Take a bow for incredible effort in testing times

In this edited speech, delivered to the Primary Principals Association State Council, Education Secretary Georgina Harrisson reflects on the past year.

Image: Forbes Public School Kindergarten student Kelsey Lee created this festive design selected for the Secretary’s Christmas cards.

As the 2022 school year draws to a close, there is so much of our shared vision we can reflect on.

You only have to pick up a newspaper to see headlines we haven’t seen in a very long time – and which frankly, we are not used to.

They include “Local schools doing a public service” and stories that capture our fantastic NAPLAN results that show our primary schools are keeping up, if not leading some private fee-paying schools. Of the top 10 primary schools in the state, six are public schools.

When you adjust NAPLAN results across Australia (taking into account socioeconomic circumstances), NSW public schools are outperforming the NSW Catholic sector. Our public schools are on par with Independent schools and we’re only just outperformed by Tasmania in the government school sector.

Analysis by McKinsey on what some are describing as ‘learning decay’ across the world from the COVID pandemic has shown that NSW is one of the very few jurisdictions that has not seen a loss in learning outcomes for our students. NSW has held its performance, despite the COVID challenges, despite the floods and the events of the years prior.

But in other countries McKinsey has seen education systems set back 10 years in their improvement journeys, with students losing an average of eight months of learning.

Leading through adversity

This year has tested us personally and professionally. As leaders in education, we have dealt with plenty of commentary on our work, with good work in our schools struggling to be recognised among the ‘noise’.

And of course, some of that noise has reflected real and present challenges, exacerbated by both COVID and its impact on every one of us.

Leading through these times has been testing, and without our colleagues it has risked being isolating. That isolation risks separating us from our shared agenda and shared responsibilities. It risks undermining the trust and open dialogue we have worked to build.

Leading with authenticity, empathising and understanding while also keeping the objective distance necessary to lead isn’t easy.

I want to commend our education partners – the Primary Principals Association, the Secondary Principals Council and the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc, for the way they have led through this time – keeping doors open, staying at the table, clear on their role, while understanding, empathising and often supporting the roles others play, staying focused on the needs of our students and staff, staying connected and keeping all of you connected. To this list I would also add our industrial partners; while we don’t always agree, we are united in our ambition to support and uplift our staff.

This year has also seen the Department work harder in supporting our Aboriginal students, staff and communities. We are strengthening our partnership with the AECG and this will be set in stone with our new policy playbook, which commits the Department to working with the AECG at every stage of the policy process.

We have discussed with the AECG the uncomfortable truth that our Aboriginal staff, students and communities are experiencing racism in our schools. It can be a hard thing to spot; it is an even harder thing to tackle.

Let’s have the discussion within our schools, networks and as a system about how we can be allies for our Aboriginal communities and how we can live the value I know we hold: that racism isn’t welcome in our schools.

What a year it has been

As the year comes to an end, we are tired and challenged. We are conscious of narratives pursued by others and the impact that has on us and our teams.

But as we notice all those feelings, hold them to the side for a moment as we reflect and feel the pride of all that has been achieved.

Allow yourselves to sit with the sense of achievement you have worked so hard for and so deserve.

The year began like no other. In the days leading up to and after Christmas last year, I was already locked into long, late night phone calls with the NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant, hearing about the coming Omicron wave, working through what it meant for us in schools.

Guaranteeing the supply of RATs [Rapid Antigen Tests] in time for the start of school became a single focus for the whole department. We were in daily calls about supply, literally waiting for planes to land and packages to be counted.

And you were living it too. You spent January worrying about whether you would be able to open your school – or even whether students would arrive.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that opening our schools, on day 1 of Term 1, was essential in education terms for our students and critical for the recovery of the NSW economy and society.

You, as leaders within the school system, know better than anyone that 2022 has been anything but normal.

Commitments to invest in important initiatives in our schools, like the COVID Intensive Support Learning Program, behaviour specialists, and 1350 new Assistant Principal Curriculum and Instruction roles, dialled up demand on staffing. All this in addition to your locally created positions, targeted at need in your school.

Then came the reality of keeping as close to normal operation as is possible when staff and students were off sick and having to isolate for 10 and then seven days at a time. We saw staff and student absences skyrocket.

If that COVID disruption wasn’t enough, it started to rain. This year felt like what I hope is the concluding volume of our own disaster movie franchise of droughts, bushfires, floods, plagues, COVID, more COVID, floods and, sadly, more floods.

