Southland farmer Brian Russell knows only too well how challenging school-principal recruitment can be. 

As chair of the board of trustees at Dipton School, a small rural primary an hour north of Invercargill, Brian Russell has been leading the effort to find a new head teacher.  

As part of the recruitment drive, the school’s senior teacher and 40-plus students made a video outlining the qualities they wanted in a new leader and posted it online.

Despite the clip going viral and ending up in the newsfeeds of educators throughout the country, it failed to entice enough applicants for the board to continue with the process.

Russell says the board decided to make the video because they wanted a  “point of difference” having seen the recruitment struggles of other schools. 

Those in the sector blame an increasingly demanding job for driving experienced principals out of the profession or back into the classroom, leaving communities struggling to find replacements.

Figures from the Ministry of Education show a quarter of Southland primary and secondary schools have appointed a new principal in the past two years, slightly higher than the national average.

But figures obtained by Newsroom show that almost a third of Southland’s 71 primary schools have had a change of leadership since term two 2020, including some that are yet to appoint a permanent replacement.

Almost half of the Southland primary-school principals who have resigned in the past two years have gone to other education-related roles or to teaching or deputy roles. 

Evaluation Associates leadership adviser Pam Fleck, who mentors Southland’s beginning primary-school principals, says the school leaders were quitting because of “burnout”. 

It was starting to become a “rarity” for principals to progress from smaller to larger schools, she says. 

Instead, an increasing number of principals were returning to the classroom or taking up positions outside schools, sometimes for less pay, says Fleck.

“A big focus of our work now is the well-being of principals, because a lot of them are not in a particularly good place.”

Fleck says many of her first-time principals were “very tired” weeks into the start of the school year because they had been dealing with Covid-response work since early January.

“Even some of the new ones are finding it tough — mind you, this Covid stuff hasn’t helped. They have walked into it completely. It’s pretty hard out there.” 

Fleck mentors 19 beginning principals in Southland and Otago, her largest cohort to date, and that number is expected to increase with schools still recruiting.

“There seems to be a pattern now where deputy principals are not interested in stepping up. I think they see the challenges of the job because a number of the beginning principals have come straight out of the classroom.”

Try and try again

Despite having to re-advertise, Dipton School’s Russell is optimistic they will make an appointment sometime this year, if not in the next recruitment round.

He is acutely aware of the weight of responsibility on the board but says it won’t rush the process. 

“Someone told me the other day, ‘It takes one year to wreck a school and five years to rebuild it again.’ So we want to make sure we get it right.”

The board has had to find a new acting principal for term two since their existing interim head is off to cover another school. Russell says that will mean students will have had three principals in three terms, which is unfair on them. 

Acting Dipton School principal Diane Walker, who is one of two Southland-based relief principals, says Dipton is not unique, with other Southland schools having to re-advertise in the past year.

“I don’t know whether principalship is the desirable position it was in the past. I think it’s actually years and years of people being ground down.”

She knows of three Southland school leaders who decided to leave principalship at the end of last year for education-related roles outside schools. 

“It is a job that, I believe in a lot of cases, is not sustainable,” she says.

Walker says it is particularly tough for principals in small rural schools who have to juggle teaching with school management.

Community whims

Rising community expectations, fewer relievers and growing numbers of children with complex needs are among the challenges principals face, says Fleck.

“It’s the constant demands of the job — the expectations laid on principals, particularly in rural communities. They are very vulnerable to community whims.”

Covid had added another layer of complexity to what was already a tough job, says Fleck.

“I have several principals who have been seriously abused by members of their communities, particularly since mask wearing came in. Some of that was really ugly,” she says.

Invercargill’s Donovan Primary principal, Peter Hopwood, who has 20 years’ experience, says it’s a vastly different role from when he started. 

“We have more complicated children, more behavioural-challenged children, more children with possible mental-health issues. 

“While we are dealing with that, it takes us away from our core job of leading learning. Then there are things like finance and property, and all that has become very complicated.”

Hopwood says although the past two years have been “relentless for principals”, colleagues began talking a decade ago about how tough the job was becoming, long before Covid.

“This is generic problem in New Zealand. There aren’t the people coming up behind us who want our jobs. 

“The job has become too hard, too compliance-driven — not helped by Covid. No one wants to be a principal during Covid.” 

Pay is another bugbear. In some smaller schools, senior teachers earn more than a first-time principal, and in larger schools, the pay gap between the principal and deputy principal does not reflect the difference in responsibility, says Hopwood.

View from Wellington

Tom Haig, workforce director in the Ministry of Education office of the deputy secretary, acknowledges finding “a great new principal is a really significant task for a school board” and that school leadership is critical for delivering a great education.

He says the ministry monitors principal turnover and Southland’s is generally aligned with national turnover, at 22 percent for secondary and primary schools for the two years from the start of 2020 until the end of last year. 

Haig says the ministry recognises how challenging the role has been for principals in the past couple of years and says they’ve done an “incredible job” ensuring students have been able to continue their education through the pandemic.

More ministry support is on its way, with a new part-time position, created by the Otago and Southland regional office, to help Southland secondary and primary school leaders, primarily with the Covid response, says Haig.

On the pay issue, he says collective employment agreements for both the primary and secondary sectors are due to expire this year and the negotiations will provide an opportunity for principal renumeration and other issues to be revisited.

In the previous collective, the ministry had increased the pay scale for year-one principals and had made staff changes to ensure that “teaching principals” had more support. But Haig recognises “there will be principals who would argue that could go further”.

Donovan Park’s Hopwood is one of those. He is “really hopeful” he and his peers will do better out of the next negotiating round. 

Members of teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa began voting on March 10 on claims that will be put to the ministry on behalf of principals, teachers and support staff when negotiations start later this year.

Hopwood says many of the claims being considered relate to principal well-being and will help with recruitment and retention. These include pay parity with secondary school principals, increased funding for management support, funding for principal supervision, better secondment opportunities and changes to principal sabbaticals.

He says the new ministry position to support Southland principals’ Covid response is “great”, but principal leadership advisers who can provide daily support for school leaders are also needed.

*Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund*

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