Speech: Getting it done – delivering education reform; NSW Education Symposium.
Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal people here today.
It is wonderful to join you all for day two of this symposium and kick off our conversation this morning. And it's a privilege to be speaking on the day that Australia celebrates World Teachers' Day.
My gracious and long-suffering wife - here in her capacity as leader of one of our great schools in NSW – did raise an eyebrow when she heard I was speaking to this distinguished gathering.
It's a powerful eyebrow and over the decades I have learnt to read it quite well. On this occasion, it did express some warning that I might try and pass myself off as some kind of education expert – having now been back in the sector for all of eight weeks, after two decades away working in the media.
Of course, working in the media gives you a certain confidence in delivering dogmatic opinions informed by the most meagre factual insight. The eyebrow warned me I had better not try any of that stuff here.
I know this crowd has done the hard yards of education policy and practice while I was hanging out at the Logies, with B1 and B2.
So rather than try and bluff expertise in your area of experience – I thought I might bring perspectives on my return to the education sector, particularly the reforms under way in government schools.
Reforming public institutions
In recent years, I haven't been in too many classrooms, but I have been thinking a lot about how you bring about change and reform in much loved and important public institutions.
What drove me at the ABC was a sense that for decades it had played a central role in Australian life and the lives of millions of Australians each day. With a remit to inform, educate and entertain Australians, it faced very real challenges with the arrival of digital technology and global competitors, triggering fragmenting audiences.
The challenge was to remain relevant and compelling – to hold on to the best of the past, while transforming to meet the challenges of the new . . . to stay at the centre of Australian life and the lives of Australians. The challenge triggered significant reform at the ABC and it was a fascinating time for me.
So when I was approached about this role in NSW education – and I started thinking about it deeply – I was in a sense overwhelmed by the scale of challenge and opportunity and the importance of what education can and must do: for individuals, for communities and for the nation.
At an individual level, of course, school is the place we learn and learn how to learn. Learn skills and gain knowledge – but also learn about ourselves. Where we are challenged, how we can stretch and grow. What it means to realise potential, to envisage a future, to come to mastery. To make a great start on our way in life. It begins at school.
And in our complex, multicultural communities – increasingly, we know we need to listen to and understand each other; value different contributions, work together, resolve problems constructively, find solutions – and we start to learn how to do these things at school.
Education is vital for the nation as well – more important than ever. After the mining boom, our competitiveness and our economic strength and prosperity will depend on the drive, ingenuity and capability of our people. Australians are wonderful but how do we help them become exceptional? To use the economic jargon, the challenge is how we add-value to the people who are here and those who come here – enabling them to imagine and create, to design new futures, to find and seize new opportunities and deliver in compelling ways. And again, it is at school we begin the inspiring journey of learning and discovery that makes these things possible. Australia's future is not based on what is in the ground, but on the people who walk the land – and what they can do together.
I wanted to be part of that challenge – the individual, community and national challenge – because I think this is education's moment. Those who lead our schools and our education systems are in a position to shape the future of the nation, the strength of our society and the lives of the millions of young people who will pass through our doors today and in the years to come.
Reforming education in NSW
There are advantages in being a returning wanderer to the education sector. I feel a bit like the line from Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
I worked for NSW education ministers more than 25 years ago and was Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in the mid-1990s. There was a concerted push through much of that time to drive local school decision-making and increase the focus on basic skills in primary school. These are policy themes evident today, of course.
But while there might be some familiar themes, the climate today is so, so different. When we look at the challenges of implementing substantive reform in practice, we can't underestimate the importance of managing the change process well.
Let me pause here for the obligatory African proverb. It has come to mind often since working back in education and looking at what is taking place.
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go a long way, go together.
What was so striking when I first met key stakeholder groups on my appointment was the unanimity of what they were saying.
The Secondary Principals' Council and the Primary Principals' Association, senior representatives of the Teachers' Federation and the P&C, the Catholic education sector and the Independent school sector.
They all felt education reform was moving in the right direction. They all felt they had been strongly consulted on the reform agenda. They were all strongly supportive of the Minister's leadership and his willingness to engage and consult on the pathways of reform.
