Educators are facing unprecedented levels of anxiety and burnout, with staff shortages, mental health challenges, and an increasing regulatory burden identified as the major challenges facing the sector over the next 12 months.
The Education Risk Report, conducted by CompliSpace in partnership with School Governance, surveyed staff from all three school sectors nationwide, gaining critical insights into the most important issues facing Australian education.
The findings highlighted the pressing issue of student mental health challenges, with a staggering 98% of respondents stating they have been somewhat or greatly impacted by the increase in student mental health issues.
The survey further revealed that compliance obligations are another significant issue, impacting 91% of respondents, of which 43% plan major changes to their governance, risk, and compliance requirements in the upcoming year.
Cybersecurity was another big concern for schools, with just 54% of respondents confident of their school’s policies and systems to manage these threats. Worryingly, this finding indicates almost half of these schools might lack adequate measures to counter increasingly sophisticated cyber risks.
Principals should be more proactive about risk management
David Griffiths, CEO and founder of CompliSpace, said there is an urgent need for proactive risk management by school leaders, adding that many are in the process of planning major changes in their Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC) requirements this year.
“We are seeing schools prioritise cybersecurity measures to protect their students, staff, and stakeholders,” Griffiths told The Educator.
“While everyone was using the language of risk during the pandemic – and it was all over the media – it is only now that schools have time to take another look at their GRC frameworks and they are asking some important questions.”
Griffiths said these questions include how to ensure frontline staff understand daily risk management and compliance; ways to improve the relevance and timeliness of staff training; embedding risk and compliance in daily operations; enhancing risk and compliance cultures; and whether schools have sufficient and appropriate information to verify effective risk control and compliance.
“In addition, schools are reviewing their strategic plans to see if what they had prior to the pandemic is still fit for purpose. Many schools are surveying their communities to see what has changed, what their community want to see happen and what their communities now see as key priorities for the school,” he said.
“Ideagen CompliSpace is working with several schools that are asking these questions and helping them develop a refreshed set of strategic risks and update their strategic plans so they are fit for purpose for operating effectively in a post pandemic world.”
Un uphill battle, but not an insurmountable one
Griffiths said while the report’s findings show the mental health crisis among staff and students in schools is a growing concern, there are some effective strategies schools can use to foster a positive and supportive school culture that both prioritises staff and student mental health and wellbeing.
One of these strategies, says Griffiths, is making sure management have a clear understanding of what can increase staff stress levels in day-to-day operations and where possible do something about it.
“For example, last minute requirement for staff members to undertake additional student supervision or provide lesson cover for staff absences,” he said.
School leaders should also be promoting open communication channels, providing access to mental health resources and support services and making it clear that mental health is taken seriously within the school community.”
Griffiths said another way schools can reduce the risk of mental health issues arising is by implement proactive measures such as stress management programs and wellbeing initiatives.
“These initiatives can be incorporated into staff development, curriculum or extracurricular programs,” he said.
“Regular training and professional development opportunities should be provided to staff regarding mental health awareness, including how to identify, respond to, and support mental health issues with students.”
Overall, says Griffiths, a comprehensive approach to proactive mental health management is key to ensuring staff and student wellbeing, and promoting a healthy school community.
How schools can overcome human resourcing issues
Survey respondents ranked human resources concerns as their top priority, with a staggering 92% saying they have experienced increased stress and burnout due to their workloads.
Griffiths said schools can become employers of choice by gaining a thorough understanding prospective staffs’ needs during the hiring process.
“Schools should survey current and prospective staff to understand both the positives and negatives of employment and recruitment – what attracts applicants and what staff value most in their employment at the school,” he said.
“Also important is encouraging young teachers to apply for positions through various incentives and through providing a clear sense to applicant of what their ‘employment journey’ will be like at the school.”
Griffiths said schools should also ensure that recruitment and onboarding practices support and mentor new teachers and allow time for new teachers to settle in.
Protecting against emerging sophisticated cyberthreats
The first step in safeguarding one’s school against cyberattacks, says Griffiths, is to get started, or more likely make sure there is a deep understanding of the current measures in place to mitigate these threats.
“Secondly elevate cyber security risk to the executive and board level so that the executive and board can give it the priority and resourcing that are needed and also understand what the specific vulnerabilities are and what can be done to address them,” he said.
“Thirdly, not all ICT systems are of equal importance, so undertake a risk analysis to prioritise improvements to cyber security based on the nexus of vulnerability and criticality and also consider what the ‘maximum acceptable outage’ is for that system. This is usually referred to as a business impact analysis.”
Lastly, says Griffiths, schools should train and provide adequate support to staff.
“Staff are the cyber risk frontline especially with distributed devices and increasing use of personal mobile devices for school operations,” he said. “Ensure staff know and follow the rules and receive regular training in how to identify fraudulent emails and messages.”
‘An overburdened sector striving to hold itself together’
Griffiths said, on the whole, the Education Risk Report “paints a picture of an overburdened sector striving to hold itself together”.
“School staff are not getting the support they need, and there are not enough high-quality teaching staff in our schools. Modelling from the Australian Government Department of Education predicts a shortage of 4,100 secondary school teachers between 2021 and 2025,” he said.
“We hope that the findings amplify the voices of our educators and contribute to the national debate about how to manage the complex risks that affect our schools.”