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Even as school principals face more onerous workplace demands, they are receiving less support, leaving many burnt out and disillusioned – and some under investigation. By Jane Caro.

Principals under pressure

Principals have an all-encompassing duty of care for their students.
Credit: Rafael Ben Ari / Alamy

“I lost my wife to this bloody job, and then they handed her back to me and she was just broken. I have become her carer.”

Jim’s wife was the principal of a school. For obvious reasons, he has asked that his real name not be used – as have many of the people in this piece. Currently Jim’s wife is “under investigation” by the New South Wales Department of Education and has been put on alternative duties. Before she was marched off the premises, she had, like all principals, worked very long hours. Jim resented the demands of her job and how tired it made her when she did have time for him and their family, but things are much worse now.

Principals, particularly of large and diverse public schools, have one of the most demanding and responsible jobs in our society. Not only must they manage a staff of often many hundreds of teachers and administrators, they have an all-encompassing duty of care for the students who attend their school.

Whether the students are children in primary school or adolescents, principals are responsible for their educational opportunities, their safety and their behaviour. They must be ready to deal with the unexpected at any moment.

Attend any principals’ conference and you will watch the delegates jumping in and out of their seats to answer calls telling them of the latest situation at their school that needs their input. It can be a small issue or a serious one, all the way up to criminal behaviour. And that’s without mentioning the considerable diplomacy required to deal with parents, or the additional complications that Covid-19 has visited on already overstretched school leaders.

Over the past decade or so, the job has not only become more onerous and complex, as the cracks in our society in general have started to show up in schools, it has also become much more precarious. Many principals now feel very vulnerable.

Harry – again, not his real name – used to be a principal and now works supporting his former colleagues. He says that much as he loved being a principal, after working with those running schools today he would not return to the role. “In fact,” he says emphatically, “I would not advise any deputy principal to go for the job. An attack can come from anywhere.”

As mental health issues rise in the community, supercharged by Covid-19, lockdowns and the frustration of home learning, principals feel increasingly vulnerable to accusations from parents, teachers and any member of the school community. Not all allegations are malicious, of course, but, according to Harry, the sense that they could be unfairly motivated and yet be taken seriously makes many principals feel increasingly exposed and unsupported.

The organisation charged with dealing with accusations of wrongdoing by principals and teachers in NSW is PES (Professional and Ethical Standards). A couple of years ago it was called EPAC (Employee Performance and Conduct). Public school systems across Australia have their own versions and everyone The Saturday Paper spoke to for this story agreed how necessary it was to have a dedicated investigative unit making sure those who run and staff schools conduct themselves appropriately.

Nevertheless, criticisms are being raised about lack of transparency and the length of time those who are being investigated must wait to know their fate. While discretion during an investigation is understandable, being in limbo is psychologically devastating and creates concern about procedural fairness.

Anne Hollonds, the National Children’s Commissioner, reinforces the importance of good governance and oversight. She warns that “our institutions can become a bit self-serving and exist only for the interests of those who run them”. When it comes to our schools, she goes further, saying that “for the sake of our children we need the best leadership and the best governance”.

Maurie Mulheron, himself an ex-principal and the recently retired president of the NSW Teachers Federation, says the current problems with investigations into principals go back to a policy implemented in 2012 named “Local Schools, Local Decisions”, which the union fought against tooth and nail. He argues that when many of the old supports provided to principals by the Education Department were devolved back to schools, principals became not just a more vulnerable target but also much less supported in their jobs. He was not alone in his view. He recalls hearing a senior officer argue at the time that if the policy was implemented, the staff at EPAC would have to be quadrupled.

Part of the problem may be that it wasn’t. In 2019 the discontent around EPAC had grown to such an extent that senior crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi, QC, was engaged to carry out a review. In the executive summary, published in June of that year, Tedeschi summed up the issue. “In order to maintain confidence in EPAC … it is necessary for EPAC to be seen to act in a fair, impartial, consistent and timely fashion,” he wrote, “and in a manner that respects the procedural rights of those whom it is investigating and disciplining.”

Only a couple of years later, if Jim and Harry and some of the other principals who have fallen foul of PES are correct, the same complaints are being raised again.

Particularly there is concern over timeliness in dealing with allegations and procedural fairness for those subject to allegations. Craig Peterson, president of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, is sympathetic to the difficult and sensitive task PES must undertake. As he points out: “You only ever hear about the extreme cases.”

A senior educator who has seen hundreds of such cases over his decades-long career agrees: “I have seen very few examples of people being treated unfairly.”

But Peterson makes a crucial point. “Given the volatility and complexity of the job educators do, it is inevitable that someone’s going to stuff up somewhere,” he says. “We need confidence that when there has been a genuine error, an honest mistake, there will be an appropriate and commensurate response.”

He goes further: “Fear that a minor transgression will have a career-limiting effect paralyses.”

When Tedeschi carried out his review in 2019, there were four principals on what is called “alternative duties” awaiting the result of an investigation. As I write this, there are eight. Six of them are women. This has also created rumblings. Teaching is a female-dominated profession but female principals remain in the minority. Principals, men and women alike, are aware that female principals are often more vulnerable to bullying, particularly by male parents and – as is common for women in all sorts of leadership positions – may be held to a higher standard of behaviour than their male counterparts.

This can also have a freezing effect. Harry said, “several female principals in their 50s and 60s decided to up stumps having seen what’s happened to other female principals”.

This is a loss for the profession and the community. Staffing is already an issue in NSW schools and there have been spontaneous walkouts by school staff, particularly in the regions, highlighting the chronic lack of teachers in some areas. I have been writing about the difficulty of attracting principals to some schools, particularly those called “hard to staff” for years. As always, disadvantage compounds.

Maurie Mulheron points out that fewer applicants means less talent to choose from. “You might get three people applying for a principal’s job at a regional school and 25 applying for the same job in a [Sydney’s] north shore one.”

Jim worries about his wife as she struggles with the ongoing uncertainty around her case. It’s been more than a year in limbo, he tells me.

Trevor, again not his real name, is also afraid for his wife’s mental health. She is another principal currently on “alternative duties” while being investigated. “They’re all on medication,” Trevor says. Jim agrees: “They’re dead from that moment, career-wise.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "A matter of principals".

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Jane Caro is a Sydney-based novelist, writer and documentary maker.