Generational reform to deliver equity between country and city

Speech by Sarah Mitchell, Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning to the Sydney Morning Herald Schools Summit.

17 February 2021

I would firstly like to acknowledge that we are on Gadigal land and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging, as well as to the Traditional Custodians of the different lands across the State that you are all on – I know many of you are joining us today virtually. I would also like to extend that respect to all Aboriginal people participating today.

Aboriginal people have been teaching and learning on these lands for tens of thousands years and we are privileged to be able to continue that tradition.

It’s wonderful to be able to join you again for The Sydney Morning Herald Schools Summit and to have the opportunity to deliver an address on the changing face of education in NSW.

In the last decade, education in NSW has undergone more reform than at any other time in the state’s history.

In 2013 NSW became the first state to sign up to the National Education Reform Agreement – and lock in a needs based, sector blind funding model. For the first time dollars followed individual students according to their need.

The next year saw the implementation of the Australian Curriculum in NSW.

We’ve seen teaching fads come and go, and more acronyms than Eddie Woo could count.

In 2017 we created School Infrastructure NSW, acknowledging the need for purpose built facilities - launching the biggest school building program in the history of the State.

This was a wholesale shift in how the state delivers schools, and we are now enjoying those rewards with 114 new or upgraded schools opened since this shift in 2017.

More recently, NSW signed up to the National School Reform Agreement, continuing our commitment to an equitable funding model, and began a once-in-generation overhaul of the NSW Curriculum.

We have billions of dollars in additional funding.

We have thousands of brand new classrooms.

But brutal truth is, at a macro level, we have not seen a corresponding uplift in outcomes for students.

This is not to say that record funding and school building programs are not important. They are. But they are not enough by themselves. They are prerequisites for systemic educational improvement – but this improvement also needs the right policy settings.

Reform

That is why we are undertaking some of the biggest system reforms in a generation.

But genuine reform will never be achieved if we vacate the education policy space and leave it to special interest groups.

My ethos as education minister is simple. Policy should be evidence based, and policy should always, always, have students at the centre. Not media personalities, not politicians, not political parties, not interest groups or unions – not even education bureaucrats, principals or teachers. It must be students.

This ethos sits behind the new School Success Model (SSM) that we announced at the end of last year. It sits behind the Principal Fast Stream that we announced yesterday. It sits behind the curriculum review – and it will sit behind the other reforms that I will announce later this year.

The School Success Model, which overhauls Local Schools, Local Decisions, will ensure that improving student outcomes sits at the heart of NSW education.

It sets a range of targets for each school in areas as diverse as HSC, phonics, wellbeing, equity, attendance, pathways and NAPLAN. Because we know how much equity impacts education, these targets will be set against schools with similar demographics. They are agreed upon between the Department and the Principal.

Many outstanding principals and teachers I have spoken to are excited about these reforms. They want more data. Many are using it in their schools already. They want guidance and more support from the Department to help them lift their students.

Under the SSM, schools that are meeting or exceeding their targets will be held up as examples of excellence.

Schools that do not meet their targets will receive targeted support from the Department so that they can be turned around.

This support will be as diverse as the schools receiving it, from guidance on teaching practice and learning programs to considering whether unspent RAM funding might be better used providing extra staff and resources in an area of need.

We all fought so hard for Gonski funding, which will see an additional $6.4 billion invested by NSW in this iteration alone.

We were the only State to fund the full 6 years of the original agreement after the Federal Government walked away, and the only State to create an Equity Fund to offset the Federal Government’s Choice and Affordability Fund to ensure public schools were not disadvantaged.

But educators and governments alike did not fight for this funding for it to sit idle.

It has the power to change lives but it can only do so if it is spent on the students it was intended to support.

And that means schools must spend it.

Those that oppose the SSM do so on the grounds that targets might be offensive to educators. That Principals, and bureaucrats, will be criticised if there is consistent underperformance against targets.

Such a position is an abdication of responsibility to provide the best for our students.

Everyone from myself, to the secretary, to the DELs, to the principals will be held accountable with regard to schools meeting their targets.

To say that we should not have targets because some people might feel threatened should we fail to meet them is a discredit to thousands of extraordinary educators – and forgets that targets are not about teachers but about students. As I said, students must be at the centre.

Schools failing to meet their SSM targets will not be made pariahs. They will be provided wraparound additional support. Those leading these schools will have a system that will come in and do all it can to help turn the school around.

