Productivity Commission

So much love: school leaders answered the call through COVID and bushfires. Now love’s gone

Each year, the Australian Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey of nearly 2500 school leaders comes to similar, and disheartening, conclusions – the accumulation of demands, and generous preferring of others ahead of themselves, leaves too many school leaders languishing. And while we continue to encourage school leaders to seek help and be responsible for their own circumstances, our concerns have shifted markedly this year

It’s a tough time to be a school leader. In addition to regular demands of the role, the impact of significant weather events and COVID-19 in recent years has added to already full workloads; 2022 started the year with thousands of principals across some jurisdictions even monitoring vaccination status and administration of rapid antigen tests! And yet they keep turning up to serve their communities, and do so with distinction. They certainly deserve more than thanks.

Increasing demands, diminishing resources

An increasing number of school leaders are losing their passion to manage workload, teacher shortages, and offensive behaviour. As well as items on health and well-being, the survey includes specific items on Job Satisfaction, Commitment to Work, and Meaning of Work. We identify these as types of positive, protective factors which sustain school leaders to do their challenging work. 

From the start of the project in 2011, all three of these items have been constant, showing that school leaders derive a lot of meaning and satisfaction from their work, consistent with some research which characterises school leadership as an ethical and moral vocation.  But a concerning shift may be emerging. Remarkably, in 2020, the first year of COVID-19 and which followed Black Summer bushfires, both Job Satisfaction and Commitment to Work were at their highest level since the survey started, seeming to reinforce the notion school leaders have a strong sense of “call” to serve, especially in difficult circumstances. In 2022, both are at their lowest.

We also compare school leaders and the general population on these three items. Between 2019 and 2021, all three were much higher than across the general population, as might be expected from leaders in one of the caring professions. In 2022, however, these differences are not as great, with Job Satisfaction now about the same for school leaders as the wider general population.

Nearly 400 open-ended comments were received, highlighting three key consistent themes, represented here through one comment for each theme (some have been modified to keep confidentiality consistent with our ethics approval):

  1. Bureaucratic pressuresPrincipals’ jobs are becoming increasingly more difficult. Expected compliance and bureaucracy are destroying schools. The curriculum is being pushed as the holy grail with no consideration of pedagogy and engagement. 
  2. Diminishing professional trust – My professional wellbeing would be enhanced by the system trusting me to manage my school with local autonomous decisions and recognising that I have wisdom and skill in conjunction with staff, student and community partnerships to deliver on the high performance agreed outcomes that we have established
  3. Waning passionThe increasing workload on my colleagues and myself is causing increasing disillusionment with our profession. The need to continually provide evidence and accountability for teaching and learning is adding to the stress and workload. In my [many] years of teaching, recent years have caused me to look at early retirement alternatives.

Even among those who express great passion for their work, the tensions and pressures are mounting: 

Sometimes it feels like a thankless task and whilst you hold the noble ideal of why you do it in your head there are days when you feel spent and wonder why you do it ( and I love what I do!!).

It is why our concern this year highlights the commencing decline of that passion for an increasing number of school leaders. Were it to continue, consequences are far-reaching and will exacerbate what is already evident with teacher shortages.

A broader Action Plan is needed

Teacher workforce issues have been the focus of scholarly research and policy debate for many years. Performativity, standardisation, workforce supply and retention, and initial teacher education conversations seem perennial. Yet it was only in the latter part of 2022 that all Australian education ministers came to the table with an agreed National Teacher Workforce Action Plan. As the Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare, told The Australian newspaper recently, the Plan is “not a panacea, not perfect – but it’s a start”.

Agreed, which is why the lack of presence of school leaders throughout the plan is astonishing. The two priority areas which fall mostly to schools to implement, and thus to school leaders, are Priority Area 3 – Keeping the teachers we have and Priority Area 4 – Elevating the profession. School leaders are mentioned in only two of the 13 action items listed in these Priority Areas. The first is the unremarkable and expected consultation on any curriculum initiatives, and the second is about the merits and challenges associated with an “accreditation process aligned with the principal standard” (Key Action 15)! The intentions seem good, but the appearance of school leaders is opaque. In light of our report, it seems extraordinary that school leaders are not central to the plan, given we can reasonably assume they will likely be held to account for many of its outcomes. Additionally, we argue that the situation requires a comparable national school leader strategy to address the issues identified in our report.

