work depends a lot on the territory concerned, and as school principal, we are responsible for identifying the priorities of the school and the appropriate partners. It is also necessary to identify opportunities that students may not have access to in their family environment or within the school. That is why we work closely with the youth department of the municipality, which finances the school's projects and connects it to the network of other secondary schools. 

These partnerships also have an impact on the school climate. It is therefore important to improve the openness of the school, to facilitate the appropriation of the school as a place to live for children and parents, and thus to foster a sense of belonging and integration within the neighbourhood. Community centres are essential for this purpose. They make it possible to ensure a link with external partners, and above all to facilitate contact with parents of foreign origin. On specific themes, some associations also come to train teachers within the school or to do prevention with parents, for example on the dangers related to digital technology.