We asked principals if they wanted to leave their jobs. The results were devastating

By Paul Kidson

Let’s hope today is a landmark day in Australian education and we see some urgent ministerial action. The Federal Minister, Jason Clare MP, is a keynote presenter at the Australian Secondary Principals Association (ASPA) National Summit, and there will rightly be much attention given to his speech following the release last Friday, March 22, of our Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety, and Wellbeing Survey.

Last year, the ASPA submission to the Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System was blunt: “many decisions concerning education are made for political reasons and not necessarily sound educational reasons”.

It’s a boldness that inspired our key recommendation that Education Ministers Meeting (EMM) respond urgently to our report.

For the past couple of years, we’ve been raising concerns that, despite the extraordinary commitment and personal sacrifice that school leaders display, an increasing number of school leaders are considering leaving their profession.

For example, in our 2021 report, we recommended the development of “systematic and coherent educational policy that contributes to achieving the agreed Educational Goals for Young Australians” (p. 10), at the same time noting an emerging group expressing a growing intention to leave. Then, in 2022, we recommended that governments “fast-track review and elimination of low-value tasks, as advocated by the Productivity Commission” (p. 6) due to the consistent finding that this is a major contributor to principals’ frustration.

Then we made a small but significant change between the 2022 and 2023 reports: a new item was added asking if they consider leaving. We thought we might get 250-300 agree.

We were wrong.

When given the opportunity, over 1,250 agreed or strongly agreed they are seriously considering leaving their current job. Yes, resilience continues to increase slightly. Yes, commitment to their work and job satisfaction remain stable. But we are kidding ourselves if we think this year’s report is more miserable “business as usual” of stress and workplace pressures.

It’s a clarion voice of frustration and growing impatience. We can’t mistake the paradox of school principals’ positivity midst dire circumstances for their endless generosity.

It’s a stretch in credibility that notable goals like the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan or the forthcoming National School Reform Agreement have any likelihood of being achieved if too many school leaders walk out the door. Yet, as our report shows, those odds have shortened dramatically.

That’s why we’ve called on EMM to put responding to our report on their agenda next month. We can’t afford the educational equivalent of the vacuous “thoughts and prayers” sentiment that follows shocking gun violence in some places.

And, as Rachel Wilson highlighted in this blog last week, there’s an urgent need to “reshape societal perceptions of teachers” and, by extension, school leaders. EMM can’t fix all the problems because they are not all caused by policy makers alone. Families and the wider community have obligations, as well as rights; the latter does not absolve them of the former.

As the Senate inquiry into school disruption found, there is a fundamental “importance of productive engagement and connections between parents/communities and schools”. And as noted in Improving Outcomes for All, the review to inform the NSRA, schools are impacted by forces “well outside the control of any school and [reflect] challenges and changes in broader society”.

Big ticket items such as full school resourcing and support for mental health initiatives in the upcoming National School Reform Agreement clearly sit on the EMM table and surely should be addressed promptly.

But we all have a collective obligation to support educators, to build positive and cooperative relationships. Sadly, though, this doesn’t always work out well. EMM might therefore have to do some harder thinking about how better to support school leaders and their communities. One example is Victoria’s Community Safety Order, where principals are authorised to “stop or limit parents, carers and other adults who behave in harmful, threatening, or abusive ways”, including limiting their physical presence on campus.

It’s a challenging response to an inexcusable set of symptoms. Schools, and their leaders, have inclusive and relational priorities that seem to grate against measures like an exclusion order. But when our data shows 65% of threats of violence and of gossip and slander come from parents and caregivers, something needs to be done to provide safe working environments for the more than 450,000 Australian educators. EMM may need to exercise their authority where some families are unwilling to fulfil their obligations.

Imagine only half those who indicated they’re ready to leave do so. If that materialises, EMM will have far greater, and urgent, issues on their hands. And so will many Australian schools.

Last Friday also saw ASPA set out urgent priorities for what EMM needs to do in response to our confronting survey. The time for action is now, Ministers.

Dr Paul Kidson is a 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. 

2 thoughts on “We asked principals if they wanted to leave their jobs. The results were devastating

  1. Academic educators have very limited ability to influence ministerial action on teacher’s working conditions. What they can do is train future teachers for the conditions which do exist. They can also equip teachers with skills for a career outside teaching. As well as improving teachers working conditions, that could have an influence on Minister’s actions, with teachers refusing to accept unacceptable conditions.

  2. Paul Kidson says:

    We disagree, and at today’s meeting referred to in the article, the Federal Minister agreed to add the concerns from our research onto the agenda of the Education Ministers Meeting, as we recommended. What we can do is report our research through advocacy to ministers as to how they might consider responding. It seems to have been effective in this instance.

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