Principal workload and time use study audio paper

This audio paper was originally published 5 April 2018.

Emerging evidence suggests that the NSW government-school community is increasingly concerned about the workload of its principals. CESE commissioned Deloitte to conduct an independent research study into principal workload and time use.

This audio paper looks at some of the key findings:

  • What tasks do principals spend their time on?
  • Is the current principal workload achievable and sustainable?
  • Has there been a change in either the quantity ot nature of principals' work in recent years?
  • Could the leadership or decision-making culture of schools change in any way to help principals manage their workload?
Read by Natalie Johnston-Anderson, CESE.

Hello and welcome to an audio paper on the Principal workload and time use Study. Today we’ll be looking at some of the key findings from this study in four areas. These are:

  • What tasks do principals spend their time on?
  •  Is the current principal workload achievable and sustainable?
  • Has there been a change in either the quantity or nature of principals’ work in recent years? And,
  • Could the leadership or decision-making culture of schools change in any way to help principals manage their workload?

Emerging evidence, including from conversations with school leaders, suggests that the NSW government-school community is increasingly concerned about the workload of its principals. In order to better understand the workload of these principals, in 2017 the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, or CESE, commissioned Deloitte to conduct an independent research study into principal workload and time use. For this study, Deloitte visited 119 schools across NSW, closely observed and recorded principals at work, and conducted interviews with principals, school staff and other key stakeholders. Deloitte then worked in partnership with CESE to produce the final report.

Let’s start with findings from the first research question: What tasks do principals spend their time on? Overall, principals’ spend their time in the following ways:

  • 40% on leading the management of the school
  • 30% on leading teaching and learning
  • 11% on engaging and working with the community
  • 9% on developing themselves and others
  • 6% on leading improvement, innovation and change; and
  • 3% on other activities.

