Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education and welcome to Every Student. The podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. This will be my final episode as Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. It's been my absolute pleasure over the past few years to bring you conversations with great leaders and thinkers in education. Many of them right here in NSW and leaders in our NSW public education system. And today, my final guest is Georgina Harrisson.
George will be the Acting Secretary of the department when I leave on Friday this week, and she has over 20 years’ experience across a range of government agencies in NSW, Commonwealth Government, and in the UK. And most recently, George led the NSW education transformation agenda, and she was responsible for our highly regarded COVID-19 response. This episode is going to be a little bit unusual. I've got some questions for George, and then I'm going to hand over the mic and it will be my time to face the questions.
Now, George, I think lots of people in NSW Education know you and we've had you on the podcast before. But for those people who are new to you and new to you on this podcast, tell us a little bit about your story. How did you come to be in this role as Group Deputy Secretary of the NSW Department of Education and soon to be Acting Secretary of the department?
Thanks Mark, and thanks for starting off my role as Acting Secretary in one of the places I'm probably least comfortable here behind a microphone. As my accent gives away, I grew up in the UK. I come from a family where education was everything. Education was a route to a future that my grandparents could only dream of. I'll never forget my Nan telling me very distinctly at 16 years old that if I ever thought that leaving school was an option, I should think again.
And however much my grandfather told me it was time to find myself a good man, my grandmother was very clear that was not on the cards and not the right thing for me to go and do. My brother and I were the first generation to university and the first kind of professionals in the family, which was all our kind of grandparents and parents had wanted for us.
Education has been very much at the core of the transformation of my family actually, from a grandmother who started work at 12 years old as the housekeeper for the local policemen in Great Yarmouth by the seaside in Norfolk, cleaning up after other people, living in the attic, to two grandchildren who now shape the kind of world in which we live, in a way she would have found unimaginable. As I then look at education and what it means for those that were here to do, having spent 20 years in public policy, there is no other public policy more noble and more transformative than that of education.
I look at that and I think, wow, the impact you can have. I fell into civil service in the UK from university. I joined their graduate Fast Stream Program. I worked on everything from immigration to crime, to getting trains to run on time, to social housing and then I found myself in education.
Seeing the difference firsthand you can make with really good policy, formed with and by the professionals in the field, implemented by people who are skilled in the implementation and the monitoring of impact that policies can have, and that when you bring that rich diverse group of people together to have the debates we need to have, to look at the evidence that exists, and to build on the deep expertise of the people that we work with throughout the system, you can have a transformative impact on young people's lives. That's what brings me here and that's what keeps me here.
I want to talk a little bit about the School Success Model. But before we get to that, I mean, one of the jobs I threw you a bit over a year ago now was to lead our COVID-19 task force. There's been a lot of discussion about how schools managed COVID-19. Can you reflect a little bit about the leadership challenge about bringing the department together to take on that challenge here?
I think what was amazing in that period of time where all traditional boundaries fall away, because it's the only thing that matters, is that shared purpose of making sure that our children are safe, that our teachers are safe, and that we can continue the education of the young people we're here to serve. All the organisational boundaries fall away.
You have access to the best of the resources that an organisation like ours has to offer, which means you have fantastic educational expertise, sat along expert project managers, experts in procurement who can buy all the things you need to keep a school open, experts in technology who can really build the platforms that we need to make sure that kids can access the education that we can offer, and then the experts in the teaching profession who could really provide the evidence-based resources and the tools for our teachers to draw from.
And then our teachers themselves who turned on a dime to really transform the way they delivered education from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, to offer that education out to their students in a new way. You saw the commitment and passion of every single one of those people in that chain supporting our shared purpose together. That's where I think you see the phenomenal power of how the whole organisation can come together and really change things for the better.
It was a massive operational challenge and you were the general directing the troops. I think there's been a lot of complimentary statements about how the department handled COVID last year. But one of the things I suppose I reflect on a bit is that when it comes to operational matters, the department's... Yeah, we're quite good at that. I mean, it's an organisation of great scale. But today as we're speaking, now this week, students will be back at school. 800,000 students, 2,200 schools. We run a big complex system and have a strong operational focus.
Part of the challenge, I think, and certainly one of the things I've tried to focus on is how do you provide operational excellence and strength, but then at the same time, try and improve the system and to change it so that it can be more effective in delivering teaching and learning outcomes. One of the areas that you've been strongly involved in as our Group Dep Sec is around the school improvement reforms and the School Success Model. Can you tell us a little bit about the School Success Model and the focus of your work there?
The School Success Model for me really balances the needs of our schools for support to improve, the needs of our teachers for professional development and guidance and support to improve, with the accountability that comes with that for all of us in serving the students in our system. One of the things that was most important to me in the School Success Model was to get the shared accountability in the system for every single role, starting with the Secretary's position, but cascading all the way through that we all play an important part in that reform.
