University of Newcastle

Want quality teaching? Here’s the model

When Cessnock High School approached us in 2020 about a long-term partnership focused on developing a clear, coherent culture of teaching and learning, we were two years into an ambitious five year program of research on the impact of Quality Teaching Rounds on student and teacher outcomes.

We had evidence from the first in a series of randomised controlled trials that teacher participation in QTR could improve students achievement, teaching quality and teacher morale.

The challenge was to translate this large-scale research involving hundreds of teachers across hundreds of schools into a partnership model that deeply embedded a culture of quality teaching in one highly disadvantaged school.

Our role at Cessnock High was supporting their teachers to do the challenging work of reflecting on and developing their practice. We did this by centring the partnership on the Quality Teaching Model and engaging all teachers in Quality Teaching Rounds.

How Cessnock High achieved its goals

As reported last night on the ABC, Cessnock High School ranked first in the Hunter region and 11th overall in the state for their growth in NAPLAN results from Year 7 to 9 in 2023. Cessnock students’ HSC results also improved by more than 50 per cent in 2022, a result that was sustained in 2023.

Student attendance and engagement grew by seven per cent – triple the average across the state. Positive behaviour referrals were up 130 per cent in 2023 while negative behaviours significantly decreased. 

Importantly, teacher morale improved, their efficacy went up, as did collegiality, confidence, and the quality of their teaching.

This highly successful partnership model is at the heart of a new project, announced today, to support 25 disadvantaged NSW government schools to enhance teaching quality, support teacher wellbeing, build positive school cultures, and improve student achievement and equity. 

The partnership

We started from a position of respecting teachers and their professionalism as they were the key to changing outcomes for students. Teachers understand that depending on their context, the specific lesson, and their students, different teaching approaches can produce powerful learning. The Quality Teaching Model and QTR provide a mechanism to ensure the underlying pedagogy, regardless of the teaching strategy, is high quality and produces powerful learning experiences.

The QT Model, grounded in Newmann’s Authentic Pedagogy work and supported by a broad history of education research is centred on three key ideas:

  • Intellectual Quality: Focusing on deep understanding of important knowledge.
  • Quality Learning Environment: Ensuring positive classrooms that boost student learning.
  • Significance: Connecting learning to students’ lives and the wider world.

In opposition to a focus on the technical and telling teachers how to teach, the Model gives a conceptual lens through which a broad range of teaching strategies can be reflected upon to increase understanding of pedagogy.

Bringing teachers together

QTR brings teachers together to learn from each other and improve their practice. It is an approach to teacher professional development that involves teachers working in groups of four to observe and critically analyse each other’s teaching using the Quality Teaching Model. Importantly, it offers teachers deep engagement in their craft, intellectual challenge that is significant to their work, and the processes of QTR ensure teachers are in a safe, supportive learning environment with their colleagues.

Framing this work using the concept of school capacity to improve student outcomes (see Newmann, King and Youngs) the partnership functioned to produce program coherence among staff by centering pedagogical understanding around the Quality Teaching Model, and improved teachers knowledge, skill and dispositions, and professional community through engagement in collective, collegial professional development through QTR. In turn, leadership supported the work by providing the time for staff to engage in developing their practice. 

While quality teaching was the central pillar in this process at Cessnock High School, change of this nature does not occur without cultural change. Instructional leadership at the school was supported by academics and our non-profit social enterprise the QT Academy via the partnership. This left space for executive leadership to focus on practice and policy to promote a consistent, calm and safe teaching and learning environment that recognises that all students are capable of engaging and learning. This also meant working on better connecting the school to its community and promoting high expectations and positive aspirations for students and the community.

Thriving schools

Now, at the end of our major five year program of research on QTR, we have high quality  evidence from three randomised controlled trials that participation in the program improves student achievement in mathematics and reading, it improves teaching quality, and teacher morale and efficacy.

The Cessnock partnership provided evidence that a whole-school approach to QTR enables schools to keep a clear focus on teaching and learning despite the other matters that demand their attention. Across the four year partnership, we found focusing on the core business of teaching and supporting teachers to do this work produced strong positive effects on teachers and their teaching. This, in-turn, improved student attendance and engagement and reduced behaviour issues, with a profound impact on student achievement.

