Mark Scott

The way teachers work must change now. The Scott report doesn’t even try to fix the real challenge

There is a collective sigh of frustration from education academics when initial teacher education (ITE) is yet again the subject of review, with a series of recommendations that promise to transform not only ITE, but the teaching profession. Apparently the problems with the teaching profession are entirely the result of the failures of ITE. 

It is also crucial to consider these most recent recommendations in context – they are  the most recent in what has been a decade of ITE reform. 

Released on July 7 and titled Strong Beginnings: Report of the Teacher Education Expert Panel, this review has 14 recommendations across four domains, reflecting the earlier discussion paper: strengthening ITE programs to deliver confident, effective beginning teachers (which is mostly about embedding core content); strengthening the link between performance and funding of ITE programs (which is mostly about reporting and data); improving the quality of practical experiences in teaching; and improving access to postgraduate ITE for mid-career entrants.   

The opening sentence in the executive summary, “[T]he importance of great teachers cannot be overstated”, is uncontestable – thank you – we agree.  The closing paragraph provides the rationale and context for the recommendations that follow, acknowledging the “major reforms” progressed under Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG, 2014) and noting “but there is still more to do”.  

Warning bells – tinkering with ITE will not be a panacea for the workforce shortage challenges facing the sector, with ITE a small part of the much more complex landscape, and with a long lead time to take effect.  

I read the report and recommendations from the informed and insider position as a Dean of Education, Chair of the Queensland Council of Deans of Education, program accreditation panellist and chairperson; for the duration of the time we collectively traversed the intense period rolling-out the reforms of TEMAG. 

It was indeed major – and very costly – reform.  Only recently, around the nation, have those reforms been fully implemented.  And we even have a few graduates who have journeyed through these new programs. It is important to acknowledge their added length combined with the time it takes to complete the programs – for many enrolled part-time due to the tough economic environment that demands they work alongside their study. 

We have only a few years of graduates from these TEMAGed programs so we don’t yet know the impact of the major reforms.  Hence, the value and impact of the TEMAG initiatives are not yet known in terms of the profession and workforce – in fact there is a gap in research about many aspects of ITE, a point clearly made in the report. 

The recommendations thus are appended to a significantly revamped ITE sector that has not had the benefit of resources to research and review the effects of major reform

The big shifts resulting from TEMAG include: additional non-academic requirements for entry to ITE; the Literary and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE); program standards; and demonstrating classroom readiness through the Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA), as a final hurdle, alongside mandatory volumes of learning and consistent professional experience time allocation. Some of these reforms are dubious in terms of adding quality and value and the cost benefit analysis for ITE, but none has been contested in the report recommendations. That’s a missed opportunity.   

There are some recommendations in the report that could be silver linings. Acknowledging the need for additional funding to research ITE and resourcing this deficit, and the intention to consider TPAs comparatively, are standouts for me. This makes sense as the focus should be on the readiness and novice expertise of ITE graduates about to enter the workforce, taking into account the learning and value that comes from their ITE program.  

Other glimmers of hope among the recommendations include: establishing a separate authority for oversight and achieving national consistency (contentious, but important); greater visibility of mentor teachers; and the importance of investing in professional experience by all members of the profession, which is a key aspect of program retention and identity development for ITE students. The mechanics for activating these innovations however, is lacking, so these might more properly be regarded as potential positives. The current demands on the ITE sector to meet accreditation requirements are significant, so adding to that does mean additional workload for tertiary educators, hence it is refreshing to see funding for transition and funding for the establishment of leadership institutions.  This is happening at a time when the number of tertiary experts in education is also depleted consequential to universities tightening their belts, so a reasonable implementation timeline will be crucial.

Less convincing is the need to specify core content. The question of what is core has been narrowed to four areas that appear, frankly, to be incontestable and likely already to feature in ITE programs in the country. It will be the necessary changes to standards that will take the time and the task of making visible the core content for compliance assurances, and the relative volume of learning and level of prescription that is yet to be defined that will undoubtedly cause consternation for the implementation of the core content recommendations. And the question of what is to be removed from programs is already sounding around the nation – adding more means something has to go. The loss of agility and likelihood of sameness is thus concerning, cookie cutter education programs seem to be the antithesis of what we need to ensure we attract and graduate a diverse teacher workforce.

