Courage for change

Keynote address delivered by Minister for Education and Early Learning Sarah Mitchell at the 2023 Sydney Morning Herald Schools Summit.

The NSW Government logo with a red waratah and blue text overlaying a photo of an empty classroom. The NSW Government logo with a red waratah and blue text overlaying a photo of an empty classroom.

I would like to begin today by acknowledging that we are meeting on Gadigal land, and pay my respects to elders past, present, and emerging. In doing so I also want to acknowledge that Aboriginal people have been teaching and learning on these lands for tens of thousands of years.

175 Years of Public Education

The SMH Schools Summit is one of the biggest events on the NSW education calendar.

One thing I have learned after addressing this forum a few times now is that politican’s shouldn’t just rattle off a stump speech, you’re expected to bring a new perspective or insight.

Well after four years as Education Minister, seeing the inner workings of the system, visiting hundreds of schools and talking to thousands of people about teaching and learning – today I’ll offer you my observations about where we need to embrace change in education.

And as 2023 is the 175th anniversary of public education in NSW it is fitting to start at the beginning.

On September 23, 1848, the doors to public education opened for the first time in NSW, at a little school called Kempsey National. The public system joined the Catholic and independent sectors, which had already begun in 1820 and 1831 respectively.

Children walked into Gard’s Store in East Kempsey that day to be taught by Mr Henry Fowler, and arrived at a building with no electricity. A wide age range of students would have filed into the one classroom ready to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The school wouldn’t see an electric light for another 70 years when Principal Frederick Tyler had one installed in the staffroom in 1934, and they wouldn’t install a telephone until1955.

It wouldn’t see its first female Principal until 1993 and would go on to be renamed Kempsey West Public School.

Just last week I happened to visit a public school in Kempsey, Kempsey East, being led by a fabulous Principal Mrs Penny Chow. I met a team of amazing dedicated teachers, SLSOs, allied health professionals and even a school therapy dog named Molly. And it immediately struck me how far we have come as a system since those very first days of public education in that community, and how different that school looks compared to the one that Mr Fowler would have taught at 175 years ago.

Our classrooms have gone from candle lit halls to flexible modern learning spaces connected to the world. An unimaginable change.

Change in education is a constant

Which brings me to my first observation. In education, change is a constant.

And this makes sense. Educators are not conservative - you are innovative.

Great teachers innovate to the level of each and every student. Trialling and differentiating their approaches until they see the spark of understanding, that “a –ha“ moment many teachers have told me about when they see that flicker of learning in their students eyes. And that starts at an early age.

Excellent Early Childhood Education

Another observation I’ve made during my time in education is that people rarely agree. However, the exception to that rule is that the importance of Early Childhood Education is universally recognised.

I believe in the power of the early years and as Minister I have worked hard for six years to build the case for a multi billion dollar revolution in early childhood in NSW that is now being delivered by this government.

Our commitment to a universal year of pre-Kindergarten will transform the school landscape forever.

It will be play based, and this reform will require a cross sector partnership with our non-government schools and deep support from, and integration with, the existing early childhood sector.

We will continue to invest heavily in early childhood services, in our early childhood workforce, in development checks for all children before they start school and in affordability measures for families.

We will also make sure that for the first time ever, every single new public school that we build will include learning spaces for this critical pre-Kindergarten year.

But we also understand that change of this magnitude requires significant and well planned reform. It’s not just about building a few more preschools - it will require hundreds of new services and a hundred thousand preschool places for children each year.

And the revolution starts now, with the first services across the state lining up to start the design and delivery of universal pre Kindergarten across the state. This is where NSW is leading the nation when it comes to change in the early years – our $15.9 billion investment in the power of Early Education to change the outcomes and lives of our children.

Great schools for the future

We also need to embrace change to ensure we continue to build great schools for the future, thanks to the largest ever investment in school infrastructure in our state’s history.

