Urgent action needed to address principals' workloads

Every year, the Australian Catholic University (ACU)surveys principal wellbeing, and it’s often sobering reading. But the latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey (2022) is shocking. It says principals are grappling with “the highest rates of burnout, sleeping troubles, stress, and depression in a decade”, Will Brodie writes.

It reveals that one in two school leaders are at risk of serious mental health concerns including burnout and stress. Even more alarmingly, it reports that school principals are 11 times more likely to be subjected to physical violence than the average Australian, and nearly half have reported being assaulted by parents or students.

IEU-QNT Branch Secretary Terry Burke called for “urgent interventions” from government and employers to address this crisis.

“The number of principals looking to retire has tripled in the last three years for the same reasons as our teachers – workload and a lack of time to focus on their core duties as a school leader.

“This is compounded by the national shortage of teachers unwilling to work under the current workload regime.

“We don’t have a teacher shortage – we have a shortage of teachers willing to work under oppressive workloads.

“Like teachers, our school leaders are forced to do too much work unrelated to their core duties, severely impacting their health and wellbeing.”

Mr Burke said immediate action by school employers and government was needed to address workload in schools.

“Meaningful reform must be put in place to tackle the unnecessary paperwork, red tape and obsession with data which are sucking the life out of our profession.”

In Queensland, school employers are now legally responsible for complying with the Managing the Risk of Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice, which came into effect from 1 April this year.

“The new Code will also provide practical, enforceable minimum standards a school must follow to comply with its duties to ensure psychological health and safety of its employees,” Burke said.

Similar regulations are appearing in other states. They will mean the mental health of workers must be considered more seriously by management.

The survey reveals why that change is essential.

Red flag alerts

It revealed that ‘red flag’ alerts jumped by 18.7 percentage points last year – a 64.26 per cent increase.

Red flag alerts mean school leaders are at risk of “self-harm, occupational health problems or serious impact on their quality of life”.

Principals work an average of 56 hours a week and their job satisfaction and trust in management is at the lowest levels ever recorded by the survey.

IEU Victoria Tasmania Principal’s Officer Noel Dillon said many principals are targeted by parents in online forums and have no right of reply.

“Parents are threatening legal action against principals for any action against their child. Principals are frustrated that their hands are tied and they’re unable to deal with inappropriate behaviours without threat from parents or their legal teams.”

“Abusive, attacking and often threatening” emails are sent to principals at all hours.

And inappropriate and aggressive student behaviour has increased since pandemic lockdowns stopped.

As Dan McMahon, president of the Queensland Catholic Secondary Principals’ Association told the Catholic Leader, “There are more angry people in society”.

“This may have been exacerbated by experiences of COVID-19. It is not uncommon for parents to ‘vent’ at school personnel.”

In the 2022 survey, parents were the highest ranked source of bullying at 19 per cent. Conflicts and quarrels were reported by 60 per cent of participants, mostly with parents (36 per cent).

Gossip and slander was reported by 50 per cent of participants, with parents the main source (31 per cent).

Enough is enough

ACU Investigator and former principal Dr Paul Kidson said, “Enough is enough. Our research shows abuse and intimidation towards principals and the associated health risks suffered by school leaders continues to grow and it must stop”.

“Such a significant shift in red flag warnings in a short space of time suggests the situation is more serious than first thought. For the past 12 years we have looked at trends and this year they are stark – the scale and the rate has intensified, and we are seeing a severe escalation in stress levels.”

In NSW, school violence is such a concern Emeritus Professor Donna Cross was appointed the state’s first Chief Behaviour Advisor in March. Assaults in the state’s schools had jumped by 50 per cent since 2013 and the escalation of bad behaviour in schools led to the review of controversial policy introduced in 2022 which restricted the length and number of suspensions schools could issue – which was criticised for undermining teacher authority.

In April, a federal inquiry began hearings to examine increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms. It was informed in part by an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study from 2018 that revealed Australia ranked 69 out of 76 worldwide for unruly classrooms.

Meaningful reform must be put in place to tackle the unnecessary paperwork, red tape and obsession with data which are sucking the life out of our profession.

Tipping point

Educational psychologist and co-lead investigator of the ACU survey Professor Herb Marsh said principals are “weighed down by the compounding crunch of unsustainable workloads, chronic teacher shortages and concern about mental health issues among staff and students”.

“The wellbeing of our school leaders is at a tipping point and increasing numbers of principals may not be able to do their jobs. If this happens, their absence will seriously limit the achievement of national educational priorities and policies.

“There is an urgency in our call for action as the time to redress these concerns diminishes. We may see a mass exodus from the profession, and the implication for Australian education would be devastating.”

The Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) investigated why educators were leaving their jobs and in April concluded: “The teaching profession is in crisis”.

AARE’s survey found that “the majority of those who are leaving the profession are experienced classroom teachers and leaders in their school. Forty per cent of those surveyed were in school leadership positions at the time of leaving”. This exacerbates pressures upon principals.

AARE report participants said work environment, dealing with poor student behaviour, and excessive workloads contributed to their decision to leave the profession.

Despite the bleak picture offered by its research, AARE said “there is an opportunity for all stakeholders to address issues of flexibility, school leadership, progression and pathways, including a commensurate salary…”

Dillon said principals must be allowed to take actions that deter inappropriate student behaviour.

“This includes immediate suspension and expulsion without the threat of legal action against the principal or the school.”

He called for parent awareness programs to inform them of the actions that can be taken against inappropriate behaviour.

And Dillon said education authorities must fully support the principals and put in place “process and practices that support principal action against dangerous student and parent behaviour”.

The authors of the ACU principal survey also believe there are solutions. They praised federal and state governments for responding to teacher shortages with a National Teacher Workforce Action Plan and asked for a comparable strategy for school leaders.

“We now call on governments to specifically address the health and wellbeing of Australian school principals. We cannot achieve anything meaningful in education if our school leaders are not better supported to do their work, which is so critical to keeping teachers, students, and school communities happy, safe, and engaged.”