University of Melbourne

School exclusion: what this heartbreaking work tells us

Numbers show school exclusion is on the rise. But there is very little evidence to show it is an effective mechanism for improving or managing student behaviour. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with a disability, or living in out of home care continue to be significantly overrepresented in suspension and exclusion statistics. These patterns of systemic exclusion are part of a much longer story. Ahead of the Yoorrook Justice Commission’s inquiry into the education system, what might we learn from this history that can help us to end school exclusion?

School exclusion today

Across Australia today, schools disproportionately exclude Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Data from 2019 shows that in Queensland and NSW, schools directed 25% of all exclusions at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students despite making up just over 10% of full-time state school enrolments in QLD and only 8% in NSW. The likelihood of exclusion increases even more for students with intersecting experiences such as living with disability or in out of home care. There are also connections between inadequate and unfair schooling systems and contact with the criminal justice system. However, access to up-to-date school exclusion data remains difficult, limiting public scrutiny and accountability for the full extent of school exclusion across Australia. 

The history of school exclusion

Beginning in 1883, multiple generations of Aboriginal students at Yass were segregated, excluded and denied access to public schooling. The 70-years of school exclusion at Yass is just one of many stories of school exclusion detailed in a recent research report. For the first time, the history of school exclusion of Indigenous students across Australia has been recorded in one place. It confirms what families and communities have said for generations: the education system has a systemic racism problem. But Indigenous communities have always resisted and organised to fight exclusion. The historical record is replete with stories of families fighting back in diverse ways including strikes, organised protests, letters and petitions, media and legal campaigns.  

What we found

Our research found exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students occurred across all state school systems in Australia. We found systemic exclusion, that is, exclusion in all states and territories, from the foundation of the first education systems in the 1870s to the present. We found two main types of exclusion:

  1. The failure of governments to provide access to schooling for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students by either not ensuring access or by outright denying access. 
  2. The disproportionate use of exclusionary measures, such as suspension and expulsion, against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. 

Historically, Indigenous students were excluded based on explicitly racialised justifications. Today, modern forms of exclusion are represented as race ‘neutral’, yet schools use disciplinary exclusion measures disproportionately against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, compounding the educational debt that is owed.

This history highlights the explicitly racist origins of school exclusion today. It also makes clear that school exclusion is not a new issue but rather is part of a system that has yet to fundamentally rethink how it supports young people. 

Problems with current policies

Exclusion has proven ineffective in addressing the underlying causes of student ‘misbehaviour’. In fact, most data shows that once a student is excluded, they are likely to be excluded again. Yet school systems in Australia continue to rely on exclusion as a form of punishment. 

Our research also found troubling continuities between past and present policies. From the outset, education systems gave police powers to investigate and bring charges against families for their child’s non-attendance, sometimes leading to the removal of children from their families. Today, police continue to play a central role in managing school absenteeism in many states. In Queensland, this relationship has been formalised. Of 57 secondary schools currently in QLD’s ‘School Based Policing Program’, 41 have an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student population higher than the state figure of 8-10%. This suggests a link between the racial profiling, surveillance, and over-policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in schools, and their overrepresentation in processes of school exclusion. 

Policy fixation

Another problem is policy fixation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school attendance and disadvantage which have dominated the policy-making space in Indigenous education. Yet, there has rarely been a focus on the impact of the exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. In fact, notably, our research suggests that discipline policies, suspensions and expulsions are rarely mentioned in national policy documents and inquiries.

Finally, access to data remains difficult. This is despite national agreement for increased levels of transparency around school attendance. Limited availability of data on school exclusion in Australia prevents a full investigation of the racialised nature of exclusion and hinders public accountability.

So what does work?

First and foremost, disaggregated data needs to be made publicly available to increase transparency. Only then can we have a full picture of which students are being excluded which can be used to hold governments and schools to account.

Second, we need to shift away from school exclusion as a form of discipline towards more restorative approaches that emphasise repairing relationships over and above the need for punishment. Restorative justice practices are already being implemented in communities across Australia and numerous school districts in other countries are implementing restorative practices in schools as an alternative to exclusionary discipline. We have clear examples to draw on, we just need the willingness to do so.

Lastly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have fought and continue to fight resolutely to access schooling for their children and to resist discriminatory practices and policies. Today, organisations like the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition are taking up this fight, advocating for the end of school exclusion and for a self-determined education system that reflects and embodies Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing. 

How do we end school exclusion?

We developed a School Exclusion 101 – Youth Guide. It aims to equip young people with the knowledge and tools to challenge exclusion in schools. The guide includes an audit tool that young people can use to reflect on whether their school’s student behaviour policy (or code of conduct) is inclusive, transparent and fair. It provides a starting point to discuss ways to make such policies more inclusive.

The report underscores the need for greater attention to the historical foundations of discrimination in Australian school systems. Acknowledging this history and advocating for greater truth-telling is a pivotal step towards addressing systemic inequalities.

From left to right: Mati Keynes is a non-Indigenous historian living and working on Wurundjeri Country. Mati is currently McKenzie Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Education at the University of Melbourne. Samara Hand is a Worimi/Biripi woman born on Awabakal Country in New South Wales, Australia. She is currently a PhD candidate at UNSW, visiting scholar at the University of Manitoba, and a co-founder of the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition.  Beth Marsden is a non-Indigenous historian living and working on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country. Currently, she is ARC Laureate Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Deep History at the Australian National University. Archie Thomas is a Chancellors Research Fellow at University of Technology Sydney where his research focuses on how institutions like schools and the media exclude and include historically marginalised groups.

