Scary school stories: from zombie data to systems at war

Long-standing challenges in education confront the new Labor government: the teacher shortage; teacher pay and conditions; the equitable funding of schools; student performance in standardised tests; and student behaviour and attendance.

It has become all too common for news outlets to seek the opinions of think-tanks, rather than those who have first-hand experience and who might be able to offer solutions to the problems. So, in attempt to give ‘voice’ to these other views, we talked to six education experts: a former NSW education minister, a former principal and education commentator, the president of the Australian Education Union, a journalist, a maths teacher and a prominent academic. 

One voice often overlooked in education controversies  is that of the classroom teacher. Julie Moon is a recently retired teacher who’s taught in rural NSW and metropolitan Sydney, as well as Papua New Guinea. She was an organiser for the NSW Teachers Federation, involved in many negotiations with the NSW Department of Education. In her conversations with us, Moon highlights significant changes to  her workload –  it’s incessant and relentless data collection requirements, that is, data collection for the “sake of data collection”. She says: “It creates a workload that’s unnecessarily onerous.” As  a teacher she is continually collecting data but this task becomes burdensome when she is required to compile additional documentation that may or may not be read or acted on at other levels of the bureaucracy. 

Ongoing data collection was also raised by former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli who maintains that although initially worthwhile, data collection has now reached a “kind of tipping point where it becomes a negative”. Piccoli says we’ve reached a point where data collection now “drives teachers nuts”, adding to the constraints on teachers’ time and energies, and therefore limiting the opportunity to exercise their professionalism as classroom practitioners. 

Having worked as education minister (2011-2017), Piccoli is aware of the importance of establishing shared goals between state and federal governments. In fact, and even though he was a member of the NSW Coalition government, Piccoli says that it was “easier and smoother working” with the Federal Labor government and Peter Garrett than with the Federal Coalition government that assumed power  in 2013. Both  Piccoli  and Garrett held bipartisan education goals, promoting the Gonski reforms on school funding, and although there were often differences of opinion, he maintains that tension in education debates can be constructive, allowing for ideas to be “tested and challenged”.  

Realities of equity and school funding are close to the heart of former principal and education commentator, Chris Bonnor whose latest book scrutinises school funding in Australia. Bonnor argues that our education system has never been a ‘level playing field’ despite the best efforts of some governments; and decades-long neglect of key issues has seen the gap in academic achievements widen as the economic gap across the community widens. He also asserts that if a public education system is available to all but has to compete with a private system that has very few obligations: “it’s funding system at war with itself”. Consequently, the question of how the private and the public-school systems co-exist, must arise. 

cool This debate led us into a conversation of how education in schools is covered in the media. To gain some insights, we talked with The Age and Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Jacqueline Maley. While Maley’s writing interests extend beyond education she understands the political dimensions and the many polarising issues, for example, phonics. She is aware that certain topics will attract “blowback”; and as a result, Maley is careful to research her topics and adopt a measured tone and approach. We asked  about advice she might give to school students who are thinking of journalism as a career; her recommendations focused on an inherent “curiosity and an outward looking attitude” as well as a very “strong work ethic and an ability to think laterally when you’re looking at a story”. 

Although not preoccupied with education and the media at present President of the Australian Education Union (AEU), Correna Haythorpe’s most recent work has revolved around campaigning for reduced workload, improved conditions and a rise pay for teachers. She is investigating ways to alleviate the teacher shortage which she says in the latest AEU national survey indicates that the average working week for a classroom teacher is 56 hours, with much of it constituting unpaid work.

Possibly the current challenges in our schools are a ‘perfect storm of neoliberal discourses’ in education from the 1980s onwards. This is a persistent theme in our exchange with renowned education scholar Professor Alan Reid. In his latest book, Reid recounts the introduction of private sector practices – ‘corporate managerialism’ – where education became “awash with key performance indicators, vision and mission statements, strategic plans and intrusive accountability”. The mantra of ‘choice and competition’ became ubiquitous. Parents began selecting schools for their children, in much the same way as one might select an item of clothing from a rack in a department store. The thinking was that the best way to improve quality was to get teachers and schools to compete against one another, with the ‘customer’ being the parent and the school or teacher, the ‘product’. Many ‘big ideas’ in education were lost in the move toward a global education ‘industry’.

