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School principals under extreme stress, including from physical violence, well before pandemic

Survey shame: Queensland principals reported greater levels of burnout, stress, sleeping trouble and depressive symptoms than in any other states.

A HIGH-LEVEL Australian education survey says “we should be nationally ashamed” of steadily increasing rates of offensive behaviour in schools and other frontline professions, as well as domestic violence.

“Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the root causes of this behaviour and set about addressing them at every level of society,” the newly-released Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2019 said.

The survey of school principals reveals nearly one in three faced stress and burnout from their jobs including high levels of threats and physical violence by parents and students.

“Offensive behaviour simply must stop. The real issue is how to achieve this outcome,” the survey said.

Queensland principals reported greater levels of burnout, stress, sleeping trouble and depressive symptoms than in any other states.

However, the survey authors offer a note of optimism for school leaders, suggesting the mass disruptions to school and home life during COVID-19 could trigger a welcome uplift in community appreciation for the ongoing and unforeseen challenges faced by principals.

The annual survey was completed prior to the catastrophic bushfires, floods and COVID-19 pandemic that have marked the start of 2020, by researchers from the Australian Catholic University and Deakin University.

Deakin’s Professor Phil Riley said the national school shutdown from COVID-19 restrictions had reminded communities of the vital role school leaders played.

“The sudden changes to education delivery prompted by COVID-19 restrictions required an unprecedented response by school leaders to roll-out remote learning opportunities for their students,” Professor Riley said.

“We know from anecdotal evidence that many parents, although impacted themselves, are deeply appreciative of this work by principals and educators.

“We hope this points to a future in which there is greater awareness and acknowledgement of the many stresses and challenges that principals face on a regular basis as they lead their students and staff.”

Since 2011, the annual survey has heard from more than half of Australia’s school principals.

More than 84 per cent of school leaders reported being subjected to an offensive behaviour over the last year, with 51 per cent reported having received threats of violence, and more 42 per cent being exposed to physical violence.

More than 37 per cent were bullied, more than 57 per cent endured conflict and quarrels, and more than 50 per cent were the subject of gossip and slander.

“Last year school leaders told us they were struggling from many serious work-related issues including stress caused by parents, burn-out from the sheer quantity of work, employer demands and student and staff mental health issues,” the survey’s chief investigator, ACU Professor Herb Marsh, said.

“The combined impact of record levels of heavy workloads and offensive behaviour by parents and students is a risk to school leaders’ long-term health and even their life expectancy.”

Professor Riley said while violence was a problem anywhere where strong emotions were involved, education leaders were drawing a line in the sand to say this appalling behaviour must end in schools.

“The steadily increasing levels of offensive behaviour across the country in schools of all types should give us pause,” the survey said.

“This is not just occurring in schools, with increases noted in all frontline professions and domestic violence rates that we should be nationally ashamed about.

“Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the root causes of this behaviour and set about addressing them at every level of society.”

Older Workforce

Almost three quarters (70.3 per cent) of school leaders are aged over 50 years and more than 25 per cent of Australia’s school principals are aged over 60 years and nearing retirement.

“It should be no surprise that fewer educators are willing to step up and take on the increasingly-complex role of school principal,” Professor Riley said.

“The low replacement rate for retiring school principals tells a truly dire story about our education system which should concern us all and needs further investigation.

“Countless studies show the transformative nature of education and school leadership.

“If we, as a nation, are serious about the key role of education in the growth and development of Australia, we simply cannot ignore school leaders’ cries for help.”

Among the key survey recommendations are the need for policy planning and implementation based on the best evidence and long-range vision for the country’s future.

The survey says Employers should reduce job demands or increase resources or do both.

And the community needs to promote social capital which may stop offensive and violent behaviour towards educators, as well as all front-line services that are seeing similar increases in offending.

The survey did recognise progress based of recommendations contained in previous annual reports.

In 2019, Queensland and the Northern Territory implemented substantial, co-ordinated, evidence-based changes to their systems in line with the recommendations of past surveys.

The Northern Territory now reports the equal lowest number of red flags with Victoria, and the second highest level of job satisfaction in the country.

The data collection period for the 2019 survey closed before Queensland implemented their workplace changes, but the survey authors expected Queensland might display a similar improvements that would be reflected in next year’s results.

The survey also offers an educators view on how governments could help principals by adopting a holistic approach.

“Federal, state, and territory governments should come together to maintain a single education budget in a managerial way,” the survey said.

“All school funding should be transparent so that anyone, at any level of the system, can confidently know how much money a school will have at their disposal.

“This would beneficially allow for long term budgeting.”

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