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Review

The Principal’s Office – And Beyond, Volumes 1 (1849-1960) and Volume 2 (1961-2005)

By Thomas Fleming

November 4, 2013

Review By Patrick Dunae

This study considers the development of public education in British Columbia mainly from the perspective of school principals. The author is a prominent scholar in the field of education history and a provocative critic of education politics in BC. The first volume describes an optimistic epoch that began with the Public School Act of 1872. The public education system flowered in the Edwardian years, flourished in the 1920s, survived the Depression and emerged brighter than ever after the Second World War. Sharing the progressive visions of school inspectors and senior bureaucrats in Victoria, principals guided their schools through the baby boom of the 1950s. That decade, as Fleming describes it, was a golden age for public education (vol. 1, 383). The decades that followed were unsettling for school administrators. The second volume describes the challenge of managing schools in the 1960s, a period of social upheaval. In the 1970s, when the education system was decentralized, the authority of the principal’s office was diminished. Fleming is critical of government policies in the 1980s, particularly legislation that separated principals and vice-principals from teachers in collective bargaining agreements and allocated them to separate professional associations. He is scathing in his assessment of the 1990s provincial educational program known as Year 2000. He depicts the educational landscape today as a quagmire where the provincial government and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation wrestle constantly for control of public education. He points to the teachers’ strike in 2005 as an example of a dysfunctional system. (This book was published before the 2011-2012 teachers’ strike). Fleming calls for a different structure, built around single-school sites instead of school districts. “A new and deconstructed system built around individual schools would move school principals to a position front and centre in public education,” he argues. “In a system where elected or appointed leadership has been absent for more than three decades, and where district administrators shuffle warily around trustees and special interest groups, the principal’s office as a platform for leadership in the twenty-first century cannot help but emerge as public education’s best hope” (vol. 2, 343).

This study is based on an extensive range of sources, including interviews with retired principals. The ten chapters in the two volumes are accompanied by over 1, 500 endnotes. But endnote conventions are not consistent within chapters and it is difficult to keep track of citations from one chapter to another across the two volumes. And, remarkably, this study does not have a bibliography. Rather, it ends with a six-page appendix showing the names and dates of tenure of education ministers, deputy ministers, and district superintendents. Most of that information is available in the Annual Reports of the Public Schools of British Columbia. A cumulative bibliography would be much more useful to readers. On the other hand, several statistical tables that have questionable value to the narrative could have been discarded, along with irrelevant historical photographs. The photograph on the cover of the book is also puzzling. It shows a group of about sixty children standing in front of a school. The archival image is not credited and the school is not identified, but it looks like Beacon Hill School in Victoria. Judging from the style of the children’s clothes, the photograph may have been taken soon after this elementary school was opened in 1914. It’s a nice picture but does not convey the focus or purpose of this study. A photograph of William (“Bill”) Plenderleith (vol. 1, 437) might be more appropriate for the cover. It shows a nattily-attired administrator sitting at his desk with an open note book and pen in hand, ready for action. An exemplar of a twentieth century schoolman, Plenderleith served as a school principal, inspector, and assistant superintendent before retiring from the Department of Education in 1966. He and his colleagues (including female administrators) played a significant role in the development of British Columbia. Thanks to Fleming’s engaging, well-written study their contributions will be more widely appreciated. No less valuable, The Principal’s Office highlights some of the challenges that a more recent generation of public school administrators have experienced, while offering some interesting ideas for educational policies in the future.

 

The Principal’s Office – And Beyond, volume 1, Public School Leadership in British Columbia, 1849-1960
By Thomas Fleming
Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 2010. 448 pp. Illus. $33.95 paper

The Principal’s Office – And Beyond, volume 2, Public School Leadership in British Columbia, 1961-2005
By Thomas Fleming
Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 2010. 360 pp. Illus. $33.95 paper