Another year, another damning report on principal health and wellbeing: What is to be done?

Another year, another damning report on principal health and wellbeing: What is to be done?

For the last 13 years, the Australian Catholic University has sought to better understand the state of occupational health, safety, and wellbeing of school leaders through a comprehensive nationwide survey.

At the conclusion of each survey are a list of recommendations for education policymakers, communities and school systems to consider and act on, so that when the next report is released, Australia’s school leaders are feeling more supported than when they last took the survey.

However, every year, something curious happens; Australia’s school leaders report feeling more, not less, overburdened, unwell, and unsafe in their jobs.  

On Friday, 22 March, the ACU’s Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2023 revealed an increase in the number of violent assaults, threats, and bullying. While there were some areas in which principals reported some relief, the survey’s overall message was unmistakable: if there has been progress, it is too slow to prevent the coming exodus of school leaders.

Worryingly, this crisis coincides with crippling staff shortages in schools across Australia, and it doesn’t take another nationwide survey for policymakers to see how catastrophic that will be for schools, and the young people they educate.

To prevent this nightmare scenario, the report’s authors are proposing a national summit to address all of the issues highlighted in the ACU’s annual surveys and chart a course of action that will deliver meaningful, and long overdue, change for the principal profession.

In an interview with The Educator following the release of the survey, the principal association heads of several Australian States and Territories shared some critical insights into the issues facing school leaders in their respective jurisdictions, the progress that is being made, and what can be done to bring about meaningful change that will help school leaders not just survive, but thrive.

The pain points

Craig Petersen, president of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, said some of the most confronting findings of the 2023 Survey for the SPC related to the high proportion of principals who are categorised as having moderate to severe depression. 

“At one in five, this is much higher than the general population and is a clear indicator that the demands on our school leaders are simply unreasonable,” Petersen told The Educator.

“We are also saddened to see that physical violence towards principals has again increased and is a staggering 76.5% higher than when surveying started in 2011.”

Petersen said these factors, together with a very complex range of other stressors, explain why more than half of school leaders are seriously considering leaving their current job. 

“This is a clear indicator of the toll that unsustainable workloads and inadequate resources and support are having on the workforce.”

Tina King, Victoria Branch president of the Australian Principals' Federation, said the findings of the 2023 survey “once again underscore the urgent need for systemic interventions”.

“Everyone deserves a safe workplace, especially those shaping future generations and it is simply intolerable that nearly 50% of principals are facing physical, verbal and cyberbully attacks,” King told The Educator,

“Additionally, the continued alarming data indicative of high levels of workload and stress amongst the principal class has led to high attrition rates and abandonment of the role.  This is not a leadership crisis waiting to happen – it is indeed happening and there is urgent need to deal with it here and now.”

Melissa Gillett, president of the Western Australian Secondary School Executives Association (WASSEA) has received and considered the survey data for over a decade. She says it is deeply concerning that little – if anything – has changed throughout that time.

“The most alarming finding of the Survey is the proportion of WA principals who received a Red Flag email – with 50% of all WA principals identified as being at risk of serious mental health concerns,” Gillett told The Educator.

“That equates to every second principal; and is more than any other jurisdiction in Australia. Successive governments and bureaucracies will report implementing initiatives to support principal health and wellbeing, but the ACU results indicate that these initiatives are simply not working.”

Gillett said teacher shortages remain a significant concern for WA principals.

“The Survey data indicates that teacher shortages has dropped from third to sixth as a source of stress. Teacher shortages continue to be a significant source of stress, but sadly principals have become conditioned to accepting shortages as the norm,” she said.

“The shortages have required many principals to take timetabled classes themselves, which in turn means than the sheer volume of work increases.”

For Robyn Thorpe, president of the Northern Territory Principals' Association, the most worrying finding from the report was the proportion of NT principals receiving a Red Flag email.

“Nationally, 42.6% principals received a Red Flag email in 2023; however this figure was 47.1 % for NT school leaders – the second highest across the country,” Thorpe told The Educator.

“School leaders are advised to seek professional support when they have a Red Flag. One school leader who sought professional medical support was told they weren’t sure how they could help them. This indicates we wait until serious medical issues impact a school leader before anything is taken seriously.”

Thorpe said violence and aggression in schools often reflects broader societal issues in communities, requiring a whole-of-community and whole-of-government response.

“Unfortunately, schools are frequently expected to manage these situations with minimal support. Underfunding of government schools in the NT and teacher shortages has impacted their ability to address these issues effectively.”

