• Secretary's update

Every Student Podcast Georgina Harrisson and Jane Simmons

Department education leaders Georgina Harrisson and Jane Simmons talk to Mark Scott on continuity of student learning in this special COVID-19 edition.


Mark Scott

Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education.

I'm here today with two leaders in our NSW Department of Education, Georgina Harrisson, who's Deputy Secretary of People and System Performance, and Jane Simmons, Executive Director Continuity of Education. Jane and George are both working with the COVID-19 task force. So we're going to be talking about the continuity of learning. Welcome to you both.

Georgina Harrisson

Thanks, Mark.

Jane Simmons

Thanks, Mark.

Mark Scott

We're sitting here at Parramatta, appropriately socially distancing. The day we're recording this is the day that we're really opening our schools up for one day a week for our students, even though we've been open throughout the COVID-19 disruption.

You've both been working closely on the department's response to the COVID-19 crisis and for the first few weeks, George, you headed up the task force. The big focus was on continuity of learning. Can you talk about why we thought that was so important and the initial steps we've put in place around continuity of learning?

Georgina Harrisson

Sure. So I think for all of us, education is an essential cornerstone of our community. It's so important for us that our students throughout the disruption we could see coming, wouldn't lose the momentum in their education.

Kindergarten students who have just started school, Year 7 students who have just started high school, we wanted to make sure they could continue to learn. We wanted to make sure they could stay connected to their school and their community. And we wanted to make sure that we could take an interest and understanding of their wellbeing through that time.

So Jane and her team established a Continuity of Education team who have been working tirelessly to build the resources to help our teachers because the other thing we knew was our workforce would have to adapt and do something differently, which meant we needed to go and look at how we could support them to do that. And Jane, you worked exceptionally hard with a very talented group of professionals in the organisation to pull together that assistance for our teachers.

Jane Simmons

Yeah, we certainly did, George. We had a team that really got in and realised that we needed to create a backbone that was going to be able to support our teachers in the field, a backbone that had advice around how to deliver learning online.

We had professional learning available as part of that and we pulled together resources from right across the department, resources from our distance education schools and resources from other schools, right across the system. We were able to build a backbone in a really quick timeframe. Yes, George, it was a week we were able to build that backbone for our system.

Mark Scott

That is the remarkable thing I think about our experience with COVID-19, the speed on which we had to move quickly. And when Term 1 started, there was noise out of China and there were policy decisions being made around the return of international students. But to really go in a matter of weeks to thinking through we could suffer significant disruption and then a very short period of time from that really having the vast majority of our kids learning from home.

We've had long experience with distance education and correspondence education. But part of the opportunities that came here was taking advantage of digital technology. So how did you think through equipping our staff to be able to teach remotely and teach students from home? What were the challenges we had to deal with there?

Jane Simmons

The challenge we had was we wanted to be able to put a device in the hand of students. We also needed to upskill teachers really quickly around the use of some of our online platforms. We leveraged off the professional learning that we already had in train. So there was professional learning we had in train. We built on that. It was professional learning that was available in real-time, but it was also recorded so people could learn about Google, they could learn about Microsoft, and utilise that learning to actually help inform their decisions about what learning would look like in the classroom.

So how did we build the capacity of teachers really quickly? We put a lot of advice up on the system. We built not just a few days of professional learning, it was ongoing. So for example, even during the school holidays, after the first couple of weeks of learning online, we had teachers, around 9,000 teachers every day undertaking professional learning so they could learn more about how to use the digital learning platforms.

Mark Scott

I used to visit schools and ask school principals, "What percentage of your teachers really use technology to transform the way teaching and learning took place?" And I think often principals would say, "Around about 30%." There were some very innovative, early adopters of all this, but there were plenty of other teachers, probably teachers of my generation for whom could find some of it quite intimidating, but everybody is really needed to get on board with a professional development program here.

Jane Simmons

Yes, they certainly have. We've got examples of schools where every teacher has been delivering online. They've utilised some of their own platforms that they might've developed locally.

For example, Carrington Public School is a small K-6 school up in Newcastle with around 120 students in the school. And they've created their own learning from home hub where they've dedicated pages for each teacher. They've got Google forms embedded in the system. They've got a weekly timetable that's there to guide the parents about what the week looks like. And in that system, the teachers uploaded instructional videos. So that's an example of a school that's really gone completely online.

Then you've got other schools that realise that there was not equitable access for students. So they utilised other ways, which was learning packs, delivered learning packs, designed learning packs. So teachers have really thought through what's going to work in their local context. And we're really conscious of that when we were putting everything up on our system.