While many significant challenges remain for most Australia education systems and their communities, a new podcast series “Talking Teachers” by UTS teacher education academics, Dr Don Carter and Associate Professor Jane Hunter reveals there are many fresh ideas for Federal Education Minister Jason Clare and a newly elected NSW Labor government to draw on.

Dr Don Carter is a senior lecturer in the UTS School of International Studies and Education, he specialises in working with teachers to investigate innovative writing pedagogies to improve student performance and outcomes across the curriculum. Carter is a chief investigator, with Linda Lorenza, on the Emerging Priorities Program research into arts online learning.

Dr Jane Hunter is an associate professor in the UTS School of International Studies and Education, with expertise in pedagogy, curriculum, practitioner inquiry, technology-enhanced learning and teacher professional learning. In 2019 her research was awarded High Impact in the first Engagement and Impact Assessment by the Australian Research Council.

To save democracy, we need to flip the system

In her book Teacher, Gabbie Stroud beautifully encapsulates what is happening by stealth to the teaching profession:

“Good teaching …comes from teachers who know their students, who build relationships, who meet learners at their point of need and who recognize that there’s nothing standard about the journey of learning. We cannot forget the art of teaching – without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.”

Yet schools are becoming factories, students are becoming products, and teachers are becoming machinery right in front of our eyes.

A flourishing democracy requires educated people, able to think critically. Schooling has transformed the course of Australian history. A democracy cannot thrive without empowering schools to keep democratic values at the centre.

Teachers’ professional freedom and creativity are essential to democracy’s survival. This includes teachers’ abilities to make informed, independent decisions based on their observations and understanding of their students. While other institutions leach trust, schools remain trusted pillars of the community, yet schools are increasingly threatened by controlling bureaucracies and driven by performative measures.

Social media and digital communication have made us poor listeners and learners. Certainty is favoured over nuanced debate. Education is a space to hold complex and different points of view. Unfortunately, fixed positions and strict boundaries are increasingly the dominant forces in schools, where teachers often feel unable to set the agenda. The humanity and complexity of teaching is being threatened by political and commercial influences. Teachers are hampered by reckless education policies, rising workloads and robotic accountabilities.

School education is becoming a much more bureaucratised system, asking more of teachers and getting less in return. It has become harder to exercise pedagogical freedom, which has been consumed by standardisation. Overwhelming bureaucracies impose stifling regulations. Teachers are losing control of professional decisions as their tacit knowledge and experience is diminished. Tacit knowledge is the subtle nuance that is invisible to the untrained eye; even the best teachers find it hard to explain.

The media often provides polarising perspectives of the teaching profession. It is quite typical to turn the TV on in the evening and see commentators dissecting teaching as a profession. Many adults feel empowered to weigh in with opinions about schooling based on having once attended school themselves. Teacher voices are rarely sought.

As the popular global Flip the System movement has shown, our educational tensions are well known: punitive accountability, a climate of competition, over-reliance on numeric data, the negative effects of over-testing, and an epidemic of anxiety. The student rite of passage of shovelling a mass of content, cramming syllabus dot points, and being drilled to answer exam-style questions seems rather pointless in today’s fluid, connected world. Schools are largely driven by performative measures. The inspiring Melbourne Declaration and the more recent Alice Spring (Mparntwe) Declaration have been totally overshadowed by the dominance of NAPLAN.

Booming commercial investment surrounds education. Mass assessment, obsession with quantitative data, and technological innovations are ubiquitous. Teacher colleague Deb Netolicky often writes, “Teaching should not be a profession without accountabilities, but education is not an algorithm”. Quality assessment is more a conversation, than a number.

Teachers need the autonomy and agency to make informed judgments based on their classroom observations and their knowledge of their students. However, in today’s accountability regimes, teacher learning is too often compelled towards compliance, rather than development. Fostering a community in which deep discussions about teaching and learning are an essential part of teacher practice provides the basis for cultivating students’ thinking and learning. Collaborative structures help to decrease teacher isolation, codify and share successful teaching practices, increase staff morale, and open the door to experimentation and increased collective efficacy. High levels of collaboration are likely to exist when the leadership marks it as a priority, when common time and physical space are set aside for collaboration, and when teaching and learning are seen as a team responsibility, rather than an individual responsibility.