These groups have not always seen eye-to-eye with Ministers on substantive matters in the past – and of course – they still do not agree with every detail on every policy today – but there is a sense we are going together in the right direction.
With this wave of NSW education reform, we are going together.
To me, this was pretty rare stuff. A genuine sense of partnership; a respect for the experience of the sector, the work of the experts, the insights that come through years of practice. A welcoming of the expertise in this room and many others in a great collaborative exercise to serve well the young people in our care; and to lift their life opportunities as a result.
What makes it important, however, is that the support comes as an ambitious and substantive reform agenda is being implemented.
The Minister outlined the sweep of the changes yesterday in his opening address. The delivery of substantial dollars inside the school gate, to empower local decision-making to meet the individual needs of students. A cross-sector focus on strong literacy and numeracy outcomes for all. An engagement with issues of teacher quality and training. An overhaul of how teachers are paid. A very significant investment in funding to support student wellbeing.
And complementing all of this – a commitment to real-term funding increases for NSW schools along the principles outlined in Gonski. Funding to meet a resourcing standard, based on need; sector-blind. Driving additional resources particularly to help overcome educational disadvantage and to make our education system better and fairer for all children, no matter where they go to school.
Some of the changes underway in NSW reflect a profound commitment of political will and policy intent from political leaders. The decision of the NSW Government to fully fund Gonksi for six years is one – and then to ensure that money flows to directly support teaching and learning in schools is another. And it is wonderful we have bipartisan commitment to needs-based funding.
When we look at successful schools and school systems around the world, we can see connecting factors. The multiplier effect of high levels of student achievement combined with high equity is more community confidence in schools and teachers – and more support to put taxpayers' dollars into education.
We need to ensure that the sweep of reforms in NSW – the increased investment - has that multiplier effect on community confidence.
In a challenging public sector funding environment we need to demonstrate that the additional investment in education is multiplying a return that demands the investment continues.
As we know, in education simply delivering more funding is not the whole story, or even the beginning of the story. Well-funded policy is only good policy if it is well planned and delivered, if it is effectively sequenced, communicated and executed to bring about substantive change. Otherwise it is just dollars, words and brochures: a case study in lost opportunity, thwarted expectations and cynicism-raising.
In education we have been given more and more is being asked of us. Together we can deliver.
The atypically calm and supportive environment in NSW education, while substantive reform is being attempted, is even more of an achievement if you consider the level of political discourse swirling around us.
Mark Thompson, the former director-general of the BBC and now CEO of the New York Times company – has written an interesting book called Enough Said: What's gone wrong with the language of politics? In it he comments about the troubling trends in contemporary political discourse.
It achieves its impact by denying any complexity, conditionality or uncertainty. It exaggerates wildly to make its point…it treats the facts as if they were a matter of opinion. It rejects even the possibility of a rational debate between the parties.
We are witnessing it in the United States now; we saw some of it here in Australia during the federal election campaign, and with Brexit in the UK. A polarising political discourse colliding with a media revolution: accelerants in the decline of an environment built on respect and working together for a common good.
It strikes me that what we are experiencing here in NSW is a rare moment – one that has gone against the current political tide of division, dissent and distasteful discourse. It's a moment we need to make count.
Policy-making delivered in partnership with practitioners, based on mutual respect and altruistic ambition, may not generate fervour and headlines. Instead it may deliver something that is truly substantive and transformational. But the real ambition is to make it work and count.
When a sweet spot is found… of making the right changes in the right way…of a genuine, evidence-based reform effort – linked with a genuine desire to engage, listen and learn from key partners in delivering quality education – great, enduring work can be achieved.
Our test as leaders in education will come with time: what actually happens rather than what was announced. What the money delivered rather than how it was spent.
Whether, over time, schools were strengthened – whether professionals found new and better ways to teach, engage, and help the young people in their care flourish. Whether the quality and distinctiveness of the education system was a strength of the nation – acknowledged as a key competitive advantage of our nation and our state.