Positive trends

Despite the immense pressures facing school leaders, there were some areas indicating relief, albeit minor.

Gillett said the resilience of principals never ceases to amaze her, adding that WA principals are no exception.

“Principals have an incredibly strong moral purpose around educating kids. They will do whatever it takes to provide the best possible learning environments for their students – but they do so at their own expense,” she said.

Petersen also welcomed the finding principals’ resilience is on the rise, pointing to the survey’s Brief Resilience Scale, which found that Australia’s school leaders have continued to bounce back after adverse experiences since the measure was first introduced in 2017. 

“This is consistent with other international research which indicates that the resilience of principals is comparable to that of emergency service/first responders,” he said.

“One of the key differences between these groups, however, is that school leaders get very little or no recovery time by comparison.  It is this lack of ‘down time’ which has a cumulative negative impact on wellbeing.”

Thorpe said the ACU’s survey confirms the strong commitment and professional dedication that the Northern Territory’s school leaders have for the job.

“The report commended their resilience and ability to bounce back from adverse events. NT school leaders have to deal with floods, bushfires, cyclones, community violence, road closures, food shortages, isolation and do this remarkably well,” Thorpe said.

“In fact, it is often the principal who is considered the leader in any community to manage community problems. We need to celebrate and acknowledge the efforts of our school leaders who go above and beyond every single day.”

What should be done?

Petersen said recent announcements and commitments from the NSW Education Department and the Deputy Premier around reducing administrative burden and improving staff wellbeing are a step in the right direction.

“Another positive development was the establishment last year of a taskforce to address occupational violence in education,” he said.

“The success of the Victorian School Community Safety Order clearly demonstrates that improvements are possible when clear actions are taken to address inappropriate behaviour, including that from parents and caregivers, in order to maintain a safe environment that is conducive to learning.”

King said addressing the workload and stress levels of school principals effectively requires systemic changes that challenge existing educational structures and funding priorities. 

“One reason why little has been done is due to the complexity of the role of principals, which involves not only educational leadership but also administrative tasks, staff management, and student welfare,” she said.

“These multifaceted responsibilities make it difficult to devise straightforward solutions.”

King said there is also a worrying lack of widespread recognition of the issue.

“While teachers' workload and stress have gained public empathy, understanding the critical role of principals in managing school culture, teacher satisfaction, and student success is less widespread,” she said.

“Moreover, traditional views of leadership can contribute to a culture where principals feel obliged to handle high levels of stress without seeking help.”

King said this can prevent open discussions about the realities of the job and the need for systemic support, further perpetuating the cycle of stress and burnout.

“It is time to address the issues and proceed with holding to account governments – at both federal and state levels – and respective Education Departments, in regards to following up on the recommendations of the survey.”

Gillett said a cultural shift is essential to ensure Western Australia’s school leaders can overcome their greatest stressors and thrive in their role moving forward.

“Bureaucracies must develop positive, collaborative relationships with principals. They must focus on providing services that support principals and their schools, rather than continuing to increase compliance requirements,” she said.

“The Survey calls for increased autonomy for school leaders – but it is essential that the autonomy is real. The WA Independent Public School [IPS] initiative which started in 2011 was all about school autonomy.”

Gillett said autonomy has “gradually been eroded by policies, procedures, frameworks, and business rules.”

“The administrative burden has increased, whilst at the same time the resourcing initially provided to support IPS principals has been entirely removed. Schools must be properly resourced to enable principals to lead effectively and achieve the best outcomes for kids,” she said.

“WA Principals operate in an environment where there are over 190 policies, procedures, guidelines, frameworks and CEO instructions. It is staggering that only six of these documents relate to teaching and learning – which is the reason we exist.”

Thorpe said full SRS funding to all schools in the NT must be accelerated if the persistent issues principals are facing are to be addressed.

“The current problems are exacerbated because of funding shortages and a schools ability to employ the workforce required to address the level of need that exists in their context and community,” she said.

“It is essential that systems work closely with school leaders to help identify the sources of workload burden, intensification of the work, violence in communities, increasing mental health and wellbeing of staff and students, to effectively address the root causes of these trends and data.”

Thorpe said education systems must also have strong practices and processes to enact ‘no tolerance to violence’ policies to keep everyone safe in schools, including students, staff and community members.

“Often there is a policy, but implementation is half-hearted.”