If teachers are supported to grow, question, and reflect, they will generate the same environments for their students. Thinking is a social endeavour. Learning happens when students engage with ideas and when they ask questions. Students learn from the people around them and their engagement with them. It is deeply important that they are able to converse with others, play with ideas, and collectively create knowledge.

Teaching is an extraordinarily rewarding career. It is an art, not a delivery system. Every day is exciting. One of the allures is that there are no absolutes, no clear-cut answers. It is not our job to prevent risks, it is our job to make it safe to take them. The goal is always to make kids independent learners for life.lip

At the Woodford Folk Festival a few weeks ago, Anthony Albanese warned that democracies are under threat from “corrosive, insidious forces”. Schools play a central role in any robust democracy. This needs to be relentlessly reiterated amidst the noise of high-velocity capitalism. Democracy only works when citizens are aware of their own role in protecting democratic principles. For democracy to thrive, a well-informed and thinking citizenry must thrive as well. Teaching is a creative, political, human act. Democracy can’t be automated.

This post was written by Cameron Paterson based on the chapter he co-authored with Meredith Gavrin for Empowering Teachers and Democratising Learning: Perspectives from Australia, edited by Keith Heggart and Steve Kolber. Cameron is the Director of Learning at Wesley College, Melbourne. He also works with Harvard’s Project Zero. Themes from Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, which Cameron edited with Deb Netolicky and Jon Andrews, influence this post. Find him on Twitter @cpaterso and LinkedIn.

Header image of the Prime Minister’s appearance at Woodford Folk Festival from Anthony Albanese’s Instagram account.

How teachers can change our world for the better

Hello and happy new year. We start 2023 with a first for the blog: Nina Burridge and John Buchanan in conversation on Teachers as Changemakers in an Age of Uncertainty from the book Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling.

Nina: What is a good education in the current context? What are your thoughts on this? 

John: I’d say, a good education is defined by what it produces. The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Australia Declaration refers to confident and creative individuals. Members of the community of a community. That’s a slightly watered down version of the earlier Melbourne Declaration, referring to citizens rather than members of community. And the previous declaration referred to ‘equity and excellence’, whereas this one discusses ‘excellence and equity’. So I think that’s an interesting reordering of priorities, but Even so, these are noble aims, and then we subject kids to repetitive basic skills testing, which doesn’t seem to me to be a route towards confident, creative individuals, creative thinkers, etc. 

Nina: Yes that is one of the key problems of international testing mechanisms like PISA. And of course we have moved towards this marketization of education. As governments are more interested in statistics rather than creativity. This is where our problem lies and why we need teachers, as change makers. 

John: I think that is part of the problem of reducing education to a commodity. And putting it on the marketplace shelf in trying to compete with other jurisdictions. And the thing is, I’m not convinced at all of that: that high rankings and those things constitute a good education. In any case, it’s failing in its own terms, I think, because we’re slipping down the ranks. So I think what’s needed is a fairly fundamental reordering of the education system – matching our practices to those lofty goals; just as we ask teachers to do – devising learning activities that are consistent with educational outcomes. 

Nina: Yes, so from my perspective, I think education within Australia and NSW has some particular specific problems at the moment and it is incredibly critical that we focus on the nature of these problems. Some of it is related to the marketization of education, which has indeed created a system which perhaps lacks equity, and it also, as you say it lacks excellence as well. And on this issue of equity I wanted to note that I’ve been doing some supervision of student teachers  in schools and I’ve been travelling from the eastern suburbs of Sydney visiting some wealthy private schools to the Central Coast.  To be honest I am staggered by the resources disparity between these schools that I saw in one week – it just brought home to me the problems of Equity within the  Australian schooling system.  According to various indexes, Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. We are supposed to have an excellent education system. And yet, there’s such a level of inequality between the resourcing of government and non government particularly in the less affluent areas – that is shocking. And that brings home to me the clear problem that we have in our education system in this country. Therefore the federal government has to really engage in looking at the role of teachers within our system, but it must also address the funding issues  in relation to school resources but also of teachers salaries. Therefore there are some clear big issues for teachers in the 21st century and for the education system. 

