The retention rate of school leaders is a strategic risk for school boards.
Existing School Leaders Retention Risk
In a previous School Governance article, prospective young leaders were found to be refraining from stepping up and applying for school leadership positions due to factors such as managing administrative and educational outcomes, staffing, budgets, community expectations as well as abusive parents.
This was supported by the Principal Health & Wellbeing Survey Report, published in February 2020 by the Australian Catholic University, which found that principals were suffering from burnout, stress, sleeping troubles, depressive symptoms, somatic stress symptoms, and cognitive stress symptoms. The survey also found that school leaders were exposed to physical violence at 10.8 times the rate of the general population, generally by parents and students, and this number had increased every year since the survey began nine years ago. It is interesting to note that there were disparities in the level of violence among different types of schools. Almost half of the leaders in public schools were subjected to physical violence, compared to 21.8 per cent in Catholic schools and 12.6 per cent in independent schools.
School Leadership Retention Risk Fuelled by COVID-19
On top of the existing issues explored by the Survey, school leaders have also had to deal with a series of mass disruptions and an increased workload brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the OECD, the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally disrupted schooling in most countries around the world, creating both short-term and long-term challenges for school leadership. Among the various challenges, there are some key short-term and long-term issues that run the risk of dramatically lowering the already problematic retention rates of school leaders.
A key short-term challenge has been, and no doubt continues to be, the immense daily and weekly pressure felt by school leaders. This pressure has been coming at school leaders from a number of directions including:
A key aspect of this pressure has been the necessity for schools to adapt quickly to the sudden change in education delivery, while at the same time having this intensified by pressures, concerns and complaints from parents and school communities. School leaders have had to navigate the largely unchartered area of delivering remote learning to students often coupled with in-person classes for students who cannot engage in remote learning, such as the children of essential workers. This has been a huge undertaking that most schools managed extremely well, but to make this happen the way that they did, most school leaders (and teachers) would have foregone their usual break/holiday between terms one and two this year. Further, according to Associate Professor of Educational Leadership in UNSW Sydney's School of Education Richard Niesche, as discussed in The Educator, the change in education delivery has also led to school leaders who operate in schools serving disadvantaged communities having to undertake additional planning to ensure that all students have access to necessary resources, equipment and support.
Andrew Pierpoint, the president of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) said in The Educator that this pressure is also coming from the heightened expectations of authorities. School leaders have been the public face of many contentious government policies meaning that schools have had to deal with complaints from parents in relation to matters that have often been out of their hands. The often varying and unpredictable nature of these policies has resulted in mixed messaging from government and policymakers, increasing anxiety for school leaders since the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Australia. The differing federal and state directives in particular as to how schools should return their students and staff to ‘normal’ classes have often been unclear and shifting regularly, putting enormous pressure on school leaders to adapt quickly.
A key potentially medium and potentially long-term challenge for school leaders is to manage parent and community expectations and well as health and safety requirements as schools transition back to a full time physical classroom environment again. All of this involves many complex tasks that school leaders need to address and complete on top of their existing demands and excessive working hours.
The combined impact of these challenges may be encouraging those in school leadership positions who are close to retirement to consider bringing their retirement forward.
The Silver Lining
Amid the existing and new challenges arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic and potentially impacting school leadership retention rates, there has been one silver lining. This is what Professor Philip Riley from Deakin University's School of Education calls a “welcome uplift in community appreciation for the ongoing and unforeseen challenges” faced by school leaders. Parents and communities are not only acknowledging the increased responsibility that school leaders have taken on to keep teachers and students safe in these difficult times, but they have also been given a new lens through which they can recognise the many stresses and challenges that school leaders face on a regular basis.
By being deemed to be essential workers, the positive impact that school leaders and teachers make in the lives of children has been better understood and appreciated.
This deepening of the relationship between schools and parents and communities at large could facilitate a culture shift away from the aggression and abuse that school leaders have often faced in previous years. However, the CEO of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools and Australia, Beth Blackwood has said that school leaders will need community support if they are to avoid burnout following the COVID-19 pandemic.
What School Boards Should Do
The combined impact of existing issues and issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens lowering the retention rate of school leaders. School boards should act by:
- developing succession plans that provide a roadmap for the development of school leadership from within the school
- developing or updating existing board policies in relation to the appointment of a new principal
- providing ongoing opportunities for senior staff to participate in leadership mentoring programs and training in leadership development, school governance, risk and compliance
- ensuring that all teachers including those in senior leadership positions are properly supported including in relation to their mental health
- reviewing plans and identifying suitable senior staff who are able to act in more senior roles in the event of short or long-term vacancies in the leadership team.
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.
Parisa Haider is a Legal Research Assistant at CompliSpace. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Business (Economics) at the University of Technology, Sydney.