Episode 12: Enabling equity in NSW public education

Host Joanne Jarvis is joined by Murat Dizdar, Secretary of the NSW DoE, to discuss equity in education and the role leaders play in making sure every student has a chance to thrive.

Joanne Jarvis and Murat Dizdar reflect on the importance of school leaders in fostering equity in our schools.


School leaders play a vital role in providing every student in New South Wales public schools with a great education and the best start in life. They have a positive impact in classrooms and on their staff. They guide teacher development and engage their communities here at the New South Wales Department of Education's School Leadership Institute, our mission is to support for New South Wales public school leaders by providing world class, evidence- informed leadership development programs and resources.

Our podcast will explore the key issues and challenges of school leadership. Hosted by Joanne Jarvis, the director of the School Leadership Institute, tune in and listen to our guests and colleagues share their expertise, insights and wisdom on leading with purpose and impact. Welcome to our leadership In Focus series.

Joanne Jarvis

Hello and welcome to episode 12 of the Leadership Conversations podcast series. I'm Joanne Jarvis, and I'm the director of the NSW Department of Education's School Leadership Institute. With me today is Murat Dizdar, Secretary of the New South Wales Public education system. Today we will be exploring equity in education. What it is, why it matters and how do we enable it at both the system and school level?

Murat is a former teacher and school principal who has a lifelong and deeply held commitment to public education and its ability to transform lives. His own personal story is a demonstration of why equity matters in education, and the difference that great teachers and leaders can make for their students. Murat arrived in Australia from Turkey as a baby. His family spoke no English and like many migrant parents, they worked night and day to support their children, instilling in them the value of a good education.

Murat attended his local public school and was encouraged by his teachers to sit the selective exam for Fort Street High. He eventually became dux of his school and began studying law at university, only to follow his heart and switch to an education degree. He's now leading one of the world's largest education systems. It's a real privilege to have you join me today, Murat, to discuss this important topic.

Murat Dizdar

Thanks for having me Jo, I’m very very excited. I was preparing last night for today and looking over my notes and the meetings I was going to walk into, and I'm absolutely thrilled to be part of the School Leadership Institute's Leadership Podcast series.


You told me a story about you when you were a seven-year-old boy, and you were standing on a milk crate in a delicatessen, serving customers. I think you were possibly eating a fair bit of the food as well. But it reminds me of that graphic we often see around the difference between equity and equality. And so I'm thinking when you when you consider that part of your life and that early start to life, do you think seeking equity has always been a part of who you are?


Gee you’ve got a frightening memory Jo, you’ve brought back memories again here. I grew up in Summer Hill, and I remember going to this delicatessen to buy bread and milk, etc. for the family, and I demanded a job. I demanded a job in the summer holidays, and they were good enough to give me a go. And I was short back then, so I couldn't even see over the counter.

And the way I got around that was to stand on the milk crate. And I learnt, you know, hard work and endeavour has always been a part of me since that age. But I also learned that, you know, obstacles can be overcome. You know, if he was going to say you're not tall enough, you don't look old enough, then I was prepared to, you know, stand on the milk crate and make that happen.

And I'm so grateful for those experiences. And I do firmly believe, I talk about this when I present and talk to educators, about your professional DNA. And I can't take away the fact that, you know, disadvantage has been, financial disadvantage, growing up in a loving family with financial disadvantage, has been a big part of me. And so I do have a bias when I'm working in the system that I want to overcome that for other children, because I know that if you can, and you can level the playing field, you can have huge impact.

And I think we're all products of our experiences, and I'm glad that I grew up with those experiences.


Well, we know that equity matters to enable students to succeed in life. And we know international evidence shows that equity should not be an afterthought in education reform. It must be a policy priority. And in fact educational researchers such as Glaze, Lamb and Lane argue that a system cannot be considered excellent if it isn't also equitable.

And we have a new plan for public education now, which has equity at the heart of it. Why is its prominence in the plan so important to you?


Well, I know that in public education we do the heavy lifting. We’re 800,000 students, we're about close to 70% of the students in NSW are educated with us. I know that, you know, one in 4 of our students – it wasn't that long ago Jo it was one in 5 – one in 4 of our students require an adjustment to their learning. I know that one in 2 students, half of our student population, come from where I came from, in those bottom two quartiles of socio-economic disadvantage. And one in 10 of our students are Aboriginal. So, you know, you can't shy away from that data.

