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Australian principals at risk of burnout, abuse and bullying


Australian principals and assistant principals severely lack the support to face the growing pressure of increased workloads, public accountability, aggressive parents and violent students, according to The 2014 Teachers Health Fund Principal Health & Wellbeing Survey Report.

Conducted by the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University (ACU), the survey included 2,621 principals and 1,024 assistant principals from primary and secondary schools across urban, suburban, large towns, rural and remote locations from around the country.

Report author ACU Associate Professor Philip Riley said the survey clearly showed that while school leaders were committed to running schools as effectively as possible, the personal cost was increasingly high.

“The high emotional demands these school leaders face, together with a lack of systemic support and training, means we see higher levels of burnout and stress,” he said.

“Worryingly, it is also taking a toll on their greatest support group: their families. Work-family conflict occurs at approximately double the rate of the general population.”

The greatest source of stress for all respondents across every sector in each state and territory is the sheer quantity of work and increasing prevalence of offensive behaviour they have to deal with.

Compared to the general population, principals experience a higher prevalence of violence (seven times higher), threats of violence (five times higher), and adult-adult bullying (four times higher).

Parents are most likely to be perpetrators when it comes to bullying and threats, with these incidences on the rise. The percentage of principals who had experienced parents threatening violence has increased from 19% in 2011 to 25% in 2014, and violent threats made by students have increased from 17% to 24% over the same period.

Students are found to be far more likely to follow through on threats, with one in four principals reporting physical assault from a student.

“Principals regularly face the challenge of communicating the way education policy is both developed and practiced to teachers, parents and students in emotionally charged situations,” Associate Professor Riley said. “Learning solely on the job, rather than through a systematic training process and appropriate support structure leaves them unfairly unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the emotional toll it can take.”

“What is encouraging however, is that despite the obstacles they face they are generally positive about their job and still report high levels of job satisfaction.”

The report outlines four key recommendations:

  • Introduce professional support: Develop policies to address the growing job complexity and demanding emotional aspects of the role.
  • Increase professional learning: Provision of skill development in the emotional aspects of the leadership role.
  • Review work practices: Develop practices to address the disproportionate level of demand to resources available. This is dangerous to the long-term health and wellbeing of principals.
  • Establish an independent authority to address increasing bullying and violence: Investigate the differences in occupational risk to determine who is at risk, why and what can be done to protect principals and assistant principals.

The full report can be found at principalhealth.org/au/reports.php.

Next steps in school reform


Dr Robert J. Marzano’s Handbook for High Reliability Schools: The Next Step in School Reform provides a compelling picture of what schools can do to move to the next level of effectiveness in terms of enhancing students’ achievement.

Schools are not typically thought of as high reliability organisations, but nothing prevents a school from becoming an organisation that takes proactive steps to prevent failure and ensure success. Dr Robert J. Marzano defines a high reliability school as one that monitors the effectiveness of critical factors within the system and immediately takes action to contain the negative effects of any errors that occur.

To identify and describe critical factors that affect students’ achievement in school, researcher John Hattie (2009, 2012) synthesised close to 60,000 studies and found that 150 factors correlated significantly with student achievement. In some cases, schools have worked to improve their effectiveness relative to one, two or several factors. While those efforts are laudable, they represent too narrow a focus. All of Hattie’s factors need to be arranged in a hierarchy that will allow schools to focus on sets of related factors, progressively addressing and achieving more sophisticated levels of effectiveness. From a high reliability perspective, the factors identified in the research to date are best organised into the five hierarchical levels described below.

Level 1, a safe and collaborative culture, is considered foundational to all other levels. If students and staff do not have a safe and collaborative culture in which to work, little if any substantial work can be accomplished. In essence, level 1 addresses the day-to-day operation of a school.

Level 2 addresses the most commonly cited characteristic of effective schools: high-quality instruction in every classroom. School leaders must make sure classroom teachers are using instructional strategies in a way that reaches all students and are taking appropriate steps to improve teacher competence when this goal is not being met.

High-quality instruction is a prerequisite for level 3: a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Guaranteed means the same curriculum is taught by all teachers so that all students have an equal opportunity to learn. Viable means that the amount of content in the curriculum is appropriate to the amount of time teachers have available to teach it.

Level 4 moves into a more rarefied level of school reform, because it involves reporting individual students’ progress on specific standards. At any point in time, the leaders of a level 4 school can identify individual students’ strengths and weaknesses relative to specific topics in each subject area.

