How Can We Attract and Retain Quality School Principals When 70 Per Cent May Retire in the Next Five Years? (Part One)

28 February 2019

Leadership in Schools

According to The Educator, approximately 70 per cent of Australia’s 10,000 school principals will reach retirement age sometime in the next five years.  Will they will be replaced by younger principals whose inexperience may create more risk of adverse health outcomes from the stresses of the job?

In a nutshell, the answer is probably yes based on the outcomes of the 2018 Australian Principal Health & Wellbeing Survey (Survey Report). In 2017, it was noted that the average level of experience of principals has dropped during the life of the survey from 5.2 to 3.8 years as many principals begin retirement.

In a School Governance article, "Why be a School Principal?", it was argued that teachers who aspire to take on leadership roles in schools do not necessarily do this just for the remuneration or the kudos. Many teachers want to lead both within and outside of their classrooms and some choose a traditional approach to school leadership where they aspire to be a head of department, deputy principal or a principal.

It is widely accepted that principals drive the culture within the school and therefore can affect every member of their school community. If principals are given the autonomy to build a culture of learning and ensure that they have the right staff to support that culture, then students have the opportunity to grow to reach their potential. Cultural leadership is a major driver for current and aspiring principals.

However, managing administrative and educational outcomes, staffing, budgets, community expectations as well as abusive parents can sometimes prove to be too daunting for prospective young leaders to step up and apply for the position.  In addition, there is a strong and valid desire to maintain a health work/life balance. If aspiring young leaders cannot see their current principal managing to do this, they are far less inclined to apply to take on that type of role.

The Statistics

The statistics highlighted in the Survey Report, summarised that principals:

  • are suffering from burnout (at a rate of 1.6 times the population)
  • stress (1.7 times)
  • sleeping troubles (2.2 times)
  • depressive symptoms (1.3 times)
  • somatic stress symptoms (1.3 times)
  • cognitive stress symptoms (1.5 times).

Many principals indicated that two of the main causes of the stress, burnout and poor quality of life were the sheer quantity of administrative work and insufficient time to be able to focus on their true leadership role; teaching and learning.  In addition, the worrying trend over time has been the increase in stress caused by mental health issues of students and staff and by offensive behaviour.

The Survey Report indicated that principals also experience a far higher prevalence of offensive behaviour at work each year than the general population with the prevalence rate for threats of violence being extremely high. In 2011, 38 per cent of participants had been threatened and this had risen to 45 per cent by 2018. This means that nearly one in two principals received a threat of violence in 2018. The highest prevalence was in government primary schools at 49 per cent. The lowest prevalence was in independent P/K-12 schools at 12 per cent, which is still 1.5 times the population rate.

Associate Professor Riley said school leaders experienced a far higher rate of offensive behaviour at work than the general population. “In terms of violence, we’ve gone from seven times the population rate eight years ago to 9.2 now,” he said. “This is just out of control.”

School Governance reported that, in several states and territories, potential applicants for principal positions have dropped due to threats of and actual physical violence. WA Primary Principals Association President Ian Anderson commented that the violence and excessive workload was a disincentive for people to take on the role.

Principals also experience high levels of job demands (1.5 times the general population), emotional demands (1.7 times) and emotional labour (1.7 times), these being the highest demands when compared to the general population.

Average working hours also remain too high for a healthy lifestyle to be maintained with 53 per cent of principals working more than 56 hours per week during the term (with approximately 24 per cent working more than 61 to 65 hours per week) and approximately 40 per cent work more than 25 hours per week during their holidays (up from 31 per cent in 2017).  This is taking a toll on their greatest support group; their families. It is noted that work/family conflict occurs at approximately double the rate compared to the population generally.

So why would teachers continue to aspire to take on this role?

Click here to read Part Two of this article.

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.