We knew that there were some schools where there was limited internet access or the students wouldn't have access to a device easily and so on. So we wanted to make sure that we were able to meet the needs of the 2,200 public schools in our system.

Mark Scott

I was out in some schools and wherein a sense distance learning was almost more traditional in some respects, photocopies of materials being done, packs of materials being picked up and dropped off by parents. But we have to cater for all the range of our students.

George, what insights do you think we've got about the technology demands that we face, and particularly, I suppose the differences that exist in the technology platforms in students' homes?

Georgina Harrisson

It's been an incredible insight we've had into the lives of our students and those of our teachers. I think the thing that has astounded me through this process is the passion and commitment our staff have shown and getting to grips with that new technology. Those that might have been nervous with it beforehand, really throwing themselves in and really getting to grips with it quickly and becoming the expert so they can support those families at home.

We've really seen challenges in families where, of course, who has five computers? If you've got three children, and suddenly everyone in the house needs to use whatever devices you have. So I think we've really seen the pressure of the pandemic as it is rolled through the community, play into those home lives that our students are trying to learn within. We've seen the access to devices has been a real issue in many of our communities. But we've also seen our schools come up with lots of different ways to deliver support.

We've managed to secure lots of extra devices, and we've worked really hard to get those out to those students who need them most. So Year 12 students really wanted to make sure that they weren't disadvantaged because they couldn't access the school computers. So we managed to purchase them, get them to schools in a priority order and we continue to work that through. But really what we've found is that we've really got to think about the moment, the context, the student learning is happening in, and that that is going to need to be flexible.

It means that there are some times when students and families are working through the school day, but then picking up some things outside the school day. So I think that the fluidity of the day across everyone's lives has been a real insight for us as we think about what that might mean moving forward.

Mark Scott

Let me just come back to the technology, and then I want to talk about what we've learned about how children are learning from home. I saw that lots of our schools which had computers or tablets would be sending those devices home. So what have we got in the schools? But it was an insight that someone shared, very hard to do with a desktop computer, a lot easier to do with a tablet or a laptop. So I think it may even influence our purchasing strategies in the future.

In a way I think we've been very focused on devices at school and have thought less around devices at home to supplement learning at school. And whether in fact, we will have strategies that come into place that say; actually we are purchasing for schools recognising that there'll be this movement of these devices to home and back, far more often in the future.

Georgina Harrisson

I think it's been an interesting cycle. Because governments have previously done, specifically, that investment of a laptop for every child. I think the way we used to buy things meant they went out of date very quickly and we were stuck with hardware, but with new leasing arrangements and different ways of operating, we've managed to explore during this process. I think it's a real opportunity for us to think about how we do supplement that learning at home and how we make it easier for every child to access the wealth of resources available to them.

Jane Simmons

We've learned from this that there are certain devices that meet various needs of students. So whether you're in Kindergarten or in Year 10, there might be a different device that meets different needs. So, for example, an iPad is really more suitable for the primary school age than it is for high school because of the nature of the learning.

So, one of the things that we also know is that you need a certain specification of devices as well. You just can't use a basic laptop device. You need a device that's actually going to be able to work within our Google Suite, within our Microsoft 365, also be able to use Zoom. And also some of the other platforms that schools are using and the newly acquired platforms that we've got that are enabling learning to occur.

So you need the right specifications. That is also going to be robust enough to be able to move between the school and home and also allow students to have a successful learning experience. Because it's like all things, if you don't have the right tools, you're not going to be able to have a successful experience. So, I think that's really going to set us up for the future; this is the specification we need for this to be successful in the home.

Mark Scott

One of the things I think we learnt in those few weeks of Term 1, as every school in a sense just went out and tried to set this up themselves was a sense of, "What is the right amount of work for students at home?" And I think particularly for those in the more junior years, Stages 1 and 2, I think we came to a view that said, "Well, a good day's work may not be a solid six hours in front of the screen." What did we learn about the load that we should be providing for students in those early years?

Jane Simmons

We learnt very quickly, in the first week there were some schools that got feedback from their parent community to say that, "You provided too much work." And I heard examples of schools where, even in secondary schools, the students were working several hours a day. In fact, I know of a school that undertook a survey with the community, and they got feedback that the students were doing more learning online than their parents were actually working online, at the same time. So we knew that there was that sense of cognitive overload. We're providing too much.

There's been some schools, particularly primary schools, starting to look at the second week. I can think of some schools that really looked at maybe a couple of hours a day online, and then the rest can be sort of a more blended experience.