And I wanted to make sure that this plan called out its very first pillar being around equity. What I know about the DNA of the entire public education system is that it broadens horizons, creates rich education passports, and always has at its forefront, leveling the playing field.

And the data is not great for us at a system level. There's great work happening in schools that I visit, but I want to confront that. I want to call it out and say, the focus of all of us, whether you're in a high SES setting or a very low SES setting, you're going to have students in your care who are going to suffer significant disadvantage and complexity. And we've got to make it our business to know them and to level the playing field.

I think the real measure of an education system, the real measure, is the gap between its best and its most neediest. And to narrow that gap, it should be the ultimate measure of success for a system. And I know that educators on the ground, teachers and principals that I talk to and see in action, are determined to not use postcode as an excuse, to not use disadvantage as an excuse, to not use Aboriginality or disability, an excuse, but to really overcome that. And I see great joy when schools can create the right trajectory for those students and in some cases, you know, overcome inter-generational complexity.


Because it's only through that that we're going to see the excellence that we seek as well, isn't it. As a system. when it comes to equity, what do the statistics say for us?


Yeah. So I just ran through some of those. And you know, the most sobering statistic in these state is that there have been deemed 768 schools out of 3000 in this system, 2200 are with us Jo, and then we've got the Catholic sector and the independent sector. 768 schools have been deemed the most disadvantaged in this state and to be deemed the most disadvantaged, more than half of the school, more than half of the school population has got to be in the bottom quartile of disadvantage. So it's not just individual kids, it's the concentration of that in that school. And 94% of those schools are in our system,

I get really upset and annoyed, and I get passionate and carried away, when people say funding doesn't matter. It's absolute fallacy. You know, my kids in my system, Jo, are at 92% of the SRS, and kids in the other sectors are at 106% of the SRS.

You know, I recently went to Little Athletics with my, Adam in Year 3. You know, I don't know that he's going to be an Olympic 100-metre sprinter. But what they do there is, you know, the backmarkers, are the most gifted and able in that race. We've been the backmarkers repeatedly. And it's not on ability. It's on the funding line.

I want our kids to be at the same start line. That's where we should be. And that's what this society should demand, this country should demand. And we're in such a pivotal moment around this discussion for a new national school reform agreement for the next decade. And Jo you know what people forget about the SRS, that I've got to remind myself on, the school resource standard, it's the minimum funding, minimum funding for a child Kindergarten to Year 10 to be at proficiency, not at high achievement, at proficiency, in literacy and numeracy.

So I've got many schools, many children in our system that should be beyond 100%. So it does annoy me when people say funding doesn't matter. It makes a huge difference. Of course, I agree with the evidence that you've got to put that funding to good effect, and I want the system to have equity vis a vis the other systems in this state.


What are some of the initiatives or programs that are already in place that will help improve those stats that you've just shared with us, and what else is being developed or perhaps rolled out via this education plan, because we also want to give confidence to the general public that we are an outstanding system.

And I believe that. My children went through public education. I'm an advocate and a person who went through public education as well. I love it, I believe in it, and I want our system to believe in it. So what are we doing to continue to seek that equity?


Well, I think on the ground first and then we come back to the system. On the ground our people have been really remarkable, despite the funding backdrop that I described that has been decades in the making, decades not rectified. And I'm mindful and hopeful that this state government and federal government, who are committed to getting to that 100% do so. But the ground's been remarkable with that. The ground make sure that that they adopt a mindset of leadership across the school that has got to recognise and embrace equity, whatever that equity looks like.

I think since you and I were principals, the ground’s become even better, Jo, at knowing every child in that context. Not on NAPLAN, but also on background, on income status, on educational profile of parents, on requiring adjustments that become stronger than you and I in that way. I think they've become better than you and I around individual learning plans, and they've become more confident over time with their funding lines through the SBAR, the school based allocation report, to use it in totality to overcome disadvantage.

You know, I had someone Jo query a school's purchase of a washing machine, and I had someone in this building bit excited that was that appropriate usage of funds we had given to schools. Now, I happen to know this school, and I happened to say very quickly to this individual, you need to calm down before you jump to conclusions.

We'll go find out. But I'll bet my bottom dollar they bought this washing machine because they're washing kids’ clothes. And lo and behold that school, you know, in their uniform pool that they were giving on a daily basis, despite also giving uniforms to kids, were washing uniforms. So, you know, we shouldn't jump to conclusions. I was really proud that they're doing that.