It’s a testament to the teachers and to the leadership of Cessnock High School in sticking with the partnership approach through all the ups and downs over the past few years.

What’s really exciting is we now have the opportunity to take this approach and test it in 25 other NSW government schools, with similar low socio-educational complexities over the next three years thanks to funding from the Paul Ramsay Foundation and support from the NSW Department of Education.

Core to all this work is a commitment to both equity and excellence in Australian education. 

Drew Miller is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, University of Newcastle and the deputy director of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre.

Excellent: why do we need that rating for early childhood care?

Professional identity in the Australian early childhood education and care sector (ECEC) is strongly linked to quality assurance policy and the need to prove ‘quality’ and professionalisation through external ratings, say researchers. In Australia, that means gaining high ratings within the National Quality Standard (NQS) assessment and rating process. 

There are unclear messages of who the ECEC professional is and where they fit in the overall education profession due to a combination of  social, political and economic factors.The idea of ‘quality’ in ECEC is used as a political and economic tool to justify government spending and to measure output. The historical beginnings of the ECEC sector are grounded in welfare and mothering-type child care roles. That’s further compounded by societal beliefs that early childhood educators don’t require credentials or even deserve the title of educator. 

These issues of professional recognition in the ECEC sector are being addressed through quality-driven compliance processes and increasing surveillance disguised as rewards, such as higher ratings within NQS processes. These factors are challenging the opportunities for a true reflection of professional recognition for our ECEC workforce.

There’s an upturn in applications for ‘excellent’

As a researcher of professional identity in the Australian ECEC sector, I pay attention to patterns of engagement in professional recognition undertakings. There appears to be an upturn in ECEC services applying for the ‘excellent’ rating. 

I wondered why that was. Why the need for an excellent rating? And why spend precious resources applying for this rating? 

Let me explain the process of assessment and rating within the Australian ECEC sector.

The operation of an approved ECEC service including long day care and preschools in Australia is regulated through a national independent authority the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). This body oversees the implementation of the National Quality Framework (NQF) under which a National Quality Standard (NQS) system exists. 

Since 2011, ACECQA has assisted state and territory governments in implementing the NQF for children’s education and care. Its role is to provide support for the ECEC sector and to monitor the application of the National Law and Regulations system. The standards are implemented through assessment of an ECEC centre’s performance against seven quality areas. 

Seven quality areas

The seven quality areas are educational program and practice, children’s health and safety, physical environment, staffing arrangements, relationships with children, collaborative partnerships with families and communities and finally, governance and leadership.

For an ECEC service to achieve a rating of ‘Meeting’ the NQS an authorised officer from a state or territory regulatory body needs to assess the centre’s performance against seven quality areas as listed above and have met them all. That rating shows the service meets the NQS providing quality education and care across all seven quality areas Guide to the National Quality Framework (NQF) – September 2020

What does ‘exceeding’ mean?

To achieve a rating of ‘Exceeding’ the National Quality Standard, the centre needs to be rated Exceeding in at least four or more of the quality areas with at least two of the areas being either educational program, relationships with children, collaborative partnerships with families and governance and leadership. Under the standards, a centre rated as Exceeding demonstrates that the centre goes beyond standard requirements. To achieve the rating of Excellent the centre needs to have been rated as Exceeding the standards in all seven quality areas. 

The NQS considers that a centre rated as Excellent promotes exceptional education and care, demonstrates sector leadership, and is committed to continually improving Guide to the National Quality Framework (NQF) – September 2020. To be awarded an Excellent rating a centre must make an application to the authority and demonstrate it meets three of the authority’s criteria.The first criteria is related to exemplary and exceptional education and care covering partnerships with professionals, community and or research organisations; show a commitment to children in relation to diversity, culture and inclusive partnerships; demonstrate positive workplace culture and values and environments that enhance children’s learning. 

The second criteria needs to demonstrate leadership that enhances the development of the community or wider ECEC sector. 

The third criteria needs to demonstrate a commitment to practices of excellence that are sustained and continuous. 

Exceptional Practice Framework

There is provision of an Exceptional Practice Framework to assist applicants. Just 34 ECEC or OOSH settings hold the excellent rating in Australia, compared to 3,700 rated at exceeding and 15,700 rated as meeting. 

