Meeting the challenges for NSW schools

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

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

I acknowledge we are on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora. I also acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands from which many others may be joining us. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

And I acknowledge our First Nations people as the first teachers on this land. They’ve passed down their stories and knowledge through generations for tens of thousands of years. We should acknowledge in education we are part of this teaching continuum - and we have an important role healing divides we’ve contributed to.

As recently as 1972, policies in NSW education enabled principals to exclude Aboriginal students from schools, due to home conditions or community opposition.

It’s unfathomable - now - that one child does not have the opportunities of another, yet data from our schools indicates this is still true for too many of our Aboriginal students. Current practices aren’t working for them. We need to be brave enough to face that and begin addressing it.

The power to change lives

My topic today is ‘Key challenges for NSW schools in 2022’ I can hear the tension rise in the room! Really? After what we’ve been through? Isn’t it time for a big, deep breath?

Normally, this topic would be a great opportunity to point out how we should be better, stronger, faster … but after the past two years of tumultuous events, I’ve seen the sector at its extraordinary best.

And yet again, this week the department is dealing with the unprecedented flood in northern NSW and destructive rainfall across NSW – the ramifications of which will be long-felt.

Yet through floods, bushfires and the pandemic, we’ve seen teachers and staff display creativity, tenacity and sagacity to ensure our children’s continued education. Remember last year when some pundits suggested we wouldn’t even hold the HSC in 2021? Our collective ability to not only survive the chaos of COVID-19 but, in many instances, thrive is a credit to everyone who works in education in NSW.

I was particularly proud during summer and the first week of Term 1 this year. The best thing was seeing the smiles on student faces when they received their HSC results, because I knew behind every one of them was a school community that supported them getting there. I was proud because the public saw what I see day to day – extremely talented and committed people getting the job done.

We want to be more delivery focused for our students – and this showed us at our best. I can’t thank you enough for your efforts during the last two years. The smiles on the faces of students in week 1 reminded me of the value of the physical connection. They struggled through lockdown in many ways. Talking to the Minister’s DOVES council, students said they missed contact, missed being seen. We need to ensure they are SEEN again.

As we ditch our computer screens and re-connect, in person, with students this year, we should remind ourselves that something as simple as a smile or a nod, tells a student they’re being seen. I feel this deeply because I was seen as a kid. You all know now I’m not a teacher but I grew up in a family that valued education and the opportunities it provides. My Nan was a housekeeper at the age of 12 – the kind of role where you are expected to ‘know your place’. Education was a route to a future my grandparents could only dream of, to a better place. And due to their focus on education, my family went from being dependent on the state, to leading a department of state - in two generations.

We defied the statistics of socio-economic status. My generation was the first in my family to go to university – because we were seen by our teachers. I went to a small village primary school, where Mrs Colman and Mrs Pashley set high expectations and, as I reflect, their personalised approach to student needs is obvious, although I was oblivious to them back then.

At my comprehensive high school, Mr Gurney used morning tutor time to check in and challenge me with a work sheet to return the next day. His excitement sharing his love of maths inspired me to learn. From there, the average girl, from an average home, and an average school earned her degree and put her hat in the ring to join the Civil Service Graduate program. There, I developed an unwavering optimism about the power of government to affect change. The actions of governments provided housing and opportunity to my grandparents, and an education and future of opportunity to me. So, I know education is the lever that can transform life prospects. It now makes perfect sense to me why a kid from England, 30 years later, is trying to improve an education system on the other side of the world. Because I was seen by a teacher. And it’s also why I won’t accept the socio-economic cliché that equity gaps can’t be closed by education, when I know, personally, they can.

The reconnection with, or seeing, our students I believe can be a physical prompt to remind us to reset without allowing COVID, or memory of it, to slow us down or scare us. You all deserve that deep exhale, to celebrate and contemplate what you’ve achieved.

We can also take great confidence from our achievements. After what life has thrown at us, everyone in education should be confident they can conquer ANY challenge coming their way. I also appreciate you’re tired and weary, so the thought of shaking off the stresses of the past two years is easier said than done. And there’s still pandemic surprises around the corner. But we need to be resilient and find the energy to persist. We must be willing and able to look ahead with confidence because it’s what our students need from us. My staff said I could only use this Lin-Manuel Miranda quote if I didn’t dance as well! But it’s apt:

"All I can do when the road bends is lean into the curve;
All I can do when the tank's run dry is see what's in reserve.”

Learning from the best

I’ll push the seeing metaphor into my first challenge. We must not be frozen by COVID but learn from it. So many recent lessons can benefit education, if we’re open enough to see, adopt and adapt them. We saw new and external tools picked up and utilised in homes. My family used them and I saw my daughter’s teachers reach for high-quality resources other teachers produced.

