Moment for reflection as NSW public education celebrates 175 years

Keynote address delivered by Secretary Georgina Harrisson today at the 2023 Sydney Morning Herald Schools Summit.

Image: Georgina Harrisson, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education.

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of these lands and waters - the Gadigal people of the Eora nation - and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

I also want to acknowledge that this year we are marking 175 years of public education in NSW and this anniversary follows a long tradition of teaching and learning on these lands that has existed for tens of thousands of years in this country.

Marking those 175 years is a moment for reflection and celebration, and an achievement in which we can all share and be immensely proud.

But it’s also a moment for us to reflect on the importance of our ongoing reconciliation with Aboriginal communities and the role we in education need to play in that.

If we do that together as an education system, then we can make a change for this generation and the next. And will it be an entirely different conversation that we’ll be having when we hit the 200-year anniversary in 2048.

Clear air ahead

If you think back to just this time last year we were in the middle of the Omicron wave, we were delivering RAT packs to schools, and the rain had started in the Northern part of the state. But here we are together at the start of 2023 – with largely clear air ahead of us.

The teachers and principals I’ve talked to this year have started more refreshed, off the back of a real break that was uninterrupted. We have been able to start to refresh and recover. I know that’s not true for every school, but it is for the majority.

And this alone should fill us with optimism – but when you look at what we were able to achieve during the last years of near-constant crisis, it also fills me with ambition.

Let’s remember what our schools have dealt with over these years, from bushfires to rolling COVID waves, to waves of floods. Our school staff have been our Chris Hemsworths, Jennifer Lawrences emerging tired but triumphant. And triumphant they should be.

Steady and improving results

Because what we know is that through this crisis the education system in NSW has stood up exceptionally well. We have faced every single one of the challenges that have been thrown at us.

That’s an extraordinary achievement just on its own. But if you look at our results, our teachers and leaders have achieved something really special.

Across the world, researchers are finding education systems that have lost more than a decade of reform as a result of COVID, where their students have lost 8 months of learning. But during COVID our NSW public schools collectively performed higher than those with similar backgrounds across Australia. And as we begin 2023, we are seeing steady and improving results in NSW across a number of key areas of learning.

We have turned around national and global trends in NSW. While journalists report of a writing crisis across Australia, NSW results in writing have been improving – particularly in Years 7 and 9. We’ve seen growth in our primary schools across multiple domains, but particularly in reading, which is in line with the investments we’ve made in effective practice and instructional leadership.

Our focus and investment in primary schools is paying off now and will continue to pay off as those students enter high school better prepared for what comes next.

Looking ahead, I know we can do even better because of how well we did despite everything that was thrown us over the past 3 years. If we can do it through crisis, we can certainly do it as we power ahead in recovery.

Three challenges

In saying all of that of course I know – as you do - that the education sector is facing challenges in this state, this country and across the world. I want to talk to you about 3 of those things today:

  • the significance of early childhood reforms for education;
  • the need to balance our focus on results with ongoing recovery; and
  • a look to the challenges ahead for our next 175 years.

Early childhood reforms

One of my most satisfying moments so far as Secretary was when the New South Wales budget was handed down last year, where we secured15 billion dollars of investment in early childhood.

This came off the back of years of work by a series of brilliant colleagues, who built the case for ongoing and growing investment in early years of education.

We know that in the first 5 years of life, a child’s brain develops more rapidly than any other time. So it’s critical that every child has the right support to put them on a pathway towards lifelong success.

But we know that access to quality early childhood education isn’t a reality for all children in NSW. And that’s why this investment is so important.

This is our opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of our littlest learners across NSW. It will also make a real difference for our teachers in primary schools when they have students who are turning up ready for school ready and able to learn - and have their needs already understood and adjusted for.

And we know that these benefits will flow to our economy by reducing the barriers to work for parents, and in particular for women.

This reform will be a game changer for education in New South Wales. And we are laying the foundations today to deliver this one-in-a-generation reform over the next 10 years.

Balancing results with recovery

We do recognise schools are still supporting recovery efforts within their wider community. Having been on the ground in Lismore and the Northern Rivers it’s clear that there is still a long road ahead for those communities

The pandemic has taken its toll on our young people and having the room to care for them as well as educate them is more important now than ever. But I’m delighted to say that our schools remain at the heart of that recovery, with students back learning, work underway on the rebuild of infrastructure and further investments in the support for our students’ wellbeing.

In the last 5 years alone we’ve delivered over 2,000 student wellbeing programs across school networks and in particular in those regions impacted by floods, fires and COVID 19. From early years and early intervention programs for preschool to Year 6, to programs around resilience and impulse control, support following trauma from natural disasters.

We’re also an early adopter of the internationally-acclaimed Youth Aware mental health program for young people in Years 9-10. These on-the-ground programs are all backed in on the ground by our workforce of over 2,000 staff that include school counsellor and school psychologists, student support officers, wellbeing nurses and behaviour specialists

But it’s not just our student who were hit hard. The pandemic has also had a significant impact on our workforce. Recovery also means supporting our workforce with their challenges – whether that is workload or teacher supply.