John: It seems to me the government has decided they will put all of their eggs into the upper echelons basket of the students. That, by whatever means they’ve decided, seems to be the best investment and that sort of commodification concerns me. On a related matter, one of the criticisms of Australian education outcomes is that we seem to have a ‘long tail’ – a long lag in terms of lower quality outcomes among students, so I’m thinking even if it’s not as a means to an end to me trying to fix that inequality. If you’re going to say you want that equity, then surely it’s reasonable to say we’re going to put most of our resources into the communities and the schools that have the least at the moment, to try and even things up. While that’s perhaps a discussion for another time, it certainly doesn’t seem to me that investing most of the money in the already well-to-do communities is going to fix equity – and probably not excellence either, because you want people to aspire. If you can get people from lower income lower socioeconomic communities to aspire. To you know, higher education achievements, I think that’s a good thing. That said, I sometimes wonder if we think university is the cure for everything. I want good car mechanics just as much as I want good teachers, doctors, engineers, etc. I sometimes think the most important professional in my life is my car mechanic, because if he – it’s a he – Is either corrupt or slack or cuts corners, that can have immediate effects for me and for my loved ones.  What I want, though, is options and opportunities for all young people.

Nina: Yes, education is not just about university training. It’s much broader than that, education is  also related to the idea of the sort of citizens we want to create. I guess what I’m saying is, the role of teachers is to really focus on the sort of society we want to create. Developing good citizens as such that have a compassionate mind that looks at issues that are not necessarily related to financial gain but the well-being of the Community. So developing a teaching philosophy for the 21st century might be interesting to discuss and it would be interesting to have your thoughts on that? Because teaching has become incredibly complex and there’s such demands on teachers and we know that they’re leaving the profession within five years. We’re losing between 30 and almost 50% of the profession that we’ve spent years training. They say, “no, this is too hard. I’m getting out of here and doing something else”. How do we change that and what is a good philosophy on which to base our teaching for the 21st century? 

John: This is maybe a strategy rather than philosophy, but I’m thinking further about what you were saying before about producing empathic students who can understand what it’s like to be somebody other than themselves. I guess, too, I want students to be big thinkers. I think most fundamentally, I want them to be big thinkers and problem solvers, and that’s where I think that compassion and empathy comes in. Because I think otherwise, you run the risk of educating a generation of just more literate, numerate ICT-savvy monsters – and that’s a really frightening scenario, I think. Surely we need the best teachers to do that. And so you need to make the teaching profession attractive and it seems to be anything but attractive at the moment. As you say, so many teachers are leaving within five years, presumably feeling disillusioned, and maybe it’s partly too because there’s no longer this idea that our grandparents had a career for life, a job for life. But if that’s the case, if that’s the norm, and teaching has to be even more competitive, I think because it needs to attract people from other professions. And that’s probably not a bad thing itself. I think attracting people with work experience and life experience, I think is a good thing. Good new blood – even though it does worry me a bit that you spend perhaps four years producing a teacher who will only be in the job for four or five years, that seems fairly expensive to me.  So for me, one of the questions is how do we make teaching more attractive to attract the best teachers? And also I guess. If you do have the best teachers, that will raise the esteem of teaching. I think in the same way that we think of doctors at the moment. Generally, as soon as you know that somebody is a medical practitioner, you presume well they must be reasonably bright. 

Nina: I think one of the problems is that we don’t value teaching as much as we might value some other professions. And yet, as I say, to teacher education students our profession is one of the most important professions around because you are face to face with the kids of the future with the people of the future. These young people, whether they are primary school or secondary school teachers, are actually going to be an influence on young people and perhaps reshape society in the future. So for me, I think this idea of teachers as changemakers and as activist professionals is valid and necessary and as Paulo Friere (1968, 1994) notes Education can be emancipatory. It can change lives.  Teaching is not just a job – perhaps it is a moral practice as has been written up in academic research (Pring 2001) so teachers as changemakers will focus on promoting social justice issues, human rights,  enabling the skills of critical thinking and initiating the idea of global citizenship. Students should think about how to make a better future a better world for their generation. 

