NSW Minister for Education

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