In February a damning new report into the state of principal health and wellbeing in Australia revealed that one in three of the nation’s school leaders are physically assaulted and that violent incidents have jumped 10% over the last seven years.
The survey also found almost half (45%) were threatened with violence in 2018, compared with 38% in 2011 and that 99.7% of principals work hours far beyond those recommended for positive mental and physical health.
However, many principals are hesitant when it comes to speaking out about the issues pushing them to the brink.
One principal who has not been afraid to speak out is Berwick Lodge Primary School principal, Henry Grossek, who has 52 years of experience as a teacher and 34 years as a school leader.
“There are several reasons why principals don’t speak out, ranging from the fact that principals aren’t trained as public speakers to the fact that there is a fear of retribution if they do speak out,” Grossek told The Educator.
“Sadly, there is a persistent perception amongst many principals that in the event that they do speak out they are not confident that they will have the full backing of their education department.”
Grossek says this undermines principals’ confidence in dealing with complex parent related issues.
“This in itself can exacerbate already delicate situations,” he pointed out.
“Furthermore, this can and does lead to speculation, none of which is helpful, as to the possible underlying reasons for principals holding such negative perceptions regarding support from their bureaucrats in tricky parent related issues.”
Other principals say the latest data on principal health and wellbeing shows a worrying lack of improvement in supporting the profession and that more should be done by governments to address the serious issues facing school leaders.
“School leaders are central to school functioning and student learning,” Andrew Pierpoint, president of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA), said.
“Anything adversely affecting this should be of concern to all of us.
Pierpoint added that the issues highlighted in the report are deterring prospective school leaders from taking on the job.
“There is a strong feeling amongst principals in jurisdictions across Australia, that the issues impacting negatively on their own health and wellbeing, as reported by this study, is reflected in the declining number of people applying for leadership roles in our schools”.
Prospective principals avoiding the job
Meadowglen Primary School principal, Loretta Piazza, said there are many principal positions being advertised where “not even one person” is applying for the job.
“Other times, you might have one or two applicants, but they’re definitely unsuitable for whatever reason. Ten years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have ten or fifteen applicants for a job, but these days, if you get more than two or three applications, it’s unusual,” Piazza told The Educator.
“Experienced principals are not necessarily able to manage or negotiate with an aggressive parent. They don’t have limited experience and are sometimes afraid to say ‘no’ to parents. This is why principals feel stressed, unprotected and unsupported. It’s just the way things are going and it’s definitely not a good picture.”
Piazza said that despite numerous reports into why fewer principals are taking on the job, and why principals are experiencing higher rates of violence and bullying, very little is being done to reduce the pretences associated with the job.”
Despite assurances from governments that they have received the loud and clear distress signal being sent out in the form of reports on principal health and wellbeing, Grossek believes much of the action being taken is too little too late.
One solution, he says, is for principals themselves to be more confident and proactive about voicing their concerns in the public domain and using their leverage as school and community leaders to bring important issues to light.
“As leaders, principals are at the helm of their profession and have the power to affect considerable change,” Grossek said.
“However, if we don’t speak out, nothing will change.”