VICTORIAN government schools are struggling to attract principals, with 60-hour weeks, "helicopter parents", lack of support and insufficient pay deterring people from applying for leadership roles.
Principals have warned of a crisis, pointing to the recent failure to fill the top jobs at three prestigious primary schools in Melbourne's eastern suburbs.
However, two bodies that represent principals are at loggerheads over a controversial proposal to improve conditions by giving performance bonuses.
The Australian Education Union has accused the Australian Principals Federation of a "sell-out" over its negotiations with the Baillieu government to introduce bonuses.
"Once again the APF has, in a repeat of the Kennett years, negotiated salary increases based on principals doing the work of the public servants the government intends to cut," Australian Education Union branch secretary Brian Henderson wrote in AEU News.
Australian Principals Federation president Chris Cotching, while stressing that no agreement had been reached, said: "I support the suggestion that there is going to have to be some sort of performance management or bonus arrangement to . . . provide incentives to attract principals."
He said it was of great concern that principals were not appointed at Laburnum Primary in Blackburn, Camberwell South Primary and Auburn South Primary after recent advertisements attracted few applicants.
"This is terribly concerning . . . for the morale and confidence of their immediate communities," Mr Cotching wrote in a letter to the office of Teaching Minister Peter Hall.
"All are large primary schools which we would expect to be highly sought."
Mr Cotching told The Age that punishing workloads, a perceived lack of support from the Education Department and negligible differences in pay rates for leading teachers and principals at the bottom of the scale, were putting people off. Principals earn between $101,110 and $165,911, including superannuation, while a leading teacher can earn up to $91,883.
He said most principals enjoyed the role, but many felt it was something they "can't do for too long . . . They don't have any sense of a balanced life . . . I think we are in a serious situation if we don't change to give the job a bit more status."
A 2004 report found 80 per cent of Victorian principals had high stress levels, compared with 44 per cent of the general workforce. Nearly half had a medical problem linked to work.
Mitcham Primary principal Ian Sloane was not surprised schools were struggling to find principals. "I work at least 60 hours . . . You can be going hammer and tongs from 6 in the morning to 12 at night."
He said he was fortunate to have a supportive school council and community. However "helicopter parents" — so described for their tendency to hover protectively over their children — could be a problem.
"A lot of schools in Boroondara and other areas in the east tend to get parents who are very successful in their occupation and think they have the right to come in and tell you how to run the school . . . It can be very off-putting if you know you are going to come up against parents who are likely to bounce you around the room."
Wilma Culton, principal of Serpell Primary School in Templestowe, who won an award this year for her work on preparing people for leadership, said many principals were unprepared for the role. "In Singapore they train them for six months before they are placed — I think that results in consistent high performance."
Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Frank Sal said schools in regional areas in particular had trouble finding principals.
"Most people in schools don't believe performance pay is the answer," he said. "However, if it is the only way to improve remuneration we need to look at it in a way that supports schools and supports principals."