Yet education was the first service to get back up and running, doing what we do best, rallying in support of one another. Our school leaders worked together as we opened schools within other schools – students working alongside each other, staff supporting one another. Putting our students first every step of the way.

You have been our Chris Hemsworths, Jennifer Lawrences or, for the older movie fans, Steve McQueens – emerging tired but triumphant. Some of our communities are still in the midst of the latest disaster and our thoughts are with them and we will be there to support them.

Your ability to keep students learning in school and supporting our staff was hard but it mattered. It mattered for every student.

There are always challenges

As leaders we have faced challenges in a public education system where there has been plenty of politics at play, on all sides of every debate.

Alongside it, there is an important conversation to have about the value and role teachers play in our communities. It’s a conversation that has been picked up on the national stage and is something we need to continue to work through.

We have more work to do here, within the areas we can influence, while not engaging in any of the politics. We can make progress on the things within our control.

We will continue to focus on how we value your time. Our Operational Improvement for School Success pilot with 131 schools is looking at where we can create room for what matters most, through a different mix of resources, new processes and alignment of policies.

I know we need to keep improving and, overall, I think we are. The support for the implementation of the K-2 curriculum next year is world class. The early adopter schools have made it even better, developed with teachers for teachers.

We have launched an online Universal Resources Hub with quality-assured and evidence-based literacy and numeracy resources for teachers. Staff from almost every NSW public school have visited the Hub so far this year.

We will continue to develop and deliver strategies and programs aimed at lifting literacy and numeracy standards across NSW public schools, such as the Five Priorities for Literacy and Numeracy, and the School Success Model.

I know our work often faces cynicism, but the work to create a new career track for teachers is high-quality policy work, based on evidence, with a level of consultation and engagement our system has not seen before.

We will be doing more of this. We’re powering our work with the voice of schools – our staff, parents and students.

We have completed record numbers of recruitment actions this year and we’ve made good progress in bringing down vacancies in our priority, hard-to-staff schools, with teams working together and collaborating to bring solutions to the table.

Our students are thriving

Our work isn’t done, but it is improving. In the department and in all our schools. How do I know? Because it is shown in our results.

NSW has turned around the national trend of declining writing results in NAPLAN, showing an upward trend since 2019 for years 5, 7 and 9. In NSW, the results in our primary schools show growth in reading in all years.

Our NAPLAN results mean that NSW is one of the highest scoring jurisdictions in the fundamentals of literacy in spelling, grammar and punctuation in both primary and secondary schools.

We are now reaping the reward of making substantial investment in early years education over the past decade, with improvement in Years 3 and 5 reading, in particular. We expect those improvements at primary level to have a flow-on effect across all areas through to secondary school learning and beyond.

Around 70% of our primary schools have shown improvement on their baseline in reading top two bands, and 40% have improved in numeracy in the top two bands. In reading, 608 schools have met their targets and that number is dominated by primary schools. A further 648 schools missed their reading target by fewer than five students. In numeracy, 210 schools met their targets, again dominated by primary schools, and a further 595 schools missed by fewer than five students.

This growth in student learning is in every part of the state, despite COVID, despite the devastation of the floods. And this is because you keep showing up and keep doing the work that matters.

These results, and this analysis, doesn’t get picked up by the media. It isn’t given the space and acknowledgement it deserves.

But you need to know it, you need to take from it the confidence that our system, your schools, are seeing the fruits of our labour. We are seeing improvements despite the headwinds we have faced. It is remarkable and it is down to you.

Recovery and results in 2023

So, if that was 2022, what will 2023 bring? Let’s give it a tagline now: 2023 – the year of recovery and results.

As much as I long for stability and a year with fewer unexpected events, mostly, I want the space for recovery so that our performance continues to surprise those who take a closer look.

But how do we get results and recovery? For that, we need to work together. We need to narrow and deepen our focus, to be conscious of every task we allocate, in the Department and in our schools.

We all need to revisit our plans and strip out the nice-to-haves and focus on the must-dos. Look at your plans. Are you throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, to see what might work? Or are you consciously, methodically narrowing and deepening your focus to deliver with impact? Doing less, to deliver more, going slow to go fast in the end.

This is our collective challenge for 2023. It will be tough. Governments will have ideas and agendas to deliver. We need to navigate that. But we must do so in a way that enables our school communities to recover, so we can all share in the delight at the results that follow.

The triumphs of this year, despite the circumstances, should give us all cause to celebrate, and to be confident in our shared capacity to deliver for our current and future students.

This is an edited extract of a speech by Georgina Harrisson to the Primary Principals Association State Council on November 24.

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