That's why I am so pleased that these reforms are informed and driven by research and assessed by data. The education sector, as we all know, has been the victim of more than a few transient enthusiasms over the years: reforms idiosyncratically embraced with fervour and then quickly discarded as they don't bite, don't work – or simply, are no longer new.
Nothing is more dispiriting: nothing ramps up cynicism more in schools, than policy-making that lands with the life expectancy of a fruit fly. When what is heralded as substantive change is underpinned by thinking with all the depth of a press release or a tweet.
What I see here is a commitment to reform informed by detailed research and analysis – and a willingness to test for outcomes and measure effectiveness. To recalibrate from findings, to redirect funding where necessary, to deliver results that change things for the better.
The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation – CESE - is a real driver of good practice policy-making in NSW education. I have been struck by the quality of its work, the clarity of its reporting and the importance of its contribution in shaping key decisions around resource allocation and investment prioritisation. Its establishment and effectiveness are key markers of what is going right.
It is a great public asset. Its research and findings should be tools everyone can use. I want to keep building it as a vital source of information across the sector. Data should provide us with ever more powerful insights to lift educational outcomes for our state, our systems, our schools and every individual child.
The execution challenge
For all the talk of politicians and policy-makers, schools are where this reform process will realise real benefits – or will struggle to see them.
Delivering long-lasting and positive change in big, complex, demanding and intensely human public institutions like the NSW Department of Education is difficult, I acknowledge, and the change should impact every classroom.
There has been a great sweep of new policies and programs. They have touched a full gamut of policy levers addressing what nearly all would think are the key drivers of lifting educational outcomes.
There is a clear philosophy in public schools underpinning these changes about empowering local decision-making.
Parents are entitled to think that wherever they send their child to school in the public education system, they will experience great teaching and learning. Good facilities. Professional teachers. Well-resourced schools. Clear standards and values. Consistent and strong. These are legitimate expectations of any government school. The offerings made to every child and family as a public good.
But we know and understand that every school is different because of the background of students, the mix of staff, the needs of the community. Every school is different because every child is different.
So in public schools, these reforms are about giving principals more flexibility within a framework to make the right decisions about resourcing and staffing and prioritisation – to provide the best possible teaching and learning environment.
The reforms are an endorsement of the calibre and respect we have for the professionalism of our principals. We are backing them with more funding and more autonomy to make the right decisions. We are asking a lot of them.
There is pressure on our principals, no doubt – and I know from my discussions with them, they are feeling it. It is not unreasonable to say that principals are being asked to exhibit a range of leadership and management skills they may not have been required to demonstrate before they got the job or in order to get the job. It is often vastly more complicated than any other education roles they held previously.
Principals need our support to be successful leaders of these important reforms. They need our support to lead their teachers into learning new skills and to change the culture in schools where necessary.
Bringing about change in a social setting like a school is very demanding. Patterns of practice can be deeply grooved and new practices take time to master. It is often just easiest to do what you have always done and get what you've always got. To make change happen, people need to be convinced of it. It needs to be carefully designed.
The kind of capacity building for change in our schools needs competencies, resources and motivation, and places great expectations on those who need to lead the charge on the ground. And it needs to be led, or it will lead nowhere.
I am convinced that a focus on principals is critical to the success of reforms: how we identify and appoint them; how we support them - how we work with them to remove obstacles to effectiveness and increase their impact. We are giving them more space to be professionals and will ask more from them as a result. We want to help them to deliver and make sure they do.
Being a principal can be a lonely job surrounded by people – particularly when the challenges and demands are different and new. So we need to make sure our principals feel supported: professionally and personally. Professional development of principals needs to be a top priority as does the encouragement of mentor relationships, and specialist support. We need to make sure they are OK.
One structural issue I am looking closely at in our public education system is the relationship between our directors of schools and our principals. In our organisational structure, the principals report to the directors. But the average director has 34 schools in his or her patch – I met one last week with more than 40.
I am concerned that the current balance between directors and principals is not right. Even if all directors needed to do was be in schools and focus on support for teaching and learning – a span of 34 schools would be too much. But our directors do much more besides.
Line management works two ways. Your manager should be your supporter – helping you work out what is important and enabling you to get the job done.