School funding: Is this Australia’s most important moment for reform?

School funding policy burst back onto the national agenda last Tuesday. Federal Education Minister Jason Clare announced a ‘statement of intent’ had been signed with Western Australia to fully fund the state’s public schools by 2026.

This language is important. A statement of intent is not  a signed, five-year, bilateral funding agreement. There is still much water to go under the bridge.

Yet, on face value, the announcement is good news. It signals the federal government’s intention to boost overall funding for public schools in WA by an extra $777.4 million over five years. In doing so, lifting its share of public school funding from 20 percent to 22.5 percent. Importantly, priority is also given to the state’s most disadvantaged public schools to ensure they are the first to receive the new funding.

As part of the deal, the WA government committed to providing at least an equivalent amount over this period, or 77.5% of the SRS, bringing total additional investment in public schools to $1.6 billion.

In theory at least, this will bring all WA schools regardless of sector up to 100% of the Student Resource Standard by 2026, in school funding policy terms, a quick turnaround.

So why was WA the first cab off the rank?

A review of the annual reporting of states and territories concerning their bilateral funding agreements shows that in 2018, WA actually funded schools at 104% of the SRS, with the WA state government providing 84.43% of the SRS in addition to the federal government’s 20% contribution. From 2019, each year, WA has incrementally dropped its funding to the plateau in 2021, 2022 and 2023 of 75%.

In short, for the federal government to achieve a much needed political and public victory concerning school funding, WA was low hanging fruit. It was sitting on 95% of the SRS in 2023, and only years before schools had been funded in excess of 100%.

WA is also in strong budgetary position vis a vis the other states and territories with a $3.7 billion net operating budget surplus now forecast for 2023‑24.

Perhaps in a sign of things to come, included in the signed statement of intent was a no-disadvantage clause. This means the WA will net hundreds of millions more for education if the Eastern states secure a higher share.

Judging from the initial reaction from some eastern seaboard states, who rejected outright the federal government’s 2.5% increase in funding, Minster Clare faces a rocky negotiation path ahead.

Don’t get too excited

There’s a lot we don’t know. And a lot to worry about if history repeats itself. Our school funding history in relation to equity and needs-based funding is not reassuring.

Minister Clare obviously hopes that the WA agreement will set the scene for other state and territory agreements. He wants all parties to negotiate in good faith and with noble purpose.

But the much-travelled path of federal/state school funding negotiations is littered with disagreements —protracted and fierce. Their results have seldom been fair let alone noble. 

At this stage Victoria and Queensland are not agreeing to 22.5. In equally good faith they are pushing for 25% funding from the federal government.

The Australian Education Union concurs. Its Every school. Every child campaign has long made this clear. It also asks for 40% for the NT where public schools are in dire straits.

Funding war?

Some observers are foreshadowing another ‘funding war’. The exact strategies and tactics of the combatants remain to be seen. Or not. Wider publics are seldom privy to manoeuvres behind-the-scenes. 

The usual funding wars also involve the private schools. Independents, Catholics, the federal government and the states/territories all go into battle for self-interest.

These current negotiations are focused on  the needs-based funding of public schools. Yet Private schools may still enter the funding fray. They always have. 

Currently, for all schools, the SRS is topped up with ‘equity loadings’. We don’t yet know how these will be built into these new funding arrangements. 

There is also the 4% depreciation and other costs loophole that allows the states and territories to reduce their funding in real times. Without its removal, WA Public schools will receive 96% of the SRS rather than the suggested 100%. 

Will disadvantaged schools, with time poor teachers, be given additional support to claim such loadings.  

This federal money is to be tied to various ‘practical reforms’. The Improving Outcomes for All review is the touchstone. These reforms will, in the Minister’s words, ‘help children to keep up, catch up and finish school’.  

But we don’t yet know how these reforms will be rolled out. We don’t know how they will be devised and evaluated, or the assessment and accountability mechanisms involved. 

It is not clear if the Commonwealth has any claw back mechanisms if the states/territories don’t measure up.

Commonwealth accountability mechanisms are notoriously complex, obscure and unhelpful. Danger lurks here.  

Matters to keep in mind

These recent WA developments are an important starting point for the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) and the new bilateral funding agreements to be negotiated this year.

But, while the haggling over the percentage of government contributions toward the SRS continues, we urge all parties to keep in mind that the SRS represents the minimum standard of funding needed to meet the educational needs of students. 

The WA negotiations have also signalled the federal government’s capacity to move beyond the arbitrarily imposed 80/20% funding split that has shaped federal funding reform since 2017.

This is an important development. It demonstrates there is no constitutional or legislative reason why it can’t move beyond the 22.5% it agreed to on Tuesday, toward the 25% sought by other states.  

We also suggest that substantially strengthened transparency measures be built into the new NSRA and bilateral funding agreements.

Invisibility of funding data

At present, publicly available and easily comprehensible information on how money is spent by governments, and then allocated by schooling sectors is limited. Gaps exist in the visibility of funding data. This is especially problematic given that SRS funding from the federal government is not directly sent to all schools, but redistributed in line with state and sector-based funding models.

These gaps are even more worrisome when considered in relation to the additional government money allocated to priority equity groups (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with disability, students with socio-educational disadvantage, students with low English proficiency, small schools and schools in regional and remote locations).

