teacher workloads

What we must do now to rescue Australian schools

We expect education to be a catalyst for more equitable and inclusive societies yet too often governments and systems deploy one-stop solutions without detailed plans for how exactly improvements will be achieved or at what costs.

The Building Education Systems for Equity and Inclusion report comes from an Academy of Social Sciences of Australia workshop I hosted at the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW. Working with representatives from school systems, academia, professional associations, industry, and teachers, the report offers recommendations aimed at addressing inequities in the school system.

Recommendations centre on five key issues: intergenerational policy failure; the need to look beyond the school gate; raising the voice of the profession; data, evidence and research; and ensuring a focus on teaching and learning.

Intergenerational policy failure

While the Australian Government is spending more on education than at any point in history, disparity gaps endure for various equity groups on a range of outcomes. Needs- based funding tied to the implementation of evidence-based reforms hasve been distorted courtesy of the unique policy architecture of Australian federalism. School systems have limited resources with which to pursue their objectives and the design of school funding policies plays a key role in ensuring that resources are directed to where they can make the most difference. 

Australian federalism means there is neither a national system nor a state/territory system of school-based education. Common critiques focus on overlap in responsibilities and duplication. Achieving uniformity is difficult, time consuming, and frequently limited to the lowest common denominator. However, education is a complex policy domain whose actions impact well beyond state or territory borders. Currently, no jurisdiction wants to be the first to admit there are problems meaning systems can deteriorate substantially before action is taken. Asserting jurisdiction independence and sovereignty surrenders some of the strengths of federalism and removes important failsafe mechanisms targeting overall health of the system.

A significant policy problem for education is the current teacher shortage. Substantial attention has been directed at Initial Teacher Education programs, and the attraction and retention of educators. Less focus has been granted to affordability of housing for teachers. With housing (ownership and rental) costs rising, servicing commitments on a teachers’ salary can be difficult – particularly in major cities. The ability to live near the place where one works, or the drivability or commuting infrastructure means that workforce planning needs to take a multi-dimensional approach built on more than just raising the public profile of the profession.

Beyond the school gate

Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) data indicates that 22 per cent of children in the first year of formal schooling are vulnerable in at least one domain (e.g., physical, social, emotional, language, and communication), and 11 per cent in two. Early data indicates that the AEDC is a predictor of NAPLAN performance nine years later and with 8.1 per cent of early childhood providers operating with a staffing waiver due to a lack of qualified staff, early intervention is a difficult task.

School-based education exhibits many layers of segregation and stratification. The distribution of students from socio-educational disadvantage or requiring adjustment due to disability are not evenly distributed between sectors (government, catholic, and independent). Peer effects can influence outcomes as much as individual socio-economic status. Cultural context has a large effect (between 33 and 50 per cent) on student performance, and the further a school is located from major cities the lower level of student outcomes. Failure to control for segregation and stratification makes it impossible to identify the drivers of school improvement in different locations and better design interventions aimed at equity and inclusion.

Voice of the profession

Education is seen as ‘a’ if not ‘the’ solution to most social issues and the result is that schools are constantly being asked to do more without having anything removed. Many of the decisions to add things to schooling take place without any engagement or consultation with educators – not education bureaucracies but the educators who work in schools. The result is frequent changes in curriculum documents, additional mandatory training programs, shifting accreditation requirements, updated and expansive administrative requirements, all with negligible impact on student outcomes. This not just intensified teachers’ work but de-democratising the profession. TALIS data indicates that only 28.7 per cent of Australian teachers feel that their views are valued by policy makers. With declining educator well-being and in the context of a teacher shortage, it is timely to establish a forum for representatives from the profession to have a voice in decisions regarding the form, objectives, targets, and outcomes of schooling as articulated in the national agenda.