This shows that principals are spending substantially more time on leading the management of their school than they are on being instructional leaders of teaching and learning. The way that principals used their time did not differ significantly, regardless of school type, location, size, socioeconomic status or a principal’s tenure. There was, however, a significant difference between time use for teaching and non-teaching principals. NSW has approximately 600 teaching principals, from a total population of more than 2200 principals. We found that teaching principals spend just over a quarter of their time on face-toface teaching, compared to less than five per cent for their non-teaching colleagues. 2 Principals undertake a high number of activities during the school day that are varied in nature and short in duration. During the main part of the school day, principals on average undertook 45 different activities, with 43% of these taking less than five minutes. Principals also experience multiple interruptions during the school day, which makes it difficult to complete activities that require longer periods of time and attention. Tasks, such as strategic planning, financial management and their own learning and development, are therefore generally completed before or after school hours, in the evenings, or on weekends. Principals reported that they had reduced capacity to fulfil their role as educational leaders because they’re currently spending a large proportion of time on activities that they classify as administration. This includes both general administration, such as managing staff, assets, or complaints, and transactional administration, such as reporting, internal communications, email management and compliance. Administrative activities were observed to be often unplanned, ad hoc and variable in nature, and contribute to the disrupted pattern of the typical day of a principal during school hours. Principals also spend time on activities that they do not typically consider as being core to their role, such as cleaning, minor repairs, arranging for plumbing to be fixed and troubleshooting technology issues. Principals often take on these activities as they tend to be the only person within the school with the flexibility within their day to do so. This leads us to the findings from the next question: Is the current principal workload achievable and sustainable? Most principals feel that their current workload is unreasonable. While they acknowledged that working beyond standard hours is required to undertake their role, there is a general feeling that the current workload is not manageable for the longer term. 75 per cent of principals reported that their workload is ‘difficult to achieve’ or ‘not at all achievable’. 77 per cent reported that their workload is ‘difficult to sustain’ or ‘not at all sustainable’. There is also a significant difference in achievability across school locations. 34 per cent of metropolitan school principals perceive their workload to be ‘achievable’ or ‘very easy to achieve’, compared to just 14 per cent of regional school principals. Principals feel that the number of reforms and large scale initiatives, and particularly the administrative burden that these create, will need to slow down in order to make their workload more achievable and sustainable. In order to respond to work pressures like the demands of leading and managing a school, the level of engagement expected by the community and the volume of the requests from the department, principals consistently work well beyond standard hours, including weekends. Principals acknowledge that to complete the activities required of them, additional time is required outside of the standard hours; however, the extent of this additional time is currently beyond what most principals would consider to be reasonable or ideal. 3 Principals also feel that, because of workload pressure, they are unable to prioritise important teaching and learning activities such as: observing classrooms during the day; engaging with staff and students to evaluate learning outcomes; engaging in professional learning; and supporting staff wellbeing. Some of these strategic activities can, therefore, instead become ‘transactional’ or ‘administrative’ in nature, or they’re simply not undertaken or completed at all. Tasks can be rushed and the ‘bare minimum done’ before moving on. Principals report that their stress levels have increased due to a sense of consistent overload and heightened expectations of workload. As a result, principals sometimes find themselves questioning their own competence and ability to do their job. Principals believe that this is having a negative effect on their health and wellbeing – and therefore impacting upon their perception of the long term sustainability of their workload. Without a clear role definition that includes an articulation of outcomes, it is a challenge for principals to understand what they should expect of their role and what an appropriate workload should be. So, having considered both what principals do and how sustainable this is, the next question aims to put this into a broader historical context by asking: Has there been a change in either the quantity or nature of principals’ work in recent years? The research found that, while the scope of the principal’s role – such as, educational leadership, site management and community engagement – has remained consistent over recent years, the way that these components are executed has changed. This has been partially driven by the Local Schools, Local Decisions (or LSLD) reform. While greater authority has been provided to principals, the level of compliance required around these activities has also added to the administrative workload. Principals also reported that they felt increased pressure and expectations to act on issues related to a broader range of complex community needs. The complexity of the social challenges within communities, from cyber safety to mental health, have all impacted upon the breadth of principal workload. As a result of new technologies and new approaches to student assessment, and a greater emphasis on evidence-based practice, principals feel that their role is more transparent than ever before. Principals feel a higher level of scrutiny and have to justify more of their decisions and performance with evidence and data. Changes in technology have also meant that principals are now able to be accessed more easily and frequently than ever before by the school, the department and the broader community through a variety of media channels, including e-mail, text messages, the school’s website and social media. The combination of transparency, accessibility, community expectations and the principal’s sense of personal responsibility, has not only increased the pressure on principals as leaders, it has also increased their workload. Principals can feel unprepared for the leadership and management aspects of the role when transitioning into it. 4 So overall, the changing nature of the principal’s workload has placed increased emphasis on the need for advanced capabilities in leadership and management. Let’s now consider how the situation might be improved with today’s final question: Could the leadership or decision making culture of schools change in any way to help principals manage their workload? Within the current environment of ongoing reform and change, principals are finding it harder to absorb and adapt to change in an agile way, and to operate effectively as leaders and decision makers. Our research found that there is a lack of trust between principals and the NSW Department of Education. Principals generally don’t believe that the department acts in their best interest or ‘has their back’ if things go wrong. Principals often see their directors as simply a reporting line, and they would typically only go to them for support once they have already considered possible solutions. This can leave them feeling isolated from, and unsupported by, the department. This sense of isolation can lead to a perception among principals that they are on their own when it comes to solving problems and making decisions, and this can lead to a risk averse and compliancedriven mindset when making decisions. There is a sense of comfort from knowing what the ‘norm’ or the ‘standard’ is. However, we know that risk averse or compliance based mindsets can reduce a person’s openness to new ways of thinking and innovation. This in turn creates additional stress when principals are faced with new challenges and different problems and are uncertain about how to respond. The department’s goal for a principal is to be an educational leader. However, in practice, the priority of the department is perceived as focused on the management of the school, particularly around strategy, finances, administration and compliance. Principals fear limitations to career progression if they do not comply with department requirements or requests. And this means that they may take a transactional approach to strategic tasks, as they are focussed on executing all tasks allocated by the department, regardless of importance and priority. Principals have been given greater authority, but feel they are often not trusted to make decisions, with many compliance approvals still needing to be sought (for example, when painting a door). The report concludes that three short-term changes could assist principals to lead and make decisions and therefore manage their workload in a more effective way. These are: 1. Providing a clear set of tangible and measurable outcomes for principals. These could enable principals to evaluate themselves and improve the consistency of decision making. 2. Clearly articulating what it looks like to succeed in the principal’s role (and the roles of those directly associated with them). This could enable certainty and create a stable and supportive ecosystem more likely to provide high performing teams over time. 3. Ensuring principals have the capability, confidence and authority to allocate funds towards the delivery of the administrative aspects of the role. Principals sometimes feel guilty when making a choice requiring a perceived trade-off between investments in school management 5 versus student learning. Some principals expressed a preference for assigning tied funds to avoid having to justify spending on non-student facing resources. The department has since used these opportunity areas for change in developing the new School Leadership Strategy. In conclusion, we recognise principals as leaders in their communities. They are responsible for many areas of educational leadership, including teaching and learning programs, student progress, achievement and wellbeing, staff management and development, managing school finances and property and engaging with the wider school community. We hope that this audio book has brought to life some of the realities and challenges of working as a principal in NSW today.

To read the full Principal Workload and Time Use report, please visit the NSW Department of Education website at and look under the priority area ‘strengthen teaching quality and school leadership’.

This audio book was written and produced by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, or CESE, and was read by Natalie Johnston-Anderson. Thanks for listening.


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