On this, a 2023 Productivity Commission report established that there is ‘no publicly available data on school-level spending on students’ from these cohorts.

Bolster accountability

Enhanced transparency mechanisms would serve to curtail any potential ‘accounting loopholes’ or cost shifting that have historically beset funding agreements. They would also bolster accountability and enforceability in line with the needs-based principles of the SRS which should remain a central focus of any future funding reform.

There is much at stake for public schools and their students, teachers, and leaders around Australia in the coming months as the school funding negotiations ramp up.

Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.  

Matthew P. Sinclair is a lecturer of education policy at Curtin University’s School of Education in Western Australia. His research and teaching focuses on education policy, school funding, globalisation, education futures, and equity in schooling.

Jason Clare, Federal Minister for Education

Elisa Di Gregorio is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research focus is the sociology of education policy, with a particular interest in articulations of equity in school funding policy.

Leaders: Could we please just get this done quickly?

Educators across all sectors are pressed for time. Here’s how we can manage one constant drain on our attention. Leaders: Make meetings meaningful.

How many meetings have you attended that you can truly say were a productive use of everyone’s time and achieved their purpose?

How many meetings have you run yourself that achieved their purpose? Would the attendees agree?

Most meetings follow a traditional format that hasn’t evolved with the modern workplace. But fear not, a few simple tweaks to your meeting style can lead to more productive gatherings.

Meeting frustrations for attendees 

You’ve probably heard these common frustrations about meetings:

  • “We didn’t need this meeting.”
  • “This could have been an email.”
  • “The decisions were already made.”
  • “Nothing will come of this.”
  • “This is so boring.”
  • “Why bother coming on time?”
  • “Why does it have to be scheduled now?”
  • “We’re just going over the same points.”
  • “Why don’t we just put it to a vote, then?”
  • “Won’t that person just pipe down?!”

Several of these issues can be resolved by asking:  Is a meeting really necessary?

Alternatives to meetings

Leaders should consider alternatives like delegation, mentoring, workshops, or one-on-one conversations with team members. The use of technology for asynchronous interaction such as focused email threads, chat programs, surveys, shared documents, rosters and graphic organisers can allow team members time to think and participate at a time of their choosing and to their desired extent of participation. 

Is the meeting happening just because it’s on the calendar? Some managers hold meetings simply because it’s the norm or because they find it easier than other forms of managing or delegating. However, a meeting should never be an end in itself. Meetings are not suited for disseminating large amounts of information or reporting without the opportunity for team discussion. The meeting must have a clear purpose and achieve its objectives.

The best meeting objectives are 

1. To generate ideas, 

2. To make a group decision, and 

3. to share sensitive or urgent information. 

Meeting frustrations for leaders

As a leader, you may have faced issues such as poorly allocated meeting places and times, directions to deliver someone else’s bad news or frustrations with attendees. 

Sluggish, unprepared, dominant, missing, or late attendees can make meeting discussions off-topic, irrelevant, or impossible! Perhaps the worst outcomes of such meetings are the a reversal of the decision afterward, a need to have another meeting, or the “real” meeting happening elsewhere.

Small changes for a big difference in meetings

First and foremost, it’s essential to recognize that a meeting belongs to the entire team, not just the leader or chair. The true measure of a meeting’s success lies in its outcomes, not in how smoothly it ran. It’s a democratic process that encourages free discussion, values diverse opinions, and ensures decisions are made thoughtfully. Encourage all team members to actively participate and discourage rushing to decisions or stifling opposing viewpoints. One major change to make is for the leader to abdicate from the Chair position..

Leaders, sit back and watch

The role of the chair is critical in maintaining an efficient meeting. While chairs hold authority, they should refrain from advocating a particular interest. Their objective should be impartial management of time and speakers, ensuring  the meeting stays on course. The chair must encourage free discussion while maintaining control, using various cues such as tone, questions, and body language.

When it comes to choosing a chair, it’s important to find someone who can manage the meeting objectively and encourage open discussion. The chair shouldn’t be overly involved in decision-making or introduce decisions that have already been made. Sitting back while the team discusses an issue allows the leader to come through at the end and make the decision, rather than informing the team of a decision already made, or asking for approval of their idea, which can make questions and ideas from the team seem like criticism.

And don’t be secretary either!

Ideally, the leader should not be chair, or secretary. Minutes should capture the essence of the team discussion, objectively recording who said what, not just the final decisions. Technology can aid in this process, allowing attendees to follow the flow of conversation with projector or whiteboard notes. This can also help quell the repetition of arguments, especially from the same person. Use action items to track decisions made and to follow up previous meetings’ items.

The power of a well-structured agenda

Agenda items are best framed as questions, with each having a designated time estimate in minutes, not clock time. Start with important items that require brainstorming or debate, and save routine matters for the end, or via email. Apply time limits for speakers, announced by the chair or displayed on a screen or clock, to keep speaking time fair and focused. Encourage a culture of meeting preparation by getting straight to the issue and not repeating information that was required reading.

A meeting agenda should establish context, provide a stimulus, allow interaction and idea-sharing, produce tangible outcomes, measure accountability against objectives, and encourage reflection and action steps.

Final tips

To best generate ideas and to make a decision as a group, it is crucial to create an environment where alternatives can be raised and discussed with the right thinking frame and time before criticism is allowed. Using De Bono’s thinking hats, even if informally through a competent meeting Chair, will encourage the team to genuinely contribute. Establishing criteria before a decision is made should help focus contributions to the issue at hand rather than personal standpoints. Asking one or more members of the team to adopt a Devil’s Advocate position is an equally valuable initiative which prevents groupthink. 

