On Monday, a report by the Australian Catholic University and Deakin University, revealed the combined impact of heavy workloads and increasing offensive behaviour by parents and students is risking school leaders’ long-term health and even shortening their life expectancy.
According to the data, 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.
Responding to the report, the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) called for urgent national action to reduce the crushing workloads of 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 the ASPA commends any actions undertaken by Education authorities around the country on improving principal wellbeing and encourages a continuing and ongoing focus in the hope of improving the data in the future.
“More can and must be done”, he said.
“There is a strong feeling amongst secondary school 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”.
‘Switching off is difficult for principals’
The NSW Secondary Principals Council had previously conducted its own survey into principal health and wellbeing, finding that 43% of the state’s school leaders are struggling with their wellbeing, and that 11% are reporting serious difficulty.
NSW principals also admitted to working long hours each week, including weekend and vacation periods.
NSWSPC acting president, Craig Petersen, said both the Council’s survey and the Deakin/ACU research shows the direct link between excessive workload and reduced wellbeing.
“Switching off is difficult for principals,” Petersen said.
“As a result, 58% of NSW secondary principals are unhappy with their physical health, and only 9% are happy with their psychological wellbeing”.
The NSW Department of Education conducted a Principal Workload Study in 2017 and provided some additional funding to help principals to employ additional administrative personnel in order to release them from some of their administrative burden and allow them more time for educational leadership.
The amount, however, was not enough in most schools to hire a dedicated support person such as a Business Manager.
"In our NSW context there are also additional stressors related to a constantly changing reform agenda, technological systems which are not fit for purpose and ongoing difficulties finding suitably qualified staff for vacancies," Petersen said.
He pointed to recent events such as the bushfires and COVID-19 which he said have “dramatically” increased the pressure on principals as they manage the dynamic advice on what needs to happen to keep children, teachers and non-teaching staff safe.
Greater community support needed
The Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) says 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.
However, 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".