Of course, if there is consistent and prolonged failure to meet targets serious questions will be asked of those leading the school, and those above them.

In some educational circles accountability has become a dirty word. This is a shame. We should embrace it.

Accountability and responsibility go hand in hand. To shape the future of our kids - as educators do – is the highest responsibility imaginable.

For too long there has been a view within the education establishment that altruism is enough.

That to be engaged in education is such a noble pursuit that no other questions need be asked.

Education is indeed the most noble pursuit. But patting each other on the back and praising one another for choosing such an altruistic pathway is not enough.

We must also demand excellence – we must set lofty ambitions – and we must, as a system, question ourselves when we fail to live up to our ambitions.

We must be brutal when looking at the evidence base. We must without fear reject approaches that have been shown not to work – even if we have committed years of our lives to such approaches.

The whole of language vs. phonics debate is a perfect example of this. Neglecting to teach synthetic phonics in the early years is the educational equivalent of refusing to vaccinate our children. That is why compulsory phonics instruction is a crucial part of both the SSM and the new curriculum being developed in response to the curriculum review.

As a system, we’ve learned from past mistakes.

Prior to Local Schools, Local Decisions, education was much too centralised.

Innovation was stifled.

And we have acknowledged that schools were left with system generated tools that were not fit for purpose.

Going forward, we must allow scope for schools to innovate while also providing system support that is evidence based, ensuring schools have access to the right tools - for their unique setting - at the right time.

The School Success Model will balance the innovation that has thrived across the State with system-wide support.

But that doesn’t mean a one-size-fits-all-approach.

It means we take the best of what evidence tells us works and look at how it can be embedded in similar contexts.

We know that something that works in Bondi might not work in Bourke.

As Mark Scott often says to me - there are two kinds of jobs in education.

Those of you who are helping students learn every single day.

And those of us who help you to excel at that endeavour.

That is my expectation for every single bureaucrat in the Department of Education.

They are there to support you, and they will be held to account for that responsibility.

The SSM will mean that we have the ability to differentiate approaches across the system, while enabling us to ensure that every single school benefits from the wealth of resources and evidence available.

It also complements the work schools across the State are already doing, conducting an in depth situational analysis that will assist in developing plans underpinned by research and in line with the updated School Excellence Framework.

This reform will increase accountability, and I won’t shy away from that.

As I said, that accountability extends from principals all the way to the Secretary. This reform will also lead to shared responsibility for outcomes.

Because I am also deeply cognisant of the responsibility I have to the parents and students across the State to whom I am accountable as Minister.

That responsibility is front of mind every single day.

We know that there is much more still to do.

And we will never achieve it if we continue to allow some areas of education to remain taboo.

If we are to truly reform education and put students at the centre, then nothing can stay in the too hard basket.

Difficult decisions must and will be made.

And no area of reform can be off the table.

Governments are often criticised for focussing too much on performance in education.

But when I talk about results it isn’t because we’ve forgotten that a holistic school experience is about much more than a NAPLAN score or ATAR result.

It’s because of the power education has to change lives. To resolve inequity.

We have the potential to change education in NSW to improve outcomes for generations, but also a collective responsibility to ensure the students already at school reap the benefits of these reforms.

Equity

I know from talking to our many incredible teachers across the state that the impact their education can have on the rest of kids' lives weighs heavily on everyone in the profession.

We all want to do the best by students, but to do that we need to tackle the equity gaps that exist across the system.

One of the biggest issues I see across our system is inconsistency.

Some of our public schools are the very best schools in the world.

Yet uncomfortable as it may be to admit, this is not the schooling experience of every child in the system.

We know that schools are microcosms of their communities. We know that the inequities that exist in communities are expressed through the local school. And we know that fixing these inequities is a societal problem – not just a school problem.

Inequity exists across society – not just in educational outcomes. But given that education is the best tool we can give someone to break out of a poverty cycle, we bear more responsibility than most.

And the truth is that our most glaring inequity is also often the most overlooked.

Many would have you think that the biggest equity issues in the state are based on gender, language, race, religion and so on. And there are very real equity issues for kids in each of these groups.

But the biggest equity issue is a geographical one. Between kids in the bush, and those in the city. And for those already in marginalised groups, the tyranny of distance further entrenches their disadvantage.

As someone who is from the regions, was proudly educated in the regions – and as a mum who has daughters in both a regional public school and a preschool, I know how exceptional our regional educators are.

