- Secretary's update
Our shared responsibility for student success
19 February 2021
Keynote speech presented at the Sydney Morning Herald Schools Summit.
Let me start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. Today I’d especially like to recognise the resilient continuity of cultural, spiritual and education practices of Aboriginal peoples across NSW. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and extend my respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with us today.
The distance we still have to travel together, to reach an education system and a society that enables all Aboriginal young people to thrive and succeed, underscores the importance of what I want to talk to you about today – our accountability to every student in our state and the shared responsibility we have to provide all the advantages of a world-class education.
Make no mistake. We must be as ambitious for the students of NSW as any education system you could find in any country in the world.
The difference we can make in the lives of children each and every day – and through this, to their future beyond schooling – is the moral imperative of education. It fuels our ambition. Working hard today to secure their tomorrows.
The department’s Strategic Plan, released in 2018, speaks of our shared purpose to prepare young people for rewarding lives as engaged citizens, in our complex and demanding society. This last year – from droughts to fires to pandemics, gives just a sense of how complex, how demanding and fast-changing their world will be.
The power and the promise of education has never been clearer and more urgent for our young people. Education has the great privilege and profound responsibility of being the ultimate ‘upstream’ public service – a universal entitlement to have your eyes opened, your heart lifted, your mind expanded and your future full of hope. Our success in providing that service is the best assurance we have for a society of engaged and successful citizens in the generations ahead. Our work is nation-building at its absolute essence.
And while we may all be called upon to innovate in how schooling is delivered from time-to-time – whether in a community ravaged by bushfires or teaching remotely for a period in the grip of a pandemic – we do so in order to continue laying the strong foundation from which young people can flourish and be active learners, now and throughout their lives.
One of the overarching goals – simple to say, hard to achieve – that has guided the department since we released our Strategic Plan is that in NSW we want every student, every teacher, every leader and every school to improve every year. From wherever they are starting and recognising the many and varied contexts across our state, everyone is moving forward, showing progress, lifting.
We need adults constantly learning in every role – teachers, administrative staff, school leaders and corporate staff and all working together – to ensure every student is experiencing success and growth as confident, engaged and independent learners.
It is not hard in our system to find fantastic success stories of individual students who have achieved incredible results. Their stories often speak to the transformative impact that school can have.
Take the story of Isabella Pearson, a proud Kamilaroi woman who was Dux of Maitland Grossman High School in 2019 and through the support of her family and community – particularly her grandmother with whom she lived during her HSC – attained an ATAR of 96.6. Isabella has a strong connection to community and culture inherited from her father’s kinship, and also credited her teachers in playing a “pivotal role” in her achievement. She is now enrolled in the Joint Medical Program at the University of Newcastle – a door opened by the investment made in her future through public education.
We must celebrate examples like Isabella’s, but also never let them make us complacent that these opportunities are yet open to all. We know her experience is not everyone’s experience. One of the imperatives of our focus on education reform is that those that most stand to benefit from a stronger, more inclusive, constantly improving education system, too often fail to experience the full benefits from schooling that should be on offer.
Similarly, we are able to identify, celebrate and share the stories of whole schools, which with great leadership, clarity of purpose and a motivated team, have changed the trajectories of so many of their students. For instance, Coonabarabran High School where the laser-like focus on classroom practice, reinforced by cross-curricular professional learning and a culture of high expectations, sees them significantly outperforming statistically similar schools at the HSC and consistently showing high value add measures from Year 9 to Year 12 over the past decade.
And lifting a whole system’s performance is another kind of challenge again. It cannot be about 2,200 individual schools all seeking to improve in isolation. Strength should come from the system. From focused and strategic support to the professionals in those schools. To improve a whole system, you need to see it systemically and recognise where local decisions and actions are needed, but also where the system needs to take the strain. If the aim is to make improvement the norm not an exception – with every student and every school improving – we need a shared expectation and commitment across classrooms, across schools – as well as between schools and those who are privileged to support them from corporate roles in the Department of Education.
There is strong evidence from systems that have seen improvement at scale.