Data, evidence, research

Improving the equity of education is not possible without data and evidence. You cannot improve that which you do not measure and monitor. An effective school education system needs sufficient data points and appropriate data linkage to understand how well it is performing and robust evidence to identify priority areas for planning, intervention, and policy. While the Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia details nationally agreed performance indicators, inconsistencies across states and territories datasets means that crucial insights for informing policy at a national level are being lost. Data linkage is an urgent task for understanding the relationships between multiple factors and their impact on education and social outcomes to inform effective policy making, program design and research at a national scale.

Systems and schools that embed data-driven evaluation as a core professional responsibility have a greater impact on student outcomes. This has led to schools increasingly being asked to provide evidence of their impact. At the same time, despite an impressive track record, education research is under-funded. Despite the establishment of the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) seeking to position Australian educators at the forefront of education research, without increases in total funding available, it is unlikely that research of the scale and scope necessary to effectively inform policy can be conducted. A promising avenue for increasing the quality of evidence and data use in schools and systems is co-design. However, it requires strategic leadership and matching incentives (including funding mechanisms) to better enable a systemic approach to research use, knowledge translation and breaking down boundaries between stakeholders.

Focus on teaching and learning

Pedagogical reform is a low-cost high-return approach to addressing distortions in a school system. Australian research (for example, Quality Teaching Rounds) has demonstrated that targeted and tailored interventions can positively impact student outcomes and teacher well-being. Yet, 76 per cent of teachers describe their workload as unmanageable. Australian schools have more instructional hours (828) than the OECD average (713), with teachers engaged in far more administration and school management than higher performing systems (e.g., Finland, Estonia). Attempts to recognise quality teaching through accreditation have received little uptake with only 0.33 per cent of the workforce certified at Highly Accomplished or Lead. Addressing equity and inclusion requires attention to how systems are designed to focus on the instructional core of schooling and making sure that resources (human, physical, and financial) are targeted towards achieving the highest quality of teaching in every classroom.


As the world re-sets to life under pandemic, the internal tensions for differentiation and external pressures for standardisation on education policy have never been greater. With increasing costs for public services at the same time as government revenue and household incomes falling, issues of educational equity, inclusion and excellence are amplified. The pressure to consolidate resources and pursue cost efficiencies will be felt most significantly by the poorest and most marginalised children and communities throughout the country. The stakes are high. Education is critical to human welfare, especially in times of rapid economic and social change.

Ensuring that resourcing and oversight focuses on the health of the system, with wraparound services supporting the workforce to have a voice and what they need for high quality instruction give Australian school systems the best chance of delivering equitable outcomes for all. 

Participants in the workshop

Professor Scott Eacott, Gonski Institute for Education, UNSW Sydney

Professor Eileen Baldry, UNSW Sydney 

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, University of Newcastle 

Professor Chris Pettit, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

Professor Suzanne Carrington, Centre for Inclusive Education, QUT 

Dr Goran Lazendic, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER)

Dr Virginia Moller, Steiner Education Australia 

Dr Rachel Perry, NSW AIS Evidence Institute

Dr Bala Soundararaj, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney 

Rebecca Birch, Teacher, Independent School 

Cecilia Bradley, Australasian Democratic Education Community 

Zeina Chalich, Principal, Catholic Education

Mark Breckenridge, Australian Secondary School Principals’ Association 

Elizabeth Goor, Montessori Australia 

Alice Leung, Head Teacher, Concord High School

Alex Ioannou, Montessori Australia 

Matthew Johnson, Australian Special Education Leaders and Principals’ Association  

Maura Manning, Catholic Education Parramatta 

Andrew Pierpoint, Australian Secondary School Principals’ Association 

Daniel Pinchas, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)  

Diane Robertson, Principal, NSW Department of Education 

Michael Sciffer, PhD Candidate, Murdoch University

Scott Eacott PhD, is deputy director of the Gonski Institute for Education, and professor of education in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney and adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan.

Why performance pay will never fix the disastrous teaching crisis

The NSW teaching profession is currently in crisis. However, recent education reform announcements to address the crisis miss the mark. Teacher workloads have reached unsustainable levels. Our survey research of over 18,000 NSW public sector teachers showed that teachers are now working an average of 55 hours per week. Increased data collection requirements, constant curriculum and policy changes, and more complex student needs have contributed to this.

