Support – not pay – the key to school Principals’ performance, psychological study shows

Performance-related pay is unlikely to boost the effectiveness of school leaders, with Principals more likely to benefit from workplace support, according to a researcher who has conducted a large-scale study into the group. 

APS Psychologist Dr Philip Riley MAPS will tell the 47th APS Annual Conference this week that his study into the health and wellbeing of more than 2,000 Australian Principals found that some were thriving in the job, some just surviving – and the vast majority were somewhere in between.

He said: “By far the biggest influence on how Principals were performing was the sense of support they had from those around them. The current thinking is that if you pay them more money, all will be well, but there is no evidence in the research I have reviewed that this is the case.”

Dr Riley is one of a team of researchers from Monash University who last year embarked on the Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, the first longitudinal study into the health and wellbeing of school Principals from government, Catholic and independent schools around the country.

One of the key factors determining Principals’ performance was ‘emotional labour’ – or having to feign emotions they did not feel in order to do their job.  This has been linked to chronic feelings of stress and burnout.

He said: “Those working in regional settings, where they are seen as a central figure in the community and are expected to take on additional responsibilities, were particularly vulnerable. Many felt they always had to be on duty, whereas those Principals who were best able to take a break from work, were doing better.”

The study found that these pressures at work were having a significant effect on Principals’ home life, with many reporting work-family conflict.

He continued: “Research shows that when the Principal is struggling the whole school suffers. What Principals are asking for is more support. Providing this does cost money, but not as much as pay increases across the board and unfortunately in an environment of education funding cuts, programs that provide this support are the first to go. Yet from our study we know that this is the most effective means of creating thriving Principals from among those who are somewhat struggling.”

Data is being gathered for the second stage of the longitudinal study, with results expected next February. Researchers will increase the focus on emotional labour, and are also hoping to use data from the MySchool website to investigate links between Principal wellbeing and socioeconomic and other factors.

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Dr Philip Riley MAPS will present his research on Friday 28 September at the 47th APS Annual Conference in Perth. More information on his research can be found at www.principalhealth.org.

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The APS is the largest professional organisation for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,500 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to people’s lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.