Importantly, refinements in ITE do not solve the problem of workforce shortages in classrooms today.  

There is extensive research that points to the need for a major shift in the way we do schooling today.  The way teachers work also needs to change.  This is crucial for the necessary transformation that is needed to reset school education to reflect the needs of contemporary society.  The TEEP recommendations work within our current system and can be considered as an incremental step in the bigger challenge of transforming our schooling sector and the teachers entering it.

Professor Donna Pendergast is the Director of Engagement in the Arts, Education and Law Group and former Dean and Head of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her research expertise is education transformation and efficacy.

Good question: Did the teaching panel even look at what’s available now?

There are very few days of the week where I don’t receive urgent emails or phone calls from school principals pleading for graduates or current pre-service teachers who can fill vacant positions in their school. Those desperate communications reflect the harsh reality that many school leaders and teacher educators face daily in the struggle to minimise the impact of the current teacher workforce shortages in Australia. 

This is the backdrop against which the recently published Teacher Education Expert Panel Discussion Paper is set as teacher educators, school leaders, government departments, regulatory authorities and policy makers seek to engage with what has been proposed in the document. The discussion paper reflects the work of the expert panel (led by Mark Scott, pictured) in responding to Priority Area 2 of the Education Ministers’ National Teacher Workforce Action Plan which was released in December 2022.

The teacher shortage backdrop is a stark reminder that many factors contribute to graduate teachers’ early career experiences in schools, as they seek to move from graduate teacher to proficient. Issues already highlighted in the National Workforce Action Plan, such as unsustainable workloads, perceived status of the profession, prevalence of short-term employment contracts (perhaps now less of an issue), increasing complexity of student behaviours, and many others factors that influence a graduate teacher’s decision to stay or leave the profession, independent of the quality of their initial teacher education. It must be recognised that conditions in our schools are also the conditions in which our pre-service teachers are learning as an essential part of the professional experience dimensions of initial teacher education. My point is that we cannot separate the conditions in which teachers practise their profession from the activity of initial teacher education, because they combine to mediate the ‘quality’ of a pre-service teacher’s collective experience of initial teacher education. Starting from this point, it is helpful to work through some of the key considerations proposed in the discussion paper.

The proposed core content outlined in the discussion paper addresses the four areas of: (i) the brain and learning; (ii) effective pedagogical practices; (iii) classroom management; and (iv) enabling factors for learning.

It is not clear if the panel had undertaken a thorough review of what is currently included in a range of ITE programs addressing knowledge of how the brain learns, but it is likely that many programs do address this very topic already as part of achieving graduate standards 1.1 and 1.2. However, I would concede that in the absence of any such curriculum-wide review, there is no guaranteed national consistency on whether this important aspect of teacher education is included in all accredited programs. But in considering the need for the brain to be included as core content in all ITE curriculum programs, it is equally important to remember those other aspects of standard 1.1 and 1.2 which remind us that ‘brains’ don’t learn in isolation in classrooms, and that the life circumstances of young people influence their learning opportunities. In considering the possibility of core content related to cognitive science, it is important not to dichotomise such content with understandings about the sociology of teaching and learning. Perhaps the answer may be to develop a more accurate description of standards 1.1 and 1.2 to reflect the importance of cognitive science in the preparation of teachers, but not at the expense of the sociological and physical dimensions.

The panel’s considerations related to effective pedagogical practice and classroom management as core are also likely to be identifying areas already addressed in initial teacher education programs against multiple graduate standards.

Having been a reviewer of many ITE programs myself, I have seen a relatively high degree of consistency in relation to what is being taught, practised, and assessed regarding effective pedagogical practice and classroom management.

