New report calls for a national conversation to address escalating stress and offensive behaviour facing our principals

  • Bullying, threats and violence against principals continue to increase with parents and students the worst offenders
  • Sheer quantity of work and lack of time to focus on teaching and learning are the biggest contributors to stress
  • The need for action is clear with evidence of increased burnout and insomnia, and a doubling of 'red flag' responses

Increasing pressures, stress, threats and violence facing Australian principals are taking their toll, and without action, the future of our entire education system is at risk as principal turnover becomes more frequent and positions harder to fill.

The 2015 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety & Wellbeing Survey Report found 41 per cent of principals have experienced threats of violence and 36 per cent experienced some form of bullying. Parents were the worst offenders making up 42 per cent of reported bullying and 41 per cent of threats towards principals.

Alarmingly the report also uncovered that more than one in three principals experience actual violence, eight times that experienced by the general population, with students the most common perpetrators (77% of reported violence).

Report author Australian Catholic University (ACU) Associate Professor Philip Riley said the report, now in its fifth year, was showing a consistent escalation of offensive behaviour that can no longer be ignored.

"Many of the results are not only of serious concern for the profession as a whole, but also the wider community. As an example of the toll that issues like this can take, this year’s survey saw double the rate of 'red flags' compared with last year. These 'red flags' appear when a principal’s responses show cause for concern and that intervention may be required," Associate Professor Riley said.

Despite the increases in offensive behaviour, principals still rate their biggest contributors to stress as the sheer quantity of work and lack of time to focus on teaching and learning. Examples of sources of stress on the rise include dealing with student and staff mental health issues, resourcing and government initiatives.

The report, supported by Teachers Health Fund and all national principals' associations, and conducted by the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at ACU, includes responses from approximately 40 per cent of the nation's principals (4,386 principals from government, catholic and independent primary and secondary schools) over a five-year period.

There is, however, some good news. More principals are taking control of their work-life balance, with a decrease (55% - 39%) of principals working more than 25 hours per week in school holiday periods from 2011 to 2015. In addition, the increasing rate of job satisfaction is also significantly higher than the general population.

"Now is the time for parents and students to stop the offensive behaviour and for the education community and government to resist the quick fixes and focus on the long term," Associate Professor Riley added. "Most importantly, it’s time to start a national conversation at all levels to address the issues head-on."

The report outlines seven key recommendations:

  1. Government: Adopt a whole of government approach to education budgets and stop looking for short-term quick fixes.
  2. Employers: Reduce job demands or increase resources to cope with increased workloads and work towards building trust in the system as a whole and between those who work in it.
  3. Professional associations, education bodies and unions: Collaboration across the education community to inform and give ‘on the ground’ direction to education policy.
  4. Community: Support local schools and stop the offensive behaviour.
  5. Schools: Increase trust and collaboration between staff members and across schools. This can be learnt from observing school networks that have made progress in this space.
  6. Educators: Respectfully speak back when faced with moral harassment and take responsibility for personal work-life balance.
  7. Research community: Provide better longitudinal evidence of the differential impact of all the influences on education to provide better insight into the most effective policies, processes and procedures in Australia's differing contexts.

Teachers Health Fund CEO Brad Joyce said the findings demonstrate that again this year more needs to be done to support the teaching community.

"We know this is an issue that needs to be addressed at a number of levels from policy to parents to individual teachers and principals. We also know we have a role to play. In addition to supporting the report, in the past year we have reduced waiting times for members wishing to access psychological services from 12 to 2 months, added rebates to tele-psychological services and recently launched the Teachers Health Foundation with a $50,000 grant going towards mental health research."

 

The full report can be found at www.principalhealth.org/au/reports.

If you or someone you know is suffering for workplace stress, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp.

For students experiencing stress at school, please speak to your school counsellor or alternatively call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or visit www.kidshelpline.com.au.