John: I think at the moment we’re paying a lot of lip service to teachers. I think governments have come to realise this because of the current teacher shortage. Also, what’s almost universally seen, I think, is the great job teachers did during COVID to keep the system running. But words are cheap, and so we’re not doing anything much to support them. A bit like nursing, you know, another really important job. Other than saying nice things to them, we’re not doing anything practical, or listening to them either in terms of what they want. Also, for a lot of politicians, the system has worked well for them. I don’t want to be too stereotypical here, but I think a lot of them are perhaps from the majority, even though that’s changing ever so slightly. And the system works for them, so why would they want it to change? You know, it’s easy for them to pay lip service. Yes, we must support our teachers better and not just go on as business as usual. The trouble is it’s reached the point where it’s not even doing that anymore. We’re not able to staff our schools, and I think if that’s the case, that’s a fundamental dereliction of duty. 

So, we really have to re-evaluate our work with teachers and teachers’ roles and providing them with resources, obviously, but also perhaps a better balance between the pressure that we put on them in terms of compliance and supporting them in their teaching and giving them confidence to actually really be more innovative in what they do in the classroom. 

The administration work related to compliance is necessary but more support is needed to allow teachers to maintain their focus on the classroom. Administrative work wears them down. It puts more burden on them, so it just makes them tired so that perhaps makes them more likely to become minimalist. It demoralises them and it just stops them from having the bandwidth, the mental cognitive bandwidth to be big, creative thinkers. So, while we have these lofty aims in some of our vision statements, our curricula are sometimes fairly bound up in, you know, lower-level outcomes in lots of testing, including basic skills testing in competitive exams and in league tables, both within systems and across nations, so everything seems almost destined to take the higher order thinking, and the joy out of teaching. It seems to me that if you want confident creative learners, you start by engendering confident, creative teachers. 

Nina: That’s  interesting because it brings us to this idea of Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy of Education For Human Development. It focuses on some of these critical issues noted above and understanding the complexity of the world, the differences that exist in societies and having the narrative imagination as Nussbaum says, to apply real world problem solving techniques  to seek solutions. So if you look at the challenges of the 21st century today, such as the military conflict in the Ukraine; what’s happening in terms of our own democratic systems, we are seeing a move in the world turning towards more conservative ideas. We also have a climate crisis and we have growing inequality in the world. So these are key issues that teachers need to address with their students. So I think there’s a lot for teachers to do, but at the same time we have to resource them properly to be able to do it. 

John: These young people, our current students, are going to have to fix a lot of the problems that are of our making, and that’s going to involve a lot of complex thinking; a lot of selfless thinking. And yet we don’t want them to be too revolutionary in doing that. We still like the good things that our privileges brought us, and in a sense it’s like telling these young people to fix the house. Well, we know that the foundations are dodgy. Unless there’s a bit of an overturning of the status quo, the changes are just going to be cosmetic, and I don’t think they’re going to be enough to fix some of those problems. 

Nina: I was also thinking that  technology and social media are making the teaching profession so much more complex. Social media has such an impact on students emotional well being and in their cognition. We see again the increasing complexity this is causing teachers. I was recently in a class watching a student teacher teach some year 10 students.  I was stunned to see how many of them were playing games on their computers.  I would have much preferred if the teacher had told those students to put away their laptops and just engaged in the classroom discussion. 

John: I know I’m a bit reactionary in this way, but I think social media, and even the digital world in general has done as much harm as it’s done good to education. It’s got potential to be wonderful to find out things. But I’m not sure if the explosion in knowledge has resulted in an explosion of wisdom. And if anything, I think in some ways I think it’s led to an explosion in contempt for knowledge, because, well, ‘I can find it on YouTube. I Don’t need you as a teacher’. 

