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The leadership challenge

Speech to the Australian College of Educators NSW Fellows Dinner

It is wonderful to have the opportunity to address this distinguished group, which has for so many years, valued the role of educational leaders and understood the importance of leadership in our educational institutions.

Tonight I want to talk about the leadership challenge: in our schools, in the NSW Department of Education – and for the educational community as part of wider society.

Since returning to work in NSW education last year, my thoughts keep returning to this leadership challenge.

I am at the stage where I have far more questions than answers. I suspect that will always be the case but I am comforted by the line of James Thurber: "It's better to know some of the questions than all of the answers."

But if you have been around education long enough – and most of you have been around much longer than me – then you don't need to be reminded of the sheer complexity of what we are trying to achieve in schools.

The human brain is the most complex object in the universe. Try a classroom full of them – or a school full of them. Each brain growing fast, being daily shaped by encounters, each building on a lifetime of distinct and unique experiences. Each learning what you are teaching, while so much else swirls around them. A fevered social experiment, a cultural experiment, a scientific experiment – taking place hour-by-hour in the classroom and the playground.

Many who would like to simplify what happens in schools, argue that teaching isn't rocket science. We can only agree. It is much more complex than rocket science.

We need to acknowledge the extraordinary demand of the teaching task, the leadership challenge. And then ask, how do we get better at what we do?

For those who choose to lead in an educational setting: who sign up to ensure every child learns and thrives, to see that every teacher is improving and every school is delivering on its unique social responsibility – what a challenge. What an opportunity. There are few roles more demanding, or as intrinsically rewarding. There are none more important.

The leadership challenge in education has never been greater because the demands on our schools have never been greater.

As I remarked at the time of my appointment, for Australia, this is education's moment.

Our national prosperity will increasingly depend on the skills and ingenuity of our people as we seek to compete in demanding, competitive, and at times hostile global markets. When Donald Horne described Australia as the lucky country, he went on to say it was run by second-rate people who share its luck. We know that more than at any other time in history, the future exposes the second rate no matter how lucky they once may have been. Competition can come from anywhere. Complacency is punished.

For a long time, Australians could be quite content about the performance of our education system. International testing seemed to confirm we were comfortably delivering world-class education. Today, the data poses more challenging questions, with the most recent PISA results again showing a slide down the league table of nations and a real decline in performance.

The debate around Gonski funding is important: how much should be invested in schools and how should it be allocated to achieve the best outcomes overall. But the intense debate around the policy details should not conceal the overarching political insight. Education is critical to our nation's future, to our economic strength and our social cohesion. To the fulfilment of the millions who will enter our school gates today and in the years ahead.

Political investment brings expectations. Education systems need to demonstrate improved outcomes from what has and will be invested. There is a restlessness around this priority.

That is a challenge for today – and what is at stake only grows. Two months in to 2017, it is fair to say that so far, it has not fulfilled its promise not to be another 2016. It is a time of global uncertainty and we can be excused for trudging forward with a collective anxiety. The assumptions underpinning liberal democracies – the benefits of free trade, technological innovation, and multiculturalism – have critics who may not always have coherent or informed views, but who have loud voices.

The only safe assumption is that we are to live with this uncertainty for a while. Our schools face the challenge of preparing children for a future world where we don't know what the jobs will be. To live in a diverse community when there is evidence of less respect and tolerance. To belong to a nation still blessed in so many ways, but that may not be as lucky as it once was.

I have remarked, that coming back into education after two decades in the media sector was almost a relief because traditional media companies are gripped by existentialist threat – a fear of extinction.

But educators should be gripped as well. Gripped by the sense that all the social turmoil, all that economic uncertainty, all that political upheaval and the breaking of conventions – all speaks to our responsibility. The challenge of that swirling terrain speaks to our challenge: preparing children so they can be as ready as they can be: steady, assured, skilled and confident to deal with a future that now seems uncertain and unknown. Children with growth mindsets who have learned to learn – so they can take on all that will be new, and demanding, and different. We see the future in the eyes of the children in our classrooms today.

We should be gripped not by a sense of extinction like the media companies, but by a fear of failure and the consequence of that failure. Not that our children will fail, but that we will fail them. That for all we invest, for all the time they spend in our care, we fail to give them what they need to flourish in the world ahead.

It is education's moment. And in our schools, it calls for leadership in a way we have never needed it before.

Saying so is not a criticism of all that has gone before. If we agree the world is more complex and demanding, more unpredictable and less certain – then the pressure and expectation around education increases also. We may have been good, we must get better. We may have been skilled, but we need to be more skilled. What worked well in the past will not be sufficient for the future. There is no space for defensiveness, nor time for self-satisfaction. Every child, every teacher, every school must improve.