And line management works up the line, too. You are accountable to your manager for the decisions you make and the outcomes you achieve. This is so important in our schools because the consequences are so high.
In a private sector company, poor decisions may reduce profits, or upset shareholders. That's viewed pretty seriously.
We have our students' futures at stake. So yes, we do want results. A lift in outcomes, improved learning, a demonstrated return on the increased investment being made in schools. Accountability is nothing to do with ideology, it's to do with being passionate about children and their future – and our determination to do what is best for them. To deliver on the high expectations we should rightly have for every child.
We need to support our principals too as they further drive a professional and focused culture – setting clear expectations for staff, ensuring sound development opportunities and professional support for teachers, feeling fully supported as they have necessary tough conversations at times about teacher engagement and performance.
We have clear evidence about what works best, from the international literature, from great longitudinal studies by John Hattie and others – and the reviews undertaken by CESE here in NSW. Good execution means a clear, single-minded focus on what we know works.
New tools for our public school principals, like the School Excellence Framework, helps focus conversations at the school around performance and improvement; helps make thinking through strategy and outcomes a priority for senior staff. The external validation process helps schools understand better their performance and outcomes in a context beyond their own walls and consider carefully how they best focus their practice.
The funding available to public schools through the Resource Allocation Model should encourage principals to make the decisions to calibrate spending to local priorities. And in my meetings with principals, I have encouraged them to think about having the administrative support they need to free them up to lead teaching and learning practice at the school – to be a clear instructional leader. The principal is the school's most valuable asset and using RAM money to enable the principal to lead – where they can add the most value – is a vital investment in the learning community.
The Minister has outlined a number of initiatives being advanced to improve the quality of candidates entering teaching and this needs to be a continuing priority. And while we look to enlist the top 30% of candidates into the profession from school leaving classes, we need to fight to make the profession accessible and attractive to others as well. Those who have distinguished themselves in other fields may have a great contribution to make in the classroom and we need to ensure we have clear and encouraging pathways into the profession, while keeping professional standards high.
We need to acknowledge that leadership is a critical capability for success within our education system and from the very outset, we need to be selecting and developing teachers who are or will be strong leaders, effective communicators who can profoundly shape the organisations where they work for the better.
And we should never lose sight of the transformational effect that very bright and capable young people can bring to teaching. Clever, high-achieving, fast-learners – often leaders in all aspects of their lives – we want them in our schools. We need to be recruiting in the top 3% as well as the top 30%. For young people looking for jobs that are meaningful and compelling; that can offer adventure, security and opportunity; that can lead to exceptional leadership challenges and not insignificant financial rewards – teaching has much to offer.
For this generation of young people, many of whom have caught a desire to make a difference more than maximise their dollars, teaching should have great appeal – and we need to find ways to take our share of those who may otherwise have ended up in medicine and law firms, start-ups and consultancies and corporate headquarters.
Look at Eddie Woo, head teacher of mathematics at Cherrybrook Technology High School, our largest public school. Educated at James Ruse Agricultural High School, in the top 2% of high school graduates – and he chose teaching because he "just fell in love with seeing the ‘aha' moment in a person's eyes when an idea finally clicked in their mind". I've learnt a bit from his YouTube channel, Wootube. Every week Eddie films his maths lessons; WooTube is a huge success – 2.5 million hits and more than 22,000 subscribers.
We are looking to clone Eddie, of course. But we are searching for many more like him, working in our schools today – or who would flourish if they joined us. Get your selfie with Eddie today, he's here.
This wave of reform initiatives, the collaboration and the partnerships, the challenge of execution – will all lead to the continued transformation of our schools. So much is happening but there's so much to be done. That is what this symposium is all about. Bringing you all together to inspire and inform our future reforms in education and the successful delivery of our current schemes. We go a long way as we go together.
I often invoke the words of Gary Hamel, who simply set the test for organisations with the question – "Are you changing as quickly as the world outside is changing?" It sets a severe test for educators and our schools. It makes great demands on us as we push on to make reform deliver.
This is education's moment – so let's seize it and make it count.