Level 5 schools exist in the most rarefied group of all – one in which students move to the next level of content as soon as they demonstrate competence at the previous level.

Dr Marzano’s High Reliability Schools’ framework provides a mechanism for school leaders and policy makers to effectively influence the educational landscape in Australia by taking the next steps in school reform.


‘Nonsense’ not to have a national school starting age


The issue of whether to introduce a uniform school starting age across Australia has been put under the spotlight again as the country’s peak primary principals’ association revealed a plan to introduce a standard national starting age of five-and-a-half.

The Australian Primary Principals’ Association (APPA) wants the age to be standardised across all states and territories now a national curriculum has been developed.

Currently the various states and territory education departments control how old a child must be upon starting school and that age varies widely across the country.

Under the proposed plan, children would be at least five years old when they start school.

Many education professionals, such as Kathy Walker, are disappointed that a deal on a national school starting age is not being worked towards by the Federal Government.

Walker, one of Australia’s leading parenting and education experts, public speakers and authors, says she spends most of the year talking about school readiness, school preparation and transition to parents.

“One of the things I can categorically say is that with a national curriculum now in place and with the transient of parents moving between states and territories it is a nonsense not to have a national starting age,” Walker said.

“It’s really imperative for support and consistency for families, for children and for teachers.”

Walker says a higher school starting age, such as five-and-a-half, would ease the mind of parents instead of having them wonder whether their child is ready or mature enough.

“We need to become more aligned with most countries across the world, we have and continue to have one of the youngest age entries of school in the world at the moment and we have had for many decades,” Walker said. “It helps parents have a more definitive starting point, it gives children a few more months of maturity overall, and whilst there will always be some children on the continuum that may be requiring a little more time, it’s just an easier thing for families, easier for preschool teachers and easier for prep teachers.”

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The cost of timetabling

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What is the cost of your timetable? A simple question perhaps – but the answer is complex. When asked, most schools immediately think of either the cost of timetabling software, or else the cost in staff time and expense in performing the task of ‘doing’ the timetable. This is a very common but large misconception.

The true cost of timetabling is the solution. The cost of RUNNING your timetable is far more important than the cost of constructing it. The school must pay for their timetable every single day of the year, with the costs being many millions of dollars. What many schools misunderstand is that the running cost of a timetable is not a fixed quantity and can vary wildly based on the quality of the solution and how well trained the staff are that manage the ongoing timetable. Many think timetable running costs are largely fixed and known, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Timetable structures

Optimisations can be made in the structure of a timetable by setting the number of core classes, or how core and (smaller) prac classes merge together. Careful analysis of timetable structures to maximise class sizes within acceptable limits may well cut your costs by thousands. Do you need to build that extra science lab? Or instead just change your curriculum structures to improve occupancy rates on your existing lab rooms and other resources, at no extra cost?

Which elective classes should run?

Many schools are unaware of the huge impact that determining classes to run has on their bottom line, as well as educational aims. If enough students ask for a subject, it will usually run, but this is far from best practice and costs schools thousands, as well as affecting students’ educational opportunities.

What matters more is the preferential weight of students who can be granted these subjects, together with the likelihood they will actually complete the subject. If 15 students want Art, and 12 want Biology, and you had to cut one of these classes – which should go? If the group of 12 was much keener on Biology than the 15 are for Art, would this matter? What if five of the Biology group were suspected to leave next year anyway, and others in this same group were poor academic students? What if line structures were unable to grant any more than say 10 out of the 15 requests for Art? Would you still run Biology over Art?

Collapse classes

All schools know they can run two classes on a line so they can easily collapse to one class if numbers drop later in the year. But it is not ideal to run both classes in one line, as it reduces access to choice. Clever timetablers and clever software tools allow collapsing of classes ‘across lines’. This can be achieved in several ways, such as swapping students through subjects they take in other lines where there is more than one class of that subject, or by adjusting the lines themselves. So few know this is even an option yet it may just be a few clicks away given the right tools. How much could this save your school?

Save money on casual teachers

There are many ways to significantly reduce the expense of casual teachers with clever timetabling tools, and the right experience. Some clever cover systems support automatic covers of classes, as a good start point for smaller manual adjustments, and can ensure casual staff are utilised more efficiently. Active system prompting of on-call staff or available internal staff also helps schools cap their casual staff expense, as it is easier – or even automatic – to make best use of staff which don’t cost any more money. On-call rosters which are constructed efficiently will promote equity in subsequent allocations, as well as faculty diversity. This approach encourages better educational matching of covers to all subjects.