Incorporate these strategies, and your meetings can become a more productive use of your team’s time, knowledge and ideas. Next time you gather your team, consider these best practices to make your meetings more efficient and effective.

Dr Hugh Gundlach is a lecturer and researcher in the Faculty of Education, The University of Melbourne. He recently presented this content at the ACEL National Conference in Brisbane as one of the 2023 ACEL New Voices in Educational Leadership Research. He likes meetings that stay on topic, produce outcomes, run to time, and that have chocolate biscuits.

Digital learning: how to manage a very tricky balance

The way we navigate the fast-changing digital landscape is crucial for the academic and social experiences for students of all ages. The digital age presents opportunities and challenges for all learners, whether it be a student in an early childhood setting or an adult engaging in vocational education. We know that for all students to be successful, we need to think carefully about what we are doing with technology and why we are doing it. While understandable given the nature of the crisis, the rapid shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic exposed many unintended consequences of engaging with digital pedagogies in a haphazard way.

The ‘remoteness’ of remote learning also revealed how crucial connection is in education. Everyone loses when digital education – digital learning – fails to meet the needs and interests of learners, educators, and other human beings in educational contexts. So how do we make sure that online teaching prioritises the human?

Our new industry report delves into human-centred digital design in online learning, emphasising the crucial role of learners, educators, and stakeholders in shaping the educational experience. Learners are placed at the core of the learning experience in a human-centred digital design model. By offering flexibility and personalization, educators create a real-world learning environment that empowers students to take control of their learning journey. 

No quick fix

However, this is not a quick fix. While human-centred digital design offers numerous benefits, it also presents challenges. Transitioning to online learning can be isolating for some, and educators may struggle with new tools and methods. This approach demands significant resources, collaboration, time, and dedication. But these challenges can be overcome by adopting thoughtful strategies that prioritize the needs of learners. These strategies focus on creating a dynamic and inclusive learning environment that empowers students and fosters meaningful engagement. In our report we focus on a range of dimensions. These intersections intersect to make digital learning and teaching structured and flexible, active and engaging, and inclusive.

Striking the right balance between structure and flexibility is essential in catering to the diverse needs and interests of learners. By offering a well-organized curriculum that outlines clear learning objectives and milestones, educators provide a roadmap for students to follow. Allowing room for individual exploration and personalization enables learners to engage with the material at their pace. This makes the learning experience more meaningful and relevant. Understanding the ecology in which digital learning and teaching takes place is essential to good and holistic practice.

Where to give priority

Priority can be given to universal accessibility to ensure all learners, regardless of abilities, can fully participate in learning processes. These include ranging from multimedia formats for curriculum sharing and opportunities to demonstrate learning through different forms of media. Valuing diverse perspectives, strengths and forms of communication, educators can foster an enriching and inclusive learning community. Effective digital learning and teaching—like any learning and teaching—is differentiated to learners’ needs, preferences and contexts.

Encouraging active learning and inquiry-based approaches empowers learners to take an active role in their education. Rather than passively consuming information, students become engaged participants in the learning process. Through hands-on activities, problem-solving exercises, and group discussions, students develop critical thinking skills. They also gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

A sense of community and connection

In the online learning environment, fostering a sense of community and connection is crucial. Ensuring both teachers and students have a visible presence in virtual learning spaces through real-time interactions enhances engagement and support. Virtual office hours, online discussions, and video conferences provide opportunities for students to seek assistance and collaborate with their peers. This fostering a strong sense of belonging. Community and belonging in digital teaching and learning are supported by practice that prioritises accessibility, diversity, and inclusion. Building social connections through play is also important for all students. Digital spaces can help facilitate these connections as illustrated through the below footage of YellowCraft, an online Minecraft server established for autistic girls and women that first began in 2020.


Collaboration enriches online learning. Group discussions, teamwork, and project-based learning allow students to share perspectives, exchange ideas, and construct knowledge collectively.
Through collaborative online activities, learners can share their unique perspectives, exchange ideas, and collectively construct knowledge. This leads to a deeper understanding of the subject matter and each other, developing higher level communication skills in multiple mediums. Effective digital learning is student-centred, fosters collaboration, and enables communication and connection.

What happens when you take a wrong turn

When it comes to online learning, assessment and feedback play a crucial role in helping students succeed. Assessment tasks guide educators and learners towards their educational destination and should guide the learning journey. Just as Navigation apps (such as Google maps) provide us with a choice from multiple routes leading to the same destination, offering a choice of assessments gives students the flexibility to showcase their understanding in ways that suit them best. Whether it’s through a quiz, a project, or a presentation, diverse assessment options make learning more engaging and personalized. Formative assessments act as pit stops along the way. This helps learners gauge their understanding and providing valuable insights that can guide adjustments in learning strategies. And just like when the app recalibrates when you take a wrong turn, assessments should be responsive, guiding educators and students when learning needs adjustment. 

In our report we explore some of the challenges involved in digital design through six dimensions of practice which we believe will help us as we consider new challenges, new technologies, and changing contexts. By embracing new technology, flexibility, inclusion, and active learning strategies, educators create engaging and meaningful online learning environments. For this to be possible and successful, educational institutions need to be contexts where teachers can experiment and take risks with innovative practices. Resourcing teaching and learning informed by human-centred design involves the risk-taking, time, collaboration, resourcing and the reciprocal identification of needs and goals, with agency and control in the hands of the student and educator. 