Clever Pickles, a series of YouTube videos by Rebecca West - who will appear later today - was a regular pre-breakfast feature in our house, as we supported learning from home around our own workdays. Bec, the deputy principal at Bonnyrigg public school, shares her expertise globally while inspiring her students with play-based, experiential and game-based learning. In a school where 70 per cent of the school’s students speak English as a second language, results at Bonnyrigg have dramatically lifted. Kids watch her YouTube channels ‘Clever Pickles,’ and teachers across the world engage with her channel ‘Talkin’ Chalk’. That’s why she was one of 10 finalists in the Varkey Foundation UNESCO-sponsored Global Teacher Prize last year.

We want teachers sharing their practice with others. Mathew Green’s The Art of Teaching podcast is a great example of teachers supporting teachers. It’s logical the best teachers and resources fuel our staff and students. We also want our teachers on the global stage, interacting, networking, learning and teaching. Let’s open our minds to what we can learn from others and what they can learn from us. Now, I don’t for a minute think you can take something from another area of government or business and adopt it, without adaptation into schools. Schools are relational, complex ecosystems, which experience the highs and lows of their communities more acutely than other institutions. Yet they also share some complicated but comprehensible processes that aren’t so different to other organisations.

So, let’s see what other people are doing, look for lessons that can be adapted. I want us to be, collectively and individually, curious, and share what we learn and develop, just like Bec has, to help our own schools - and maybe teach some other sectors a thing or two! To do that, the department I lead must also re-think the way we work with educators. You’ve heard from the Minister earlier this morning. I know it isn’t always comfortable in education, but when you are funded by taxpayers, and when you run an institution that every family in NSW cares about - when you know that education can transform lives and opportunities - it’s no wonder our politicians often put education at the heart of their agenda.

I lead in the space between you and them. A space that can be full of conflict, where there is often a lack of understanding and where there are those that seek to capitalise on those differences. My role is to help us find a way to deliver the government ambitions and agenda with educators but ultimately for students - to build the understanding, to address, and not ignore the conflict. To do that I have to test and challenge those ambitions, listen intently to the needs of our students and school communities, and help translate the deep knowledge and understanding in staff rooms across the state into the heart of the government agenda.

In the end, the best way to achieve that is to make the engagement with educators at the heart of what the Department of Education does. Sometimes our engagement is with a limited few trying their best to provide the views of many, which limits our policy development. We must actively seek the voice of our students, parents and communities, and our staff, as we build future policy. We’ll do that with a new Strategic Policy Framework, to be released later this year. At every stage of the policy cycle, we’ll include the thoughts and experience of educators, students, parents, representative bodies and others, so policy is developed from the bottom up.

In summary, what can we learn from the last two years of COVID?

  • We are agile.
  • We need to get our best teachers in front of all students.
  • We should be open to anything that delivers better education.

Supporting quality teaching

Let me turn to another challenge that will be topical today. There is concern about supply of, and support for, our teachers. I share many of these concerns. This is a long-term issue, with long-term answers. But there are things we can do right now. Firstly, we can free up time for teachers to do what they do best and focus on what only they can do. The number one issue in our Quality Time survey was better teacher support.

We hear it.

I spent a day, pre-COVID, shadowing a high school history teacher. I watched as he mastered a photocopier’s enlargement function so a visually impaired student could use his resources. I saw him turn a lesson on its head when he saw that another faculty wanted additional time rehearsing, so half his class wouldn’t be there.

I watched him battle unreliable wi-fi to deliver his meticulously prepared lesson. But mostly, I watched him engage his students, lifting their eyes from their laptops to hang on his every word. He deployed multiple strategies to ensure he covered the content AND made sure his students were immersed in it. That’s where his time should be going. Not on photocopying, not on replanning a lesson mid-stream, or battling the wi-fi.

We’re working on these classroom challenges. For instance, the rural access gap is improving the wi-fi in rural schools; that needs to be matched in our metro schools. Teachers’ time can be freed up by having the right people in the right school roles. That’s why we’re bringing in psychologists, nurses, Student Support Officers and business managers. To let teachers, teach.

But on its own, that isn’t enough. We need to keep pushing on improving that support. We need talented people choosing teaching as a career. I was thrilled to see a tweet last month by a journalist announcing, excitedly, he was leaving the paper to work part-time while he studied to be a high school teacher. We’re creating new paths into teaching in a way that will enhance the profession. The mid-career Transition to Teaching Program has begun. It allows people with significant professional experience to change careers, complete a Masters of Teaching and become secondary school teachers. The FASTstream program to provide a tailored leadership pathway, supported by mentors, for promising graduates and teacher leaders is also under way. International and interstate recruitment, is also progressing well with more than 2,800 expressions of interest in our program – an outstanding level of interest, despite the uncertainty created by COVID. Our first participants are expected to arrive later this year

These early results give us confidence that our strategies are working; that they’ve been founded on data and evidence and years of research and that, together with other initiatives, will help address our recruitment challenges. But on top of these things to attract teachers, we need to make schools a positive environment to work in.

