According to Associate Professor Philip Riley, author of the 2017 Australian Principals Health and Wellbeing Survey Report, the health and wellbeing of those in the top job is still deteriorating under the strain of increasing job demands and mounting administrative red tape.  

Compounded with escalating reports of threats and violence in schools,  and a critical lack of support, Riley says the picture is not a rosy one for our educational leaders around the country. 

“It's (that) bureaucratic accountability, it’s amazing the amount of forms they have to fill out, of checklists that are really nothing to with education,” Riley tells EducationHQ.

“They are sort of low-level accountability procedures that happen in all organisations not just schools … but the fact that they have to do it, they are legally required to do these things, means that it takes up a huge amount of their day - and a lot of it seems fairly pointless to them - a lot of it is, and could be done differently,” he adds. 

Notably, the study found principals’ reported stress at 1.7 times the general population rate. All groups reported at levels above the ‘critical’ cut-off score. 

Riley says that if education departments “restructured themselves a little bit”, they would save school leaders a lot of unnecessary grief. 

“I keep hearing stories of principals saying ‘one section of the department will send me this big form and I have to fill everything out on, then the next section of the department will send me another form and the questions are almost identical’.

“They are frustrated at the time wasting that that involves.

"And of course because they are doing all that they can’t do what they feel they should be doing which is working with teachers to improve teaching and learning in the school.”

The researcher says much of the stress principals carry comes from feeling “fraudulent” because they simply can’t do the job they were hired for. 

It’s a system locked in a vicious cycle. 

“The thing [governments] are trying to guard against is actually what they are causing with all of that (administrative work).

“First you take people away from the real work that lessen the tensions that lead to things like violence and bullying and threats and all that sort of stuff, and you increase the level of frustration for everybody with all these menial kind of tasks that are just basically saying ‘we don’t trust you to do your work properly’. That’s the real problem,” Riley says.

The study reveals another key stressor for school leaders was trying to manage the mental health of all students and staff in their care. 

According to Riley, the snowballing mental health issues playing out in schools are a direct reflection of what’s happening in society.

Naturally, principals seem to cop it the hardest. 

“I think [this issue is] bigger than the school, I would say it’s also parents; we are becoming increasingly anxious and its showing up at all levels of the system,” he begins.

“I mean we have young kids now being diagnosed with depression, we have adolescents with anxiety and depression at increasing rates, and of course this is going to play out in schools in a large way, and the teachers are probably feeling just as stressed as the principals are … but of course the people who care about all of this are the one that go under.” 

The prevalence of offensive behaviours, which includes negative acts such as bullying and threats of violence against principals, was found to be growing across many pockets of Australia. 

It’s a trend that commands a “very adult conversation as a nation” about how to turn things around, Riley says. 

“I think it’s a whole of community problem … anything that happens in society is also going to happen in schools, and the violence has actually sort of peaked now, after seven years. 

“In fact 2016 was slightly higher than 2017,  so we may have kind of reached the limit, which might be a good thing, but I think it’s a huge problem for us as a country to deal with.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. In the social capital stakes - which measured the level of trust and sense of justice felt across all staff levels and management in schools - things are looking up. 

“The good news is there is a lot of [schools with high social capital],” Riley reports.

“And in those the principals are doing much better in terms of health and wellbeing.” 

Interestingly, the study shows high levels of social capital are not linked with a school’s wealth. 

“The really good news about that is … it’s not a money thing, so we have some of the biggest richest private schools around the country with very low levels of social capital (and we’ve got some with obviously very high levels) and the same with the poorer, less- resourced schools, which can have very high levels of social capital…” Riley reflects.

 Among the strongly-worded recommendations outlined in the report’s wrap-up, Riley is quick to mention two. 

“The dream recommendation is that governments have to get out of education,” he says.

“They have to obviously allocate the money but then not pretend that they know what’s best for everybody and have the experts working on it, like they do in Finland … I think that’s really important.”

Depoliticising education would allow conversations for change that aren’t fuelled by short-term political advantages. 

“As the Finns realised, education is far too important for that,” the report states. 

Riley's second recommendation calls for a calculated ‘redesign’ of a principal’s role. 

“We needed to also take responsibility for what we can take responsibility for and redesign the job so there is a bit more trust in the system for principals to do their job properly and some of that administrative burden is taken away,” he shares. 

It’s a big ask, given the bureaucratic backdrop that looms over us. 

“Now that’s a really complex one because we are in this very difficult legal environment, not just in education, but everywhere, and the whole sort of checklist ‘administrivia’  is everywhere.

“But education is a relational business, and it gets in the way of the relationships, all that legal framework around everything."