Nicky Dulfer is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research agenda is driven by a social justice imperative and seeks to make a significant change to the ways in which marginalised people access and experience education.  Catherine Smith is lecturer in education at the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne with specialisation in technology, wellbeing, equity, policy and community development. Matthew Harrison is a Senior Lecturer based at the University of Melbourne, Faculty of Education His research is interested in digital inclusion for children with disabilities and neurological differences, and he is the co-founder of Next Level Collaboration. Mark Selkrig is an Associate Professor in Education. His research and scholarly work focus on the changing nature of educators’ work and how they navigate the ecologies of their respective learning environments.

The highly risky business of cost cutting

In Victoria, the Australian Education Union has struck up a deal with the Andrews Government, and the cross-system adoption of a new workplace agreement is imminent. In what feels like good news in the face of a profession in crisis, the agreement promises significant improvement to support teacher workload. The proposed model, named ‘30/8’ sorts a 38-hour work week into 30 hours directly associated with teaching and learning (such as teaching, collaboration, planning, assessment, marking) and 8 hours for ‘additional’ activities – like yard duty, before and after school supervision, and attendance at meetings. Sounds fair, and in principle, sounds great.

The problem though, is the risk to maintaining a commitment to high quality and effective professional learning – and the devil is in the detail. See, of the 30 hours in the 30/8 model, there is time allocated for ‘teacher-directed professional learning and professional development’. Yet ‘employer-directed’ professional learning, and ‘whole school curriculum development’ fall under the 8 hours of ‘other activities’. 

We as educators regard effective professional learning as a critical factor in positive changes to teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes. Not surprisingly, learning – our own and our students’ – is a core value we share. In fact, it was confirmed in a recent large scale national survey that the top reasons teachers and leaders engage in professional learning are to improve their individual professional practice, to increase their school’s collective effectiveness for the betterment of students, and to help improve upon school identified priority areas. Perhaps most interestingly, though Australian teachers are mandated to complete at least 100 hours of professional learning over each 5-year term to maintain full registration, the survey revealed that a desire to fulfil administrative and bureaucratic requirements was way down the priority list.

A dangerous culture of ‘bean-counting’

Incessantly counting the hours of collaborative whole-school or whole-system professional learning and classifying it ‘other’ to the core business of teaching and learning is dangerous. School principals and administrators have begun keeping spreadsheets with each teacher’s name, and monitoring with precision the allocation of each hour and minute. I have facilitated school-wide professional learning sessions in recent weeks, and when the clock hands creep towards the hour, teachers are packing up, encouraged by their principals to walk out right on time, sometimes mid-activity, to avoid the owing of the dreaded TIL (time in lieu). Similarly, rooms previously filled with teachers before and after school, planning, learning, and reflecting together, are now empty – outside of compulsory meeting times.

Reducing the value we place on collaborative professional learning bears the greatest risk to the students we teach. When teachers are led to collaborate and learn together, the result is a sharing of knowledge and expertise for building a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Schools can then craft a base of pedagogical knowledge that is distributed among teachers within a school as opposed to being held by individual teachers. Other benefits of collaborative professional learning include improved teacher effectiveness, enhanced job satisfaction, shared accountability for student outcomes and greater creativity and innovation.

What we must hold onto

A wide body of literature supports the need for sustained, content focused professional learning. The learning must be designed with contextualised, job-embedded action – meaning time to trial strategies relevant to a given setting in the classroom, and then time allocated to reflect upon these. Providing teachers with models of effective practice is imperative alongside the offering of coaching, feedback and expert support. Collaborative professional learning communities are lauded as the most effective and supportive means of meeting these fundamental objectives, because as AITSL conclude, collaboration powerfully amplifies the benefits of high-quality professional learning. This emphasises the imperative for schools to design a culture, where teachers and leaders are supported to work together on their learning endeavours.

Teacher Agency Matters, too

In the new workplace agreement’s 30/8 split, the 30 hours includes ‘teacher-directed professional development and professional learning’. This element of agency is important, especially because we want teachers to have input into the professional learning activities they undertake, with the aim to realise impactful change on their own practice. It has been found that teacher agency is an influential factor for teacher professional learning, school improvement and sustainable educational change. Results from the aforementioned AITSL survey revealed that when teachers sourced their own learning opportunities, they were most likely to report that the professional learning better met the needs of their students; was tailored to their career stage; covered appropriate topics and offered a preferred mode of learning. Therefore, an important take away for school and system leaders is that when schools provide a choice in professional learning offerings, teachers will have more positive perceptions than when activities are compulsory. It suggests that giving teachers more agency in their professional development options can lead to more significant and effective learning experiences. 

Moving beyond dichotomies

So, back to that devilish detail in the wording of the new agreement, as related to professional learning. If we deem whole school curriculum planning and school-directed professional learning as ‘other activities’, and ‘teacher directed professional learning’ as ‘class focus activities’, the outcome is a perilous dichotomy. Research and lived experience together tells us that the balance between teacher agency and addressing school-wide initiatives is very important. When teachers connect their own learning goals with their school’s goals, it fosters a collaborative environment with shared purpose. To successfully grow in their professional roles, teachers should pursue professional learning aligned to their situational needs and with what they value in their practice, alongside school-wide collective aims.