You know, one might argue that they shouldn't have to do that. They should just get on with education. But I've seen numerous top examples of embracing the community, of feeding our children, of bringing in medical practitioners, of running, you know, dental checks, eyesight checks, of taking kids to doctors because the family don’t have the know-how, of representing kids in different forums and structures.

I don't know that that's what we sign up for. But I know that educators do it and do it to great effect, because they care so deeply about the children in their care, you know? So I think the ground's been absolutely remarkable. I don't know that the system has been as good. Let me be brutally honest, Jo.

I know that the system has been as good in supporting schools. One, we've never had a plan that called out the equity challenge. And I think we've got to be transparent around that, too. In all the meetings you and I are in, Jo, and, you know, I'm at the executive table. I'm in front of ministers and the Premier and Treasurers.

Have I got a strong equity lens? Am I representing our system, you know, in those discussions around funding? Am I fighting on the evidence base rather than just on, you know, jumping on a bandwagon, because you've got to prove the economics of this argument as well. So yeah, since my time as Secretary, you know, I've wanted to drive this executive to make sure that every briefing that comes through me and every meeting that comes through me has a big equity cut.

And to me the equity cut in the system is in relation to small schools, in relation to special schools, in relation to regional, in relation to remote, where we’ve got to be stronger. And on that front I’ve called for an SBAR health check this year. I want to make sure it goes to areas of need on the data. So we're doing an SBAR health check to position us. Are those loadings right on low level adjustment for disability on EALD, on socioeconomic status, on Aboriginal loading. Are they the right loadings? Are the formulas correct?

And then with this additional money, where should we tackle it? Where should we make sure we give predominance to. You know, and as I look at the work so far, I think disability stands out with what I said with one if 4 students, and also this intersectionality of disadvantage Jo. No one has really nailed what funding loads should look like if you've got a kid who is Aboriginal and low SES and with a disability and EALD. I've got kids in my school and system who's got the multiplicity of that disadvantage, but I fund them on individual lines as opposed to maybe recognising that multiplicity.

So there's a lot the system can do. And I want the ground to be confident that we are asking the tough questions, that while we're fighting for the money, we want to make sure that it goes all to the right need.

You know Join your career, in my career, we've heard the word student centred so many times. But has the system really stood behind student centricity and school centricity? I'm determined to do that.

And I'm determined to make sure in a transparent way we're tackling that need and then resourcing our people on the ground, who I’ve just called out have been remarkable, to do even better work on that front.


So on that, I mean, leadership really matters in this sphere. It's not going to happen in the absence of leadership. And you're certainly leading from the top.

In the School Leadership Institute where I'm the director, we do have a strong focus on leading for equity to back in the public education plan. We know, for example, from the research that we've been reading lately from people like Ishimaru and Galloway and Lacewood, that leadership practices focused on equity can play a big part in improving student learning and their experience of being at school, which is also tied to academic success. What are your views about this?


I think you don't get a great school despite the leadership, you a great school, because of the enabling leadership. And the best leadership that I see really recognises who they serve, really invests in knowing who they serve. And knowing who you serve, it went back to my, you know, the point I made Jo about knowing all your students and in a transparent way, unpacking that for your school community.

Staff run hard Jo. You know, if you're in a high school, you know, 6 period day, 42 lessons a cycle, if you're in a primary with the fractional release in an SSP, you know, you’re sometimes irreplaceable because you can't just wind in any casual teacher. So staff run hard. And where leadership invests in knowing who they serve and unpacking that for the school community, every word counts.

Every meeting counts around their stance. Not accepting low expectation, not accepting a ceiling, demanding that these kids have the capacity to progress, learn and have fulfilling lives. It's got to be a lived mantra. It cannot be one off.

I loved what you said at the beginning that the research says for the system, it can't be an afterthought. Well for the leadership on the ground it can't be an afterthought. You know, you've got to come with that centrality and mentality.

We just featured Cessnock High School wonderfully in the press, great to see that positive news story. Credit to the leadership team there. It's in a tough neck of the woods. It's in a tough socioeconomic part of the state. You know that leadership team could just accept that as excuse, accept that as ceiling and just give it, you know, mediocrity of attention. But it's so, you saw the footage like me, I read the article like you. And it warmed your heart and my heart to know that the ingredients of what works that we know about are in play there.

It's taxing work, though Jo. It also requires sustained leadership you know, it's not overnight. You know, I heard the principal say that was a 5-to-6-year trajectory. And, you know, it's never work done. But it's got to be a sustained path, a real sustained path.

