Attraction, support, and retention of Australian principals
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Attraction, support, and retention of Australian principals

Attraction, support, and retention of Australian principals

Andrew Pierpoint, President of the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association, and Dr Amanda Heffernan, Senior Lecturer in Education, University of Manchester, share key findings that provide key insights into how to tackle the shortages and attrition of Australian Principals.

We recently conducted research into issues of attraction and retention of Australian principals. There is increasing evidence about a crisis in principal health and wellbeing in Australian schools, which can be seen alongside rising concerns about shortages and attrition of principals across the country. This is not an issue localised to Australia, and similar trends are evident in countries around the world. As part of our research, we sought the perspectives of current, former, and aspiring principals so we could learn from principals who have left the role, and those who might be considering taking on a school leadership position in the future. Our research comprised of an anonymous online survey with 149 responses, alongside focus groups and interviews which enabled us to draw out themes and trends from the survey in more depth. We share key findings below.

Andrew Pierpoint, President of the Australian Secondary Principal’s Association.


The research explored barriers towards applying for principal positions, and found a number of issues that were preventing people from wanting to take on the principalship, or that were impeding their efforts to do so. The most common response related to aspiring leaders’ concerns about the workload and emotional intensity involved in the principalship. A related issue was concern about the negative impacts of the role on applicants’ health and wellbeing, given ongoing evidence and reports of declining health and wellbeing for principals. Participants also raised concerns about facing in relation to processes of identification and recruitment of leaders. They noted gender and equity issues, the negative effects of ‘inner circle’ networks that are difficult to break into, and many cited a lack of adequate preparation to take on the role. We also asked aspiring principals about their motivations. The key themes related to opportunities to make a difference for young people and school communities, and opportunities to develop and support teachers. We asked experienced principals what advice they would have for aspiring leaders, and the findings highlighted the importance of having a supportive and trusted mentor, having a clear understanding of the challenges and realities of the role before taking it on, and having a strong sense of self before becoming a principal.

Dr Amanda Heffernan is a Senior Lecturer in Education in the Manchester Institute of Education, at the University of Manchester.


We also explored the reasons principals leave the role early. Overwhelmingly, participants described their feeling of a lack of support from education systems and policymakers. They described an increasing focus on compliance and risk-aversion, which took them further and further from their core purpose of educational leadership. Unsurprisingly, another common response was about the effects of the role on principals’ health and wellbeing as a significant factor in their decisions to leave the role prior to retirement age. The issues around workload are not limited to the volume of work, but also the intensity of the types of work being required. High levels of emotional intensity and ongoing crisis-management were described by many as reasons that were influencing their intention to leave the profession.


We asked participants what they want system leaders and policymakers to know. They described a need for meaningful support for school leaders, that met their needs and was contextually-relevant (what one principal needs will not necessarily be the same as another; and what is needed at different career stages will change over time). Our analysis showed a consistent theme that principals do not feel trusted by increasingly risk-averse systems, and that this is stifling their ability to undertake their work. Finally, as with other recent campaigns for teachers, leaders discussed the importance of raising the status of principals’ roles, and recognising the complexity of their work.


Our recommendations arising from the findings include:
1. The creation of contextually relevant principal induction and ongoing development programs, differentiated for context and career stage.
2. Investment in formal mentoring programs for aspiring and current principals. These should be funded, including dedicated time for experienced
principals to be trained as effective mentors, particularly for schools which experience high rates of turnover and shortages of applicants.
3. The development of a national campaign to recognise the complexity and importance
of school leaders’ and teachers’ work. With professional status (and a lack of political, media, and public support) frequently cited as a concern, the narrative needs to change.
4. Meaningful reduction in workload, with efforts led by principals. This major issue transcends system and geographical jurisdictions. A sustained cross-system, cross-sector effort is a critical first step.
5. A realignment of system and school balance towards proactive support for principals, rather than monitoring and compliance. This would respond to principals’ concerns about a lack of trust from risk-averse systems. This should include investment in proactive support for principals, including for mental health and wellbeing.

This article was originally published in Education Matters Secondary Magazine – to read the issue download it here. 


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