Exclusive: Departments ‘non-responsive’ on principal well-being

Education departments need to act now if they are to prevent another tragedy, says the associate professor who heads the national Principal Health and Well-Being Survey.

Australian Catholic University associate professor, Dr Philip Riley, slammed education departments for not doing more to provide the kind of support principals have been demanding for years.

Riley’s comments follow the result of an 18-month WorkCover investigation on Saturday which found that work-related stress contributed to the suicide of former Melbourne principal, Dr Mark Thompson in December 2014.

While Riley acknowledged proactive measures by the Western Australian Department of Education to improve principal health and well-being, Riley said the Victorian Education Department and several others had been lagging in this area.

“State education departments need to do more for principal health and well-being in general. The other departments I’ve briefed understand this, but only a few are making good progress,” he said.

Riley said the education departments of Western Australia and South Australia had made the most progress in terms of acting quickly to resolve the issues laid out in his report.

“South Australia has put child protection and education under the same policy area, which I think is a good idea. They’ve seen improvements in principal health and well-being and are certainly seeing lower levels of violence and threats of violence,” he said.

“They have also appointed an ex-cop as director-general who I think takes this stuff very seriously and has reacted strongly whenever principals have had to deal with violence or threats.”

Riley said the Victorian education department had been the least responsive.

"They see principal health and well-being as a workload issue and think they know what the problems and solutions are, but are doing little to improve the situation,” he said.

“That being said, I think the WorkCover ruling will push the process forward because there is now a legal precedent. If only just as a defensive legal strategy, they’ll have to do something.”

A ‘systemic approach’ is needed

However, Riley said he was worried that rather than taking a systemic approach, a well-being or resiliency program will be “plonked” on principals, which he said would only add to their existing workloads.

“A systemic approach will ask what the drivers of these issues are and explore how to mitigate them. In the occupational health and safety field, people look at these things in terms of primary, secondary and tertiary intervention,” he said.

“The primary intervention is about changing policies so that the stresses and strains don’t come at you so much. The secondary approach is about how you deal with that as an individual and the tertiary intervention fixes people up when they’re broken.

“Unfortunately, the political knee-jerk reaction in many industries is to go in at the tertiary level and say ‘we’ll put in a program here and help these people’, but they don’t do anything about the primary causes that lead to these issues.”

Following Thompson’s death in 2014, Riley said he was contacted by a number of principals who were convinced that the conditions of Thompson’s job were to blame.

“Thompson was a strong character, he’d completed his PhD, been a regional network leader and had a lot of responsibility given to him by the department,” he said.

“I’m not surprised that this finding was handed down. Given what we know just in terms of the general epidemiological information, when people are under that level of stress for that long, these things are going to happen.

“From other industries, particularly in the UK, where they’ve been following these things for over 40 years, the evidence is overwhelming.”

Warning signs were ignored

Meadowglen Primary School principal, Dr Loretta Piazza, told The Educator that despite the “extraordinary” findings into principal health and well-being contained in the Victorian Education Department’s own report – titled ‘the privilege and the price’ – no action was taken.

“To my knowledge, this was the very first time something like this had been commissioned to such a large scale audience, but by the time Dr Mark Thompson and I did our own survey, we’d heard nothing from the department,” she said.

“We were all asking ourselves: ‘what’s happened here?’ and ‘why aren’t we seeing the results?’ The reason was that the results were so damning and alarming that he education department decided to keep it buried for 18 months before releasing it.

“This information was also very new, so I don’t think the department knew how to handle it or what to do with it. Then we had a change of government, and this data was buried. The rest is history.”

Riley said that before embarking on his own research, he feared the same would happen if he submitted his own report through the education departments.

“This is the reason why I did my principal health and well-being study completely independently and didn’t go through the departments,” he said.

“When Thompson and Piazza conducted their report, the department found the same sorts of stresses and strains associated with the job that I found, but they buried it.”

Riley added that although it took over a year for his report to be finalised, it ensured that education departments would be forced to address the issues.

Major change unlikely in the short-term

Riley said that while governments were beginning to sit up and take notice of the issues principals are facing, he pointed to the likely reluctance of the nation’s leaders to make any meaningful changes in the short-term.

“In a short-term election cycle, you’re likely to shoot yourself in the foot rather than do any good in the short-term, so they tend to avoid it. This is why one of the big recommendations of the last report was to get a completely bipartisan approach to this,” he said.

“In Finland, education is completely apolitical. They’ve had 20 elections where education hasn’t been any issue whatsoever – but the interesting thing is that Finland wasn’t always this way. About 60-70 years ago, they were like us. They had a public and private system, declining results and under-resourced schools.”

In the 1950s Finland experienced a major financial crisis and made subsequent changes to its economy – in particular, its approach to education.

“After 20 years of long discussion, the Finnish realised that they must invest in the education of their youth – which was the best resource they had,” Riley said.

“It was only then that they started climbing up the tables and reaping the rewards. If Finland can achieve this kind of significant change, so can Australia.”