The government knows how to help teachers. And it’s not more reform.

The first major independent inquiry into NSW public teacher’s workloads for 17 years revealed soaring workloads and exploding hours. 

The Gallop Inquiry (‘Valuing the Teaching Profession’), the first major independent inquiry into NSW public school teachers’ work since 2004, called for a 15 per cent increase in salary and more release time for teachers.

The release of the Inquiry’s findings follows an announcement last year by NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell which flagged a partial rollback of Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) to better ‘strike the balance’ between autonomy, accountability and support. The Minister claimed that the LSLD reforms, introduced in NSW public education nearly 10 years ago, had ‘given schools too much freedom’.

A decade after LSLD was implemented, it had become evident that there were no improved educational outcomes across the State’s education system. It has also been suggested that this devolutionary policy negatively impacted upon the working conditions of school leaders and teachers. Our analysis suggests that LSLD’s problems are not due to autonomy running wild, but burdens produced by bureaucracy and accountability overload. Despite popular claims that greater school autonomy and local decision-making improves public education, there is very little evidence of this.

The LSLD reforms were introduced off the back of criticisms of the State’s perceived ‘centralised’ and ‘one size fits all’ approach to school management. The Department of Education cited the lack of local authority and decision-making that principals had in their schools. The policy also intended to address declining student performance and widening social disadvantage in schools.

The five-pronged reform aimed to change and improve:

1.       Resource management in schools

2.       Staffing in schools

3.       Working locally within communities

4.       School level decision -making

5.       Reduction in red tape

Principals were given discretion over managing their resources – 70 per cent of the State’s public education budget and making every second staffing appointment at their school – in consultation with their communities. A cornerstone of the policy was a new needs-based approach to school funding, introduced through the Resource Allocation Model, that would focus on addressing inequity and disadvantage in schools. Little autonomy was given to schools over curriculum and pedagogy, however. 

‘Reforming’ a complex and demanding profession

Our collective research over the last 10 years has traced the impact of devolved school reform in New South Wales.

In a large workload study conducted via the NSW Teachers’ Federation, with a response rate of 18,234 teaching staff, 87% of teachers and principals reported an increase in working hours over the 5 years since LSLD was introduced. More than 97% reported an increase in administrative duties.

Increased demands were also reported as threatening teaching and student learning. Some 89% of teachers reported that teaching and learning was hindered by their high workload, while 91% reported this was affected by new administrative demands introduced by the Department.

Meanwhile precarity in the teaching profession has grown, with the number of temporary teachers now accounting for approximately 20% of the teacher workforce, while the proportion of permanent employment has declined.

This research on teachers’ workload and working hours has helped to inform the findings of the Gallop Inquiry, which also found teachers struggling under the demands of devolved school reform. Significantly, the Inquiry Report concluded that LSLD had failed. 

These findings resonate with the Department’s own criticisms of the LSLD policy found in their final evaluation report released late last year. 

While school leaders generally agreed that LSLD had a positive impact on the extent to which schools could make local decisions and hire staff that best met their needs, this was overshadowed by more concerning findings.

The Department of Education report estimates about 90% of principals felt that LSLD had not simplified administrative processes. Since LSLD was introduced, there has been no overall improvement in those student outcomes measured in the report, like in NAPLAN or HSC results, with some results worsening. Problematically, no outcome or performance measures for LSLD were defined when the policy was initially developed.

A report from the NSW Auditor-General’s Office also found that there were no clear targets set for needs-based equity funding or standardised ways to report on how the funding was being spent by schools. This has made it difficult to determine the policy’s effect on reducing the impact of disadvantage or determine whether it led to any student benefit.

Evidence also suggests that over the LSLD period inequity in school funding, rather than being reduced, actually increased. This suggests that resourcing and support for many schools is inadequate and likely to impinge on their abilities to help themselves through autonomy reforms. 

A policy backflip

Yet another reform is replacing NSW’s LSLD – the School Success Model that aims to provide:

  • evidence-based guidance on effective practice that improves student outcomes
  • more support for schools that need it most
  • less administrative burden
  • stronger and clearer responsibilities for schools and the system
  • recognition and the scaling of practice of our most successful schools.    

The fate of LSLD has put a spotlight on the need to free up schools’ time to focus on teaching, learning and leading. The School Success Model claims to have a new focus that ‘balances stronger support for schools to make evidence-based decisions with clearer responsibilities for performance targets’. This intends to be achieved through a range of ‘ambitious yet reasonable targets’ to improve areas like school attendance and literacy and numeracy while redressing under-performing schools.

What this means in practice is difficult to know. It appears to promote what Michael Fullan calls ‘the wrong drivers’ in Australian education policy – including a focus on accountability instead of capacity building; and pursuit of fragmented rather than systemic changes. It is also clear that this does not present the bold, system wide reform that many are calling for. The systemic structural problems of our system have recently been analysed in a report by the Gonski Institute for Education, and suggest that major state/federal reform is required. Failing to attend to the larger systemic problems means that the School Success Model may follow the same trajectory of its predecessor LSLD.  

On the basis of our research, we would hope that the School Success Model constitutes greater support for, rather than simply demands upon, the NSW teaching profession, and a reduced administrative burden. 

The Department has been resoundingly criticised for the stream of endless reform with no useful purpose. If the School Success Model is to work, it must offer greater support for the NSW teaching profession and a reduced administrative burden.

Teachers aren’t seeking more change. They just want – and need –  the time needed to engage in quality teaching and learning practice.

From left to right:
Rachel Wilson is Associate Professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100
Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions.
Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey
Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin