Annual principals survey

Calls on employers to meet stubborn challenges

Threats of physical violence against principals continue to rise, according to the annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, carried out by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and released in May 2024.

The 2023 survey reported the worst recorded levels of physical violence, threats of violence, and bullying in the 13-year history of the survey.

More than 2000 principals in government and non-government schools participated in the survey across Australia.

Educational psychologist and co-lead survey investigator Professor Herb Marsh said school principals were resilient, but increasing job demands and burnout are putting them at risk.

“It is deeply concerning that offensive behaviour towards school leaders and teachers persists and appears to be on the rise,” Professor Marsh said.

Despite the spike in violence and the toll on their mental health and wellbeing, the survey found principals showed strong levels of resilience, and their work commitment remained high.

The survey also showed school leaders suffered higher rates of anxiety and depression than the general population, with early career school leaders most at risk.

Offensive behaviours towards principals escalated in 2023, with 48 per cent subjected to physical violence and more than half (53.9 per cent) experiencing threats of violence.

Of those reporting physical violence, a staggering 96.3 per cent was by students.

One IEU principal member says that while he is refusing to tolerate this type of behaviour, system leaders just appease students and parents rather than trust in their principals’ professional judgement regarding appropriate disciplinary processes.

Heavy workloads and a lack of time to focus on teaching and learning remained the top two sources of stress for principals surveyed in 2023.

Mental health of students, followed by mental health of staff and student-related issues round out the top five sources of stress.

Our principal members say they are not “punching bags” and many report they are close to walking away if there isn’t a massive improvement and a firm line taken with the unruly behaviour of students and parents.

The survey also shows more than half of school principals intend to quit or retire early. Experienced school leaders, with over 15 years behind them, are leading the charge to get out.

There is concern about mid-career leaders turning their backs on long-term principalship, with almost 60 per cent of those with six to 10 years’ experience wanting to leave the profession.

“Assuming only half of those who agreed or strongly agreed to quit acted on this response, there would be an exodus of more than 500 school leaders – the data strongly suggests this would be experienced school leaders,” Professor Marsh said.

Professor Marsh said school principals needed credible proactive feedback about their sources of stress, resilience, and mental health – independent of state departments of education and other regulatory bodies.

ACU investigator and former principal Dr Paul Kidson called on education ministers to urgently take collective action to address the significant threats principals face.

“We’ve had a national spotlight on teacher education and workloads, disruptions in the classroom, campaigns to boost the profession’s status, and a continued focus on students’ mental health and academic outcomes – all noble and necessary,” Dr Kidson said.

“Principals are being asked to do more with less. It’s been over a decade since the Gonski Review, and we still do not have full funding based on student needs. It is naïve to think this does not translate into the increasing stress among school leaders today.”

Inviting school leaders to co-design ways to overcome the challenges of inappropriate behaviour by parents and caregivers has proven to be successful, as evidenced by the Victorian School Community Safety Order, and this perhaps could be a model for NSW and the ACT.

Principal members can seek advice from their IEU organiser regarding WHS or workload issues.

Lyn Caton
Principals Organiser