Principal profession facing ‘perfect storm’, expert warns

Principal profession facing ‘perfect storm’, expert warns

Recent studies into the occupational health and wellbeing of principals suggest Australia’s schools may be facing a looming principal shortage in the years to come.

According to data released in March by the Australian Catholic University (ACU), the number of Australian principals planning to quit or retire has tripled since 2019, with teacher shortages a main driver of the profession’s stress.

Indeed, the warning signs have been flashing red since 2015, when employment data from SEEK revealed vacancies for school management jobs spiked 256% over a 12-month period. However, the major stressors causing principals to leave the job have only increased over time.

Dr Paul Kidson, Senior Lecturer of Educational Leadership at the Australian Catholic University, said the cumulative impact the ACU’s data suggests the rate of school leaders walking away from the job might be speeding up.

“Each year, we typically see two or three of the 19 stressors average rate a seven out of 10 or higher; this year we reported that seven stressors are now averaging over seven,” Dr Kidson told The Educator.

“In other words, much more is being demanded of principals, and nothing is being taken away from their work. The combination of the top five stressors has never occurred in the previous eleven surveys.”

Sheer volume of work – which leaders report as the biggest stressor – and not enough time to focus on teaching and learning – the second biggest stressor – have been consistent since 2011, he said.

“Teacher shortages are now ranked as the third biggest stressor, up from twelfth last year. On top of that, supporting the mental health and wellbeing of students [#4] and teachers [#5] means the stress of school leaders’ work is escalating,” he said.

“What concerns us greatly in this year’s data is that protective factors are starting to weaken.”

Dr Kidson said while job satisfaction, commitment to the work, and the meaning school leaders derive from their work have sustained them through tough COVID and natural disaster crises, these are showing signs of deterioration.

“It’s only small at this stage, but we’ve not ever seen these drop like this,” he said. “Together, this is like a perfect storm, and it doesn’t encourage enough teachers to aspire to the job.”

Dr Kidson said The National Teacher Workforce Action Plan is “a valuable idea” but will add further to the workload of principals.

“For example, early career mentoring and support for career progression are laudable, but it will be principals who make these happen. What is surprising is a near absence of principals in the plan, given how critical they are to its goals,” he said.

“We have recommended this should be changed to include principals and support them to undertake this vital work. We’ve further recommended a dedicated plan to address what we see is a potentially looming shortage before it becomes too late and reactive.”

Dr Kidson said this starts by talking directly with principal associations, and then acting on that advice.

“They will give plenty of suggestions about how to improve their situation but get frustrated by consultation that does not result in any change.”