Productivity Commission’s critique

Open-ended comments in this year’s survey reflect extraordinary frustration at the impact of unilateral accountability. So let’s broaden the lens. Policy and procedure, as well as accountability for their implementation and any results which they achieve, flow centrally to school leaders who now are saying, loudly, “enough”! The recent report on the National School Reform Agreement seems to echo this. It makes for sober reading. “Failure to achieve” is a consistent theme expressed through the words of the report itself:

• no outcome that captures wellbeing; 

• a single weak target for academic achievement; 

• a dearth of targeted reforms to lift outcomes for students from priority equity cohorts and for students who do not meet basic levels of literacy and numeracy; 

• a lack of transparent, independent and meaningful reporting on national and state reform activity which means there is limited effective accountability (p. 33).

So where is system accountability for these failures?

Of the seven Expected Outputs and Implementation Status as reported by Education Council (p. 6), only four have been achieved, one is in progress, and two have not been achieved. We can only wonder at the response systems would have to school leaders achieving 57% of their targets. Where, and to whom, are education systems held to account?

Our educational elephant and the blindness of policy

An ancient Buddhist story tells how six blind men came across an elephant for the first time. Each felt a different part of the elephant (ears, leg, trunk, etc.) and described what they touched. None could see the whole, nor had any prior experience with elephants to describe accurately what they touched; each told their own limited “truth”. It seems an apposite metaphor for our current education system. The most recent evidence of this may be that it took only three paragraphs for last week’s Teacher Education Expert Panel Discussion Paper to acknowledge the “complex regulatory and funding environment” (p. 4) constraining its own work. Outcomes, the Expert Panel politely mused, “cannot be addressed by any one jurisdiction alone” but must be “a shared responsibility” (p. 4)

School leaders must take responsibility for their personal health and wellbeing, but the responsibility is not theirs alone. It is time for greater systemic accountability. It is time to be healed of our blindness and to see the whole. The Productivity Commission’s blunt assessment deserves to be heeded. 

Perhaps an even wider Commission might therefore be needed to achieve this. So intractably complex is our national policy architecture, and so apparently ineffective is it at meeting our national educational goals, and so lacking in transparency and accountability are current frameworks (according to the Productivity Commission), perhaps there’s need for a Royal Commission into the purposes and processes of education for our nation. We’ve seen their effectiveness in responding to other priorities related to education – disability, protection of children. 

This will be read by some as histrionics. However, a close reading of the report will find, in similar spirit, that :

Parties should retain the provision in the next school reform agreement for an independent review. The scope of the review should consider all aspects of the agreement, including the effectiveness of state-specific reforms (p. 30; emphasis added).

If the next National School Reform Agreement doesn’t address the Productivity Commission’s findings, the voices may grow louder. We now have 12 years of data, representing over 7,100 school leaders, many in broad agreement with the Commission’s view. The accountability school leaders have worked under for decades must now be embraced by policy makers and bureaucracies which, according to our report, preside over many of our participants’ frustrations.

Dr Paul Kidson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership at the Australian Catholic University. Prior to becoming an academic in 2017, he was a school principal for over 11 years. His teaching and research explore how systems and policies govern the work of school leaders, as well as how school leaders develop and sustain their personal leadership story.

It’s a watershed report but it’s hidden behind headlines

What the Productivity Commission’s National School Reform Agreement report really says. 

Monday’s ROGS report from the Productivity Commission is the fourth in a row making important insights on where Australian education has gone wrong. 

The data for the Report on Government Services (ROGS) made it clear that Australian school funding is iniquitous. While this fact could have been called out on any day in the nearly 11 years since the Gonski report was released, the data establishes it authoritatively. Previous low key reports by the National School Resourcing Board and National Audit Office  have highlighted the lack of transparency and accountability evident in funding arrangements. 

Earlier, the PCs interim report for the quinquennial productivity review in October last year put education issues front and centre of economic concerns, and provided a warning bell for their interim report on the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA).  Both clearly assert ‘Canberra, we have a[n education] problem’

These three identify the threat that arises from our current educational woes, and make it clear that there are system structural and transparency faults contributing to our difficulties.  But it is the PCs report on the National School Reform Agreement that provides a fuller analysis of our education system. Importantly identifying deeply entrenched system level faults.  

Headlines on the NSRA report squealed “Call for focus on teaching as academic results slide despite $300b school funding deal“ and  “Still lessons to be learned to improve student outcomes“ suggesting the problems resided with teachers, in classrooms . Social media comments were along the lines of  “please save us from another report telling us how bad Australian education is”, and from teachers… “the start of school year whinge about teachers” 

However, the 350 page NSRA report is not just another highlighting the long litany of stagnation and declines in Australian education. I would encourage all education researchers to read it, but for fans of Blinklist, I provide a synopsis and explain why.