In medicine, there is a clear expectation of better outcomes, improved life expectancy and quality of life through testing and research, smart diagnostics and skilled professional intervention. The challenge is recognised and the achievements are celebrated. A determination to do better is not a condemnation of all that has gone before or what is being achieved today. But there is a clear hope, backed by investment and effort, of what might be achieved tomorrow if we can do better today. This is education's story as well.

In thinking through the challenges facing our schools, I am drawn continually to the school principal as the vital and compelling position of leadership and transformation.

There are few professions more dependent on great leadership than education. The research clearly shows that having a principal who demonstrates instructional leadership is a key to lifting educational outcomes: out and about in classrooms, active and engaged in teaching and learning; providing strong feedback, modelling professional learning.

In our education system, the principal is the position of leverage. Through the encouragement and support of the principal, parents become educational partners, and engaged staff hone their craft, sharpen their skills and become better teachers. And teachers at the top of their game take responsibility for ensuring that every child is learning – that we are getting at least a good year's progress for every year in school. Great principals carry responsibility beyond good intentions: they have high expectations for all, and they deliver.

Fundamental to the NSW Government's Local Schools, Local Decisions reforms is the recognition that school principals are in the best position to make funding choices to lift educational opportunities and outcomes for children in their care. I hear very few voices articulating concern at this philosophical direction. Decision-making close to the point of impact makes good sense. It is an endorsement of our school leaders: their informed insight; their understanding of the specific needs and priorities; their ability to engage, consult and decide locally. They know their schools and their communities.

To make these reforms work best, to deliver the outcomes we seek through our investment – we need to ensure that principals are in the best possible position to provide effective local leadership.

To that end, we are now working with principals to better understand the demands on their time that come from more local decision-making – and how we can better support them to focus on instructional leadership. This work will include spending time with principals, understanding the demands on their diary, how they best want to approach their job. Like any leadership exercise, it will seek to understand the work only the principal can do, and which work could be undertaken by others if the appropriate support is available.

I am keen for our research to give us insights on what it is like to be on the receiving end in the principal's office. Trying to engage with students and parents, support staff, make a myriad of practical decisions that come from managing a complex operational workplace – and deal with all the requirements of the department itself. I am a little fearful that part of what makes a principal's life more complicated are the demands that come from the department. The surveys, the forms, the requests for information. In isolation, each reasonable. In aggregate perhaps an additional weight of work that becomes an anchor in the principal's week.

This will be an important next step in our school reforms – to think through the issues of support and accountability.

When I started at the department, I tried to think through how you managed an organisation of this size and scale – one of the largest organisations in the country; one of the largest education systems in the world.

During my time at the ABC, I thought that was pretty big – Australia's largest media organisation – a billion dollar operation. But NSW Education, with its 86,000 staff and its $14 billion budget, dwarfs it.

All the creative energy: the engagement with students, the legitimate expectations of parents, the dynamic teaching and learning – takes place in 2,200 different locations – or tens of thousands if you count each classroom. That is the operational challenge.

Luckily, the science of management evolved to deal with such challenges. Large organisations do this successfully by planning priorities carefully, and having clear expectations around performance and outcomes. By equipping local leaders and by holding them to account for the decisions they make and the results generated under their leadership.

In our case we want to be able to assure parents of the quality of education and student engagement on offer at every government school. At the same time, we know that important decisions will best be made locally and that strong local leadership around teaching and learning is the best way to improve educational outcomes.

This means we need to provide support for school principals but also be clear how each school is working to achieve excellence: to create an environment where every student is progressing, where every teacher is improving. Where there is confidence to try new things, and to recognise when they don't work as well as when they do. Where there is a shared commitment for the school to be doing better every year.

I have looked closely at the key relationship between school principals and our Directors of NSW Public Schools. This is meant to be a strong collegial relationship, but on average a Director currently looks after 34 schools. That's 34 principals for whom each director needs to spend time with locally: to be a sounding board, test ideas, monitor outcomes, provide feedback. And this is before even thinking about other planning and organisational issues. I have met some Directors who lead a network of more than 40 principals and some in regional areas who cover vast geographies.

A span of responsibility like this makes it very difficult for the Director to spend time in any given school except if there is a pressing issue demanding attention. It makes it hard for the Director to develop a relationship with a principal that should be a hallmark of leadership: collegial, constructive, informed and insightful. This kind of engagement is critical if principals are not to fall victim to the isolation that can be the consequence of their interpersonally demanding leadership role. Informal support networks are important. Professional associations can be invaluable. But the department itself should formally be offering this support through the Director system and at the moment, despite everyone's best efforts, I don't feel we are structured to do so.