So we started to give more advice around what that whole week should look like. And we backed that up with the support and materials that we provided on our website around what the timetable could look like for the week. So we learned really quickly that too much work was too much for students to engage with.

Georgina Harrisson

I think the other lesson that came out of that was just how important the partnership with parents and the school community is. And so there’s schools that have managed that really well. Other schools that were going and communicating with their local community about how the students were going. And so I think we've really seen how important that relationship is. And where it's working well, it works exceptionally well. So you can balance and adjust quickly to the needs of young people.

I think the other work we did to really try and supplement that and support both our teachers and families at home, was the work you were involved in, Jane, with the ABC and then in getting those extra lessons available for people to engage in. You might want to share a bit of that.

Jane Simmons

Yeah, thanks, George. The ABC initiative has been a great initiative because you've got a schedule of ABC programs that are accessible for everyone who has access to a television. So, and that's accessible for K-10. So it meets the needs of a large number of our students. And we worked with the ABC, and we also worked with Victoria education system to design some resources to support that education program.

We haven't done that before. And that's been a great initiative, and that's something that will be there for a long time. You'll have the programs, and they'll be sitting in the archives with ABC. But we'll also have those resources to be able to support that. And we've had really positive feedback about that. So, there was something that was online but also something else that was part of that ABC initiative.

Mark Scott

I'm hopeful that will continue afterwards. If you go back a generation or more; schools programming was a big part of what the ABC did. If you're of my generation, you'll remember watching schools programming during classes or it being recorded and played back later. But I think they've had a huge response to it and to work closely with our curriculum to have great resources available online, I think has really been a terrific national partnership around that kind of initiative.

What did we learn about the kind of support that parents need to make learning from home as successful as it can be?

Georgina Harrisson

I think the first thing is that it's been really important that we've acknowledged the stresses parents have been under during this time. It hasn't been; come and have your child learning from home while you do nothing else. For many of our parents, they are working from home. They're under the additional stress and anxiety the community has felt through this pandemic. And so we've needed to really think about that from the parent's perspective. I think our parents have seen an incredible insight into the work of our profession and in the work of teachers. I don't think you'll find a parent who really thinks they're doing all the teaching.

They know that they're getting quality resources from school, that all of that thinking and preparation has gone in beforehand. But they have seen that keeping the focus of a child, keeping them engaged and concentrating on their learning is a task in itself. On top of then providing the resources and education content for them to engage in. I think our parents have had an incredible insight into us, through that process and into the work of schools and I think that's an incredibly positive benefit to come out of this time.

I think we've seen our parents sometimes challenged by that. You certainly see it on social media, and you see it coming through in the mum's groups that I'm a part of. The "how on earth are we going to manage this for another week" narrative plays through. And so I think it will be interesting to see how parents respond as we have this managed return to school. I think you'll see parents really delighted that their children can get back into the classroom, really appreciative of the work teachers are doing to make that possible.

Mark Scott

I'm struck at some of the commentary we've seen in recent days. I think this hiatus has just demonstrated how important school is for kids, how excited kids are to be back, to see their teachers, to see their peers, to engage in the importance of the classroom learning experience.

I think things that we once took for granted that we value, one is the school experience. The other one is extraordinary expertise and wisdom of teachers in crafting learning experiences every day.

It's been a bit of debate around HSC students. We've done research to look at what the provision is for HSC students. And even though they're not back full time, we're seeing in many schools that are engaged with them three or four days a week, these next couple of weeks.

Georgina Harrisson

I don't think there's been a single one of our high schools that hasn't been focused on their Year 12 cohort and really conscious of the impact of this disruption for them in a sense above others as they face this crucial year of schooling. As our schools have been planning for the return, many had already been giving some access to their Year 12 students to come in complete works, to have engagement with teachers in a variety of ways. As our schools have responded to the managed return, they've really put a focus on how do we get every student back, but how do we create that bit more room for our Year 12s? How do we create that little bit of extra space so they can come in and continue with their learning and get the support they need?

It's been incredible to see the varying way schools have done that. From adjusting the whole timetable –a feat in itself in a high school context – to have just the morning for the day a week, and then keeping afternoons clear for Years 11 and 12 to come in and engage with their teachers. And we've just got a whole array of various ways schools and staff have sought to engage that cohort.

Mark Scott

I think we'd be hoping that by the time they're 17 or 18, our Year 12 students are most equipped to have in a sense responsibility for their learning in a way the disrupted approach they've had in recent weeks. As many of them go on to higher education, it's going to be more of the model that they're operating in next year. And whether in class or working at school or working at home, we hope there's a good structured learning plan in place for all of them.

