School principals in Ireland consider instructional leadership to be one of their most important responsibilities. It seems that many of them would be prepared to delegate – and, even, to surrender – other responsibilities, especially administrative responsibilities, in order to have more time to focus on the development of teaching and learning in the school.

There is, of course, one responsibility that a principal of a school may not relinquish, viz., leadership in protecting and promoting the ethos, the characteristic spirit, of the school, “ethical leadership”. Under Education Act 1998, it falls to the patron of a recognised school in the Republic of Ireland to establish, where practicable, a board of management to manage the school on behalf of the patron.  A board, once established, has a statutory obligation to uphold, and to be accountable to the patron for so upholding, the characteristic spirit – the ethos – of the school. The principal is appointed by the board to manage the school day-to-day on its behalf and is accountable to the board for so doing.  The principal is, as it were, the executive agent of the board on the ground.  As such, the principal is obliged to ensure that the school is conducted in accordance with its characteristic spirit, its ethos, responsibility for the protection and promotion of which is entrusted to the board by the patron and, in turn, entrusted to the principal by the board.

It is, of course, absolutely essential to the “ethical” identity of a school that all personnel understand and accept that each has an obligation, professional, legal and contractual, to uphold the characteristic spirit of that school and, at the very least, to do nothing that counters or otherwise undermines it.  That said, both because in any organisation, what is the duty of all can so easily become the responsibility of none, and because empirical research amply demonstrates that the success of any in-school initiative requires the support of the principal, it is equally essential that principals recognise and acknowledge that the duty of “ethical leadership” in the school is theirs. In discharging this fundamental duty, the principal will, avail of all resources to hand, including the expertise of “specialist” colleagues, will, as in the discharge of any other of her/his functions,  delegate and distribute responsibilities as need requires. The primary responsibility, though, for the actualisation of the school ethos, on-the-ground and day-to-day, remains with the principal.

The principal of a Catholic school is obliged to protect and promote its Catholic ethos and to guide and direct the school community in its service. This “ethical leadership” is, in fact, a sine qua non of the preservation of its identity and integrity precisely qua Catholic. It is, again, imperative for its Catholicity that the ethos, the characteristic spirit, of any Catholic school be considered the responsibility of all who work in that school. It is equally imperative, however, that principals recognise that, in this, as in all other respects of school management, the buck stops with them.

Lent is a time of metanoia, of repentance, of conversion, a time of turning again towards God, of accepting Him as the centre and the circumference of our lives. It is a time of renewal, moral, religious, spiritual, and, indeed, professional. It is a time when, led by the Holy Spirit, we go out into the desert, into those bits of us that are “god-less” or not as “godly” as they should be. There, with Christ, we confront our demons, examine ourselves in the searing light of Truth, and, by God’s grace, struggle to amend whatever we must amend in order to grow in charity, in the love of God above all for his own sake and of the neighbour as ourselves for the love of God. In this context, may all who are called by Providence to give “ethical leadership” in Catholic schools have the light to see, and the strength to do, what God now asks of them in that exact regard.

Provided to CEIST by Dr. Frank Steele