During my doctoral studies with the University of Newcastle researching the relationship between leadership, quality discourse and professional identity, participants shared that gaining an excellent rating for their centre provided a perceived heightened sense of professional identity amongst colleagues and families. 

This response reflects the struggles of professional identity development in the ECEC sector resulting from the historically benevolent and feminised formation of the ECEC sector and the neoliberal project of proving professionalism through quality policy metrics. Both of these factors act to marginalise the purpose and identity of the ECEC sector. 

The latest National Quality Framework Report Summary for 2023 reveals the quality rating of a service continues to rank as the least important factor for families when choosing care for their child. 

According to the report, what matters to families is skilled and experienced educators, cost and location.

If the imperatives of the early childhood sector are to ensure children and families are thriving in accessible and affordable ECEC settings, why do we need ratings beyond meeting a national standard? 

Why does achieving a higher rating matter and why would educators be drawn to undertake the significant work involved in proving their practices are ‘excellent’? 

Here’s why.

The excellent rating awarded by ACECQA seeks to highlight specialisation by providers and educators that showcase outstanding practice and programs. 

I believe a tension exists around the measurement of ECEC programs based on the contextual nature of a settings’ specialisation through a neoliberal mechanism such as quality assurance. 

This tension questions whether or not specialisation can remain a meaningful marker of excellence when held within frameworks of criteria, themes and external decision-making. There is a risk that this process reduces the excellent rating to a politically domesticated professionalisation award in place of truly valued and authentically understood pedagogy and professional identity for the ECEC sector. 

The ‘truths’ of quality

The discourses of quality and accepted truth claims of centres holding high ratings equate to better quality outcomes, move through the ECEC social body. This normalises quality processes encouraging the sector to pursue professional status through higher ratings. 

There is little evidence to support the claim that high ratings held under the NQF ensure quality outcomes for children. 

The evidence demonstrates  quality outcomes are dependent upon individual educators’ motivation to seek ongoing professional learning and higher qualification. That cannot be assured by the NQF.  

The quality assurance process can alter – and shift –  educators’ focus away from the heart of expert activity and opportunities for reflexive, democratic pedagogical curiosity. 

Quality assurance mechanisms incite self-governance that fixate the ECEC sector to exceed external standards and re-design thinking about practices of care and education to evidence themes and ‘quality’ criteria. 

Is this the criteria that educators, children and families would choose? Does this matter to them or are they simply governed to generate these values? What other values and ideas are overlooked when the sector is so entranced by quality highlights? 

Complicating ‘excellence’

Those applying for an excellent rating are seeking validation for the considered pedagogical efforts of their setting that highlights the big and bold points of difference of their context. 

But I argue that centres look beyond external ratings and instead re-focus on the everyday value rational practices of expertise in care and wellbeing. 

The inequity of the excellent rating for those centres who do not have the resources to meet criteria could be balanced by ‘excellent’ educators sharing and connecting with other educators about daily practices of deeply practical pedagogical care that forms our decision making. 

Focus could be directed to co-constructing new narratives of professional practice within our teams, to debate and discuss the purpose of our work and create better outcomes for more children. 

All centres could be proud of this kind of work, resulting in significant, albeit difficult to measure, ongoing ethical improvement.

Educators and centres need a deeper understanding

The opportunity for professional identities existing within collective societies informed by democratic values is lost through these quality assurance processes.  Educators and centres need a deeper understanding of how these mechanisms shape what the sector does – and a broad cohort of educators must become confident to let go of the truth claims of professional certainty gained from external gildings of excellence.

We can’t lift the ECEC profession through ideas of individualised excellence and themed specialisation and continuing to accept that quality ratings proves professionalism. 

Could we move our thinking away from instrumentally rational approaches of ‘doing what works’ to achieve professional recognition, towards more value rational approaches of ‘doing what is right’ for children and a workforce in desperate need of sustainable reconceptualisation?

Elevating education and care through joining educator expertise with regulatory structures

It is time to talk about ways to recognise and join practitioner expertise with the quality policy structures of the ECEC system in a way that ethically and radically lifts and validates educators’ daily practices and expert activity beyond quality discourse

Quality discourse in the form of criteria, themes, outcomes and frameworks wears a cloak of certainty that provides ‘truth’ about what can be highlighted as macro practices of specialised excellence. 

