Home Class Tech What Australia’s three school sectors have to say about the leadership crisis

What Australia’s three school sectors have to say about the leadership crisis


What Australia’s three school sectors have to say about the leadership crisis

Every year, researchers from the Australian Catholic University survey principals and other leadership staff such as deputy principals and heads of junior or senior schools about what is happening in their jobs.

The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, which commenced in 2011, includes between 2,300 and 2,500 participants, making it the largest and longest running survey of its type in the world.

Previous surveys have shown school principals face unsustainably high workloads, high levels of stress and unacceptable rates of violence and abuse from parents and students – and the ACU’s latest report was no exception.

The latest data, released last week, shows nearly half (48%) of Australia’s school principals reported being physically attacked in 2023 – a staggering 78% increase from when the survey first started 13 years ago.

Following the release of the report, The Educator sat down with the principal association heads of several States and Territories to ask them about the issues facing school leaders in their respective jurisdictions, the progress that is being made, and what can be done to

In the second part of this series, The Educator looks at the reactions of leaders representing principals across Australia’s three major school sectors.

‘Devastating consequences’

In a statement following the release of the ACU’s report the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) called for urgent action to address the escalating wellbeing crisis facing school leaders.

“We simply cannot ignore what the data trends have been telling us for well over a decade now,” Mison said. “Heavy workloads, lack of time to focus on teaching and learning, and the mental health of students and staff are taking an enormous toll on our school leaders.”

Mison said while the “extraordinary” resilience principals continue to demonstrate in the face of these challenges is to be commended, there is only so much they can take.

“If we don’t act now to better support them, many will follow through on their intention to leave, with devastating consequences for our schools,” he said.

“The 2023 report warning that middle leaders are unlikely to stay in their roles highlights a worrying trend. We must support and retain talented leaders to guide our schools.”

Mison said that absent a robust leadership pipeline, Australia’s schools risk instability and a decline in the quality of education they provide.

“Urgent action is required to address what is driving middle leaders away.”

Mison says the next Education Minister’s Meeting (EMM) must “respond meaningfully” to the ACU’s report.

To tackle the multitude of issues principals are facing, ASPA is proposing a sixth priority area – titled: ‘Retain and Sustain our Principals’ – to be added to the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan.

“We urgently need a coherent and effective approach to retaining and sustaining our vital school leadership workforce.” Mison said.

“School leaders have been ignored for too long – it’s time for a genuine commitment and investment that makes their wellbeing a top priority. If you want happy, healthy and successful schools, you need happy, healthy and successful school leaders.”

‘Serious shortfalls’ loom if issues remain

Dr Stephen Kennaugh, president of the Catholic Secondary Principals Australia (CaSPA) is also concerned about the state of the education leadership pipeline, noting that 56.4% of the ACU survey’s respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I often seriously consider leaving my current job’.

“Even if a small minority of this group did in fact leave their current position in the next twelve months, we would have serious shortfalls in the principal position and senior leadership in our schools,” Kennaugh told The Educator.

“The increase in offensive behaviour towards school leaders is also a major concern coupled with the increase in administrative burden, current teacher shortages, and the mental health of staff and students. These issues are leading to an increase in burnout and stress in those surveyed.”

However, Kennaugh there were signs that principals are proactive when it comes to seeking help.

“More Principals have reported that they seek support and advice from colleagues internally and externally to manage the complexities of the role or to discuss options.”

However, to ensure that supports are sustainable, Kennaugh says greater communication surrounding the issue of principal and teacher wellbeing is needed at both a State and Federal level.

“The significant amount of administration and paperwork works against the principle of why most people became teachers and takes educators away from direct student contact thus diminishing the impact we can have on student learning,” he said.

“The report mentions the need for a national summit to coordinate strategies to address the issues facing Principals and educators in schools as well as appropriate resourcing that leads to a healthy educator workforce. As a Principal association we would support this initiative.”

Early career leaders struggling the most

Almost 19% of those surveyed in the ACU’s study reported moderate-to-severe levels of anxiety. About 18% said they had moderate-to-severe depression. Early-career school leaders were most likely to report higher levels of anxiety and depression.

“This is a concern, and we are continually looking at ways we can support these leaders in their roles, Dr Chris Duncan, CEO of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) told The Educator.

At a national and state level, AHISA has a growing cohort of Aspirant members involved in a range of programs which focus on the skills and dispositions essential for becoming a Head of School.

One such initiative is AHISA’s Leading Learning Caring Conference, which runs from 8 -10 April 2024 at the ICC in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The event is run biennially and attended by hundreds of middle and senior independent school leaders across Australia.

“The conference ranges across the leadership of teaching and learning to the leadership and governance of the school, the latter being a critical domain of the knowledge and skills needed to lead an independent school.”

Dr Duncan said one of the most revealing measurements that attests to the commitment and dedication of school leaders is the steady rise in the resilience measurement over several years, as shown in the ACU’s latest survey.

“I am encouraged that support from internal and external colleagues remains strong,” he said.

Looking ahead, Dr Duncan said AHISA supports the recommendations brought forward in the report.

“These include a national conversation to prioritise support for school leaders; full funding for all schools; and inviting school leaders to co-design ways to overcome the challenges of extreme workload and the increasing mental health needs of their staff and students.”

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