Expert says principals shouldn’t be scapegoats

Andrea ChesterLeave a Comment

In a week when the headlines have been dominated by George Pell, it was good to see a report on stress amongst principals get some air time. SoEd Associate Dean, R&I, Jeff Brooks, responded to the report in Education Today. The article is below.

We’re at risk of becoming like the USA in the way that we treat our principals and teachers, increasingly we’re seeing a situation where young people and their parents often take out their economic stresses and their sense of hopelessness for the role of education on those who are there to help.

Another problem is boredom and lack of engagement which should spur a redesign and rethink of schools and assessment.

“..the boredom and lack of engagement of so many young people are not-so-silent cries out for a new design of schools based on learner passion not teacher-dominant pedagogies, rules and obsolete assessments,” said Professor John Fischetti, an expert on education leadership and Interim Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle.

The latest survey on Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing, highlights stresses on principals’ wellbeing, including excessive admin pressures, long work hours, and increasing risks of experiencing violence.

The report on 2018 data, led by Associate Professor Philip Riley of Australian Catholic University, draws on responses from 2,365 participants (a total of 5,934 have participated since 2011).

The report notes that “Principals and deputy/assistant principals experience far higher prevalence of offensive behaviour at work each year than the general population”: the number of principals who had experienced threats of violence rose between 2011 and 2018 from 28% to 45%; those who had been subjected to actual physical violence rose from 27% to 37%.

Professor Jeffrey Brooks, also researches school leadership, and is the Associate Dean of Research and Innovation at RMIT University. He agrees that the survey should prompt policy-makers to action.

“Working conditions for principals are a problem for several reasons. First, people in the positions now need immediate help in terms of well-being and safety.

“Second, principals influence quality teaching and student learning. If they are not well or pushed too hard, it will surely have a negative effect on our schools.”

“Third, Australia needs a steady pipeline of high-quality leaders. This is a priority for all states, and if we aim to attract high quality candidates, they must know they will be supported and cared for,” said Professor Brooks.

Associate Professor Scott Eacott, who researches educational administration and school leadership at the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney), agrees that the report brings important issues to the public’s attention.

“This report highlights that the transfer of administrative responsibility to individual schools and principals, combined with parallel cuts to systemic supports, has led to major workload increases and heightened stress for school leaders.”

However, Dr Eacott does not believe the report goes far enough in its recommendations

“The recommendations do little to resolve this or other issues (such as increased threats of violence, and acts of violence),” he said.

“Instead, we have calls to depoliticise education, appeals to moral choice and trust, and asking people to be nice to one another.”

“On face value these are well intentioned and desirable, and the data is persuasive, but the structure of Australian federalism, entrenched sector divides, and the customer based approach of many to schooling means that these are mere platitudes rather than the call to arms that is required.”

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