Leading the transformation of Australia’s school system

Dr Mark Merry

7 December 2017

One of the great benefits of belonging to a professional association like AHISA is the opportunity to get an insider’s view of how other Heads are leading the strategic advancement of their schools. Whether that development is incremental or a wholesale transformation, I have yet to speak to another Head who is not actively engaged in leading his or her school in the process of achieving explicit strategic goals within a given timeframe.

Most Australian schools will be similarly engaged in a continuous cycle of development or improvement, either formally within the framework of a strategic plan or more informally through everyday professional practice. It is a professional habit of mind for an educator to be always reflecting on how students might gain more from a lesson, a unit of study or a semester of work – a habit that school leaders are happy to encourage and scale up.

I expect that every principal in this country could point to evidence to show that Australian schools are in the process of responding to the profound effects of globalisation and rapid social and technological change. And it is not “secret schools’ business”: every issue of every school sector magazine carries stories of how schools are transforming what they do and how they do it, and the stories are also generously shared in peer learning sessions at TeachMeets, seminars and conferences.

The key issue for the Australian Government in determining how to spend its “Gonski dollars” is therefore not to devise ways to bludgeon and drag Australia’s school system into the 21st century, but how to support and scale up what is already underway. In essence, this is a leadership issue, not a governance issue, and strategies such as locking schools into a set of “evidence-based” practices as a condition of federal recurrent funding should come way down the list of options for action.

So what should the Australian Government do? The suite of actions school leaders draw on to lead change offers a range of possible actions for the Government to consider, including:

1.   Build a compelling platform for change

Reversing Australia’s slide in international test rankings is not a goal that will inspire classroom teachers or principals to work even longer hours. What would inspire educators and education stakeholders to concerted and collaborative action is a strategic focus such as reducing Australia’s “long tail of academic underachievement”.

What international tests and NAPLAN results do show is that in Australia there are greater differences in student achievement within schools than between schools. No school is complacent about the spread of students’ academic outcomes and all have a vested interest in narrowing that achievement gap. A national goal that is experienced locally and which can be analysed and acted upon locally is much more likely to achieve measurable gains faster.

2.   Identify and build on strengths

Successful transformations often begin with amplifying what’s right rather than changing what’s wrong, and by building the capacities of teams by playing from the strengths of individuals rather than their weaknesses.

Deficit model thinking about schools has prevailed in federal government policy making for over a decade, delivering interventions such as participation in national standardised testing regimes and public reporting of school performance measures as conditions of federal recurrent funding. As yet there is no evidence that such externally driven reforms have been effective in meeting overall system improvement goals, in raising Australia’s rankings in international tests or in improving outcomes for individual students.

A “strengths-based” approach to leading change in Australia’s schooling system would therefore begin by recognising that most schools in Australia are already operating strategically within a continuous cycle of strategic development and that an appropriate policy response would be to seek ways to support, build or accelerate such practice. This would entail recognising, trusting and building on the professional expertise of school leaders and teachers.

3.   Develop a shared understanding and language

If all stakeholders are to collaborate in the transformation of Australia’s school education system there must be a shared understanding of terms and concepts in the narrative for change, including what is meant by “success” or “excellence” in education, and even what is meant by the term “student outcomes”.

While the Australian Government may measure “success” in terms of Australia’s ranking on international tests, parents’ understanding of “success” will vary according to the expectations they hold for their child. Similarly, the work of teachers and schools is focused on the individual progress of students rather than PISA rankings, and academic achievement – as important as that is – will only represent one measure of that progress.

Even the term “evidence-based” – which now prevails in the Government’s policy rhetoric – is contested, with some proposing that public policy should be “evidence-informed” rather than “evidence-based”.

If Australia’s 9,414 schools have a shared understanding of the goal they are expected to be aiming for, there is greater opportunity that schools can be trusted with finding the best way for their unique communities to reach it. All leaders know how important a sense of agency is to motivate people and inspire them to contribute their most innovative ideas and best work.

4.   Identify and develop champions for change

Leaders will often seek to identify if a model of the practices or behaviours they wish to embed in their school already exists in a form that can be adopted or adapted. They will then look for staff members with the curiosity, interest or skills to “champion” introduction of the model. We see this technique employed regularly across schools with the introduction of new technologies.

Governments typically identify existing models of desired practice through award programs or will support the creation of “lighthouse” schools through participation in funded projects.

Identifying champions of change or models of good practice in Australian schools is not difficult given the abundance of great things happening in schools. What is more complex are the actions that must flow to amplify and accelerate the influence of the champions of change.

5.   Amplify and accelerate change

Promotion of good practice is the precursor of amplifying its adoption. Within schools, principals typically promote change in practices by alerting staff to the latest research, providing relevant resources and tools, providing targeted professional learning, and by bringing the whole school community on board through addresses at school assemblies and articles in school newsletters or blogs on the school website.

Strategies used to promote change in schools can also encourage greater take up of good practice, that is, they can amplify change effort. While amplification is a pre-condition for the acceleration of change, leaders are aware that it is not a guarantee of accelerating school transformation. There may be other conditions that have to be in place, such as access to appropriate resources, professional learning or training, and possibly mentoring. Just as it is important to have our goal firmly envisioned, we must be aware at all times of the readiness of staff members to change and be prepared to offer a clear map of the skills they may need to acquire and the steps they must take to achieve what is being asked of them.

The Government has already taken significant steps to promote and amplify good practice through the work of AITSL and ACARA. Illustrations of practice, work samples, interactive tools and other resources support implementation of the Australian Curriculum and the professional development of teachers and school leaders. As suggested in AHISA’s submission to the Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools, one way to amplify and accelerate use of these resources is to develop an associated system of micro-credentialing to align with teachers’ professional development requirements.

Change is above all a learning exercise for those involved in it. As educators understand learning and teaching, it follows that the Australian Government has immense professional knowledge, expertise and intellectual capital to draw on in schools to support the transformation of Australia’s schooling system as it adjusts to technological and social disruption. The Government should therefore first seek to lead change rather than legislate it.

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