Family violence, mental health the biggest concerns for community building say school leaders

  • Nearly half of Victorian public school leaders say cyberbullying is the biggest issue to negatively impact students, according to a new report by Monash University.
  • Of the 91 principals and assistant principals surveyed, 22 per cent identified racism in their top three social issues confronting students, along with mental health and poverty.
  • School leaders say the biggest challenges to building more socially cohesive communities, are students exposed to family violence or affected by mental health.

Family violence, cyberbullying and mental health are the biggest challenges to building social cohesion at school, new research by Monash University shows.

But, in good news, school leaders report students are more likely to be accepting of those perceived to be different from them, to help each other out, and get on well with one another.

Monash University’s Faculty of Education released findings of this ongoing research in the ‘Social Cohesion in Victorian Schools Report’ today.

In one of the first Australian studies on social cohesion in schools, funded by the Ross Trust and Reichstein Foundation, nearly half of principals and assistant principals surveyed said cyberbullying was the biggest issue confronting students. Sixty per cent of school leaders ranked cyberbullying in their top three issues.

Twenty-two per cent of school leaders identified racism in their top three social issues confronting students (3 per cent rated it first), while 20 per cent cited discrimination or harassment based on poverty in their top three, with 7 per cent saying it was the most important.

Discrimination or harassment based on mental health issues was also rated in the top three by 20 per cent of school leaders.

As part of the survey, the 91 school leaders also flagged family violence, sexism and discrimination based on intellectual disability, and gender identity as significant social issues facing students.

More than half of the principals and assistant principals surveyed had been in the role for more than 10 years.

Professor Jane Wilkinson from Monash University’s Faculty of Education led a team of researchers from Monash and Deakin University on this project.

The aim of the study was to identify what school leaders perceive are the key social issues affecting Victorian public schools, and what helps or hinders them to build more socially connected school communities – especially as students return to the classroom after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Comments from school leaders cite poverty, mental health, family violence and social media as major issues students face,” Professor Wilkinson said.

“School leaders are frustrated at rising gaps between rich and poor, inequitable access to funding, and that covert bullying that happens online, generally outside school hours, can become an ongoing issue that teachers and principals are expected to solve.”

“Reconnecting with disengaged families as a way of escaping cycles of poverty and ill-health is also a priority for school leaders in building a socially cohesive school community.”

Other key findings from the survey include:

  • Victorian leaders are most concerned about students exposed to family violence (69 per cent) or affected by mental health (66 per cent) in terms of building social cohesion in school.
  • More than 90 per cent of school leaders report the proportion of students at their school requiring mental health support has either increased or significantly increased in the last five years.
  • Eighty per cent of school leaders report that student exposure to family violence has either increased or significantly increased in the last five years.
  • One in five school leaders disagree that professional development is accessible to staff to help them deal with discrimination or harassment within the student body.

In good news for students and parents, nearly all school leaders say they allocate all the necessary resources to support students and provide opportunities for them to express their voices and cultures.

An overwhelming number of school leaders said students are more likely to accept and help others in the class who “are perceived to be different to them”. More than 80 per cent say their anti-discrimination policy supports social cohesion at school.

“School leaders noted that stronger connections with parents, school and community events and programs such as Respectful Relationships were some of the factors that could help generate social cohesion within school,” Professor Wilkinson said.

“We hope this research provides a useful platform for school leaders to create constructive dialogue with their colleagues in the education system, as well as parents and students, to help build social cohesion in their schools.

“This is particularly important following the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted the school routine for thousands of students across Australia.”

To download a copy of the report, please click here

Please visit Monash Lens to read further commentary on this study by Professor Jane Wilkinson, Professor Lucas Walsh, Professor Amanda Keddie and Dr Fiona Longmuir.