Taking steps to address the burgeoning workload of teachers is a welcome initiative. It is crucial to maintain our workforce and to attract new bodies to join us, and to stay with us. However, school leaders and those responsible for communicating the terms of the new workplace agreement to their teachers are urged to even out the ‘counting minutes and hours’ talk with a rational focus on what we know to be important. It is the work of school and system leaders to consider the nuance, to reflect upon the most impactful ways to ‘spend’ the allocated time. Leaders must provide opportunities and resources for teachers to set their own goals and take ownership of their professional learning. Of equal importance, though, is that leaders encourage collaboration and shared decision making, opportunities for teachers to work and learn together, to share ideas, and make decisions as a team. 

Dr Bree Hurn is a lecturer of language and literacy, a member of the Teacher Education Group and the Course Coordinator of the Master of Early Childhood/Primary at The Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne). Bree’s research interests include the ways in which teachers’ knowledge about language impacts their self-efficacy and pedagogical decisions in literacy teaching. Bree also has a special interest in the potential effects of professional learning for enhancing teacher knowledge and subsequent practice.

Why every new teacher needs someone to trust

In this blog, we draw on our insights as teacher-educators listening to the voices of early career teachers (ECTs) to reimagine the transition from ‘becoming’ to ‘being’ a teacher. In 2020, we began a longitudinal research project to investigate the experiences of early career teachers in their first three years of teaching. We have now worked with our participants for the past two years and four interviews have been conducted with each of the 18 participants from Australia and New Zealand.

Our interviews with ECTs reveal that there’s always more to discover about the art of teaching and the unique needs of educators. Understanding and fitting in with the cultural, logistical and administrative nuances of the education site were all sources of challenge and anxiety noted by graduates. These elements include questions like, How does the school librarian connect with my role? What is the process for organising an excursion? What are the unspoken rules of photocopying in this school? These are identified as simple yet impactful parts of being a teacher, “…it’s just things like…Where do I get that from? Who do I go to for that?” (Katie, First-year graduate, 2021). However, not all early experiences are as easy to navigate. We interpret Katie’s question of “Who do I go to for that?” as more significant than where the whiteboard markers are kept, signalling ‘Where do I find what I am looking for in this unfamiliar context?’ Multiple graduates participating in our study identified the challenges of finding support that they felt comfortable and safe to access.

“Find your support system … finding someone you can trust and go to. Even if you need to cry … having that time to be able to debrief with someone that you trust and will support you … really important.” (Sophie, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021)

In another example, one participant was so overwhelmed by the expectations and workload of her first teaching context, she resigned from her permanent position and left the teaching profession seeking a career change, typical of so many ECTs.

“… no one could really prepare me for what that looked like [being an ECT in a remote school context]. I had no idea … it was across three grades, I was teaching … you had to do the fundraising, assemblies, all that type of thing, and so I just felt like … I was drowning … you’re a dump zone for every task that nobody else wanted to do”
(Lucy, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021).

Lucy wasn’t able to source support in her school. She felt she was given too much responsibility as an ECT with limited experience or guidance.

 “…[I was] feeling used and abused” (Lucy, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021).

The overwhelm impacted her health to the point where she felt that resignation and a career change were her only options.

“My mental health suffered too much. I just thought, if this is what teaching is like…I cannot be a healthy person” (Lucy, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021).

The power structures inherent in the school system can have a significant impact on the experiences of ECTs and their capacity to advocate for their needs, as was the case for Lucy. While many schools have well-established induction and mentoring systems for ECTs, the intersection of ‘graduate’ and ‘teacher’ can be a professionally vulnerable place. The disparity in power can deter graduates from speaking up or seeking support. This is exacerbated in some Australian and New Zealand schools when ECTs may be appointed on short-term contracts and feel they have to prove themselves to gain a permanent position.

“At the end of the day you’re a first-year teacher … you want to impress and you don’t want to come across as though you can’t hack it … so you’re constantly trying to put on … a bit of a front to prove that you can do it and that they’ve made a good decision to invest in you.”

(Daniel, First-Year graduate, Australia, 2021)

Beginning teaching is widely accepted as a time of significant personal change as ECTs move into full-time employment, often leaving the family and friends who have sustained and supported them during their studies. Accessing the professional support that was available during their studies is more complicated once in school employment. Our observations as teacher educators are that currently, we are filling a gap in new teachers’ support networks. This isn’t a problem, but it is largely informal and under-recognised.

An unexpected outcome of our research was that the opportunity for ECTs to speak with a known and trusted teaching professional once or twice a year was embraced by participants. This suggests that there is a place for ITE educators in the process of a “scaffolded transition” from ITE to full teacher accreditation. The ECTs in our research valued the opportunity to share their successes and concerns during the dedicated time for dialogue. This afforded ECTs a dialogic space to grapple with and reflect on becoming and being a teacher, without fear of consequences.

We propose that initial teacher education educators are well-placed to be independent and trusted professionals who make a fertile contribution to supporting ECTs to thrive in the early stages of their careers. Notwithstanding the programs, initiatives, and efforts of so many who work tirelessly to support our new teachers already, we can do more to ensure conditions are such that all new teachers are afforded the conditions to thrive and grow.

