Schools VAGO report: we still have far to go

The Victorian Auditor General Office’s recent report deals directly with the issues at the heart of AEU activity in our advocacy for the principal class. The report, ‘Principal Health and Wellbeing’ (June 2023), examines the question: is the Department of Education protecting the health and wellbeing of its school principals?

The VAGO report found, unequivocally, that the department is not effectively protecting principal health and wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, it also found that workload is the most significant cause of poor principal health and wellbeing. This is reflected in a number of measures, including the most obvious: average hours worked per week, which at 55 was slightly lower than the 58 hours found in the AEU’s landmark ‘Workload Study’ conducted by ACER in 2016, but remains shockingly high.

Principals suffer mental injury at a higher rate than teaching and non-teaching staff.

And the impact of this excessive workload? WorkSafe Victoria maintains that such high workloads are correlated with increased heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, burnout, depression, and anxiety. Over the period 2015–2021, the median annual workers compensation leave days taken by principals was greater than three times that of teaching staff, and the majority of those claims were for mental, rather than for musculoskeletal or ‘other’ injuries. Principals suffer mental injury at a higher rate than teaching and non-teaching staff.

The VAGO report does acknowledge the measures put in place by the Department of Education to support principal health and wellbeing, and recognises that the department’s service culture has improved. The report reads: The department has made strong progress in developing and delivering health and wellbeing services for principals. Principals have appreciated those services and made good use of them.

These include supports for both the individual and the system, such as proactive access to psychology services and the complex matters team. These services and supports, while not perfect, have assisted and are often endorsed and recommended by AEU members who have accessed them.

At a time when shortages are impacting the entire system, it is of significant concern that principal attrition has remained consistent at 4–6%, while the number of applicants for principal positions continues to trend down.

Report recommendations

The report has made three headline recommendations:

That the department rolls out an opt-in organisational design project that provides support to the school leadership to implement organisational design changes.

That the department uses the School Administration Support Hub (SASH), or similar, to support principals with administrative tasks. Currently, SASH provides support to small or rural and regional schools, and we have received feedback that it is a welcome support.

That the department develops and implements a principal health and wellbeing evaluation framework, which would be used to monitor measures of principal health and wellbeing. Perhaps the most important part of this framework is that there should be a target for workload reduction for principals, including an achievable timeframe.

The department has accepted these recommendations in principle and set a timeline to achieve them by the end of 2024.

The framework to support flexible work for principals has now been updated, along with funding for up to 200 grants to provide 0.2 EFT, to provide overlap time for the principal and their replacement. However, more work needs to be done, and urgently.

AEU position on report

AEU research and advocacy over the last few years has highlighted the many issues related to excessive workload, including the scope of schedule B, contact outside of school terms, or the volume of work being undertaken by the principal class, to mention just a few.

Changes in the VGSA 2022 around investigations, OHS, and emergency management requirements were directly related to tackling that. Some work, outlined in the new agreement in relation to the minimum level of leadership positions within a school intended to share the principal’s workload, was agreed to occur over the life of the agreement.

Also related to this was the explicit inclusion of access to part-time work for principals. While such an arrangement was always possible, significant aspects of how it could be arranged were unclear. The framework to support flexible work for principals has now been updated, along with funding for up to 200 grants to provide 0.2 EFT, to provide overlap time for the principal and their replacement.

However, more work needs to be done, and urgently. It is disappointing that the department’s response to the VAGO report featured such long timeframes to achieve the recommendations. We will continue to prosecute the argument for timelier solutions for reducing workloads – and will do so with the added ammunition of this VAGO report.

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