It’s certainly the case in Ontario, Canada, which over the course of a decade first achieved and then sustained a significant improvement in student outcomes, reflected in their rankings in the PISA international assessments. There was clear focus by schools, with strong support from the system. They saw the benefit for students in focusing on a small number of ambitious goals, including literacy and numeracy, and also sought to build public confidence in education. They built capacity at all levels, with clarity on the effective classroom practices that would support student success. And then they looked for and spread the learning from within the system, with the support and facilitation from their department.[i]
We are surely no less ambitious for our students than the teachers and leaders of systems like Ontario that have transformed their results they have seen from their teaching. On the balance of different measures we can apply, we see significant variation within our system – even when you compare schools from similar contexts. For all Australian systems, the domestic and international comparisons over more than a decade have been disappointing, despite our recent lift in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). We must do better to reach our stated aim of being Australia’s best education system and one of the finest in the world.
We can see others have lifted at scale. For our students, we need to lift. But our achievement will not come from simplistically taking a blueprint from East Asia or the Nordic states. It is to take robust evidence and apply it effectively for our own complex settings. I am always heartened by the advice of John Hattie who has told Australian Education Ministers and Secretaries the same thing over the past decade: to abandon global study tours because the answers lie within – we need to learn how the best are applying evidence in our schools to see a sustained transformational impact on their students, year after year.
The School Success Model we launched in December is our opportunity in NSW to see that kind of change. It provides a whole-system approach to supporting schools at all stages of their improvement journeys, with an understanding of each school’s context, diversity, and ambitions. It is based on international evidence on school governance and system performance improvement, but it is distinctively our own. It is learning from the compelling and sustained performance of our schools from a wide range of contexts and settings across the state. We have been transparent about the research that underpins the Model, which we published earlier this month.
The School Success Model reflects our shared responsibility for young lives and sets the expectation on all of us to be accountable for the impact of our work on students.
Few debates in education are as noisy and unproductive for our students, as the allergic reactions to the topic of accountability. We can get hot and scratchy, like someone is trying to pin us with the blame. It can sometimes seem that accountability itself is a dirty word. We can get fixated on extreme ideological models from schools and systems a long way from here. The ideological heat in the debate rarely sheds much light on what serves the interests of our students and the public trust in education. And what the right thing is for us to do now, for our students.
To be accountable, at its simplest, means you are expected to be able to give an account of your actions and decisions. It is because we see educators as professionals, that we are accountable in this way, as are other professions which have their work guided by evidence, protocols and share understandings of best practice. And just as accountability can be thought of as the expectation and ability to give an account, so too responsibility is the expectation and ability to respond to what you find and act within your sphere of influence to improve it.
If we are wanting the best for students underpinning all we seek to do, of course we will want to ask a few simple questions:
- How are we doing and how do we know?
- What’s working well?
- What’s getting in the way?
And understanding those answers, asking
- What are we going to do next?
The School Success Model provides a platform by which we can account for the performance of our students and guide support for the improvement journey of every school. It provides a new clarity of responsibilities across the system for how we will learn and improve together, whatever role we play.
Because in a system, it is not enough for each of us to feel accountable. Being accountable – giving your account – is necessarily a public act, because achieving improvement is necessarily a collective enterprise. We will only effectively deliver for our students by working supportively together.
We know the data we have can only ever be a proxy for the rich human stories that lie behind it. Nonetheless, when used well, focused use of student performance data can foster a sense of urgency. It can test the clarity and the strength of our ideas and actions. It can forge coalitions of support around the most intractable problems by making clear what each of us must do to create the conditions for improvement.
And crucially, this is not a one-size fits all approach. Where there are targets these are context-based, set in partnership with schools, and considered alongside a range of complementary performance indicators, including student wellbeing measures. The policy has a strong equity focus: providing most support to the schools that need it the most, and recognising high-performance based on sustained student growth.
In a strong system we recognise that there will inevitably be limits to the ability of individual teachers or school leaders to respond to the complex challenge of improvement. That’s why responsibilities are shared across the system and at different levels.
Take the example of ensuring the supply of well qualified and effective teachers. When a school leader accounts for their students’ outcomes, they may highlight that the difficulties they face in attracting and recruiting qualified teachers in certain subjects as a limiting factor. That does not exempt them from the responsibilities of trying to ensure a broad and deep education for every student, but it does highlight that there are responsibilities that the principal cannot shoulder alone.
One principal cannot solve for the supply constraints of a whole workforce – it is at that point that we look to the system support that corporate teams in the department are responsible for providing. We have immediate actions in place to bring more teachers into the public school system, including:
- streamlining Approval to Teach processes so that our schools can secure pre-service teachers earlier
- considerable traditional and social media efforts to help match teachers with vacancies across the state via TeachNSW
- supporting diversity and targeting particular supply challenges through the use of scholarships, which have seen a significant increase in interest for the 2021 cohort on previous years
- the Rural Teacher Incentive and Rural Experience Program to encourage new and experienced teachers to take up roles outside of Metro areas.