From left to right: Michelle Parks, Academic Director of Professional Experience, University of Tasmania; Kim Beasy, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, University of Tasmania; Helen Trevethan, Senior Lecturer, University of Otago College of Education; Jeana Kriewaldt, Associate Professor of Education and co-leader of the Arts and Humanities Education Group at the University of Melbourne; Natasha Ziebell, Senior Lecturer, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne; Wendy Carss, Senior lecturer and Programme Leader, Te Kura Toi Tangata, School of Education, University of Waikato; and Bronwen Cowie, Associate Dean Research, Division of Education, The University of Waikato

We Found Education Schools Across The Nation Are Victims Of Targeted Cuts But More Threats Are Looming

At every university around the country, academics in schools and faculties of Education have been hit hard.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, have lost their jobs. Many of them are people we know. Yet it is not easy to identify the particular staff who have ‘disappeared’ from classes, courses and schools of Education among the seventeen and a half thousand other university staff who lost jobs around Australia during the initial COVID response alone.  These losses continue: we read about them daily. And higher education job losses affect far more than individuals and their personal aspirations. They also affect their families, their health, their mortgages, and the families and welfare of the communities in which they live, work and shop.  The fall-out is being felt everywhere, although it is most obvious in those regional cities highly dependent on the local university for their economic prosperity.

But what we are failing to notice is that these effects are particularly important in our Education faculties, at a time when states are facing a looming teacher shortage and the Federal Minister for Education and Youth is reviewing the capacity of our universities to attract high-quality candidates into teaching and to supply highly effective teachers.  If education is crucial to nation-building, there could not be a greater need for high-quality graduates to staff schools around the country.

But the academics who have survived in our schools of Education, either scraping a career together as short-term casuals, or scrabbling to remain as full-timers, are doing it tough.  

The climate of anxiety and insecurity in which these people (our neighbours, relatives, friends, clients and colleagues) are living is reminiscent of accounts of totalitarian regimes. In every capital city and university town around Australia, people are living in fear – afraid to say no when they are asked to do things that do not sit well on their consciences; afraid not to agree with the rationalisation to course content and assessment review needed to cope with  increased workload; afraid to admit that they haven’t had time to properly read and consider the implications of the policy changes they are being asked to approve in governance committees. Heads down, they are keeping under the radar as much as they can in order to survive. They are not proud of what they are doing at work, and they know the quality of what students are being offered is suffering too.  Headlines this week such as Murdoch Uni gags staff as students disillusioned over education quality  are beginning to reflect one reason why departing staff are often silenced by the non-disclosure clauses in their redundancy agreements.

She fears for her career if she names this place. In another university, a key professional staff member, whose knowledge and expertise in supporting the faculty’s upcoming course accreditation renewal are literally irreplaceable in the short term, has chosen to move on because he can no longer live with the moral disappointments of his daily work.  He needs to keep referees on side. And in a third institution another casual staff member, studying for the PhD that may now, ironically, lessen her chances of future employment, has been given three new subjects to teach with less than a fortnight’s notice.  Only one of these subjects is in her area of expertise.  She knows she hasn’t got time to read the material she will be teaching, but she needs the work. She will do her best, based on years of classroom teaching experience. While she knows it isn’t, her generalist knowledge is deemed adequate to teach the specialist knowledge that the Course Team, the Academic Board, AITSL, the profession, and Education Minister Tudge all see as necessary for her students to meet Australia’s Graduate Teacher standards.  A staffer at QUT, ‘safe’ for the moment, describes effects that are also experienced by peers in other places: “Everything that gets done is being pushed back to academic staff – everything. Academics who are not experts in professional tasks are doing professional tasks, which takes incredible amounts of time. There is a training video or a pdf training note for everything – and you get sent hyperlinks for these if you ask for help”. The loss of professional staff, or their relocation to central service areas, also affects the quality of what can be done across the board.  For Education, this is not good enough.

A long-term casual staff-member at one NSW university has been told that she is no longer being offered teaching or marking work because she has a PhD, and “people without doctoral qualifications are cheaper”. 

Schools and faculties of Education have been particularly hard-hit by longer-term structural change and stringency in universities, beginning before COVID. More recent reports of stress, overwork, anxiety are not limited to Education staff of course, highlighting the bleak picture across institutions.  Staff who are still employed must pick up the work of lost colleagues, and they are increasingly worried about what they are offering their students.  This is a sector in crisis. A WHS survey conducted earlier this year at the University of Wollongong indicated that, there, 90% of respondents believe there are not enough staff to get the work done, and 66% have considered leaving because of workplace stress (NTEU 2021p. 3). And alongside the serious problem of human and workforce costs, there is a pressing long-term issue for the nation in terms of the quality of what faculties of Education can offer their students ‘on the cheap’.  

It is obvious that the people who are being made ‘redundant’, or who are ‘separating’ from the institutions where they work are workers – the people who get things done.  They are not the managers, the highly paid senior executive staff, outside of Faculties, who direct and should govern what goes on. Mostly it is more senior academics – the more experienced workers – who are targeted for redundancy, because they are by definition not at the lowest pay rate.

In some institutions, such as the University of New South Wales, Canberra, QUT, and UniSA, the impact of staff losses is not visible in current numbers. At UNSW, four senior Education staff took Voluntary Redundancies at the end of 2020, but as a staff member there says, these are being replaced by three new appointments this term. Staff at UniSA say the situation is similar there. At UNSW, there are still hidden impacts – the increase in workload due to online and dual mode delivery, an increase in class sizes and what colleagues see as the exploitation of casual academics who are pressured by students to spend more time working with them online – and are afraid to refuse. At Macquarie, while education staff are hopeful that after losing six staff in 2020, they should avoid further redundancies in 2021 because they have made “sufficient internal savings”, yet staff cuts within the faculty will again be considered at the beginning of 2022.

