ASPA: School leader wellbeing – it’s time to act - Education Matters Magazine
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ASPA: School leader wellbeing – it’s time to act

Andrew Pierpoint, President of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA), speaks about the important of addressing and improving the wellbeing of school leaders.

Having high quality schools led by high quality Principals are central to the development of our youth and our society. Schools have been identified as pivotal to community responses in the recent bushfires and in COVID-19 – schools provide a safe and reliable environment for the entire community. Principals that are supported provide the critical leadership that improves teaching and learning, and subsequently, outcomes and life opportunities for our students.

Recently, the 2019 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey data was released – a comprehensive longitudinal study conducted by Professor Philip Riley and colleagues, that has surveyed Australia’s Principals each year since 2011.

The Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) is particularly concerned at two of the findings that stand from the report:

  1. workload that Principals are under
  2. the potential and real threat of violence.

Both of these issues have very significant consequences for Principal wellbeing and recruitment and retaining Principals in the job across Australia.

School leaders self-reported working an average of approximately 55.2 hours per week during the school term, with approximately 97.3 per cent reporting working more than 40 hours per week. Approximately 72.4 per cent reported working more than 50 hours per week.

School leaders continue to report sheer quantity of work, lack of time to focus on teaching and learning, and student mental health as their main sources of stress. Mental health of students and staff has become an increasing source of stress for participants in recent years, reaching the highest point in 2019.

The 2019 survey found that, compared to the general population, a far higher percentage of school leaders reported being subjected to threats of violence (51 versus 7.8 per cent), physical violence (42.2 versus 3.9 per cent), bullying (37.6 versus 8.3 per cent), conflicts and quarrels (57.5 versus 51.2 per cent), and gossip and slander (50.9 versus 38.9 per cent).

Table 1 sets out data that summarises the day to day operation in our schools. These data should concern every Australian.

The report by Riley suggested several recommendations:

  1. No single stakeholder group is responsible for the state of education in Australia, nor do they hold the power to effect much change to the system on their own.
  2. Many issues impacting negatively on the education system are entrenched in the wider Australian culture.
  3. Taking a long-term rather than short-term focus on improvements to the education system is essential for success.
  4. Taking a holistic inquiry approach to both the successes and failures in the Australian education system is also essential. We can learn a great deal from both if we do not limit our gaze or look for quick fixes.
  5. De-politicising education at the macro-, meso-, and micro-political levels will promote equity, continuity and transparency. For example, the Gonski (2011) report was universally agreed by educators to provide a sensible and equitable way forward in education. It should have set the conditions for a decade of educational development. Instead, its politicisation has seen many educationally sensible reforms in Australia suffer, and its potential is being diminished. This becomes demotivating to educators. It is an example of the ‘moral harassment’ suffered by educators.
  6. Australian education needs a change of mindset: moving beyond sectorised thinking. The problems and their solutions are very similar in all sectors, highlighting that differences between the sectors are more superficial than substantive. The variation in social capital inside schools demonstrates that simple resourcing, while important, is not going to fix intractable issues. A change of mindset is also needed if the state of Australia’s education system is to improve.

These recommendations are strongly supported by ASPA.

It is the strongly held view of ASPA, that consistent philosophical, professionally supported and appropriately funded programs to enhance school leader wellbeing are central to increasing school leader effectiveness, student performance and – for many of our rural and remote schools – community stability. Although all recommendations are important, it is recommendation 5 that has significant potential for meaningful impact across the various jurisdictions within Australia.

Over the last four years, ASPA has been a leader in the field of School Leader wellbeing, going from innovative to accepted practice. The practice of school leader wellbeing, however, remains extremely differentiated and patchy across the educational jurisdictions within Australia.

The notion of school leader wellbeing transcends the political cycle. All levels of government, must commit to a way forward and stay the course – regardless of which side of politics is in power. ASPA very strongly calls for governments, at all levels, to focus on authentic collaboration, trust-based responsibility, meaningful autonomy, professionalism and equity to build genuine engagement in finding solutions to the school leader wellbeing challenge we currently face.

The youth of Australia deserve nothing less.

Andrew Pierpoint is President of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association – the peak body for School Leaders across Australia. He previously was President of the Queensland Secondary Principals’ Association for four years.

Andrew has had extensive experience, over 35 years, in High Schools as a science teacher, Head of Department (Science), Deputy Principal and Principal as well as having several system positions in the support of Principals.

Throughout his career, Andrew has worked in complex rural and remote communities through to large regional and metropolitan schools. He has led communities and reference groups at district, regional, state and national levels.

Andrew’s special interests are the provision of high quality professional learning for school leaders, school leader wellbeing and is persoanally highly active in school sport – particularly cricket and golf.

Andrew has demonstrated a passion for State education in Queensland for many years and possess an excellent understanding of the Principalship from first hand experience. Most importantly, Andrew has a genuine desire to make a meaningful difference for school leaders in the application of their ever increasing, complex roles in schools and the broader communities they work in.