Teachers are not to blame. Calling out Government and bureaucratic failures

Let’s start at the beginning. The report was designed to examine and evaluate “the effectiveness and appropriateness” in the national school reforms; and “the appropriateness of the National Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia”. 

On the reforms a report card is provided in the main report, see below, but not the summary report (perhaps this is why the headlines went awry?).

This report card rather optimistically claims that four out of seven initiatives have been achieved. Reflecting on this, I can’t help but wonder what a 3/7 scorecard for a school principal would lead to? 

In this case, despite investing $319 billion, key initiatives remain virtually untouched. 

The tick against the national teacher workforce strategy seems overly positive, particularly as the National Teacher Workforce Data set is currently incomplete, with only approximately 10% of Australia’s teachers included. 

So too the report of “partial” outcome assessment in improving national data quality. As the report goes on to show, the NMFSA data is far from ideal, not aligned to national education goals, and poorly reported on.

If you’re not a fan of educational data please don’t turn away now. You may have been put off by the data we currently have, and the focus on how schools will work with it, but data is fundamental to system monitoring – and here is where the core of the problem lies. 

The report goes on to conclude: 

  • “The Agreement’s outcomes and targets were incomplete
  • Reform activity has at times lacked focus and flexibility
  • Reporting and transparency arrangements have not had bite “

There may be some bureaucratic euphemism here. On my reading of the situation there were no specific targets, many reforms were not achieved, and reporting and transparency was virtually non-existent. 

Still, there are some lessons to be learnt for future reform agreements, namely

  1. “Parties should focus the next school reform agreement on directly lifting student outcomes … 
  2. … and adapt accountability mechanisms to reflect a greater role for state-specific actions “

In other words, if there is to be any hope of improving the situation, we need to focus on clear goals for students – and make the system/s accountable. 

I have to agree. After all, teachers have been facing accountability pressures for some time and often face the brunt of blame for poor educational outcomes. From my own research perspective, listening to teachers, I can see much current frustration in Australian education  boiling down to the old expression “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” . 

Frequent calls for teachers to lift teaching quality, be more evidence based in their practice, must be matched by evidence based policy.  We need more data, transparent reporting and critical system analysis to identify the structural problem at the heart of our current woes. We need an education system designed for purpose that can pursue the educational goals we have agreed to. And we need upward as well as downward accountability in order to serve students, citizens and society. 

Nicole Mockler’s analysis of media suggests the dominant refrain is “we have a teacher problem” but much relies on system architecture, like the NMFSA, where we evidently have some challenges.Furthermore there is little evidence to support the assertion that teacher/teaching quality is a problem. Our system data is simply inadequate to support that assertion. We don’t have adequate data on who and where our teachers are in order to address teacher shortages, nevermind data telling us what they do and how effective they are. 

The report goes on to examine some of the dynamics between poor monitoring of educational equity, rising issues with student wellbeing and problems,work demands on teachers and teacher shortages. It makes for sobering reading. 

The National Measurement Framework – unfit for purpose? 

In its evaluation of the NMFSA the report concludes: 

“The Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia (MFSA)’s Key Performance Measure (KPM) dataset has reporting gaps against the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) performance reporting framework, particularly on outcomes for students from priority equity cohorts. “ 

In fact, as the submission from the Centre for Educational Measurement and Assessment makes clear, very little of the data is aligned to national educational goals. Furthermore, there is inadequate monitoring and reporting on the data available – resulting in poor transparency on how our system is performing, and where trends are heading. This is particularly the case with educational equity, which is declining, but is not effectively monitored by government reporting. The outcomes for some equity cohorts, like students with disability for example, are completely ignored in the National Report on Australian Schooling. 

The PC NSRA report agrees and concludes: 

“The NSRA has an accountability deficit. In addition to the MFSA not being wholly relevant and complete as a tool to measure progress against the Agreement sub outcomes, visibility of governments’ progress is diminished by the absence of standalone reporting.”

Recommendations: Focus on equity, increase system transparency, support teachers and student wellbeing

These seem like sensible recommendations. Equity, in tandem with excellence is, after all, our number one education goal. It seems logical we should focus on it, monitor and report on it. Only then can we hope to target money and resources accurately and efficiently to minimise inequity.

The key to building equity naturally requires a focus on students, not only what they learn but how they feel. Broadening educational goals, and data, to value and monitor student wellbeing is a no-brainer. 

And no progress can be made without supporting teachers. Addressing structural and system accountability problems, including poor data, inadequate monitoring for reasonable targeting of funding and resources, poor professional workforce management, will make teachers’ working lives in schools much easier and productive. 

