Several schools struggling to find new principals after nearly 200 left profession in 2023

The majority of New Zealand school students return to class next week, as the education sector grapples with a shortage of both secondary and primary principals.

While much has been made of the teacher shortage, the Ministry of Education has revealed to Newshub that 198 NZ school principals resigned in 2023 with 24 schools still actively trying to fill their vacancy at the top.

While many principals chose to retire, others have followed opportunities elsewhere like Ōrewa College principal Greg Pierce.

He's just taken up the role of executive head at Brisbane State High School, overseeing 3500 students.

"I didn't go looking for this, it was just a great opportunity when the role in New Zealand has definitely become more complex," he said.

Pierce told Newshub after 25 years in New Zealand education, there have been significant changes in recent years putting pressure on principals.

"We've had the NZ curriculum refresh which is major; the NCEA assessment review and changes which are major and ongoing, and four years of disruption in Auckland due to COVID.

"It's been really disruptive and significant, and principals have had to respond more quickly than before."

Ministry of Education figures show 917 primary principals and 257 secondary principals have resigned from the profession since 2018.

Last year that included 153 primary and 45 secondary principals.

"Given there's only 400 secondary principals in the country that's 10 percent of the workforce stepped out of it last year which for me is a cause for concern," said Secondary Principals' Association president Vaughan Couillault.

Vaughan Couillault, president of the Secondary Principals' Association. He's concerned that 10 percent of the principals workforce left their roles last year.
Vaughan Couillault, president of the Secondary Principals' Association. He's concerned that 10 percent of the principals workforce left their roles last year. Photo credit: Newshub.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests around 30 percent of first-time principals fail to stay in the job more than five years, according to the Secondary Principals' Association.

"We don't want to set up principals to fail. There's still too many first-time principals that move on within the first five years of operating because they are not quite sure what they are going to be dealing with," Pierce told Newshub.

Pakuranga College, Ōrewa College and Pukekohe High School are among the 24 nationally searching for replacement principals.

And it's hard going. COVID disruptions still have a hangover, plus anxiety has also increased - and that puts pressure on even the most experienced principals.

Newshub has been told some principals get up to 100 emails a day from parents.

"The tone of the emails we have noticed, they have become more abrupt and more wanting an answer immediately. Five or six years ago that wouldn't have happened but I think that reflects the level of anxiety our society is still functioning in," said Pierce.

Couillault said the principal's role in the secondary sector is more like a chief executive and while it's extremely rewarding managing staff, property, students and parents, it can be "anything from sewage pipes to marriage counselling and everything in between".

The Ministry acknowledged the pressures the sector is under.

"Initiatives to grow teacher supply aimed at attracting people to teaching are projected to add around an extra 550 to 1,800 secondary teachers to the workforce within the next one to three years," said Anna Welanyk, hautū (leader) education workforce.

She said initiatives include attracting overseas teachers by adding them onto the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) Green List and offering incentives such as the Overseas Relocation Grants.

Attracting and supporting prospective teachers into education with scholarships is also planned, as well as efforts to grow the Māori and kaupapa Māori workforce.

In the meantime Couillault is worried that with so many resignations at the top, schools are losing institutional knowledge at a time the sector is embarking on major change.

He wants better resourcing and support for new principals.

"You need fresh blood and all of that, but when there's such a big number all at once at the same time - a significant change programme is happening  - it causes me concern about the nature of support the sector will receive and the individual will receive."

Support that's needed not just from the Government and the Ministry, but from the whole community.