The Burgeoning Workload of a School Leader. The Line Between Role and Responsibility. What Gives?

26 September 2019

The education sector within Australia has undergone a barrage of reform in response to the globalisation of education and educational practice. There has been an unstoppable flood of inter-related reform ideas permeating and reorienting education systems in diverse social and political locations.


School Leaders Under Increasing Strain

Evidence continues to emerge indicating that school leaders are under considerable strain from their rapidly changing roles and increased accountability and it is the sheer volume of work for school leaders that is putting the greatest strain on them. The tasks school leaders must deal with are varied and numerous.

Step back and take a moment to think about the ‘normal’ school day of a school leader and a few ‘things’ spring to mind. There is leading and managing the school, coordinating and guiding the teaching, networking with external partners and communicating with the parents. In addition, there’s the (never-ending) administration, finances, personnel management and, more and more, the legal responsibility for all issues that arise in their schools. And don’t forget; given the core business, a pedagogical role too. It is no wonder that school leaders are recording an increase in job demands while resources to help are decreasing. As a result, the spotlight is now firmly shining on the consequences of the impact of this overwhelming workload and leader wellbeing.

The recent longitudinal study by Philip Riley (2019) monitoring school principals’ health and wellbeing in Australia reiterates the sentiment expressed in the expanse of leadership and wellbeing literature including reduced productivity, working efficacy and absenteeism. Some researchers, including Phillips & Sen (2011), argue that when a leader is not functioning well the whole school suffers, as good teachers do their best work in a school with good leadership. And this is no surprise. Research shows that school leaders who follow an instructional leadership approach have the biggest impact on student learning. In 2017, the NSW Department of Education developed the "School Leadership Strategy" – described as a “long-term and ongoing strategic priority for public education in NSW” that responded to “well-established research demonstrating that school leaders who focus on instructional leadership have the biggest impact on student learning”.

In 2017 the NSW Department of Education commissioned Deloitte to undertake an independent study to investigate principal workload and time use. The study found that:

  • principals spend a significant amount of time on activities related to management and administration, which reduces the time they have to be instructional leaders
  • the main barriers to managing principal workload include insufficient administrative support and a lack of access to quality support services, tools and systems. Principals could better manage their workloads if there were better coordinated and streamlined support tools and communications.

Chief Investigator of the Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey (2018 Data) (Survey) Associate Professor Philip Riley, identifies in his findings that the increasing volume of work is largely attributable to red tape.

As schools and the nature of school leadership expand and become more complex, at what point are school leaders able to step back and review not only those duties expected and anticipated, but those required too?


Working Hours and Wellbeing

Within the Survey, principals, deputy principals and assistant principals report very high demands on their time, out of balance with available resources to buffer the demands. Although the average working hours within schools have remained stable over the last eight years, they remain too high for a healthy lifestyle to be maintained. The average hours spent at work by school leaders ranges from 51 to 60 hours per week during term time and 25 to 30 hours per week during gazetted holiday periods. This is bound to take a toll.

Through the 2365 responses submitted, the Survey identified that one source of stress, associated with an increased demand in workload (that has remained consistently high), is tasks associated with school governance. As stated by Meredith Peace, president of the Australian Education Union Victorian branch, “the leadership and governance responsibilities that fall to principals are complex and significant” and it is undeniable that good governance relies on the professional leadership of the principal (DET, 2019).


Time Spent on Good Governance

What percentage of a school leader’s working week is spent on good governance?

Take a moment to consider the last time you were involved in updating a governance or compliance-related document. There are costs for managing policies and procedures: hard costs (e.g. printing, intranet infrastructure, cloud backup) and then the soft costs (e.g. time spent collating, fixing, training, maintaining and training staff in relation to relevant changes). These are the ones less easy to quantify! More critically, however, is whether school leaders compromise on these tasks in order to lead their school community and focus on the learning outcomes of their students.

Principals are spending a significant amount of time on activities related to management and administration and this is often done outside the scope of the ‘normal’ school day. So, as a school leader, how do you achieve this perfect symbiosis between leadership, wellbeing and good governance?

School leaders must recognise, and be mindful of, the impact that these tasks have both on workload and capacity to fulfil the inherent requirements of their role. They must also be aware of the inherent risks to themselves personally and in terms of meeting their responsibilities when burning the candle at both ends.


What Can Be Done?

Given the time that school leaders are spending on activities related to management and administration, it is important that they actively consider strategic partnerships and opportunities for collaboration. Accessing quality support services, tools and systems to alleviate some of the administrative and legislative burden that exists will enable school leaders to develop not only a robust governance infrastructure (policies and procedure) but to redistribute their workload so that they can better fulfil all of their roles and responsibilities.

Deanne Cannizzaro

Deanne Cannizzaro is a Project Manager and Consultant in the Melbourne office of CompliSpace. She has a varied education-based background which includes teaching in the UK at an independent boys’ school and holding senior leadership roles and more recently, working within the tertiary sector. Her postgraduate studies are in leadership where her research has focused predominantly on change leadership within schools.