And if you're only there to open the doors and to run those issues every day, we're really not doing the service and justice to those young people we're there to serve. The world they are entering into is one we can't imagine. The jobs they will do are jobs that don't exist. How do we really make sure that we as the adults in this system are delivering for those young people what they need to be successful in the future.
As I look at the School Success Model, I feel the weight of that responsibility on my shoulders in the same way I hear back from our schools that they feel both the ambition for their students, but also the weight of the responsibility to improve the system for the students in their care. I think it's that partnership and that shared responsibility that we have together to deliver that well for our young people. That is at the heart of the School Success Model. And in that, there's work for all of us to do.
There's definitely work for the department to do in improving its support for teachers, in improving and strengthening the evidence-based we have for our teachers to work with, to provide really high-quality resources that are based in evidence that our teachers can draw on so don't have to go and find them all from a wide library on the internet. That we have the professional development in place that demonstrably improves practice.
Now that we can hand on heart say, "It was worth you as a teacher taking time out of your busy day to invest in your professional development, because this is the impact that will have in your classroom." There's definitely work for us to do in all of that, and there is work for us to do in improving the systems and processes and the administrative burden in schools so that our teachers get to spend their time doing the thing that only they can do, that only they can do in the classroom, improving young lives for students.
Us all playing our part is the core of the School Success Model. And I think that really draws on the lessons we learned through COVID and gives us a kind of good path forward in that ongoing partnership together.
I think when the model was first launched most people think a commitment to improvement, we've talked about that a lot, every student, every teacher, every leader of every school. I think people can see the importance of that, but there was a sense of concern of, does this really put schools on the hook, put school principals on the hook, but not anyone else? Are we trying to find someone to be accountable and therefore someone to blame? Talk a little bit more about how the shared responsibility works under the School Success Model.
The aim here is certainly not one of trying to create a blame culture. What we want to do here is create a continuous improvement and learning culture for all of us in the system. The School Success Model is based on looking at where a school actually is. How are you performing right now? Are you delivering the best possible outcomes for your students? Or actually, if we look at other schools similar to you, are there may be some other things you could be doing or trying that might have a bigger impact? And how can we in the system help connect you with those opportunities?
As we look at that kind of shared responsibility, the first thing is we've all got to have the clear-eyed objectivity of how we're doing today and be willing to face whether or not we think that's as good as it could be or whether or not there's room for improvement. The wonderful thing about education and learning is there's room for improvement for all of us. And that learning journey continues with us in our roles, in our personal lives throughout our life. The School Success Model allows for that.
It allows for us to say, "Hey, you're doing this thing really well, and we can see that in your data." What's been really interesting when you look at those ambassador schools in the School Success Model is they are doing all the things everyone in education talks about being the right things to do. They are focused on delivering the syllabus exceptionally well. They are focused on collaboration in their schools. They have a really strong focus on data in the classroom for use by teachers to improve the learning outcomes of students.
They're not focused on, what did everyone else do for me and how did I make this work? They are focused very much on the things that matter for their students in their classroom, and they are the most student-centered places you can find. If I then look through the system and say, "How do I get more of that and create more of the environment where that feels possible for everybody?" Because those schools have found a way to unshackle themselves from the administrative burden in a way that other schools feel swamped by it because of the nature of their school, the nature of their community.
How do we as a system create that same environment for all to feel like they can succeed and do the things they know matter? And as we do that, we will see the lift through the whole system and by everyone and for everyone.
It reminds me of a line I’ve referenced before from John Hattie, who would encourage you taking over the Secretary's chair to not go and travel to see the world. Not that you could anyway, but that the answers will be in the system. The answers are in the system and the system is big enough and strong enough to have just great case studies. We need to mine those case studies, but then be disciplined enough to follow what the evidence is saying. I think this is one of the big ongoing challenges we face, but I think the School Success Model helps us.
I remember pretty early on after I started, Adrian Piccoli was Minister, and he was out at a school where we're trying to bring about some significant change. And there was some changes in leadership and we're bringing some facilities together. What Adrian said was, "Well, we need to improve here. We need to see improvement in the performance of our students." There was almost bewilderment amongst the school community, the staff in the staffroom said, "No, no. This is an outstanding school. We do great work." But that's not what the evidence would show.
That's not what the data was showing. I have no doubt that those teachers were working hard and diligently and in a focused way, but the evidence suggested that the outcomes for those students across a range of measures should have been better given comparable schools, statistically similar schools. I think one of the great achievements of the School Success Model is that we do have targets out there now, not just for learning outcomes, but for equity and wellbeing measures as well. But it does say that every school is on an improvement journey now.
