A growing number of school leaders are being pushed to the brink by massive workloads and conflict with the parent community, the latest study into principal health and wellbeing has revealed.
The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2019, released by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and Deakin University today, found that nearly one in three principals face stress and burnout, as well as high levels of threats and physical violence by parents and students.
Over 84% of school leaders reported being subjected to an offensive behaviour over the last year, with 51% reported having received threats of violence, and over 42% being exposed to physical violence.
Professor Herb March from the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at ACU – one of the report’s lead investigators – said the ramifications of this ongoing trend are dire.
“Last year school leaders told us they were struggling from many serious work-related issues including stress caused by parents, burn-out from the sheer quantity of work, employer demands and student and staff mental health issues,” Professor March said.
“The combined impact of record levels of heavy workloads and offensive behaviour by parents and students is a risk to school leaders’ long-term health and even their life expectancy”.
In Western Australia, an alarming 60% of principals reported being on the receiving end of physical violence, while 62% reported threats of violence.
Compared to the general population, a far higher percentage of school leaders reported being subjected to threats of violence (51% versus 7.8%), physical violence (42.2% versus 3.9%), bullying (37.6% versus 8.3%), conflicts and quarrels (57.5% versus 51.2%), and gossip and slander (50.9% versus 38.9%).
The Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) said COVID-19 only exacerbated existing pressures on the nation’s school leaders.
“It’s clear our school principals are struggling under immense pressures, not just from the fall out of the coronavirus crisis but also from the heightened expectations of parents, the community and authorities,” ASPA president, Andrew Pierpoint, said.
“There are an inordinate number of complex tasks that school leaders must complete and we know they are working excessive hours to meet these demands”.
Pierpoint said governments and organisations must act urgently if they’re serious about the wellbeing of school leaders.
“Throughout the COVID-19 crisis principals have been the public face of contentious government policy and many have suffered the brunt of community anger,” he said.
“We have not stopped work, we are in fact shouldering more responsibility to keep staff and students safe in these difficult times, as well as deliver an unprecedented volume of home learning programs”.
However, while the national snapshot looks grim, some states are seeing improvements in a key area – Department support.
'The message is starting to get through'
Professor Philip Riley from Deakin University’s School of Education, said while there was no shortage of gloom in the report, mass disruptions to school and home life during COVID-19 could trigger “a welcome uplift in community appreciation for the ongoing and unforeseen challenges faced by school principals”.
“The sudden changes to education delivery prompted by COVID-19 restrictions required an unprecedented response by school leaders to roll-out remote learning opportunities for their students,” Professor Riley said.
“We know from anecdotal evidence that many parents, although impacted themselves, are deeply appreciative of this work by principals and educators”.
Professor Riley said he hopes this points to a future in which “there is greater awareness and acknowledgement of the many stresses and challenges that principals face on a regular basis as they lead their students and staff”.
Victorian Principals’ Association president Anne-Maree Kliman, a former principal of 15 years, agrees.
“While it is clear that incidents of aggression and violence are not declining, there are some encouraging signs that education departments are taking principal wellbeing seriously,” she told The Educator.
“In Victoria, there has been significant investment in principal health and wellbeing over the last three years, and this has led to less red flags. The Northern Territory and Queensland are also seeing less red flags because of this extra support”.
Kliman said the Victorian Education Department has provided more support avenues for the state’s principals to access, such as proactive supervision and one-on-one conversations with highly trained psychologist.
“There is also a unit dealing with complex matters. When I was a principal, we never had this kind of support, but we have it now,” she said.
“However, and as the report shows, we still need to see a culture shift in Australia around violence, aggression and abuse against workers”.
Is a culture shift on the way?
The Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) said there has been a "very positive deepening" of relationships between schools and parents and carers to meet the learning needs of students during COVID-19 restrictions.
"Parents have recognised and appreciated the extraordinary work of schools, and we are hopeful the patience, kindness and good humour that have characterised home-school relationships during remote learning will continue as all schools return to full, on-site education provision," AHISA CEO, Beth Blackwood, said.
Blackwood said principals will need greater community support if they are to avoid burnout during the transition to online learning.
"We understand that parents want to ensure their children are safe and getting the best possible learning experiences at school," she said.
"Principals of course share that goal, but we ask parents to accept that right now principals must make decisions that take account of the wellbeing of all members of the school community, students and staff".
Kliman said the growing appreciation and gratitude in the community for the important work that schools are doing is another sign that a culture shift is possible.
“If we can shift the current culture, we can see a decline in aggression and abuse in schools in coming years. An understanding of what schools are going through, and a growing appreciation of what home life is like will help this culture shift take place,” she said.
“In my role I’ve been having conversation with the Minister of Education down in the Department about how we capture this positive moment and build that into the work we do in future and not lose it”.
Kliman said the government is keen to learn about the positive lessons being learned through the transition to remote learning and how that can be brought into schools so that they can improve the way they work.
“A really interesting thing we’re learned is that a lot of our disengaged kids are loving remote learning. So, how do we bring this back into schools and make sure we’re not missing the opportunity to keep them engaged?”