What kind of future do we want for our children?

Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey reveals a disturbing picture

Ultimately, improving literacy outcomes in our students will depend more on teacher knowledge than the program or approach they use.

The Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey 2015 results released in December last year http://www.principalhealth.org/au/2015_Final_Report.pdf reveals disturbing evidence that far too many of Australia’s schools are struggling to cope with high levels of incivility, Associate Professor Philip Riley writes.

Since 2011, approximately 40% (4388) of Australia’s school leaders from every state and territory and every school sector have taken part in the annual survey. The latest report paints a picture of an Australian education system quite out of balance. The report shows job demands are increasing while resources to help cope with the demands are decreasing. This is a recipe for poor health and that too is confirmed in the study.

Decline in mental health and wellbeing

Despite being well educated, in secure employment, coming from stable backgrounds and in stable families, school leaders score below the average in mental health and experience stress, burnout and sleeping problems at nearly double the population rate.

Clearly something needs to change. The report’s findings probably indicate a much more widespread trend in Australian society that we should be mature enough to address as a nation. Worryingly high prevalence of violence and bullying in schools by adults is antisocial modelling of how to conduct relationships in tense times, for our nation’s children to witness and eventually copy (see figure 1).

The upward five year trend is even more worrying. Adult-adult bullying increased from 4.1-4.3 times higher than the general population; threats of violence (4.9-5.3) and actual violence (increased from 7-8 times higher).

While parents are the main perpetrators, bullying from colleagues and subordinates has also risen from 6.2% and 6.9% in 2011 to 8.2% and 10.5% in 2015 respectively, showing that stress is being distributed widely within and across schools. Anecdotally, teachers also report being bullied by principals. These are signs of a profession overloaded. As a nation, we need to acknowledge these issues so that the process of dealing with the evidence in a mature way can commence.

Volume of work out of control

While it would be easy to only focus on the incivility in schools, which does need serious attention, the job strain is considerable on many fronts, and rapidly increasing. The sheer volume of work for school leaders is putting the greatest strain on them. The increasing volume of work is largely red tape, which explains why a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning is the second highest stressor reported in the study, just behind sheer volume of work. The stress is also affecting their families at rates approximately double the average worker, because partners and family members provide the most support to school leaders, while the least amount comes from Departments of Education and other employer groups. This finding challenges bureaucrats to re-examine the effects of system requirements on principals and teachers.

The aim of the research project

The survey has run nationally every year since 2011 in response to growing concern about principal’s occupational health, safety and wellbeing. The aim of this research project is to conduct a longitudinal study monitoring school principals and deputy/assistant principals’ health and wellbeing annually. The health and wellbeing of this group of educators in differing school types, levels and size are monitored, along with lifestyle choices such as exercise and diet, and the professional and personal social support networks available to individuals. Monitoring the turnover of individuals in these positions within schools will allow for investigations of moderator effects, such as years of experience prior to taking up the role. The longitudinal study allows for the mapping of health outcomes on each of the dimensions being investigated over time.

What can be done?

The report makes recommendations for every level of society. These are based on six foundations that would radically change Australia’s education system:

  • No single stakeholder group is responsible for the state of education in Australia, nor do they hold the power to effect much change to the system on their own.
  • Many issues impacting negatively on the education system are entrenched in the wider Australian culture.
  • Taking a long term, rather than short term focus is essential for significant improvement in the system.
  • Taking a holistic inquiry approach to both the successes and failures in the Australian education system is also essential.
  • Depoliticising education at the macro and micropolitical levels will promote equity, continuity and transparency.
  • Australian education needs a change of mindset: moving beyond sectorised thinking. The problems and the solutions are very similar in all sectors so the differences between the sectors are more superficial than substantive.
  • This change of fundamentals in Australian education systems might be difficult, particularly point five, but together they hold the greatest chance of long term success, and there is strong international evidence to support it.

    If we want to look after our children and our future as a nation, we need to look after the people we entrust them to every day. We need to have a serious discussion as a nation about deeper issues than national curriculum and teacher standards and begin the difficult conversations about the future of our society through schooling.

    Associate Professor Philip Riley works for the Australian Catholic University and has overseen the project. He is a former school principal and is also the Chief Investigator for the Irish Principals and Deputy Principals Health and Wellbeing Survey.