And as I look at the path ahead, you kind of see one of the leadership challenges here being, how do you maintain that pride in the things we already do and do so well, while also creating the room for that improvement without those things being held as oppositional points to attack each other with. How do you create the space where you can be really proud of what we do today and still really invested in the improvement for tomorrow?
I think that's one of the things I see as a system. We've got to find the space to have the conversation around.
You then look at things like the best in class unit, where the teachers that we've got working with us in that unit, the evidence shows very clearly that they are the gun teachers in the HSC in the subjects they teach. They outperform their peers relative to the population of students that they're working with year on year on year. Those teachers weren't known to us before. They weren't known to us before we went and looked at the data. They were known in their schools because you can be sure those schools wanted to keep those teachers and keep on the HSC teaching for a reason.
But we weren't harnessing that capacity for the whole system. As we look at the capacity to learn from our best, we can do that at a school level, but we can also do that at a teacher level. We need to do it at the leadership levels and just creating that capacity to share and open up and use the evidence to test what we think good is and who we think is good.
It's a good exercise for us to go through and to challenge those assumptions that we might hold based on the people we know or the people we like, all the schools we've heard about versus where the data shows us there is fantastic performance across the state.
There's a big focus now on the School Success Model and if you're outside the Department of Education, you can go to the NSW Department of Education website and find more details about this model and how it's working. But let's cast forward a couple of years, School Success Model in place and embedded in the system. What do you think? What do you hope that we're going to be able to see from a couple of years of the School Success Model?
If I think about it from the different people in the system, I hope our communities will feel that sense of improvement around their school, but commitment to improvement and they will feel engaged in that, and they will know that that's occurring. There'll be a buzz around that agenda in communities across the state. Our teachers will know that to do their best work, they can rely on us in the Department of Education for the support they need to do that and to grow in their professional capacity and that they can rely on that support being there when they need it.
That our leaders will know also that they can draw in the support for their teams from the department. It will be reliable, it will be high quality. And that we are collectively growing that capacity for leadership and running the system into the future. In the department, you will hear and see people talking about students and talking about their service to students in schools.
And that the way we will think about the way our services are delivered are not through the bits of the organisation we sit in or the service we deliver, but on the impact that service will have where it matters, which is in our schools for our students every single day.
George, like the Minister Sarah Mitchell, you've got young children. You have two children in primary school. How does that give you a perspective on young people and learning and the challenges that our schools face?
I guess the first thing is I'm really, really aware of the challenge of people who aren't educators, who have only been at school or parents of kids in schools having a view on education. And that's a really tricky space, isn't it? Because education is in every community and for everyone. Therefore, of course, everyone has a view.
But as a parent, what I see and what I hope for, for my children is that they get the opportunity to have their eyes open to the world, have their capacity to think independently, to form their own views, to take information that the world will throw at them, to adapt that to the circumstances they're in, and to succeed in their lives to be the most important thing that education will give them. And in doing that, it will open their eyes up to all they'll continue to learn.
If I look at the last year and the flexibility our young people had to show in Australia, thankfully, for a very short space of time, relatively to the rest of the world. And if you look globally, the impact of this pandemic on a generation of young people is going to be quite profound, I think, on a global scale. But for us here in Australia, the capacity for our young people to respond to the unknown, because the thing the last year showed us, more than anything, is the unknown is here and it can happen and it will happen. I want my kids to be prepared for that.
School is teaching them the content of the syllabus, but on top of that, teaching them to think about the world they are in and the world they want to be in and be part of and taking on the capacity to shape that for the future. Having young kids in school at this time, as I take in this role, reminds me of the hope that we need to have for all our young people in the future. It reminds me daily why that ambition is so important. Because if we are not doing the best by them, then that is going to cost all of us later on. It's part of what fires you every day, not only for your own kids, but for all those kids across the state.
Mark, you've put me in the uncomfortable hot seat for long enough. If I turn the tables on you now, as you come to the end of your time here in the Department of Education, going on to other education roles, what is it that you're going to look back on and reflect on with the most pride from the last period of time?
I think there are two things really, George. I think the last year was a very big year for us. In a sense, two things happened. One was the managing of COVID, and I think I learned a lot through that. The department, as we know, is vast and can be lumbering from time to time. But boy, when the crisis hit was nimble and focused, and nimble and focused at a school level, but also nimble and focused at the centre with everybody coming in and working. I suppose I was challenged, I remember having conversations with the Premier at that time about, can we take that focus around managing COVID and then apply it to the other challenges we knew we had around school improvement. So big changes, and part of that was the roll out of the School Improvement Model. I think the ability to focus not just on running the system, but changing the system and improving the system and putting that at the centre of all we do and bringing a real focus to bear. It's never an easy time to leave, and it's a bit like painting the Harbour Bridge, you never quite get it done.