Other places are already in real trouble.  At the University of Newcastle, which has earned a strong reputation for its educational research in NSW, staff say their numbers in 2020 were already down more than 10 in recent years, and they will have lost at least another 10 FTE staff members by the end of this year. Unlike other areas of that university, it seems, these education positions do not seem to merit replacement.

Similarly,  staff at the University of Melbourne report the loss of at least 13 FTE academic staff who have left Education, either taking redundancy packages or losing fixed-term contracts – half of these positions were at senior levels. While this has also been effective as a cost-saving strategy for the University, staff who are left report that they now find it hard to contract sessional staff, who are getting much more secure and rewarding work as casual teachers in schools (and who are being targeted by some state departments as potential ‘career-changers’ for more permanent roles). Staff at Griffith University say they had around 55 full time academics in 2020, but this is down to around 44.  And at UTS, over recent years, education has been steadily decreasing in size. What was a Faculty of Education was reduced to a School of Education, and then most recently to a merged School of International Studies and Education. As one staff member reports, “We started to feel more and more invisible, despite being told by the University leadership that commitment to Education was a part of the University’s social justice mission”. 

But they don’t have relationships with experienced professional staff, and they often don’t know the reasons why they need to adhere to policies. They don’t know who to talk to when they need to understand something to give good advice to a student; and they can’t see why they should not ‘improve’ the assessment task that has been carefully designed by a course team and approved by an Academic Board.

When experienced people disappear, so does the corporate knowledge that oils the gears of any institution, and is essential for it to run smoothly and efficiently.  When they are replaced, it is almost always now by new ‘teaching-only’ staff who are doing the very best they can.

In some cases, the disappearing staff are also taking the higher-level disciplinary expertise that the faculty relies on to meet TEQSA’s HE standards for staff qualifications.  As a staff member at one institution says regretfully: “It is now even more possible that a student undertaking their Master of Teaching course at this university may get through their whole degree and have only been taught by sessional teaching staff. This is in a faculty that is supposed to be ranked 1 or 2 in Australia for Education!”  

Worse, universities are disguising this information in their reports to government.  James Guthrie and Brendan O’Connell’s analysis of data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment shows that changes have been made by universities in how they are accounting for their employees in 2020.  This means that official government reports can not be reconciled with the numbers for staffing presented in the same universities’ 2020 annual reports. In his account of the obfuscation of numbers currently reported at the University of Wollongong, Guthrie has also pointed to the unacceptable variation of reported figures to the public and government of staff losses – estimating that this accounts for up to 500 positions in this university alone.

And even worse still, at a time when the Morrison government has indicated that Australia’s 39 comprehensive universities may not be offering Australia an “optimal model for the quality of teaching or research”, the scene is being set for a possible return to a binary system in higher education. After the 2019 Coaldrake Report’s insistence that (real) universities should be involved in both research and teaching, these impacts on the quality of teaching in Education schools are indeed alarming. Regulations that institutions are required to meet in the HES are simply not being met. While some universities clearly consider that this can be disguised for a short time, the academic risks are enormous, and some universities are clearly making no effort to sustain the quality of their Education faculties.  

This is particularly noticeable in relation to the Coaldrake requirements for universities to be producing high-quality, world standard  research in the disciplines they wish to teach – and it is now a matter of urgency for Education faculties around the country. A recent report into the critical need for addressing research with education faculties  cites Coaldrake to argue that these events are not just bad luck or bad timing for Education. The university ideal of retaining both teaching and research in one academic position is fundamental to the teaching-research nexus in academic work. It seems “more than a minor oversight that the move to increase teaching-only positions in many universities also prevents them from doing research” (pp.52-53).

But while teaching is suffering, research is in dire straits.

In many institutions, even those that have not yet had academic job losses, staff report that this is happening.  At UTS, at Flinders, at QUT, “People are stretched, and time for research for most is limited. Some struggle to find time even for service or HDR supervision because they are doing so much teaching and have so many students to mark for.”

As the AARE national survey of staff in Education schools and faculties has found, education research is becoming a luxury.  Their data shows that “education research is now not only being subsidized by significant amounts of unpaid labour but also the direct financial contributions of individual academics trying to keep their main form of research development available” (Brennan et al., 2020, p. 36). One academic in one of the few Faculties of Education left in Australia speaks of how her research profile is only being sustained by “the generosity of colleagues in other institutions”, as her teaching workload allows no time to contribute to the writing up of their research.  

The example of the decline of Education at UTS shows the inevitable result of these circumstances. As staffing cuts led to the structural changes noted above, staff tell how in the new Faculty they were presented with data about the ‘viability’ of Education as a discipline. It is not surprising that fewer staff produce less research income and fewer high impact publications. As one staff member says:  “We’d lost so many of our Level D and E academics over time, and Level Cs were expected to demonstrate research leadership beyond their experience.

It is clear that both education research and teaching are under threat in our universities as well as in our university system.  Education is the key to any sort of future for Australia, and while every state appears to be facing imminent teacher shortages, the complicity of universities in allowing the quality of education research and teaching, at the present time, is a serious concern that should be worrying TEQSA as well as our politicians. 

Jo-Anne Reid is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Charles Sturt University. She has collaborated on a range of national competitive grants over her career, focussing on primary/secondary literacy and English teaching, teacher education, minority-group and Indigenous teachers, literacy and the environment, and rural teacher education.