Many schools have special cover schemes in term four when Year 12 leave and these staff are free. Artificial restrictions on the class placement hinder the use and equity in these covers, but new approaches redistribute allocated ‘Meadowbank’ periods to better suit both staff and the school alike. This increases savings on casual expenses, but also provides better equity and cover placement to teachers – e.g. not on their busy days. Active prompting by a system of merge class opportunities also leads to great savings, as it reduces the number of classes which need to be covered.

‘Timetable’ cost of ownership

Big business always focuses on ‘total cost of ownership’ (TCO), but schools often don’t. TCO analysis includes total cost of acquisition and operating costs. The cost of a timetable is related far more to the solution quality, not the timetable software or labour costs to produce it. With more complex tools and well-trained and experienced timetablers, the TCO can be so much lower. The few areas of potential timetable savings listed above are just some in a long list. It is surprising how many different areas, or how significant the savings can really be, if you know how.

Timetabling: The black art

Oddly, there is no formal, independent certified training for timetablers. It is a black art, only handed down to a trusted apprentice every decade or so. Understood by very few, yet – like an air-traffic controller – they direct millions of dollars of school resources, and shape the educational lives of thousands.

You’d imagine educational entities would mandate standards for their school ‘air-traffic controllers’, in training, in software, in timetabling best practice – as published policy – and with organised conventions to bring school knowledge and industry together. Sadly there is no such focus. It remains a black art, which allows inefficiencies to foster. Who would know what opportunities are being lost in our schools, both financial and educational. This is the hidden cost of timetabling.

Where do I start?

There are simple, relatively inexpensive solutions to leveraging your existing resources for significant financial savings. Review your timetabling software, review your legacy scheduling practices. Get rid of the age old ‘we’ve always done it that way’ mentality – or even worse – a mindset that the timetable is a ‘job to be done’ rather than a creative opportunity to really make a difference. Focus far more on the quality of the solution, instead of just completion of a task. The timetable directs the sum total of all schools resources – scheduling makes all the difference.

Truly value your timetabler. Give them respect. Listen to their advice. Give them allowance time to do their job properly, or embrace assistance from external consultants in support, or curriculum reviews. Encourage staff to engage in ongoing industry training courses. Treat any costs for this as a sound investment paying real financial rewards, as well as delivering improved educational outcomes. Why not schedule in some discussion time now, and start changing your bottom line!

Chris Cooper is a director of Edval Timetables, and active in educational scheduling research. He is also the author of a government accredited textbook. Visit www.edval.com.au for more information.

Alcohol and drug resources for schools

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The Australian Drug Foundation’s Shop stocks the latest information to assist primary and secondary school teachers deliver new or complement their existing alcohol and drug education programs.

The Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) is one of Australia’s leading bodies committed to preventing alcohol and other drug problems in communities around the nation.

The Foundation reaches millions of Australians in local communities through sporting clubs, workplaces, health care settings and schools, offering educational information, drug and alcohol prevention programs and advocating for strong and healthy communities.

Educating students on alcohol and other drugs is as important as ever with research showing that one in five 16 and 17 year olds drink risky amounts of alcohol at least once a month. Another 36 per cent of 12 to 17 year olds drink to get drunk every time they consume alcohol.

Teachers are one of the greatest influences on children, second to their parents. They can talk about the risks and harms of alcohol and other drugs, and stress the importance of looking out for friends, avoiding risky situations and planning ahead.

ADF Shop resources aim to complement the delivery of state based education curriculum across Australia. Pamphlets and information on alcohol, caffeine, ecstasy, GHB, ice, tobacco, cocaine, cannabis among others provide an outline of the substance in an easy to read and visually attractive format. Resources include information about:

  • What alcohol or another drug is;
  • What it looks like;
  • The effects of the drug;
  • The law surrounding the drug; and,
  • Treatment options.

The ADF also has a SMS-based drug information service (0439 835 563) that provides information about the effects of drugs in a confidential and accessible way via mobile phone. The Shop stocks bundles of these wallet cards which outline the phone number students can text, any time of day, to get the effects texted back to them.

Teachers may find other services from the Australian Drug Foundation useful when hosting parent information sessions. TheOtherTalk.org.au encourages parents to openly discuss alcohol and drugs with their children by providing information on how to start the conversation, the law surrounding alcohol and drugs and safe partying tips.

You can view these resources and order online at shop.adf.org.au


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). Australian School Students Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey.