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One in two principals plan to quit, survey finds

Lack of time to focus on teaching and the the "sheer quantity of work" are among the top stressors driving one in two principals to seriously consider quitting their jobs, a damning survey has revealed. 

The Australian Catholic University’s Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing survey, that quizzed 2300 principals nationally, also found they are experiencing the highest levels of violence in a decade.

Physical violence has soared 76.5 per cent since the first survey was undertaken in 2011, and principals said they've also received threats relating to sexual assault.

Survey investigator and former school principal Paul Kidson said governments must take urgent action to improve conditions for school leaders.

“We’re saying that there is a trainwreck coming if something is not done about this,” Dr Kidson said.

“It’s not just the number of people that would leave, but the level of experience and wisdom, insight and knowledge that they would take with them.”

The ACU report found that while “sheer quantity of work” was the highest stressor for school leaders, nearly half of the principals surveyed had experienced physical violence in the workplace.

Threats of violence from parents or caregivers was experienced by 65.6 per cent of survey respondents.

More NSW principals want to leave their jobs than in any other state, with 63.66 per cent signalling their intention to quit, compared to the lowest intentions in Victoria, at 48.23 per cent.

The survey also found school leaders in NSW report a higher rate of burnout, trouble sleeping, depressive symptoms, and general stress than the ­national average.

Dr Kidson said many school leaders and teachers were frustrated with parents who ignored or denied their child’s misbehaviour, including one educator who said they would “happily” embrace wearing a police-style bodycam as a result.

Researcher Paul Kidson. Picture: ACU

“There are a number of schools … [where] parents have refused to take a view of their child’s behaviour, literally until those schools have had to produce CCTV footage,” he said.

The survey found excessive workloads, lack of teaching and learning time, and student and staff mental health were also significantly impacting principals’ wellbeing, with one in three Victorian respondents triggering a red flag warning and being encouraged to seek assistance. 

One principal, who didn’t wish to be identified, said a parent once “jumped the school fence after hours” to find members of the leadership team, before making “threats involving sexual assault and physical harm”. 

“Another parent posted vile and distressing content on their Facebook page using my name in an attempt to intimidate and bully me after we made mandatory reports involving their child,” they said. 

“We’ve had to end meetings abruptly as parent conduct has been so offensive and threatening that staff are not safe in a room with them.”

The principal added they once had to phone police after a parent refused to leave the school following a heated meeting, while in another incident, the school was placed into lockdown because a parent breached court orders.

Meanwhile, another primary school principal of 24 years, described student and parent behaviour as “heightened” post pandemic.

“We had a physical fight in the playground between parents which started as quite a heated argument in the morning that we thought we dispersed," they said.

"Three of those men then turned up in the afternoon and got physical.”

Two female assistant principals and some teachers had to separate the men, with the incident occurring outside grade one classrooms. 

“I now have kids wondering if they’re safe in the playground after school,” the principal said. 

Prior to moving to their current school, the principal was bullied by parents over an 18-month period.

“There was one bullying family who just continually sent complaints about me … and the only thing that stopped it was because I left the school. They then started on the next principal,” they said.

“I didn’t think I would get that affected but I was lying awake at night at 3am considering whether I should go back to school the next day.”

Dr Kidson said his research team hope the government acts on their recommendations, including prioritising support for school leaders and addressing inappropriate parent behaviour, after seeing the survey’s findings. 

A Department of Education spokeswoman said the government welcomed ACU’s report and recognised more work was required to keep teaching staff “safe, satisfied and fulfilled”. 

“The health and wellbeing of our principals is a priority – we will continue to give them the best possible support for the vital work they do across school communities,” she said. 

NSW Secondary Principals’ Council president Craig Petersen noted that while the state government had taken concerns about workload on board, NSW should look at adopting legislation similar to Victoria’s new “school community safety orders” to protect principals and staff from offensive behaviour.

“We’ve got to restore trust in our teachers and leaders, and let them do their jobs,” he said.

Director of the Department of Education’s School Leadership Institute Joanne Jarvis, an ex-principal with 15 years experience, said the figures reported in the ACU survey were “not nice to read” and reflected “a whole-of-society issue”.

“I think it points to how society values the role of educators. At the fundamental level, educators are led by a very strong moral purpose to make a difference,” she said.

“We are human. We love our work. I describe it as the very best days of your life but sometimes the very worst.

“It is a very complex job and I don’t think it’s well understood in the community just how complex it is.”

Her institute – a two-person team when it was started in 2018 that has since grown to 45 staff – contains the public system’s answer to the principal pipeline dilemma, running leadership training for the department’s 13,000 “middle leaders” in the hope head teachers and assistant principals will be inspired to take up the top job.

New principals, meanwhile, are now “buddied up” with retired principals to support them in their first 18 months on the job.

“Principals don’t just become leaders overnight,” Ms Jarvis said.

“If we’re going to invest in a stronger system … then you need to be intentional about the way we invest in the capabilities of leaders when they first start teaching.”

ACU researchers recommend education ministers increase support models for teachers and principals, empower school leaders with "decision-making autonomy" and provide "dedicated resources for reducing unnecessary tasks".

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