One of my lingering memories of my, you know, early days in principalship, you know, the school had got it wrong. I started on day 1, Term @, and parent teacher night was on, parent teacher night. And I saw all the faculties spend so much time preparing the hall. Four parents turned up Jo. it broke my heart because it broke my heart for my staff who’d put so much in. But unbeknown to me, we had a cash register at the entry to the hall and if you didn't pay your fees, you weren’t able to come into the hall to collect the report and that parent teacher.

Now, you know, I served a very disadvantaged community with that staff. Needless to say Jo, I removed the cash register. We never collected and sent fees home. You know, I may have driven some SAS staff members to early retirement, but it was such a strong display and sign of action to say, as the principal and leader of the school, that, you know, I know this community, I know the struggles and I'm not going to make money the obstacle here, you know. And it was pleasing to see the next time around that the hall was packed.

So I think leadership, not just principal, leadership in the leadership team across the school, are so pivotal in recognising who they serve, in embracing that equity challenge and not using it as an excuse and having many Cessnocks out there, who produce great results.


When you think about what the fabulous principal at Cessnock has achieved and the leadership team there, they've obviously got a student centred mindset at the heart of all of their decisions. And when I think about the work that we've been embedding across all of our programs through the Institute, one of the most popular frameworks that we use is the Leadership Mindsets Framework. Because at a fundamental level, leadership mindsets are the portal through which leaders act on their moral purpose and their commitment to equity. Mindsets including curiosity, collaboration, efficacy, which is so critical to believing that equity can be achieved.

These are key mindsets for leading for equity. How do these mindsets resonate with you and the way you lead?


Yeah. I mean, I'm so glad of the evidence base that you've been unpacking in the institute again, how you're supporting aspiring principals and current principals so strongly. I must say, I've leveraged some of your work. I'm really mindful as Secretary that, you know, like former secretaries I'm going to have a limited tenure, and I want to make every single day count.

I've become even more aware and invested more on self-reflection and feedback, because I want to make myself sharper for the organisation. I want to make myself better for the organisation. You know, this morning, Jo, I addressed our colleagues in EOPD and Connected Communities after a 2-week consultation period where I flagged that I was looking at merging the 2, I addressed them. And change is not easy.

So I made sure that I invested in preparing last night for the messages. And then I walked our people through those messages. But quite quickly after it, I rang a couple of key people to say, tell me how that went. Give me brutal, honest feedback. So I see that, you know, it's not just a disposition and mindset, but are you prepared as a leader to invest in self-reflection and ongoing feedback?

I've learned in my career, Jo, to embrace feedback even better. Tat if you want to get feedback, your own disposition on how you handle that and receive it is so important.

You know, first of all, when I was coming through Jo, when I thought everything I did was brilliant and I'd hear otherwise, I thought, well, you know, that's just they misread it or they didn't quite understand what I was trying to do. You know, I’d defend it, I’d defend it because I didn't want to embrace it. But now I’ve learned and have learned some, you know, probably the hard way that every single piece is very important.

So, you know, my disposition as Secretary, my mindset’s got to have belief, has got to have, you know, on today's topic around equity, which is so ingrained in me that we have to be restless for difference and have an urgency around that.

And then I've got to be cognisant in every forum about, am I delivering with impact? Am I inspiring? Because at the end of the day, the best asset I've got is my people. And to get the best out of my people unfortunately I can't just give them passes to the Bahamas for top work, but I can try and inspire them and motivate them and wanting them to come back.

And they’re ingredients I see in top principals, they're ingredients I see in top leaders and I'm a student of that. I want to keep being a student of that.

And I want to thank the Leadership Institute for putting words around things that I did not know, but tried to deliver on, you know, around disposition, around mindset, around self-reflection, around feedback. And I think, you know, you're doing a top job in unpacking that evidence base.


Thank you Murat, there's a great team around us. And as you say, the leaders that we've come into contact with in our work are just remarkable. We thoroughly enjoy engaging with them and their own sense of self-reflection has been critical to their learning. And on that note, you have, as the Secretary, the great privilege of being able to visit many schools across NSW, talking to leaders and teachers and students all the time.

I've seen you in action. It's a genuine, authentic approach that you take to that role. What have been some of the things that you've seen happening in our schools that have impressed you when it comes to tackling disadvantage and working towards more equitable outcomes?


Yeah. I mean, what I see in the best of our schools that tackle equity to great effect is real, systematic both structures, programs and personnel that they've put in place, outlive and outlast them or the individual that was running that. So don't underestimate, Jo, the breakfast program. Don't underestimate the Homework Club. Don't underestimate the wellbeing hub that's been created by the school.

