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Welcome back to Term 2! We hope you’ve had a restful, restorative break and are ready for all the action, excitement and challenges ahead. The results of The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey were released mid-March and now that the dust has settled, we are going to look at some of the key findings. This week on School Stream, we examine the vital work Principals do to create positive school environments and the state of play when it comes to their health and wellbeing.

We know you’re busy. Let us help. See how School Stream can support communication between home and school, or keep reading for our snapshot of the annual Principal Health and Wellbeing Report.

Principals are Australia’s nation builders

As we all know, school Principals surely have one of the most challenging, complex but rewarding jobs out there. It’s certainly not a role for the fainthearted. The impact of school Principals is both critical and far reaching. School leaders are, after all, responsible for literally everything in their school. They do it all: from managing the hopes and fears of parents to leading teaching and learning, from leadership to the complexities of compliance and governance. All this and more falls to school principals.

The impact of 2020 on Principal wellbeing

“During the COVID period I was fine and just worked to meet the emerging needs. Post COVID (post the shutdown period) I have struggled with things that normally wouldn’t affect me.”  

Government Primary School Principal (male)

During 2020, schools were subject to significant pressure and responsibility to maintain not only students’ and their families’ wellbeing, but also to deliver continued education for their students and community. The commitment by schools to deliver learning for students during the lockdown period resulted in moving the entire curriculum online in a matter of weeks– a feat that can only be considered heroic. This, alongside establishing health and safety protocols and moving quickly to make operational, added additional layers to an already gargantuan workload for Principals.

“After almost 20 years as a Principal, this has been one of the most challenging times in my career. General fatigue and routine-ness – without the joy of hope and anticipation of special events have taken their toll!”

 Catholic Combined School Principal, Tasmania (female)

“Who looks after the Principal?”

Even without the added pressure of fire, floods and a pandemic in 2020, it will come as no surprise that Principals were already under the pump. Survey co-chief investigator, ACU Professor Herb Marsh, said the main sources of stress were workloads, lack of time to focus on educating, the mental health issues of students and employer expectations. 

“This year has been more challenging than last. Fires, storms, COVID, have all interrupted what should have been Summer break to [sic] Easter Break. Keeping staff morale up has been a big priority, but who looks after the Principal? Where is there time to step aside for a breather? Small schools with only one deputy are pushed to the limit with all of the changes we have needed to make to keep educating our students to the best standard we can…”

Independent School Principal (female), NSW

Principal Wellbeing Study – background

The survey has run every year since 2011 and approximately 50% of Principals across Australia have taken part. This year, 2248 school leaders participated in the 2020 study. Principals who complete the survey receive personalised, real-time feedback on their health scores comparing responses to 45 indicators with the general population, professional peers and themselves. A red flag indicator triggers an automatic response outlining available support services. This year, almost 30% received a red flag email. The study is influential and, in the past, has led to an increase in funding from Victorian and NSW state governments, as well as a reduced waiting time to access psychological services from the Teachers Health Fund.  In previous years the results of the survey have been described as “Groundhog Day-ish” and this appears to be the case again with the opening remarks from the study’s authors stating “the most prominent result from this year’s survey was how consistent the results were from 2019”. 

Key findings from the 2020 survey

If you’re working in education, chances are these statistics will not be surprising. But to read them together paints a very vivid picture of the time and energy spent to perform the role of school Principal. 

  • 69.8% of school leaders worked more than 50 hours a week during the school term. 22.1% of school leaders worked more than 60 hours a week during the school term.
  • During the school holidays, the average working week was 20.2 hours, but there were some differences between male (18.4 hours) and female (21.5 hours) school leaders.
  • Roughly 88% of school leaders reported an increase in parental/guardian engagement in 2020. Roughly 28% of school leaders reported having spent an additional 2+ hours per day on parental/guardian engagement, due to the pandemic.
  • The four main sources of stress continue to be the same for school leaders in 2020 as they were in 2019: 
    1. Sheer quantity of work 
    2. Lack of time to focus on teaching and learning 
    3. Mental health issues of students 
    4. Expectations of the employer.
  • Teacher shortages is the 4th major source of stress for very remote school leaders.
  • School leaders at a rate of 83 in 100 continue to be subjected to at least one form of offensive behaviour in the last 12 months. 
  • Just under two-thirds of survey participants (62.1 per cent) reported being subjected to at least one offensive behaviour from parents (and carers), and 39.9 per cent reported being subjected to at least two offensive behaviours from parents.
  • Approximately half of all school leaders (48.5 per cent) had been exposed to threats of violence and/or physical violence, and around one-third (31.3 per cent) had been exposed to both over the last 12 months.
  • For threats of violence the rate was 5.5 times greater than the general population, physical violence was 9.4 times greater, and bullying was 4 times greater.
  • The report warns that Australia will soon face recruitment and retention problems, as 6.8% of school leaders stated their intention to retire in 2021. 

It’s not all doom and gloom

“I am very happy in my job. It is a hard job with long hours and the pressure is high, but the rewards from staff, families and students are also considerable. I do not wish to do another job or be in another workplace. This community is one that I am very happy to work with and for.” 

Government Primary School Principal (female), NT

Despite findings that can only be described as dire, the study’s authors do cite a couple positive results. In 2020, with COVID-19’s impact on the educational landscape, increased safety measures, and an understanding of what educators are faced with, we have observed a notable decrease in Threats of Violence (-7.9%), Physical Violence (-5.6%), Bullying (-4.5%), and Gossip and Slander (-7.7%) (The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey)Queensland Association of State School Principals president Leslie Single said another silver lining for principals amid the pandemic was a sense of a better connection with the school community. Surprisingly, school leaders reported better Social Support from Internal Colleagues, Social Support from External Colleagues and Social Support from Supervisors in 2020 than in 2019. They also reported less Work-Family Conflict, Quantitative Demands, Work Pace and Justice in 2020 compared to 2019. (The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey)

“COVID-19 has been an extraordinary year in the life of a leader, and I have found my inner calmness as life is too short. Gratitude and kindness have become important aspects of life in our community.”

Government Secondary School Principal (female), Victoria

The report has made 16 recommendations to ease the extreme pressure felt by so many of Australia’s school principals. You can read them online by following this link. 


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