It's rough at the top for principals

Quarter of school leaders have suffered violence at work, study finds

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School leaders are almost seven times more likely to be physically assaulted at work than members of the population at large, new research has revealed.

Principals are also about five times more likely to be threatened with violence - from angry students, parents and fellow members of staff - than other people, according to a study of more than 2,000 principals.

The study was completed by Philip Riley, of the faculty of education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. His findings build on reports of violence towards principals in other countries. Dr Riley said that he was planning a research project in the UK to examine the experiences of British school leaders.

Fears have also been raised that, as austerity measures affect growing numbers of countries, public servants on the front line - including school leaders - are becoming increasingly vulnerable.

Dr Riley's research highlights the causes of stress among school leaders, with almost a third reporting that the sheer quantity of work that they face is a major source of difficulty. A further one in four is concerned by the limited time available to focus on teaching and learning.

But the discovery of the rate of work-based violence proved the most shocking finding, Dr Riley said.

While 7.8 per cent of the general population report being threatened with violence at work, more than five times as many school leaders - 37.8 per cent - have received similar threats. Leaders of state-funded schools are most at risk, particularly when they work in large towns or rural locations.

And while only 3.9 per cent of the general population have been attacked at work, 27 per cent of principals say that they have encountered violence at school.

"It's quite amazing. I mean, terrible," Dr Riley said. "It's monumentally different."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, a headteachers' union in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said that research showed that three- quarters of his members had been threatened with violence in the five years up to 2011. One in 10 was physically assaulted, including being punched, kicked and bitten.

"I think it's because they're the public face of authority," Mr Hobby said. "There's no distance between them and the public. They're right there. If you're getting upset about an exclusion, or anything around school, then the head is a very visible lightning rod for that."

Dr Riley has presented his findings to Australian principals. "They said, `Oh, yeah. That's not surprising. That's what we know,'" he said. "They had just never thought to tell anyone."

The research found that in primary schools (for children aged 4-11), threats and bullying behaviour are likely to come from parents rather than from other teachers. "Primary schools tend to have a lot more parents in and out, anyway," Dr Riley said. "When kids hit adolescence, parents aren't around as much."

In secondary schools (for children aged 11-18), meanwhile, school leaders are significantly more likely to be bullied by teachers than they are in primary schools. Indeed, 34.2 per cent of principals say that they have been bullied by a colleague, compared with 8.3 per cent of the general population.

"There are many more teachers in secondary schools," Dr Riley said. "So, through sheer weight of numbers, you're going to get more bullying from staff.

"When principals are bullied by parents, eventually the principal can say they're no longer welcome in the school. With staff, the lines are murkier. Some staff will take sides with the teacher. It's more stressful for the principal."

The more that principals experience either threats of violence or actual violence, the worse their mental health becomes, Dr Riley found. Those heads who feel that they need to hide their real emotions at work also tend to suffer stress and mental strain.

This can put senior teachers off applying for the role, according to Julian Stanley, chief executive of the UK's Teacher Support Network. "Stress, and the impact of stress, can lead to people being reluctant to take on that particular burden," he said. "People have to make it clear that violence isn't to be tolerated."

Threats to heads could also be part of a broader social trend, Dr Riley said. The Church no longer commands the automatic respect that it did 20 or 30 years ago. And, in Australia, doctors, nurses and police officers have also talked about experiencing work-based violence, he explained.

"There's been a lot of public-sector bashing in the wake of the financial crisis," Mr Hobby agreed. "In hard economic times, people are more tense. Life is harder. Their frustrations are more likely to boil over. Anyone on the front line is vulnerable."

Photo credit: Alamy

Original headline: Leadership - It's rough at the top for mistreated principals

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