Each year, the Australian Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey of nearly 2500 school leaders comes to similar, and disheartening, conclusions – the accumulation of demands, and generous preferring of others ahead of themselves, leaves too many school leaders languishing. And while we continue to encourage school leaders to seek help and be responsible for their own circumstances, our concerns have shifted markedly this year
It’s a tough time to be a school leader. In addition to regular demands of the role, the impact of significant weather events and COVID-19 in recent years has added to already full workloads; 2022 started the year with thousands of principals across some jurisdictions even monitoring vaccination status and administration of rapid antigen tests! And yet they keep turning up to serve their communities, and do so with distinction. They certainly deserve more than thanks.
Increasing demands, diminishing resources
An increasing number of school leaders are losing their passion to manage workload, teacher shortages, and offensive behaviour. As well as items on health and well-being, the survey includes specific items on Job Satisfaction, Commitment to Work, and Meaning of Work. We identify these as types of positive, protective factors which sustain school leaders to do their challenging work.
From the start of the project in 2011, all three of these items have been constant, showing that school leaders derive a lot of meaning and satisfaction from their work, consistent with some research which characterises school leadership as an ethical and moral vocation. But a concerning shift may be emerging. Remarkably, in 2020, the first year of COVID-19 and which followed Black Summer bushfires, both Job Satisfaction and Commitment to Work were at their highest level since the survey started, seeming to reinforce the notion school leaders have a strong sense of “call” to serve, especially in difficult circumstances. In 2022, both are at their lowest.
We also compare school leaders and the general population on these three items. Between 2019 and 2021, all three were much higher than across the general population, as might be expected from leaders in one of the caring professions. In 2022, however, these differences are not as great, with Job Satisfaction now about the same for school leaders as the wider general population.
Nearly 400 open-ended comments were received, highlighting three key consistent themes, represented here through one comment for each theme (some have been modified to keep confidentiality consistent with our ethics approval):
- Bureaucratic pressures – Principals’ jobs are becoming increasingly more difficult. Expected compliance and bureaucracy are destroying schools. The curriculum is being pushed as the holy grail with no consideration of pedagogy and engagement.
- Diminishing professional trust – My professional wellbeing would be enhanced by the system trusting me to manage my school with local autonomous decisions and recognising that I have wisdom and skill in conjunction with staff, student and community partnerships to deliver on the high performance agreed outcomes that we have established
- Waning passion – The increasing workload on my colleagues and myself is causing increasing disillusionment with our profession. The need to continually provide evidence and accountability for teaching and learning is adding to the stress and workload. In my [many] years of teaching, recent years have caused me to look at early retirement alternatives.
Even among those who express great passion for their work, the tensions and pressures are mounting:
Sometimes it feels like a thankless task and whilst you hold the noble ideal of why you do it in your head there are days when you feel spent and wonder why you do it ( and I love what I do!!).
It is why our concern this year highlights the commencing decline of that passion for an increasing number of school leaders. Were it to continue, consequences are far-reaching and will exacerbate what is already evident with teacher shortages.
A broader Action Plan is needed
Teacher workforce issues have been the focus of scholarly research and policy debate for many years. Performativity, standardisation, workforce supply and retention, and initial teacher education conversations seem perennial. Yet it was only in the latter part of 2022 that all Australian education ministers came to the table with an agreed National Teacher Workforce Action Plan. As the Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare, told The Australian newspaper recently, the Plan is “not a panacea, not perfect – but it’s a start”.
Agreed, which is why the lack of presence of school leaders throughout the plan is astonishing. The two priority areas which fall mostly to schools to implement, and thus to school leaders, are Priority Area 3 – Keeping the teachers we have and Priority Area 4 – Elevating the profession. School leaders are mentioned in only two of the 13 action items listed in these Priority Areas. The first is the unremarkable and expected consultation on any curriculum initiatives, and the second is about the merits and challenges associated with an “accreditation process aligned with the principal standard” (Key Action 15)! The intentions seem good, but the appearance of school leaders is opaque. In light of our report, it seems extraordinary that school leaders are not central to the plan, given we can reasonably assume they will likely be held to account for many of its outcomes. Additionally, we argue that the situation requires a comparable national school leader strategy to address the issues identified in our report.
Productivity Commission’s critique
Open-ended comments in this year’s survey reflect extraordinary frustration at the impact of unilateral accountability. So let’s broaden the lens. Policy and procedure, as well as accountability for their implementation and any results which they achieve, flow centrally to school leaders who now are saying, loudly, “enough”! The recent report on the National School Reform Agreement seems to echo this. It makes for sober reading. “Failure to achieve” is a consistent theme expressed through the words of the report itself:
• no outcome that captures wellbeing;
• a single weak target for academic achievement;
• a dearth of targeted reforms to lift outcomes for students from priority equity cohorts and for students who do not meet basic levels of literacy and numeracy;
• a lack of transparent, independent and meaningful reporting on national and state reform activity which means there is limited effective accountability (p. 33).
So where is system accountability for these failures?
Of the seven Expected Outputs and Implementation Status as reported by Education Council (p. 6), only four have been achieved, one is in progress, and two have not been achieved. We can only wonder at the response systems would have to school leaders achieving 57% of their targets. Where, and to whom, are education systems held to account?
Our educational elephant and the blindness of policy
An ancient Buddhist story tells how six blind men came across an elephant for the first time. Each felt a different part of the elephant (ears, leg, trunk, etc.) and described what they touched. None could see the whole, nor had any prior experience with elephants to describe accurately what they touched; each told their own limited “truth”. It seems an apposite metaphor for our current education system. The most recent evidence of this may be that it took only three paragraphs for last week’s Teacher Education Expert Panel Discussion Paper to acknowledge the “complex regulatory and funding environment” (p. 4) constraining its own work. Outcomes, the Expert Panel politely mused, “cannot be addressed by any one jurisdiction alone” but must be “a shared responsibility” (p. 4)
School leaders must take responsibility for their personal health and wellbeing, but the responsibility is not theirs alone. It is time for greater systemic accountability. It is time to be healed of our blindness and to see the whole. The Productivity Commission’s blunt assessment deserves to be heeded.
Perhaps an even wider Commission might therefore be needed to achieve this. So intractably complex is our national policy architecture, and so apparently ineffective is it at meeting our national educational goals, and so lacking in transparency and accountability are current frameworks (according to the Productivity Commission), perhaps there’s need for a Royal Commission into the purposes and processes of education for our nation. We’ve seen their effectiveness in responding to other priorities related to education – disability, protection of children.
This will be read by some as histrionics. However, a close reading of the report will find, in similar spirit, that :
Parties should retain the provision in the next school reform agreement for an independent review. The scope of the review should consider all aspects of the agreement, including the effectiveness of state-specific reforms (p. 30; emphasis added).
If the next National School Reform Agreement doesn’t address the Productivity Commission’s findings, the voices may grow louder. We now have 12 years of data, representing over 7,100 school leaders, many in broad agreement with the Commission’s view. The accountability school leaders have worked under for decades must now be embraced by policy makers and bureaucracies which, according to our report, preside over many of our participants’ frustrations.
Dr Paul Kidson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership at the Australian Catholic University. Prior to becoming an academic in 2017, he was a school principal for over 11 years. His teaching and research explore how systems and policies govern the work of school leaders, as well as how school leaders develop and sustain their personal leadership story.