Having been a reviewer of many ITE programs myself, I have seen a relatively high degree of consistency in relation to what is being taught, practised, and assessed regarding effective pedagogical practice and classroom management.

Damian Blake

Although my personal experiences of reviewing ITE programs does not constitute a systematic consideration of what all programs address on these important topics, I do return to my earlier observation that what students learn about effective pedagogical practice and classroom management in any ITE program is equally dependent on what is learned during their professional experience placements. I would suggest the panel’s reform area 3 addressing the quality of professional experience is actually threshold to any considerations for core curriculum related to effective pedagogy and classroom management.

The final element of core included in the discussion paper addresses developing teachers’ understandings of enabling factors for learning, including those related to First Nation’s Peoples, cultural responsiveness, family engagement and diverse learning needs. I would agree that there is much work to be done in all of these areas, but perhaps a more genuine starting point would be a respectful and systematic approach to decolonising initial teacher education in Australia. That means coming to terms with the unintended consequences of previous ITE reforms that may have adversely impacted access to initial teacher education for our First Nation’s Peoples in particular.

The panel proposes to link funding to performance measures in categories related to: (i) selection of diverse and high quality candidates; (ii) retention; (iii) classroom readiness; and (iv) employment outcomes.

This section of the discussion paper will draw much attention from university leaders, as it is likely to impact individual providers’ ongoing commitment to deliver initial teacher in their institution. The proposed categories have some alignment with elements of Stage 2 accreditation, and many providers already seek to achieve continuous improvement in relation to these elements. However, I am not aware of any evidence that would support publicising a table of comparative performance as the most productive way forward for achieving continuous improvement. In contrast, it may risk providers adopting a gamified approach to funding and completely distract from the genuinely important elements of increasing diversity in the teaching workforce.

I would also note that some of the challenges already faced in relation to these measures are genuinely outside the control of ITE providers. As noted earlier, the perceived classroom readiness of graduates and their likelihood of continuing employment in the early career years is linked to the conditions in which they are working. And despite many of the selection measures already being adopted under previous ITE reforms to strengthen the ‘quality’ of ITE entrants, their experiences of the reality of classroom life in all its glory does impact their commitment to completing a program and becoming a teacher.

Rather than funding linked to these performance measures, it would be more productive to have a serious funding discussion focussed on enabling high quality and scalable professional experience arrangements that serve as threshold dimensions in the provision of quality initial teacher education. I think this third element of the discussion paper does provide a real opportunity to improve one of the most important, threshold aspects of initial teacher education which, unfortunately, is also one over which ITE providers have minimal influence. It has been highlighted for its importance in most previous reviews and I would suggest it should be leading the charge in any genuine attempt to further improve the quality of initial teacher education.

Professor Damian Blake is the Head of School for Deakin University’s School of Education, after 15 years as associate dean, teaching and learning.

In the troubled state of education, there’s scope for an imaginative administrator, even a thoughtful one, to do good.

In a couple of months’ time, the biggest school system in Australia will need a new head. The current Secretary of the Department of Education in NSW, Mark Scott, is moving to greener pastures as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

The job of Director-General of Education (the NSW title was changed in 2014) really matters. Some of the great innovators in Australian education have held this role, or its equivalent: William Wilkins in the nineteenth century, Peter Board in the early twentieth, Alby Jones in the reform era of the 1970s in South Australia.

There’s no guarantee that NSW will get another Peter Board – and it’s worth recalling that Peter Board himself resigned in protest against a right-wing Minister’s demand to reintroduce fees for high schools. But in the troubled state of education around the world, there’s scope for an imaginative administrator, even just a thoughtful one, to do a lot of good.

Making choices

There are, of course, bad choices that the NSW government might make. First, they could appoint someone who is a generic corporate manager. There are plenty of potential candidates in the business elite, accustomed to handling big budgets and riding herd on large workforces. Since the public sector was remodelled on corporate lines, there is also a supply from the executive suites of public and ‘public-facing’ (Mark Scott’s unintentionally revealing phrase) agencies.