The cloak of certainty hides complexity

But this cloak of certainty hides the complexity of the micro practices within the relationships and shared values of care, trust and wellbeing when working with children and families. To validate the work of the ECEC educators’ daily practices, the influences of formal and moral knowledge operational within educator expertise and regulatory structure should be revealed. 

Educator agency and moral knowledge is gained through deeply reflexive praxis, experience and wisdom that considers the broader conditions that educators are working in. These conditions include economic and political influences, discourses of quality and self-governance that educators are complicit in when seeking an excellent rating. These conditions distract the focus of ECEC professionals to technocratic ways of highlighting success in their work. This distraction can hinder value rational acts that may better serve ECEC contexts. Our daily practices of criticality that truly represent the complex capacity of the ECEC educator are far more intricate than any reductive notions of ‘excellence’.

Mel Duffy-Fagan is a proud Early Childhood Teacher with over 30 years experience as an educator and director with 20 years also being an Approved Provider of a centre in Lambton, Newcastle. Mel works as an academic and researcher within the ECEC sector and completed her PhD in 2023 with the University of Newcastle.  Her doctoral studies explored the themes of leadership, professional identity and quality policy. Find her on LinkedIn.

What is the moral work of teachers?

Ethics is a luxury good, in the public imagination. But some researchers project that by 2050, educational ethicists will be as common in schools as bioethicists are in healthcare.

Ethics in the classroom are time sensitive. Teachers may not have time for thoughtful decision-making on the spot and there are many missed opportunities to pause. Perhaps during policy making and report card writing there is time for thoughtful decision-making. Ethical decision-making requires us to slow down, consider stakeholder feedback, school goals, important relationships and the foundations on which we rest our educational purposes. 

It asks us to think about: what are our values, as a school? And how should we live these values? When we make a line in the sand about serving the most vulnerable students, it can inform the other 5000 micro decisions made later in the classroom. But values can be ‘fuzzy’- think of the value of ‘inclusion’, ‘equity’ or ‘meritocracy’. These values remain obstinately ambiguous unless time is taken in conversation and thoughtful dialogue, to create a sense of mutual intelligibility. And if some shared understanding is possible, we next need to ask – where does the responsibility for collective, values-driven action sit.  How should the plan of action, aligned with core values, be established and sustained in a schooling environment? 

Educational ethics offers us ways of guiding the ethical core of teaching and education. As a field, educational ethics seeks to build collectivity across foundational disciplines including sociology, policy, history, philosophy, psychology, pedagogy, curriculum and technologies, and views as essential practitioner insights into the ethical dimensions of schooling and child care. It is not only the domain of philosophers, each discipline brings important perspectives to the table. But we cannot underestimate philosophy’s influence, given its long history and tradition.One could be mistaken for thinking that educational ethics is a new field.  There are established areas of educational research and practice in the ‘moral work of teachers and teaching’ , new work in ‘professional ethics and the law’ as well as in ‘moral education’ , the humanising practice of philosophy with teachers and a multi-faceted approach of the normative case study.  Many may not be aware that there is an arm of UNESCO called the International Institute of Educational Planning (IIEP)whose substantive work has been to stamp out corruption in educational systems all over the world. IIEP provides support for the grounded development, establishment and sustenance of teacher codes of ethics and conduct. It has shone a light on cheating in Australian education

So what is educational ethics, if not in the “moral work of teaching”, “professional ethics and the law” and “moral education”? Some have proposed that educational ethics can be a canopy under which these and other areas of inquiry about the ethical dimensions of schools, as well as child care, tertiary and educational policy more broadly – not just the work of teachers- can be housed. Despite the fact that teaching is ‘all over the map’, there are some ethical issues which bring educators closer to one another than to other professions, and real concern to address the demoralisation in the profession. Attention to these shared, but complex and multidimensional ethical features of teaching and ‘dilemmatic spaces’ can be raised more systematically and collectively if the field itself comes together, recognising that there have been specialised sub-fields already with histories and learning to share. This shared interest doesn’t presume homogeneity or natural agreement, except, perhaps, that education in all its forms, is inescapably, normatively loaded. 