And I’m not looking for ways to bag social media here, but it seems pretty well-founded that levels of depression and anxiety and powerlessness that social media have increased amongst young people. That seems the exact opposite of what you would hope it would do. You would hope it would empower them to say ‘I can have a voice here’, but it seems to be having totally the opposite effect. 

John: I might just mention one more thing in terms of my recent work at various universities in teaching. I think there is increasing pressure to pass students. And I think that’s in part because of reputation protection from the university concerned, and also because of the desperate shortage of teachers. I don’t see how how you can have this idea of raising standards among teaching while you’re just desperate to find anyone who will teach.  

In terms of improving teachers’ working conditions, I would recommend less workload through perhaps smaller classes or perhaps less face-to-face teaching – but in the current situation this would not be possible. Improvement in pay and conditions would help but of course governments are reluctant to enable this because of the costs involved.  It seems we are in a no win situation here.

A couple of other things in terms of teacher preparation, the move at the moment towards a more apprenticeship model I don’t think positions us well to improve the quality of teaching. Because I don’t think that watching and copying equates to teaching, and I think that’s the default. Even on professional experience, our students tend to watch and copy rather than try and work out, well, why did she or he do it this way. And how and why might I do it similarly or differently? And I think the move to online learning, particularly in universities, is unhelpful. I think the horses bolted. I don’t know if we can go back to being more in the room, but I really like the idea of people being in a room together to kick around a big idea and you know, discuss with each other because, similarly, if you’re online, I think the temptations to be off task are even greater. If you’re in a learning situation, encountering something new and challenging, you need to be devoting everything you can to that. The more distractions there are, the more difficult it is for you to get the most out of this really expensive, really valuable ‘commodity’ is a word that comes to mind, this phenomenon called teaching and learning. I think we need to try and free ourselves from distractions. 

Nina: So now just to finish up in terms of examples that you’ve come across where teachers can represent or be seen as agents of change.  What examples would you put forward?

I think that there are some important issues that we must address as a society in relation to the role of teachers. I still absolutely value the work that we do as teachers, despite the fact that there’s such as you say, a teacher shortage. We must not undervalue the work of teachers as changemakers in dealing with some of the challenges of the 21st century, such as the climate crisis.  So to me this is one example where teachers can be changemakers. I was in New York in November 2019 when the students were engaged in the climate strike. I’ve seen it in Australia as well and I think that as teachers, we should embrace and support and encourage young people to take action. These young people are being absolutely active in their own future and really playing a part in the democratic process. Another example is my work that I do with refugees in Indonesia. It shows me again how vital the work of teachers is.  These poor refugees who have fled their homeland, reached Indonesia and their resettlement process is taking years and years particularly to Australia, because it has closed its borders. Hence their children are not being educated  – and now the families are having to set up volunteer schools to educate their own children because education is so vital for them. These students in these small underresourced schools are so enthusiastic for learning – quite different to what I’ve seen in some of the classrooms in Australia. This is because they understand the necessity of the process of learning and for them it’s vital. I also see these young teachers who we are helping by providing some basic elements of teacher training trying their best to engage these students in learning.  They may not end up being teachers in the long run, but they’ve taken up the challenge, to teach in English because education is so vital in these circumstances.  In working in refugee communities you also realise the importance of a focus on human rights and justice in the world. 

John: We must not forget that we often talk about rights and freedoms. For me, I think it’s what I call responsible autonomy. Our freedom always exists in context; it’s always limited. Even though I love the idea of freedom, and I love the freedoms I have and would hate to give them up, I still have responsibility. And returning to my comment before about the measure of education is the kind (pun intended) of person it produces, I suppose my question to kids would be, ‘what kind of grown up do you want to be?’ And my question to teachers, parents, governments, and the rest of us would be what kind of grown-ups do you want to produce? 

Nina: Totally agree that with rights come responsibilities and that is of course again the role of teachers as changemakers.  They must instill in students the importance of speaking up to challenge injustices in the world but with this also comes the responsibilities of being a good active citizen. 

This post comes from a discussion between Nina Burridge and John Buchanan based on their chapter Teachers as Changemakers in an Age of Uncertainty in Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling edited by Keith Heggart and Steven Kolber. Nina and John are honorary fellows at the University of Technology Sydney.

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