Jane, you've been a school principal and a very experienced educator. What advice would you be giving to Year 12 students and parents of Year 12 students given the disruption and given where we are now?

Jane Simmons

I think what we've done with Year 12 in particular, NESA have provided some flexibility around how the curriculum can be delivered. One particularly around the assessment and that there's certainly flexibility locally.

There's a lot of differentiation occurring in schools, secondary schools. They've arranged the day so that students can start later. So they've got students who've got time in the morning so utilise the time they've got.

Where the schools have arranged for tutorial type of experiences with the teacher, I think that's a great initiative because that's setting themselves up for that one-on-one interaction and utilise those opportunities. So if the school has set up a time for a student to be involved in a one-on-one experience with a teacher, with social distancing, of course, utilise that opportunity and make sure that you do go.

I think the way that schools have started to think about the different needs of the different courses and the different requirements within those courses, allowing that differentiated approach, I think is a great opportunity for students to engage differently. And I think we're setting them up for a future where you might not have Year 12 at school every day, every week.

It might be something different that is really going to position them for tertiary education because tertiary education is going to go that way as well. So utilising the time that's there and make sure you get everything done on time that we've also got reduced assessment times as well.

Mark Scott

I sit on this NESA subcommittee that looks at how the HSC is going to run this year and when we first met six or seven weeks ago, I think we would have thought there'll be no major works. We'll have disruption all the way through Term 2 and probably into Term 3 and I think we could have thought that the HSC itself was unlikely to have exams.

I think there's great benefit for HSC students. The way that the community has responded to social distancing, the dramatic reduction in COVID-19 cases. And even though it feels like it's been difficult, it's good to remember that it's still early May. Those exams don't actually start until October.

To a degree, yes, it's been disruptive, but everyone's been disrupted, now we've just got to get onto it. I think one of the things I'm encouraging HSC students, it's always an anxious year, but don't add anxiety to anxiety. You can do this. This is going to be okay. Just remain focused on the challenge at hand, do what you can do, and it's going to work out okay.

I actually think it's going to be quite a good year to be an HSC student trying to go to university, if that's what you're interested in, because there are going to be fewer international students, universities are going to be desperate to get good students in. I think there are going to be great offers in place for this year's Year 12 students who will be well equipped to go onto that kind of activity.

Let's move to things that I never thought we'd have to discuss: toilet paper, sanitiser and the massive logistical effort that we've had to get our schools ready again to open up.

George, you're involved in warehouses and trucks and distribution, supply chain management. How did all that come about? And talk a little bit about that challenge.

Georgina Harrisson

In the first instance, as the COVID-19 pandemic broke and we were looking at the impact on schools. The first thing we wanted to do was keep the doors open fully for as many students as possible for as long as possible.

We certainly didn't want, as the market supplies of soap across Australia dried up, for it to be a lack of soap that was the thing that meant our schools couldn't continue to operate. That wasn't the thing we would ever have wanted to be the thing that closed doors.

So we got imaginative. We started securing soap where no one else was going. So we took the hotel soap, not the thing our schools would have ever thought they'd be putting out in their bathrooms. But very clearly, if soap was going to be the thing we needed, we'd take what we could get and we'd use it appropriately.

Amazing insights into how you run a distribution network from nowhere as an organisation in a period of two weeks, we stood up a warehouse, a packing facility, a distribution network to get essential supplies out to schools. And not just schools, to our early childhood centres across the state too. Never did we think we would be sourcing nappies and baby food and shipping it out. But that was the need, and that was the need that we needed to meet.

What you see is the rallying of people together to come and do things differently, to find the things you need, and to really focus on what it is our schools need. You've always said, Mark, there are only two jobs in the department, those who teach students and those who support those who teach students. We've firmly put ourselves in that second category and done whatever it'll take to get those supplies out.

We've had hundreds of corporate staff turning up at warehouses, packing boxes of sanitiser. We've had people from across the organisation when the one package that we got notification of late Friday hadn't been delivered, got in his car with the sanitiser from the warehouse and drove it there so that no one would need to worry about that when they opened their doors to more students today.

Absolutely clear that as the doors opened this morning, the only thing our schools should need to worry about is those students coming through their doors. Not whether or not they had access to the supplies they needed to operate safely.

Mark Scott

If you think through how schools are going to operate in these next couple of weeks, as we have a stage return, what are the important things that school leaders are reflecting on to ensure that they've got a safe learning environment in a pandemic world?