The immediate challenge is that educational ethics has a big backyard to grow in across Australia. Growing educational ethics could allow us to explore moral issues and dilemmas specifically within the Australian education field such as researchers found in assessment practices, those critical ethical tensions which emerged during the pandemic and the lack of perceived respect for the profession of teaching. Some have recognised how Australian teachers are doing principled ethical work in the form of ‘counter conduct’ to resist demoralising pressures placed upon them. What is needed are high quality resources that enable our teachers, educational policy makers and school leaders to engage productively with these and other issues. We have broad ranging ethical concerns which need new theoretical and pedagogical tools for clarifying values, supporting ethical dialogue and leadership, as well as recognised challenges in our pre-service teacher programs for ethics education and the cultivation of morality, ‘ethical noticing’ and the ‘moral imagination‘. Proposed ethical decision-making models, the thoughtful use of our teacher codes of ethics in teacher education and normative case studies drawn from Australian researchers may be particularly useful to augment professional learning in the field here. 

The normative case study is different from other versions of short dilemmas and case studies used in introductory texts. Using normative case studies creates opportunities for thoughtful dialogue about polarising issues and dilemmas. It brings diverse viewpoints into contact and facilitates civil disagreement about what matters, what ought to be done and why whilst building understanding between differing viewpoints.  Examples of Australian-based normative case studies deal with dilemmas about teaching climate change and the influence of fossil fuel sponsorship in underfunded public schools,  and the role of religion and ethics in Australian public schools. There are many issues needing attention of educational ethics, like rethinking the idea of teacher responsibility or how to get the educational benefits of ‘controversy’ in the curriculum without causing moral panic. Other urgent issues have special resonance in Australian education such as how to ethically honour our First Nations and tell difficult truths; how to navigate our cultural diversity alongside nationalism in Australian democracy; how to triage diverse needs in our classrooms; and other big questions of the role of education in Australian society. 

Educational ethics offers opportunities for us to engage with different value-laden perspectives that challenge our biases and preferences. There are better and worse options to step forward, as ethical relativism is not a viable option for making pragmatic change. We need to better distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable ethical compromises and build understanding about how to act on shared values once we find the grounding of a reflective equilibrium. We have codes of conduct in public and independent schools as well as the early childhood sector, standards, curriculum mandates, and school cultures with questionable policies. What is the ‘norm’ in one setting might look quite different in another, even if commonalities, like the curriculum or uniform policy remain. This post hasn’t been able to point comprehensively to Australian research which could be included under the canopy of educational ethics, but it is important that we continue to develop new research in educational ethics to draw attention to both emerging and perennial normative dimensions of our educational practices and policies. For the educational ethicist it is to consult and open dialogue for professional learning in education communities that inches towards a more just system and its practices. This builds understanding of educators’ legal, social and ethical responsibilities, and provides insight into how to establish more ethical policies in education.


Daniella Forster is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, University of Newcastle and was a visiting scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Education in May this year. She is an educational ethicist, researcher and teacher educator with qualifications in philosophy and as a secondary teacher. Daniella is interested in dialogic pedagogies, ethics and epistemology, educational policy and the normative case study methodology.

Want fairness at uni now? There’s one crucial thing the minister forgot

Quality of higher education, equity of participation and access are front and centre in the new Universities Accord interim report, released by Education Minister Jason Clare at the National Press Club on Wednesday.

Minister Clare described five key priority areas for immediate action – three of which directly related to equity. In contrast to increasing equity and fairness for students, there was limited mention of university staff and the levels of casualisation in the sector, aside from calling for universities to become “exemplary employers”.

What are the five key priorities?

The first priority action recommends extending access to higher education by creating more Regional University Centres. In response, the federal government has committed to doubling the number of existing hubs, creating a further 20 centres in regional locations and 14 in the outer-suburban areas of major cities.

The second priority action recommends abolishing the 50% pass rule which was introduced under the former government’s Job Ready Graduates Package. The government has committed to removing this rule, which has disproportionately affected students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Professor Barney Dalgarno from the University of Canberra said that many of these students can excel in their studies, when given appropriate support from academics.

The third priority action seeks to ensure all First Nations students are eligible for a guaranteed funded place at university. In 2021 such a guarantee was introduced for First Nations students from regional and remote Australia, and the government has agreed to applying this guarantee nationwide. 