This way, we could get a D-G who understood spreadsheets, could thump a team into shape, defend austerity, find opportunities for outsourcing, spout the language of excellence – and who would not have two educational ideas to rub together.

Alternatively, the government could go for a right-wing ideologue who did have schemes for education. That’s what Donald Trump did, choosing a wealthy party donor who was an enthusiast for charter schools, parental choice, guns, and other educational devices dear to the far right. Betsy DeVos proved a disaster; one of her few achievements was revoking guidelines on inclusiveness for disabled kids. I don’t think this is a likely kind of appointment in Australia, but it is possible.

How could government make a good choice for this job? Here are the criteria I’d have in mind if, through some terrible error in the Minister’s office, I were appointed to the selection committee for the next D-G.

Know the business

The great myth of managerialism is that all ‘leadership’ roles are basically the same. Just read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, get your MBA, and keep up to date with the relevant apps . . . but education isn’t like oil refining, online marketing, or even Chinese dynastic warfare. 

Good administrators need a hands-on knowledge of what educational processes are, and how schools and classrooms work. They need to recognize how teachers weave multiple tasks together in their daily work. Administrators need to grasp the deep diversity among students in a public school system, the complex needs of young people, and the very complex responsibility that creates for educators.

Above all, they need to understand that it is the inter-active work of teachers, students, support staff and communities that produces educational effects as children grow. Good administrators do not fall into the deadly error of thinking of students and their families as ‘customers’ of a school system.

Hold the fort

One of the important roles of public administrators – though one that’s hard for them to acknowledge – is protecting the workforce from disruptions, distractions and abuse from outside. The list of hazards is long: nervous ministers, hostile media moguls, backbenchers with a bee in their bonnet about communists or feminists or transsexuals, business or religious pressure groups, corporations trying to sell new tests or online systems or training programmes (or even take over whole groups of schools, which has happened in other countries), and more.

Defensiveness won’t work. It’s important that a public school system should be open to the community, should acknowledge criticism, and should be constantly learning and experimenting. I think a new D-G is most likely to get the balance right on the basis of a powerful commitment to the children, a strong skepticism about educational nostrums, and a certain toughness in defence of her fellow-workers.

Trust the staff

Corporate-style management is built on distrust of the workforce. It’s replete with surveillance mechanisms, audits, performance indicators, reporting requirements, incentives and threats. Managements’ adoption of these practice is one of the most damaging parts of the corporate makeover of Australian universities; you can smell the distrust around campus.

It hasn’t got that bad in the school system – yet. A new D-G will have to navigate between demands for performance and the damaging effects of surveillance and distrust. A willingness to recognize the skills, knowledge and responsibility of the workforce, at all levels, is basic. Trust can be built, but it will take serious work.

Speak the truth

An important part of that work is speaking honestly. We may not be quite in a post-truth era, but we are in a world with spin doctors in every government, ads on every bus, and obscenities like corporate funding for climate denialism. It’s easy to think that image matters more than reality. Management now has its own lexicon of weasel words – transparency, accountability, values, excellence, community engagement.

The new D-G has to reject those games and that language. It’s an educational as well as a political question. The curriculum in schools is intended to provide students with the nearest to truth that we fallible humans can get. We need a correspondence, not a contradiction, between what we teach and ask of students, and what the people who run the system say and do. 

Is any of that possible? I hope so – but I don’t know. Please let the NSW Minister have your view!

Raewyn Connell is professor emerita at the University of Sydney. During her career, she held two chairs, sociology at Macquarie University and education at the University of Sydney. She wrote two classics on education – how class and gender hierarchies are made and re-made in the everyday life of schools (Making the Difference, 1982; Teachers’ Work, 1985).

The photos at the top of this post are, from left to right, Betsy DeVos, Peter Board, William Wilkins and Mark Scott.

The image of Peter Board is courtesy of NSW State Archives and Records which is the source or custodian of the Materials NSWSA: NRS-15051-1-4-[222]-3 | Peter Board