We are also starting now on an intensive program to meet the workforce needs of our system for the next 10 years and working with the Commonwealth and other jurisdictions as well. Working across the nation, there are things we need to together to attract and keep teachers in the profession.
Clear lines of accountability at every level strengthen our mutual ties and align our efforts and actions. We rise and fall as a system, not as 2,200 separate schools. The systems across the world that have balanced local flexibility with a system-wide approach to accountability and support are those that have seen and sustained broad-based improvement.[ii] That is what is required to move us from a good system but a variable system, to one seeking consistent and strong improvement across every school in key measures like learning outcomes, attendance and engagement.
The accountability of each of us and the responsibilities of all of us are inherent to being a profession in which the public invests its trust.
Like every set of professionals, we have to be accountable for how we use evidence to drive our decision-making. We must start from what is known or well-established and use the evidence that exists to drive precision in action and learning from each other. With the School Success Model, we have acknowledged that there is more the department can do to help support our teachers and leaders on evidence-based practice – with clearer guidance where the evidence is strong; or, where it is less clear or conclusive, research and evaluation to build up the evidence on behalf of the system to help classroom teachers.
In 2020 we revised and relaunched our What Works Best resources for teachers on high-impact teaching strategies. We tapped into demand from our teachers for this kind of clear and actionable evidence-based guidance, and it has been downloaded over 100 thousand times since April, more than once for every teacher in the state.
In a few areas, we are willing to take a strong position because the evidence is strong enough to do so. The teaching of phonics as part of our reading strategies in public schools is one such example. As other states and countries have found, evidence-based teaching of phonics, coupled with the Year 1 Phonics Check, to catch early those students who are not building the foundations of speech and writing, can be a game-changer in literacy outcomes. Laying the platform for an earlier, more confident path to independent learning. That’s why after a pilot with 521 schools last year, the Minister announced that all primary schools will be using the Phonics Check from this year.
This is all part of what it means to be accountable as a profession, starting from the evidence base. Adding to the evidence base. Respect for a professional means respect for the evidence that underpins their professional practice. Across every profession, professionals deliver their expertise using practices and protocols established through research and evidence. Benchmarking against the best. You trust your doctor is drawing on evidence as they consider your circumstance and context. Failure to engage with evidence is malpractice. Our trust in professionals comes from their adherence to protocols tested and established through research and evidence: from the doctors in our hospitals; the engineers constructing our school, offices, bridges and tunnels; the researchers delivering a safe and effective COVID vaccine.
Talking about evidence, responding to evidence, seeing how others use evidence. These don’t undermine our work as professionals. They are the hallmarks of our professionalism. It is a significant duty of care we all have. We should be able to account for why we are choosing a course of action, whether that is setting policy as a department or planning lessons as a teacher.
Our system of accountability in NSW has many strengths and the School Success Model further reinforces how these inform our shared responsibility to our students.
And as I have already stressed, the accountability is applied at all levels. Schools and the students and parents they serve, can reasonably expect the Department of Education to be accountable. Accountable for what we’re doing to create the conditions for improvement in our system, whether it is working and what else we will do, informed by the evidence. That will include measures and performance targets for senior officers in the department, including me, as part of our performance agreements, so that success in roles is aligned with how we are stewarding the resources of the system towards the needs of our schools.
One such area where we have already made headway in recent years is our accountability to our schools for the ways in which we are reducing the administrative burdens on school staff. The most scarce and valuable resource in a school is time. Since 2018 the department has delivered over 50 time saving initiatives, from significantly reducing the paperwork required for cash management in schools, to automating 60% of the annual school report process and piloting and scaling the use of online enrolment by parents. One of our most popular initiatives has been allocating more than $50m annually to school principals, to give them funds they can specifically use to lift administrative burdens from their leadership team.
We recognise there is still more opportunity for improvement, in particular for teachers. In 2021, there will be a strengthened focus on reducing administrative burden for schools with ambitious targets in place for the department to ensure we are all accountable for making school time count. A particular benefit for schools – one of the lessons from Local Schools, Local Decisions – will be the simplification of school budget management and financial reporting from 2022.
Put simply, the School Success Model is not about a distant department dictating and intervening from the centre, based on abstract data. We want to be in it together, working side-by-side in a way that reflects our shared responsibilities for learning and improvement.