The fourth priority action recommends extending the Covid-era Higher Education Continuity Guarantee for 2024 and 2025. The government has agreed to this to allow funding certainty to universities as the Accord process rolls out.

Finally, the fifth priority action seeks to improve university governance with a focus on employment practices, student and staff safety, and the make-up of university governance bodies.

Equity is about more than aspirations

Investment in higher education is an investment in young people and in our future as a nation. As Minister Clare pointed out in his address, that investment needs to start in our early childhood education and continue through our school sector. He rightly treats the education landscape as an interconnected jigsaw puzzle.

However, too often the question of equity becomes one of raising aspirations. The interim report focuses on “increasing aspiration” and the need to “develop the aspirations of potential students”. However, we know from research that students from all backgrounds aspire to university and careers that require higher education qualifications. The final report of the Accord working group must focus on how we remove barriers that not only limit access to university for students from diverse backgrounds and target equity groups, but also support their success once they arrive on our campuses.

University staff are key to realising the Accord’s ambitions

A big gap in the Accord’s interim report is concrete action on improving employment conditions at universities. The Accord report rightly acknowledges the rife casualisation across the sector, noting that 69% of teaching is conducted by casual staff members. While the report notes that casual employment can suit both employer and employees, a 2019 survey conducted by NTEU showed that 82% of casual staff would prefer part-time or full-time ongoing employment. 

My research, with colleagues from QUT, Charles Sturt University and the United Kingdom, has identified that casualisation of teaching and short-term contract research gigs disproportionately impact women, people from diverse backgrounds and early career researchers. Lengths of precarity can limit career opportunities through reduced ability to obtain professional development or career planning. Some casuals have held the same roles for decades and yet aren’t considered eligible for conversion to ongoing roles.

The Accord recognises that recent staff underpayments are “patently unacceptable” for a public institution but must go further to ensure that everyone in academic work is paid for the time they spend on supporting student learning and engaging in high quality research.

Casual teaching staff are only paid for their time on class and limited time for marking assignments. They are not currently paid for their time engaging in professional development or providing additional supports for students, both of which are recommendations within the Accord. These situations leave many academics with the impossible choice of providing the levels of support that they know students need and just focusing on what they are paid to do. Universities know this and exploit the care and dedication of their staff. 

More consistent funding is required for universities to ‘de-casualise’ and ensure that the knowledge and skills of high-quality lecturers and researchers are acknowledged, retained and enhanced.

A vision for high quality teaching and research

Consideration of the employment conditions in Australian universities is critical if the vision laid out in the Accord interim report is to be achieved. It describes a vision for 2035 of a more equitable system that supports all Australians, who choose to go to university, to study in supportive environments that foster high quality teaching and research. 

The interim report acknowledges that this vision and “the sector’s success in delivering skills, knowledge and equity is underpinned by enduring and stable funding and governance architecture”. The potential risks of continuing such high levels of casualisation in higher education are clearly illustrated in the issues currently playing out in UK universities, reminding us that “staff working conditions are student learning conditions”.

Jess Harris is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research is focused on the leadership and development of teachers and teaching within schools and through initial teacher education. She draws on a range of qualitative research methods, including conversation analysis and membership categorisation analysis.

Image of Jason Clare at the National Press Club from video on his Facebook page.

How our messy research journey survived floods, fires and COVID19

See this presentation in real time today (December 2, 2021) in the Schools and Education Systems SIG at 10am

Large research trials are complex and difficult to manage at the best of times. At AARE 2021 this week, around 900 papers have been presented, many reporting clean and tidy findings from research studies. Twenty minutes doesn’t provide enough time to tell the full story.

And it’s not one that researchers are encouraged to tell.

I want to use my experience as the project manager of the largest randomised controlled trial in Australian education research history to expose the messy, unpredictable, challenging, and at times down-right insane rollercoaster of conducting school-based research.

In 2018, the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre was awarded $17.1M in funding from the Paul Ramsay Foundation to undertake a comprehensive and rigorous program of research examining the impact of Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR) on teacher and student outcomes.

