By David McIvor on February 27, 2019 in HSR Training

Principals and school leaders are almost 10 times more likely to be physically assaulted at work than the general population, with women employed at government primary schools the most at risk, according to new research on principals’ working conditions.

The report noted the disgraceful situations of principals being punched, kicked, headbutted, bitten, spat at, stabbed with scissors or pencils and having school furniture flung at them. One principal said they had been “stalked by car, tailgated” by parents of a student, while another said they had developed post-traumatic stress disorder after having a student point a gun at them.

According to the latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, which is in its ninth year, 45 per cent of principals experienced threats of violence during 2018, while 37 per cent were subjected to acts of physical violence. Students and parents were the most common perpetrators.

A further 35 per cent of principals claimed they had been bullied, most often by parents.

Some Principals have taken out restraining orders against violent parents. Primary schools seem to have the worst record!

So who’d be a teacher?

The survey has run nationally every year since 2011 in response to growing concern about principals’ occupational health, safety and wellbeing. Since the project began, approximately 50% of Australia’s 10,000 principals have taken part. Many have completed multiple surveys.

CLICK HERE to download the full 2019 report.

Results from the 2018 study

Offensive behaviour

Instances of physical violence towards principals jumped from 27 per cent in 2011 to 37 per cent in 2018. Female school leaders are most at risk of physical violence with 40 per cent experiencing violence compared to 32 per cent of male school leaders.

Overall, this means that Australian school leaders experience actual physical violence 9.3 times the rate of the general population.

Associate Professor Philip Riley from Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Positive Psychology and Education is the survey’s chief investigator. He says that the 2018 results show that our nation builders are under attack.

‘Australia’s school leaders experience a far higher rate of offensive behaviour at work than the general population,’ Riley says. ‘The steadily increasing levels of offensive behaviour in schools of all types is a disgrace and it needs to stop.’

‘Consequently, fewer people are willing to step into the role,’ he says. ‘At a time when 70 per cent of school leaders will reach retirement age within 2-3 years, we are ignoring a looming national crisis.’

Work hours

While the standard working week in Australia is an average of 38 hours, 53 per cent of principals work more than 56 hours per week during the school term, while 24 per cent work more than 61-65 hours per week. During school holidays, 40 per cent of principals worked more than 25 hours per week.

‘The survey found an overwhelming 99.7 per cent of principals worked hours far beyond those recommended for positive mental and physical health,’ the report reads.

Sources of stress

The survey found that the quantity of work and the lack of time to focus on teaching and learning were the two greatest sources of principals’ stress. Teacher shortages and managing the mental health of staff and students were two issues indentified by principals.

The study notes that one in three school leaders was identified as so distressed that their physical and mental health were seriously at risk.

‘When compared to the general population, principals report 1.5 times higher job demands, 1.6 times higher levels of burnout, 1.7 times higher stress symptoms, 2.2 times more difficulty sleeping, 1.3 times negative physical symptoms and 1.3 times more depressive symptoms,’ the report reads.


The report outlines several key recommendations to improve working conditions for school leaders. According to Riley, one way would be to have Australia adopt a whole-of-government approach to education.

‘This would mean the federal government, states and territories combine to oversee a single education budget. The funding agreement should be bipartisan and a transparent mechanism which is simple to understand,’ he says.

What employers can do

The report recommends that employers take the moral choice of reducing job demands for principals, or increase resources to cope with increased demands. Furthermore, it recommends employers leave the mechanisms for producing the best educators to the educators. It is believed both of these things will increase social capital.

What schools can do

Schools are recommended to increase their internal social capital by studying schools that have already achieved high levels of social capital in spite of the current conditions. The report says that rapid dissemination of how they have achieved this will contribute to significant improvement in schools with low levels of social capital, but reminds leaders that each school needs to do this in relation to their resources and particular contexts.

What educators can do

Several recommendations are made to individual school leaders to look after their own health and wellbeing. The report recommends that school leaders:

  • Increase personal capital (social, human and decisional).
  • Respectfully speak back when faced with ‘moral harassment’.
  • Ensure your passions are harmonious. For example, love your work but do not let it dominate your life or become obsessive about it.
  • Take responsibility for your personal work-life balance.

What the community can do

Finally, the report suggests that the wider community has a role to play in improving conditions for school leaders. It suggest that the community actively supports its local school and works to stop all offensive behaviour directed at school leaders.

‘This is beyond debate. It simply must stop,’ the report reads. ‘The real issue is how to achieve this outcome. The steadily increasing levels of offensive behaviour across the country in schools of all types should give us pause.

‘But this is not just occurring in schools, with increases noted in all frontline professions and domestic violence rates that we should be nationally ashamed about. Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the root causes of this and set about addressing them at every level of society.’

(With acknowledgement to Rebecca Vukovic, Teacher Magazine.)

For the OHS services we provide to schools and colleges, CLICK HERE.

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