Trust in government, in the value of public education and in the profession itself all depend on proactively accounting for the impact our work is having.
Working in education, we inherit an enormous trust from parents and carers. That in their time with us, their children will be safe, will be engaged in learning and will strongly and consistently improve, every year. That this investment in their growing years establishes confident, resilient, independent citizens, equipped to keep learning for the rest of their lives.
International research suggests that the keys to building trust in government and public services are transparency, consistency and competence – perhaps not glamorous or exciting - but part of a contract we have with those we are privileged to serve.
We need to give account to community who entrust us – we need to explain what we are doing and why. Effective accountability builds confidence and is rewarded by more trust. Trust in the profession, trust in the work being undertaken. Trust that the hopes for their own children will be fulfilled in our schools.
Effective accountability prevents a vacuum forming in which the facts become irrelevant and trust in the mostly dedicated professionals and public servants who are working in the interests of students can be eroded.
Research also points to the paradox that the public can lose faith in a public education system even as they feel positive about their local school. We are a system whether we like it or not in the eyes of the public – no school alone can safeguard the trust of parents and communities in public education or the teaching profession. The accountability of each of us is the accountability of all of us.
A key part of the School Success Model is celebrating and elevating the successes from within our system in NSW.
So many of the answers to students’ success lie in our 2,200 diverse school contexts as Hattie indicated. We need robust ways to ask ‘what’s working?’ in particular classrooms or schools and use those insights and individual examples so others can draw inspiration.
That’s why in 2019 we established the Best in Class Teaching Unit which has been amplifying the practice of outstanding teachers across the system, involving them in designing and delivering high quality professional learning in HSC subjects. Those teachers we identified didn’t necessarily have the loudest voices on Edu-Twitter, but we could see in the data on their students that they had been consistently adding value to the results their students achieved at HSC, over and above what would have otherwise been expected. Home-grown talents elevated so that they can have an impact not just one classroom at a time but across classrooms and schools all around the State. The Best in Class Teaching Unit have already worked with teachers from around two-thirds of the secondary schools in the State and will expand in to new HSC subjects this year.
Setting high ambitions for student success, recognising our accountability and shared responsibilities for enabling that success, and then sharing the learning from our own system – that is the promise and the purpose of our School Success Model. It is important reform.
For the sake of our great teachers and schools, it is important that we debate the realities of policy and not get trapped in ideological positions.
As always is the case in Education, changes and reform attract endless comment and opinion. As a former Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, I can testify that those eager voices were always a gift to finding stories and filling column inches.
But in some of the commentary around the School Success Model, I was reminded of the line attributed to Justice Michael Kirby – that in Australia, you always get the reaction before you get the reform. And that was a view before Twitter. Now it is possible to join combat and instantly lock in a position before you have had a moment to actually read the policy, let alone give it any thought.
I must say, I think the direction we are moving in here reflects what I have heard from teachers and principals across the state in recent years.
All the professionals I meet in our schools want to improve student outcomes and the life opportunities for young people in their care.
I have met no-one who does not think we can do better.
Schools have asked for more effective and valuable support and have wanted to feel the strength of a department working with them, to share responsibility and accountability: to support them in the work only they can do, to lift a burden wherever possible.
And then to get it done together.
Because successful schools mean successful students and transformed lives and futures. And looking ahead, that profoundly shapes our communities, our shared society and our nation.
A lot is at stake as we look to give the students of NSW, what they deserve. Wherever they live. No matter which school. They deserve one of the finest educations on offer anywhere in the world.
And we are determined that the School Success Model will not be a “set and forget”. It will take several years to fully implement and exactly as we would expect of our school leaders, we will keep coming back to those key questions that demonstrate our accountability:
- How are we doing and how do we know?
- What’s working well?
- What’s getting in the way? And then
- What are we going to do next?
At the end of the day it will be, as ever, the dedication, ingenuity and care of a hundred thousand school staff across 2,200 public school sites that will enable the success of our students. As we implement the School Success Model we aim to build their confidence that they have the support of the wider system, and together build the confidence and trust of the community in all who work each day in public education.
[i] Rincon-Gallardo, Santiago. (2016). Developing High-Quality Public Education in Canada: The Case of Ontario. 10.4324/9781315680361-7.
[ii] MOURSHED, M., CHIJIOKE, C., & BARBER, M. (2010). How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better. [New York, N.Y.?], McKinsey & Company.