But I do feel that the focus we have now on improvement, the quality of the senior leadership team have put in place, the focus around the School Improvement Model and the School Success Model, I mean, I think that absolutely puts us in good stead that we will see the lift that we want to see in learning outcomes and student wellbeing.
I think the other thing that I felt a lot about and then reflected on quite a bit is the fact that we really do stand in the stead of parents when they send their young people to school each day.
That a parent's expectation is that their son or daughter will be known, valued and cared for in and around the school environment. That they will have an expectation that their young people will be improving every year. It's kind of easy at the centre just to think of the scale, 800,000 students, but really it's 800,000 individual young people. I think that commitment and the language, but then in the policies we've rolled out around wellbeing and then around improvement have proven to be significant as well.
I hope and I know that that has resonated with our school communities and I think that will continue to grow and build over time. I think it truly is a terrific education system, but we want it to be Australia's finest and one of the best in the world. I think we've now laid the platform where we can be confident that that will happen in the years ahead.
As you look to those that you've represented, the 800,000 students, you've often used the metaphor for the leadership team of being in the centre of the Allianz Stadium and having it packed full and the decisions you're making are for that. What's your advice to that team as they take this agenda forward?
The real challenge is not to just be drawn back into the operational pressure every day. That there will be a myriad operational demand that come to bear, but the challenge is yes, to operate and lead the system well in its daily operations, but at the same time, be constantly challenging around how we learn from the best of what the best of doing, how we then improve, and how we put the supporting infrastructure in place to drive that improvement. The challenge is to keep driving an evidence-based improvement model rather than just run the system well.
In order to do that, I think there is a need to be connected and engaged with best practice out there in the coalface. Our days can be very full in these corporate jobs, dealing with Ministers and Minister's Offices and cabinet committees and executive meetings and leadership meetings and meeting with principals groups and teachers groups, and TAFE and NESA. The diary can be full of meetings.
I think it's very important not to get too far away from the lived experience of teachers in classrooms all across the state, not just in the city, but in rural areas and remote areas as well. My wife would say to me that I was always happiest in the job when I've been out and about in schools and learning from the practical lived experience of those who are doing it each day. I think you were part of this, I look back happily on the experiences we had on the road shows with principals, where over a couple of weeks we'd get in front of the best part of 2,000 school principals.
We'd talk with them. We'd listen to them. We'd stand for hours listening to questions, and you'd always come back with a richer insight on where the support is needed. And you'd think again about how best you put supporting infrastructure in place to support people on the ground in practice. I think it is to focus on improvement, but to be informed on how best to do that by exposure to good practice and challenging questions from the field.
Mark, before you step away, you've been really central to making this a student-focused organisation, to make clear to everyone in the organisation, there are only two jobs: you're either teaching young people, or you're supporting those who do. What's your message to those 800,000 young people in our system?
Firstly, I'm very pleased they're listening to this podcast. I had no idea, but I'm really thrilled that I get the opportunity to continue on in education. I've reflected... My story's a little bit different to yours. I've talked a little bit in recent times about the privilege that I've come to understand. I don't think when you're privileged, you always understand that you're privileged.
But as I've sat in the department, as I've talked with teachers and leaders, I come to understand I’m coming from a home that really heavily valued education, that always had an expectation that I'd go to university. With role models all around me who had done that, there was a sense that I learned very early on that education was a priority, was very important, and there was absolute no doubt at all that education was an important part of my life journey.
I can see in the department that not every young person comes from that background, that not every young person will have those role models around. How important is it for our system to provide those role models and those examples for young people to realise, to get the foundation that they need in our schools for lifelong learning and for the value of education to be shared as an instinctive part of all that we do in our schools. It is the passport to life's opportunities. There's a great line by the American writer Saul Bellow who says that, "Words are the poor man's arsenal."
That's how you fight and, in a sense, rise to take advantage of all the opportunities that life has to offer. And that's part of the weight and the responsibility of working in a great school system. It's providing those opportunities to young people. That's why I used to keep referencing the line, students are at the centre of all we do. And then there's a trap at times that when you're in a big department, that the hero of the department can be the department. We can be self-referential.
We can keep on thinking about all the challenges we have in running the place, but our decision-making is easier when we put students at the centre. I would just encourage young people to take advantage of all the opportunities that education can offer. It can take you to places that you would have never imagined. I think of you and me and the roles that we've been given, you would have never conceived that that would have been a possibility.
And certainly the job I'm going to now at the university, I never conceived that that would have been a possibility, but all those things have been made possible through education and the support and the vision that education can give to young people.
Thanks, Mark, and thanks for your candour and time this morning. I think there's no doubt that you have been the lead learner of this system over the past four to five years. You have absolutely for all of us instilled the sense of lifelong learning, and that that is the path for our young people today, as much as it is the path for all of those that are in the system now. Thank you very much for your time.
End of transcript.