Our schools will include pre-kindergarten and technology beyond what we can imagine. They will shake up the traditional 9- 3 school day, and better reflect what our families need.

And they will also be education villages, hubs providing access to a range of health and community services, like we are delivering in Murwilumbah.

They will be set in precincts that are co-located with universities and leading industry partners, like we are delivering at Westmead.

And they will be teaching a world class curriculum, with better senior secondary pathways, to ensure we are supporting our students from their first step to their first job, no matter where they live.

And we need the funding model to support this journey properly.

We know that change is on the agenda for the next National School Funding Reform Agreement. And our government will be seeking two things:

  • 100 per cent funding for our schools; and,
  • a mechanism of transparency so that we know how this money is being spent

The question should not just be how much more money do we need, the question MUST be how we are making that money work for our students and their success.

We have an obligation to our students and their families to ensure we are investing public money in a way that improves education outcomes for the next generation.

High Quality Teaching Workforce

We also have to embrace change when it comes to our teaching workforce. And the question that I ask is this - Can you pay an excellent teacher more? And, importantly will that approach work to lift student results?

And the answer, according to research and consultation – is yes.

Why are we so afraid of acknowledging excellence in the teaching profession?

I know that we have some of the best teachers in the world working here in NSW.

I’ve met hundreds of them over the last four years.

They deserve a modern workplace , where they are respected as professionals both in their community and in the staffroom, with career choices both in and beyond the classroom.

My office was recently contacted by a teacher who had reached the HALT level of accreditation. She was concerned by the increased focus on excellence in the profession. She stated that every time it is mentioned in the media by me as Minister, an invisible target gets placed on her back from others who want to drag her down. I find it hard to believe that we could have a culture like that in even one school in our system. How have we reached a point where a teacher who has worked hard for professional accreditation and career progression feels that they can’t be proud of what they have achieved? We must do better.

That’s why we are committed to Rewarding Excellence in the Teaching profession. 80% of teachers consulted told us they saw the need for this new pathway, and 66% said they would consider applying for these positions.

The first 50 schools and 200 teachers will start this program this year, and we have committed more than $100 million for the next stage, which will see an additional 600 teachers recognised over four years.

This first group will help to inform the approach, but in the future, I want to see these career pathways available to at least ten per cent of our teaching workforce.

This year, we will also be offering 11,000 teachers and 4,000 support staff permanent role. And we won’t stop there. Alongside this reform, we have the opportunity to redesign the staffing model to ensure we have the right mix of teachers and staff in our schools.

We are embarking on the biggest period of change to school staffing in decades, with the largest school workforce on record.

Courage for Change

Last weekend I read a piece written by Ned Manning in the SMH Good Weekend. A teacher of 50 years, Ned outlined his passion for teaching and how despite the challenges he still loved it.

Strikingly Ned said, “I learnt that students don’t want to be your friend, they want to know where they stand.”

And I think that observation of Ned’s extends out of the classroom.

As Minister for Education, it would be far too easy to tell people what you think they want to hear.

But if you take that approach, in the end all you do is under deliver for our students and our systems.

Instead you have to look at the evidence and make the right decisions. Curriculum reform, phonics, rewarding excellence and universal pre Kindergarten. These are all reforms that will pay dividends both now and in the future.

Our schools are not going backwards. They are going forwards. And they are some of the most positive and inspiring places.

We cannot continue to attack and undermine our education system to build up political capital. It is a disservice to our students and our staff.

Because none of this political rhetoric matches up with the reality that I see at the hundreds of schools that I have visited over the last four years.

Parents, teachers, and students tell me that they are proud of what they achieve every single day.

Success must be measured in our youngest students experiencing the joy of learning to read, in the wellbeing of our students and in the careers of our school leavers.

None of us can predict what the future will bring.

But if we keep looking backwards that is the only direction we will go. We have to change for the better – and be courageous enough to embrace it.

I am excited for the future of education in NSW as we work together to support every child, from their first step to their first job.

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