Our massive, four-arm randomised controlled trial began in 2019 and is in the throes of final data collection right now. Over the past three years we have had to contend with several catastrophes of epic proportions including the Black Summer Bush Fires, state-wide flooding, a global pandemic followed by the local Delta outbreak. 

Now throw in a touch more flooding, and a teachers’ strike to boot.

And yet, despite these challenges, we have (just about) successfully completed this research, gathered incredible amounts of data and published ground-breaking findings. We’ve also learned lessons about the realities of school-based research that I believe would be valuable to share.

We set out in 2018 to recruit 200 NSW government primary schools, with four teachers from each to participate in this research trial. Our first major challenge was recruiting schools. When baseline data collection began in Terms 1 and 2 2019, we had just 125 schools. This necessitated a split-cohort design, with a second cohort of 80 schools planned for 2020.

To manage the huge scale of baseline and follow-up data collection we built up our team of research assistants to more than 50. We almost made it through the follow-up data collection in Term 4 2019 when catastrophic bushfires broke out throughout NSW. 20 of our research schools were closed, which meant constant reshuffling of school visits and monitoring bushfire locations to ensure the safety of our research assistants. Remarkably, we were able to collect data from 124 of 125 schools.

The bushfires continued to hamper our efforts into the start of 2020 as we finalised cohort 2 recruitment and prepared for baseline data collection. Adding to the emergency situation, the fires were followed by significant flooding across many parts of regional NSW, again affecting a number of our research schools (one school was literally wiped off the map).

We’d almost completed baseline data collection for cohort 2 when, in March 2020, COVID-19 forced state-wide school closures. The decision was made to postpone the trial to 2021. However, with the baseline data already collected and comparable control group data from the previous year, we were uniquely positioned to repurpose the data to complete one of the world’s earliest empirical studies on the effects of COVID-19 on student learning

We maintained strong relationships with our research schools throughout this incredibly challenging year and, with support from the NSW Department of Education, we were able to get follow-up data to see what, if any, impact COVID had on student achievement.

As a strong sign of support for our work, most of the 2020 schools signed up again to participate in 2021. Everything started smoothly, baseline data were collected, teachers participated in QTR, then Delta hit on the eve of the Term 2 holidays.

Despite an entire term of remote learning, we are back in the 80 schools right now collecting follow up data. Changing government health orders over the last few weeks meant asking teachers to collect student data on our behalf, then being able to send research assistants to visit schools after all. It’s meant rapid scaling up and scaling down of our team, organising training and support for teachers, as well as organising logistics for research assistants to visit schools.

It has required incredible flexibility, adaptability and coordination in a very short time period, while COVID continues to impact schools. Next week we’re heading to the last of the schools, though right now we are juggling schedules around the planned industrial action.

Since 2019, 205 schools, 757 teachers and more than 10,000 students have participated in this study. To date we’ve visited schools to collect; 1,102 full lesson observations, more than 45,000 PATs, 15,000 student surveys and 1,700 teacher surveys. We’ve published significant findings and world-leading research.

Conducting research of this scale has required constant evaluation and refinement and has led to several important learnings. 

Research with schools is hard and complex. It’s costly and it’s taxing. Both on workloads and on wellbeing. I think it’s important to recognise that.

Contingency planning is critical. Things will go wrong. We could not have anticipated a global pandemic, but having plans for quickly responding to school closures or emergency situations helps when the unexpected happens.

Effectively navigating institutional constraints and regularly refining processes are essential for work of this scale. Our processes look a lot different now to when we began in 2019.

Stakeholder relationship management is crucial. Ensuring buy in from department executives and funding body representatives, school leaders and teachers – and even research support staff – will help when things invariably go pear-shaped. 

Schools do want to engage in meaningful research. It’s important that the research has explicit links to school priorities, has reasonable expectations of participants, provides access to useful data that schools can engage with and, finally, includes a capacity building dimension for teachers or leaders.

We are blessed to have a supportive funding partner and a significant and rare amount of funding which has enabled us to postpone, restart, repurpose data, and persevere. Research is difficult and it is messy. Learning from experience is important.

Wendy Taggart is the senior project manager in the School of Education, College of Human and Social Futures, University of Newcastle. This work is from a paper co-authored with Jenny Gore, Andrew Miller, Jess Harris and Leanne Fray.

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.