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Looking into the well of being


Phil Riley does not mince his words. The chief investigator of a survey of New Zealand principals and other school leaders says there is “functional stupidity” in the bureaucracy of education and that there are a lot of tasks that principals are asked to do that are not important.

Children and their learning should still be central.

Riley is associate professor at the Australian Catholic University and was a principal, so knows the stresses that principals are under. However, he is also a psychologist, and while not wanting to sound alarmist – he says there is irreparable damage being done by long-term stress among principals as revealed in the New Zealand Principals’ Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey 2016.

He says that collective action and attention to personal health is needed to reverse some of the damage that is being done to health and wellbeing.

“What everyone needs is a bit more courage – every decision a principal makes should be framed around: ‘how does this help the kids? ’ Then you can let things fall off the desk.”

But he says that this cannot be done alone because it risks principals being “picked off”.

“It is important to have a strong union. The only way policy is going to change is through collective action. An individual principal is not going to be able to stand up against the Ministry.”

He says in a world where baby boomers are in charge of policy – education takes a back seat.

“Their kids and grandkids have been through university, what they are interested in is health and aged care.”

The survey covers principals in New Zealand, Australia and Ireland and revealed the workload of principals in this country was higher than in those countries.

“Teachers and principals are a relatively compliant group; they try and make things happen.

“Every principal should say to the Ministry when asked to do new task – ‘ok what do you want me to drop to do this.’

“Think: why are we doing this? Who does this help?’’

The survey revealed that one of the biggest stressors for principals were government initiatives – constantly changing policy and what he terms “administrivia” which he says is “accountability dressed up as autonomy.”

“High-stakes testing has created so much anxiety out there in the community. And for what purpose – so that we can be higher in PISA than last year? It’s just madness.”

He says we must find a way as educators for the Government to leave education alone.

“Work out the bucket of money [in the Education Budget] and hand it over and then be hands off. It is the only way that I can see.

“In Finland it took 20 years of arguing [to bring in a system free of political interference] but they did it … so that gives me hope.”

He says the principals who seemed to fare best with the stresses of the job were those who have strong values and identify with the moral purpose of education.

“They tend to be very experienced and knew the system when it was a bit less stressful and the ones coming in now do not have that luxury and are thrown in the deep end.”

He says principals need higher levels of professional support and this was true in all three countries.

What gives him hope is that things are changing in Australia – through bargaining and through the possibility of legal action.

Recently in South Australia principals won 0.05 FTE per week for wellbeing to be spent at their own discretion.

“It was a significant financial reward but it had huge symbolism in that it says we trust you to use this.”

Riley is now being invited into departments of education because the weight of evidence is too strong to ignore and says in not dealing with the issue education departments could see themselves facing a negligence claim.

And the culture of principals not asking for help has to change because the role and workload has grown exponentially.

He says if principals are under this sort of pressure, then teachers will be too.

“Get your health in order. Principals do not sleep well. Long term this causes all sorts of problems…go to the doctor and find out what it is…physical or otherwise.

“I am now challenging principals now by saying: ‘it’s ok then for you to die early?’.”

Principals are moving into managing people and relationships and they may not have the skills or time for this.

“So maybe you do need the Woolworths accountant to do admin, so principals are relieved from counting the taps and that ridiculous stuff so they can focus on the relationships.

He says the research has also worked as an intervention as principals get their own personal report and can track themselves and their wellbeing.

“Some have been feeling terrible and now they can now admit it. Once you know you can make some choices.”


Principals will be contacted by NZEI by email to see if they wish to participate. those already participation will be automatically contacted.