Most teachers responding to the survey (91%) reported that administrative demands impacted their core work of teaching. Teachers coped with the challenges of this significant administrative load by working longer hours.

Findings from an Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession chaired by Emeritus Professor Geoff Gallop released in February 2021 found that, in recent decades, there had been a significant increase in the volume and complexity of teachers’ work. But there was a decline in the relative position of teacher salaries compared to that of other professions. Meanwhile the state is facing a worsening teacher shortage which is only contributing to workload problems. 

Stalling award negotiations over issues of pay and workload have triggered months of industrial unrest in the state’s education system.

Is performance pay the answer?

In a bid to ‘modernise’ the state’s education system, Premier Dominic Perrottet recently announced proposed changes to NSW school education. This suite of changes would introduce performance-based pay for teachers, which it is claimed will ‘excel and drive better results for kids’, reduce the amount of administrative work that teachers do, and change school hours.

Under current pay arrangements, teachers typically receive pay increases based on their length of service in the profession and attainment of professional standards. However, salary growth for teachers slows over time

While details of the Premier’s plan for performance-based pay are not yet known, discussions around linking pay to teachers’ performance in Australia – and worldwide – are not new

Performance-based pay schemes have been introduced in countries like the USA – such as President Bush’s Teacher Incentive Fund for states and school districts that chose to introduce merit pay schemes – as well others like China, England, Sweden and Singapore. In Australia, there has also been a long discussion about revitalising teacher pay schemes to attract and retain the best teachers in the profession. Just 5 years ago, measures to pay teachers for performance were also announced by Simon Birmingham as Federal Minister for Education.

Proponents of performance pay commonly argue that it is fairer to reward high-performing teachers than pay all teachers equally, that it motivates teachers, and raises the quality and accountability of teachers. But the weight of evidence to support performance-based pay is lacking. Experts in this area argue that it creates competition between teachers, negatively impacts teacher collegiality, and creates a culture of fear and isolation rather than growth and collaboration in schools. Evaluating teachers’ performance is also highly complex. 

Those against performance-based pay argue that it is difficult to quantify success in a classroom because there are so many elements to it. Scholars have noted how any single measure, such as measurement of student achievement on standardised tests, cannot be a reliable basis for making performance-related decisions about the efforts of individual teachers. Context is also important. Evidence also shows that such schemes are not effective in improving student achievement. At the heart is also a broader conversation about the need for education reform to move away from a focus on performativity and narrow accountability measures.

The Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession – with expert witnesses and over 1000 submissions from teachers and schools – also didn’t recommend performance-based pay as a solution to the complex issues urgently facing the teaching profession. 

The solutions to the teaching crisis are clear

A wealth of evidence is clear about the solutions needed to address the multiple crises facing the NSW teaching profession. Conversations about performance-based pay detract from the real issues facing the profession. We’ve written previously that there appears to be a disconnect between teacher workforces across Australia and the policymakers with power over their conditions. Through imposing a new, divisive pay scheme, the Premier reinforces rather than removes these divisions. 

Dominic Perrottet has stated he wants to be known as the ‘Education Premier’, but this will require deeper, more effective steps and genuine engagement with teachers.

The frustration of teachers around issues of pay, workload and shortages has boiled over into industrial unrest since late 2021. It was recently announced by the state teachers’ union that NSW state teachers would participate in another 24-hour strike on 30 June. What is different from earlier strike action is that Catholic school teachers will join them. The last time both unions took joint action was over 25 years ago in 1996 when John Aquilina was NSW Minister for Education. This signals problems in the NSW teaching profession are spreading deep and broad.

Meaningful reform in education should be focused on listening to and supporting teachers, giving teachers the time to collaborate with others, reducing unnecessary administrative burdens, ensuring salaries are competitive, addressing the worsening teacher shortage, and appreciating the integral and vital role that teachers play in our communities and for society.

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

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.