Later this year we will create more Director positions and look to simplify their responsibilities somewhat, so they can focus on what's important. We want them to have oversight of fewer schools and to free them up to spend more time with principals, to spend more time in schools – to provide practical support and to develop a deep understanding of the challenges at each location.

We are also reviewing the important planning documents that schools use to set their priorities, clarify their goals and review their performance overtime. The revised school plans and the School Excellence Framework will be more tightly interrelated to provide a clear focus for the strategic goals at each school.

We want these planning documents to be rigorous and useful. To set real targets and for the school community to be involved in meaningful self-assessment across a range of criteria.

Part of the work of CESE – the department's Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, is to put meaningful tools, data and research in the hands of school leaders. To help them understand school performance, not just in isolation, but compared with the performance and approach of similar schools. The continuing work of CESE provides all our school leaders with rigorous research about what works best. Lifting literacy and numeracy standards; boosting student engagement; strategies for students in rural and remote areas.

Evidence from across the system and the best research from elsewhere, presented in a way that is meaningful and applicable for local school communities. Evidence that can help with local strategies and the creation of local data and analysis, to provide the best insight and personalised learning opportunities for every child.

I want the work of CESE – and the focus of school leadership teams – to drive us to discussions of performance and outcomes. Our work does not end with good intentions, sound policies and tidy paperwork. We want rich, insightful information that helps us understand that children are making progress at a good rate, are engaged in learning and are developing the skills and knowledge they need for future mastery and success.

Results matter. Outcomes matter – across a broad array of meaningful measures. And as educators, we should be responsible for them. Responsible, not just for creating environments where children can learn, but ensuring that they do.

Taking responsibility for outcomes is a hallmark of our professionalism. We must take responsibility for the progress of every child, the professional engagement of every teacher. That we can demonstrate that our schools are improving every year.

It all puts such high expectations on leadership.

I am committed to supporting the leaders of today, and identifying and preparing the leaders of tomorrow.

The school system is hungry for leadership and we need a steady pipeline delivering more leaders each year. With the pending retirement of many of our baby-boomer principals, we are going to need even more new leaders, equipped to serve ever-more complex schools.

When you think of other professions where leadership is vital – you find a laser-like focus on selection and development of future leaders. The military is the strongest example. Capability and potential are identified early. Leadership is a feature of training from the beginning. Professional development – through courses and placements – is undertaken with a clear eye to systematic preparation.

When command is finally assumed – often in roles that will require outstanding judgement under pressure – the military leader is drawing on a career of preparation.

That has not been the Australian way in education. A McKinsey's review of school leadership models identified the Australian way as, generally, school leaders self-selecting and then learning extensively on the job. Of course, both of these characteristics should be features of any system. You want leaders who actually want to lead – and the experience on the job will be invaluable, but we should be doing much more preparation for leadership.

I suspect great educators can identify future leaders very early in their careers. They have the energy and drive, a gift of drawing people to them, they have a growth mindset. They try things, they fail; they try again. They succeed.

I want NSW education to be known for leadership, for a remarkable capacity to develop so many leaders who deliver. Who arrive in key leadership roles having had great opportunities to develop their leadership craft. Who are reflective about their leadership. Who are determined to keep improving. For whom the on-the-job experience is a culmination of all that has gone before.

If we take our mission seriously, we will take leadership very seriously and make the necessary investment of time and money. To do that, we need to remind ourselves what is at stake.

Last week, I spoke to 100 new principals from across the department. I reflected on their mission and challenge – the impact they could have.

A great principal – leading a great school, creating an environment where teachers do wonderful work. A principal responsible for preparing young people for the changing world around us. What kind of impact could they have?

Well look at the faces. Think of one of our high schools – an assembly with a thousand students. A thousand lifetimes. In all likelihood, 80,000 years of life to be experienced by the young people gathered there. We cannot lose sight of the power and the reach of great school leadership – of a strong and effective principal. Transforming a school. So young people learn and flourish. Laying a foundation for fulfilled lives, resilient communities and a prosperous nation.

The sea of faces in the school assembly – reminding us what is at stake. Anchoring our resolution to never give up in our commitment to deliver the finest education for every child in our care.

Education is such an important profession. And it is so important we deliver. Thank you for your leadership and your continued support for the very best in teaching and learning. And thank you for the opportunity, to share this challenge with you tonight.

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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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