Georgina Harrisson

I think the first thing is that we know the risk for students is really low. The transmission rates, the viral load in young people is just not the same as it has been in adults, the research has been showing us from around the world and from here in NSW.

I think the first thing leaders are worrying about is actually how they manage for their staff. How they make sure their staff can interact with each other safely. How they can make sure the adults around the school community aren't breaching that social distancing requirement so that they can continue to provide the education they all want to be providing.

Our teachers are so excited about having their students back in today. You’ve seen across the state messages of how much staff have been missing their students. So I know everyone's really excited to have those students back in front of them today.

I think our leaders will really be worrying for, how do we keep the adults appropriately social distanced? How do we make sure teachers when they want that cup of tea and their much-needed break times are able to access that cup of tea without having a gathering of everyone in a staff room?

How do we make sure we're separating out in that way? Then I think, really, the routines of schools. When do people have access to and wash your hands? When do you wipe down a desk? When am I picking something up that I just need to be conscious about? As an adult, to get conscious about things we've not thought about before will be a challenge for all of us as we move into the next phase.

Mark Scott

Jane, finally, such a massive disruption to schooling this year at an unprecedented level. What have we learned from it and how will we be different on the other side? What are some insights we can draw from the things we have learned over these recent weeks?

Jane Simmons

I think we've learnt... we've always known this, but the relationship between a student and a teacher is a really special relationship, and that's really been emphasised. We've seen that in social media, we've seen that in some of the things that schools have done to really reinforce that.

We've got examples where schools have followed up individually with students, even across the school holidays to do a check-in. There was a roster for teachers to follow up with students during the online learning period but also during the school holidays to see how they're going.

We've been able to introduce virtual counselling process where we've got virtual counselling like telehealth. Who would have thought we were going to do that six months ago? That's really a great step forward on the back of the bushfires and now during the pandemic, having that as an option for us around providing wellbeing support, that's certainly a learning.

One of the things I've also noticed is that schools are doing some really unique things to engage students in a virtual way. For example, St Ives High School has got a virtual art gallery online, so you can actually go and look at their art gallery.

Ryde Secondary College has got a wellbeing hub area where you can actually go and have a look at, some examples of music you can listen to, but other information about relieving anxiety, there's connection to the calming app and all of those sorts of things.

There's lots of different things that people are now utilising to look at how you can engage with community. I think that goes a long way to us preparing for a different way of how you might engage with schools.

I know of schools that have already started parent-teacher interviews and using Zoom to undertake that. There are different things that people are doing to engage with parents and we're hearing that parents are enjoying that type of interaction but so are the students.

For example, there's a story of one student really loved the fact that every couple of days, it was the principal ringing to see how he was travelling. It's those sorts of things that I think really position us for schools doing things really differently on how they will engage with community.

Mark Scott

George, what are the insights? It's a big department, 2,200 schools. Are there system-wide learnings for us here?

Georgina Harrisson

I think there's a lot we'll learn and do differently on the other side of this. The first is just in the work that Jane and her team has done, how quickly we can pull together support resources for our system when we put our mind to it on a very focused effort.

I think the questions that raises for us are, how do we get those right people together in a room more often around the key things that matter to deliver those resources and supports out to the system in a timely way?

The focus of professional development is a real learning for us to see how quickly we have managed to transform the use of technology in our system through a dedicated, targeted effort in professional development because that's the only thing teachers worried about learning for a period of time. I think it's a really important lesson for us as we look at how we want to upskill teachers in different methods moving forward and making sure we get that focus right. I think that will be really important.

The other is about this relationship between technology and learning and how we are going to get that right. We have a big IT area. We have a big teaching and learning area. How do we bring those together for the longterm to make sure that we're really seeing and leveraging the benefits that we've seen so far?

I think we've seen huge opportunity, and as we look at the education for a changing world initiatives that have been running from the department, there's a real opportunity for us to harness those things and move forward for the best interest of our students.

Mark Scott

Thanks, George. Thanks, Jane. Thanks for your leadership and tireless efforts to support our schools in recent weeks during this great disruption. Thanks to all our school leaders and all who work in our school settings for the way they’ve put students at the centre and been committed to student learning during this time of great disruption. We're looking forward to having all our students back in our schools very soon. Thanks for joining us today on the Every Student Podcast.

Mark Scott

Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice, or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast.

If you know someone who is a remarkable, innovative educator that we could all learn from, you can get in touch with us by Twitter @nsweducation, on Facebook or email everystudentpodcast@det.nsw.edu.au

Thanks again and I'll catch you next time.

End of transcript.

Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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