Quality teaching is the greatest influence on student achievement. So, we’re implementing initiatives to raise the quality of our teaching and learning environments. We know that a good environment for staff starts with the leader – so we’re investing in our current and aspiring principals through the School Leadership Institute. But we need to go beyond that, to leverage the excellence in teaching already in the system.

The Best in Class program, for instance, sees outstanding teachers collaborate with other experts and academic partners to build rich, evidence-based learning to roll out across the state. These teachers are demonstrably brilliant. They all achieved higher than expected results for their HSC students. When they were invited to apply for the Best in Class team, not one of them believed they had something worth sharing with others. I have no doubt their students saw they were special. Some, not all, were recognised within their own schools, but none of them were being celebrated by the system they work in. Now, that group of teachers is leading some of the best professional development our teachers could hope for. They’re unapologetically focused on driving for equity in this work, how we can lift student ambition in communities where they might not have seen those top bands for too long.

Our Ambassador Schools program identifies the most effective practices in NSW schools, then scales and implements them in similar schools. Like our Best in Class teachers, these were not schools being talked about in our system before. By focussing on objective measurements to compare similar schools, we opened our eyes to schools performing exceptionally well that previously we hadn’t given the recognition they deserved. We had to get past who we know and who we like and look what we found when we did? Some of the best practice in NSW.

Which makes us think, are we doing enough to hear what is happening on the ground? The challenge to you all though is if we want to attract the best people to teaching, everyone in this room has a role to play.

High expectations

Which leads me to my final challenge. We must have great ambition for our students. And we should shout it from the rooftops. We talk about ‘educational outcomes’, yet that’s a blancmange term that desensitises the process and shies away from what we do:

  • We care for our students.

It’s not about us. It’s for the young people in our schools, for their chances of a more productive and longer life. There is no ambition too high for us if we think of it like that. We should be doing everything we can to make a better education system for them. Education is often compared to health in terms of its impact on societal wellbeing. Perhaps we should adapt the health maxim: are we doing everything we can to ensure a student has the best start to life? Have we treated their education as a matter of life and death? Because, it can be.

For Aboriginal students, whether they leave school able to read and write or get a job affects their life expectancy. And, I concede, our department hasn’t met the standard yet. We claim equity as a core value yet our own data shows we are part of the problem. We are not closing the gap. It starts at kindergarten and pre-school, where we are not giving Indigenous or disadvantaged kids every opportunity to reach their potential. We know those years are so crucial in framing a life, so we must deliver on our ambition. There are green shoots. The Minister launched the Aboriginal Children’s Early Childhood Education Strategy last year, which focuses on Aboriginal children aged 0-5, and we trust that which will deliver improvements we can build upon.

Leading the debate

Today, there should be positivity about what everyone’s achieved but also an understanding of what we still must achieve. The past two years have necessitated being largely reactive, which I hope doesn’t lead to us being passive in the short-term. I want to see us rebound. I want us to be on the front foot challenging things; be leaders. To be such, I’m interested in the things people might think are impossible – the long-held wicked problems of education. And the important debates we’re not having. Let’s not shy away from the challenges. It’s our duty to embrace them. We need to find the energy, empathy and intellect to do so.

So, there’s a few key challenges! In summary, I’ve outlined three of them – beyond a challenge that is not particular to our sector: the need to reset – and find the energy to move on - after two years of a pandemic.

The first challenge is to not only learn from many COVID lessons but be open to anything, anywhere that can benefit education. That’s more of an opportunity than challenge – let’s explore, adapt and adopt.

Our second challenge is teacher supply and support. Again, I see it as an opportunity because it requires us forging a system that seeks constant improvement and better working conditions, which will resonate for generations.

And my final challenge is to not put a ceiling on our ambition for our students. Don’t be shy about what we do and why we’re doing it. Don’t lose focus about why we’re here: for their future. I’m excited about what lies ahead, as we all should be. In my first year in this role, I’ve learnt a lot about all our similarities, more so than the differences, across education. That’s energising. And the first weeks of term – seeing such positivity, competence and happiness – has certainly put wind in my sails. It showed we are one education system pulling together for every student.

So, I’d like to think this term is a moment to reset. We’ve survived, and achieved, so much in the past two years. I hope we can share a resolve to overcome our challenges and be collectively curious about our future. And remind ourselves that, to paraphrase Dr Seuss, we can move mountains!

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