We have to look after the people that we’ve got and ensure they’re focused on the work that only they can do, and that they have the right support around them to handle the rest.

Teacher supply is not an issue unique to NSW. Much of our work in our Teacher Supply Strategy has been endorsed in the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, a commitment of all governments to progress the areas of work we had already identified here in NSW.

We know we’re doing the right work. But it’s not an overnight fix, and it’s not just a challenge in our state, or even just in Australia – these are issues that education systems across the world are experiencing too.

So we have to pay attention to not just teacher supply, but as I said, teacher demand in the system. Challenges with supply are just one part – alongside recruitment and retention, we need to look closely at deployment - where are our teachers and what are they focused on.

We should see our teaching workforce as a state asset, we need a better view of where all our teachers are in NSW and how they are spending their time. Is the work they’re doing, the work that only they can do? Or are they getting distracted and caught up in other administrative tasks that could be done by someone else?

This is the purpose of our current pilot in 130 schools which has seen hundreds of administrative support staff go in to our teachers. The program will explore how support roles in schools can free up time for teachers and school leaders letting them lead, teach and better support their students.

Along with capability and professional development for our administrative staff, it will also look at how our systems and processes can provide a more seamless experience for everyone. Is there a leaner, smarter way to do things? That is what we are going to find out.

There is no shortcut to achieving this. To do this well we need to sit down alongside teachers to understand the demands on them on a daily basis. What’s the invisible work that’s filling their time that we can easily take away? Of course, for everything we take away, for our teachers who are so committed, they feel like there’s always something else in the in-tray that will take its place.

And when you work in a profession where it is hard at the best of times to draw a line and say my work for today is done, how do we equip our teachers to do just that? To hold space for themselves, it is only when we make a dent in both of those things that I think teachers will feel a change in their workload.

175 years of public education and the future

So as if that wasn’t enough. The future is coming at us and it is moving fast.

The impossible challenge of being caught in the exponential growth and development of things like technology is that you can only see the gradient of the curve when it is too late.

But in education we have to do just that. We have to continually think through what our learners of today need from us to prepare them for tomorrow?

If 2023 lives up to its early promise and we can lift our eyes back to the horizon we can start having those ambitious conversations again about the future of education – much more interesting that than the ‘how can we keep our schools open’ conversations that COVID consumed us with.

The technology challenges that we are facing this year are just a shadow of what we will face 10, 30, and 50 years. It’s time to restart those conversations about the future - and AI in education is just one part of that.

Overall we are excited about the opportunities like ChatGPT bring for our staff, our leaders and our learners. Like any very new piece of technology, we’ve only seen the absolute beginning of what it will eventually be able to do.

But AI is already here and already a part of the world our kids are living in – look at the algorithms sitting behind apps like TikTok. So while these new tools might feel like a threat, we’ve also got to understand the opportunities.

We'll be talking to our teachers, parents and students, and consider how we might take the best approach that’s safe and appropriate in our classrooms while preparing our students for the future they will have to navigate.

And finally, before I bring this to a close.

I just wanted to say that the work that teachers do is nothing short of fundamental to our future as a nation. This work very often goes unsung, unnoticed and taken for granted.

Not long ago, off the back of COVID, we were hearing how wonderful our teachers were. That gratitude from the community was wide and genuine. But that’s not what our teachers have been hearing. They are hearing a different narrative, one that is running down the profession they are so proud to be part of, and they are feeling the negative weight of that on our shoulders.

How quickly that sentiment has changed. It was a year ago that we were basking in a wave of positive sentiment about everything our teachers do.

Nothing brought that into sharper focus than when parents at home found themselves trying to support the learning of their children at home. They gained insight into the thought and preparation that goes into every scope and sequence, every lesson. And they were blown away, as I am every time I am fortunate enough to spend the day in a classroom, alongside a teacher, doing what they do best.

I don’t think that has gone away in our local communities. And it doesn’t reflect what I hear when I meet with teachers, principals and parents in our schools.

Our teachers are the most important part of our workforce, doing the most important work. I know that, you know that, and our school communities know that.

So let’s all share more of the stories about the work we do, of our teachers making a real difference. Let’s make it a habit.

It will have a transformative impact on how the teaching profession feels when they show up to work each day.

I know that if our school leaders and our communities celebrate our teachers and their contribution we can shift the talking down of the profession. I know that if I do my job at the department, to improve our teachers’ on-the-ground experience, that they’ll get that sense of satisfaction knowing they’ve done a rewarding job that they were trained for and that only they could do.

For me, this also means bringing the teacher voice into the very heart of the work we do. By teachers, for teachers.

This is why we are actively bringing in our best teachers to design the professional development for all our teachers.

It’s why our tools that support school planning and development are led by teachers for teachers.

It’s why our curriculum support for schools was developed and refined by teachers in classrooms in our early-adopter schools - by teachers, for teachers.

So let’s make it all of our business to collectively stand up for our teachers, to speak up for them, and to talk up this fantastic career for those in classrooms today – and also those thinking about leading classrooms in the future.

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