This is a watershed realisation in a government report, an acknowledgement that it is the system, not teachers, that is failing. That is a good start. 

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

International Day of Education: why Jason Clare and Sussan Ley must get to class immediately

Today at school I will learn to read at once; then tomorrow I will begin to write, and the day after tomorrow to figure. Then, with my acquirements, I will earn a great deal of money, and with the first money I have in my pocket I will immediately buy for my papa a beautiful new cloth coat,” said Pinocchio. The goals of Carol Collodi’s famous puppet character expressed in 1883 are no different from the goals set for today’s students across the globe. Become educated so that you can make decisions about your future. But education is more than a pursuit to fulfill personal goals. It is also about responsibility to others and to the community. Pinocchio begins to understand this concept as he contemplates buying Geppetto a new coat.

UNESCO conceptualizes education as a human right, a public good and a public responsibility, key to developing opportunities, creating pathways out of poverty and foundational to global sustainability. Today, January 24 is the UNESCO declared International Day of Education, where all countries are called upon to invest in people by prioritizing education. UNESCO calls for a reduction in global poverty and the removal of the political barricades which prevent inclusive and equitable education. Each country, but especially the richer countries like Australia need to step up to address global educational responsibilities and this can begin by ensuring equity is a priority in our own educational system.

Australians hold interest in education. This can be seen in the political and media attention raised from the latest report on education released by the Productivity Commission. Equity or rather inequity is embedded in the report’s results. These results are presented as something new. However, the report reinforces what has been known for a long time – educational attainment, as measured by standardized testing is linked to parental educational background and certain groups in Australian society, such as rural students or students from Indigenous backgrounds are less likely to meet the set minimum standards. Australian education is not equitable.

Education minister Jason Clare said on breakfast television that he did not wish Australia to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your parents are or where you live or the colour of your skin. If this is the case, then the questions must be asked, are these students who are failing, the same students who do not have access to community facilities, such as libraries, sporting grounds and swimming pools? Are these the same students who live in areas with unreliable public transport? Are these the same students whose families are struggling with mortgage stress or who are unable to get a stable rental property? Are these the same students who are locked out of extra curricula activities? Are these the students who do not have a computer at home? Are these the students who in their first few years of life did not have access to child and maternal health and later to high quality child-care? Are these the same students who come from families who have had no support to maintain their first language or whose cultural practices are not valued? If yes is the answer to any of these questions, then perhaps the focus for educational reform should begin by looking outside of the school gates.

The inevitable catch cry ‘back to basics’ has begun. In the same interview as Jason Clare, Deputy leader of the Liberal party, Sussan Ley called for a ‘back to basics’ solution. This is the backhanded rhetoric that slams teachers. It implies that teachers have veered away from good, relevant teaching and are wasting time in frivolous pursuits. Similarly, Jason Clare’s solution is insulting. He suggests teachers need to spend less time lesson planning and more time in the classroom. Before reducing a vital component of the teaching role, let’s consider less time on bus duty, bin duty, lunch time supervision, endless meetings and paperwork to negotiate the red tape around NDIS requirements. Teachers planning lessons to meet the diverse needs of their students is the real back to basics. In most schools, planning is a collaborative process, which also addresses teachers’ ongoing professional learning. Planning sessions allow teachers to share what is working well for their students and seek advice from their expert colleagues about students who are facing challenges. 

Schools and teachers constantly address professional improvement. Teachers want what is best for the students they teach, not only in literacy and numeracy but across all aspects of academia and wellbeing. That’s why they became teachers! The lens has to shift away from schools and educational reform for a while, to spotlight issues of societal inequity. 

On this International Day of Education, let’s consider human rights, public good and global responsibilities. Let’s also consider out national situation and not be puppets pulled by the strings of rhetoric that call for reform in a so called failing educational system. Rather, let’s look at what is working well in schools, listen to the voices of teachers who respond daily to student diversity and work towards a bipartisan movement that addresses the issues of inequity which create the disparity evident in the Productivity Commission’s report. It’s our global responsibility to do so. Surely, this is not just a fairy tale dream.

Dr Helen Cozmescu is a member of the Teacher Education Group, at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She lecturers in pre-service and post-graduate language and literacy subjects and delivers professional learning for in-service teachers. Helen’s research has intersected critical literacy, the early years of schooling and First Nations texts. Her current research involves understanding the role of literacy professional learning for in-service teachers and the nexus created by theoretical perspectives, research and practice. Helen has had significant experience working in schools, as a primary school teacher and leader, and as a literacy consultant.  

Header images from the Facebook pages of Jason Clare and Sussan Ley.