You know, and I’ve been told that we’re there to deliver education, that we're only having to go into wellbeing, they now want to call them full service schools. You know the Commonwealth and want to call them full service. But our people have had to go to that space because of the lack of resource and expertise across interagency.

And I take great pride in those schools tackling and having systematic structures. Then they bring it back down to the individual. You know, there's strong research and evidence that says if there's one adult in that school, in that corner of that child, in that corner, of that child, that child is more likely to have a successful education. Just like there's research that says children that get exposure to a university through an excursion or immersion are more likely to end up at university.

So, you know, these are schools that put structures and personnel and programs in play relentlessly. And they are so important. And they bring it down to the individual level. And, you know, sometimes I got it wrong as principal, I relied on the disciplinary process. But there was a kid in front of me and a family in front of me that was in crisis. And so they wrap themselves around that kid and family.

And you know, what's the biggest thing we can deliver in education? Because if a kid’s struggling and has struggled and a family is struggling, are we able to create a sense of success? You know, some of these kids have never tasted success. Do you want to turn up Jo meeting to meeting where you're not tasting success? Do you want to turn up to the workplace day after day, where you feel like you're not having impact and traction? Well, some of our kids go through that.

And principals pick up and leadership teams pick up on that, and they celebrate the smallest success, the smallest gain, and that feeds to bigger success. You know, I've seen principals and teachers cry while a kid walks across the stage because that kid was not going to make it to the end of Year 7, you know? And then who am I to judge as a system, whether that was a top two band performance or not, when it was a remarkable turnaround in trajectory?

I never forget meeting a kid that was at one of our special schools, Verona, when I was a school education director, who then became, you know, with that school support, the school captain at Graneville South Creative and Performing Arts.

You know, we got to be into second and third chances. We've got to be into wraparound support, but we do need whole system structures and personnel and programs to support these kids as well. Because there's something about the individual as well as the entire cohort, particularly when you're servicing a lot of complexity and disadvantage.

There's also a growing body of evidence that we've unpacked over time, you know. I give a lot of credit to CESE and Mary Lou and with the SBAR and the finance we've had, we do have the material that says here are evidence based practices. I know AOPD have done a lot of work in that space, and then I know that your leadership of the Institute has then brought a strong focus of what the leadership in this context needs to look like as well.


And you and I have spoken, at times around the, the importance of having hope. And as the fabulous Jane Goodall has reminded us hope spurs us to action. And as a system, that's exactly what we need to do.


Yeah, you gave me a great book to read, and you also gave me great advice because when I started, we did some things to great effect very quickly that gave the ground a renewed sense of vigour, and they felt like there was a bit more backing. I give a lot of credit to the Deputy Premier and Minister for Education and Early Learning in that front as well.

But I said to you Jo and I said in forums that I was presenting inside the building, I don't want to be the Secretary that is remembered for delivering hope. You know that I do want to deliver better outcomes, improved outcomes for students.

And I think, you know, I'll give you a lot of credit because you said to me, you should double down on that. That hope is so important and so needed in this profession. You shouldn't shy away from saying that it's really, really pertinent. And the book that you gave me to read, I didn't read all the book, but I read some key sections that I've stolen and used, because otherwise I was going to shy away from that, and I've actually doubled down on it.

And you're so right. I mean, look at the kids that we've been talking about today on the wrong side of the postcode, on the wrong side of socioeconomics, maybe on the wrong side of what it can look like for you and I, what it looked like in a family structure. And if those kids, if we can’t deliver hope for those kids, that's backed up by what we've spoken about today, then I say we might as well pack up our bags because the essence of a public education system is to generate success for those kids.

And, you know, the 1880 Public Instruction Act says we’re to give the best education, regardless of race, colour, creed, distinction. We've done that for that length of time that I am hugely hopeful, Jo, that with 100% SRS funding, because we've operated on, you know, 4 cylinders out of the 6 cylinder for so long that if we're on si6x cylinders, we'll be unstoppable on making a real dent on equity outcomes.


And as those of us retire from the system, the medal that we proudly receive says service to students. And there's no better way to have an education and remember that that's what we do. And I think that's a good note to wrap up on. And thank you for sharing your time with us this afternoon.

And thank you to our listeners for joining us, for this fabulous podcast with Murat Dizdar, the Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. And please follow us on X and look at our website.

Thank you.

Discussion guide: Enabling equity in NSW public education


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