The widow of former Melbourne principal, Dr Mark Thompson, has spoken out for the first time following a landmark ruling by WorkCover into his death.
The 18-month investigation found that work-related stress contributed to Thompson’s suicide, which occurred in December 2014 after he had been dealing with a serious complaint made by a parent.
On Saturday, Lynda Thompson, the deceased principal’s widow, told ABC that the process of proving her former husband’s death was related to a mental health problem had been gruelling.
“Anything to do with mental illness is really hard to prove, so it took a lot of work to prove to them that work was the major contributing factor to his death,” Lynda Thompson – who is also a principal – said.
She has since taken leave from work and is pushing for the Victorian Education Department to provide better support to other struggling staff.
“There was no help from [the] regional network leader, really, other than to say they were sorry about it,” she said.
‘Very little progress’ on report’s recommendations
Research released in December last year by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) found that assaults on principals were on the rise, with one in three principals experiencing physical violence whilst at school.
ACU associate professor, Dr Philip Riley – who heads the national Principal Health and Well-Being Survey report – told The Educator that little progress has been made regarding state education departments implementing the report’s recommendations.
“There is some movement by the Western Australian education department, who have taken it more seriously than anyone else, but the Victorian education department have been the least responsive,” he said.
“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.”
However, a spokesperson for the Victorian Education Department told The Educator that it takes the health and well-being of its principals “very seriously”.
“This Principal’s death is tragic,” the spokesperson said.
“The Department takes the health and wellbeing of our staff very seriously and has a range of services and programs available to support Principals. The support available has continued to be improved since this Principal’s death.”
Riley said that while most other states had briefed him on principal health and well-being issues, the Victorian education department had been lagging in this respect. He also pointed to the likely reluctance of the nation’s leaders to make any meaningful changes in the lead-up to the Federal election.
“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,” he said.
“This is why one of the recommendations of the last report was to get a bipartisan approach to this issue.”
Riley said that he expects the latest ruling to energise the debate about principal health and well-being as there was now a legal precedent.
“If only as a defensive legal strategy, education departments are going to act. However, my worry is that they’ll plonk a well-being or resilience program that will only increase their workloads, rather than taking a systemic approach,” he said.
“There is simply too much demand on principals, and those demands are multi-faceted. It’s not just NAPLAN and high-stakes testing, but parents and accountability measures over all sorts of administrative tasks.
‘A disconnect between principals and departments’
Judy Crowe, Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals (VASSP) president, told The Educator that her organisation’s research indicates that there is a “disconnect between principals, regions and the central Department bureaucracy”.
“Principals feel that the requirements are overly bureaucratic and accountability measures are very onerous,” she said.
“All these requirements distract principals from what they see as their more important work with staff enhancing the best interests of the students in their schools.”
NSW Secondary Principals Association (NSWSPC) president, Lila Mularczyk, told The Educator that it was “an imperative” to support principal well-being.
“In our association, we have an officer dedicated to looking after principal well-being for our membership,” she said, adding this was “a worthwhile investment” for the well-being and resilience of her colleagues.
A ‘wake-up call to action’
Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) president, Dennis Yarrington, told The Educator that the outcome announcement from WorkCover should be “a wake-up call for all to action”.
“Principals are reporting issues with workloads and work related stress – as evidenced by the Principal Health and Well-being Report,” Yarrington said.
“APPA is calling for professional learning and support for principals, but also a review of workloads and the continual expectation that more can be done with less. Increased accountability and transparency needs to be supported with additional resources.
“We need principal preparation programs to cover more than just educational leadership. We also need employers working with principal associations more closely to support aspiring and next generation principals. We could say: ‘the only person who really understands the role of the principal today is another principal’.”
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