Despite this, regional students are still not performing as well as their metropolitan counterparts.

By Year 9, the gap between rural public school students and those in metropolitan areas is more than 14 per cent in reading and numeracy, and 20 per cent in writing.

When I first became Minister, a very senior bureaucrat at the Department of Education told me kids in the bush are not as interested in higher education as those in the city because so few of them go to university.

To me, this could not have been more ignorant.

It’s not about equal interest, it’s about equal opportunity.

Too often, decisions that affect the bush are made by people from the city. Whilst these decisions are made with the best intentions, life in regional NSW is never front of mind for those that don’t live there. To create substantive and lasting change, regional public policy needs to be driven by people that live and breathe country NSW.

This is why, earlier this month I announced a new Regional, Rural and Remote Policy Unit.

This Unit will be based in regional NSW, to ensure that those making decisions that affect kids in the regions actually have a lived experience of the regions themselves.

This new unit will implement reform under the newly introduced Rural and Remote Education Strategy; a guiding principle for ensuring we give country students the education they deserve.

Everyone wants to talk about the problem with NSW’s results, but not the solution.

The solution is more investment in the regions.

And I’m not afraid to be upfront about this.

It isn’t about politics or pork barrelling.

It’s about parity.

Evidence shows that if we improved outcomes in our regional schools, NSW would lead the country and international rankings would lift.

If only metropolitan areas of Sydney counted in these assessments - our results would be among the best in the world.

The biggest and most challenging issue we face in the regions is staffing; attracting and retaining the best in the business to not only deliver the curriculum well, but to inspire our children.

Research suggests that a highly effective principal can lift the achievement of a typical student by up to seven months of learning in a single year.

This is why we announced a fast stream program for our very best teachers and our brightest graduates.

The best teachers and university graduates in the state will now have the opportunity to fast track their careers to principal.

For too long, governments have been too cautious in attracting the highest performers into the teaching profession. This program changes that – the Fast Stream will be one of the most competitive, selective, and desirable employment pathways in Australia.

The Fast Stream is split into three stages. A ‘teaching stage’, a ‘middle leadership’ phase, and finally, promotion to principal.

In each stage, Fast Stream candidates must do a placement in a regional school.

Fast Stream candidates not only have faster career progression, but will also receive individualised support throughout the program, and will be assigned mentors from within the system.

Fear of reforming how we attract talent to the system has crippled our ability to bring the top 1% - the best of the best – to the schools that most need them. The fast stream changes this.

No solution can remain unrealised because it’s too taboo, or the fight seems too risky.

Students

Closing the equity gap must be at the forefront of everything we do.

We know that there are high performing graduates who haven’t considered teaching that we could be recruiting that will help us close this gap.

Attracting these graduates is our responsibility, and as I’ve said we can and will be revolutionising how we hire high performers across the system in 2021.

But universities also need to play their part.

The bar for teaching graduates in NSW is the highest in the country - which is one of the many reasons I will continue to fight to exclude the teaching profession from the Federal Government’s Automatic Mutual Recognition reforms.

But while we can raise the bar for the graduates we take into the system, universities must also raise the bar for their degrees.

Too many universities treat ITE as a cash cow – cramming students into classes, with no regard for academic excellence or quality.

This is why NESA will be firming up which Initial Teacher Education degrees they accredit.

Poor quality degrees will potentially lose their accreditation, no matter the prestige or influence of the institution offering the courses.

We will support universities as they recover from the pandemic, but that does not mean they can use initial teacher education programs as a money making scheme.

Academic capability isn’t everything, but it is important and evidence shows that it does lead to success across the system.

That’s why we want to attract the best and brightest into the profession.

Teachers and principals are often considered alongside doctors and nurses as the heart of our communities.

And so they should be.

No one would ever downplay the importance of academic excellence in the medical profession - because it’s life and death.

But the stakes in education are just as high.

The impact of education can change the course of a child’s life, and every single doctor, nurse, police officer, lawyer, and even politician, is a product of our school system.

As Minister, I speak a lot to teachers, principals, parents and carers, and politicians.

I value the views and feedback from all of them – well, mostly - but my priority will always be our students.

We know that classrooms can be complex and challenging places.

Yet no matter the challenge – every student deserves our advocacy.

We can’t afford to give up on these kids.

Disadvantaged students in particular have the most to gain from a quality education - and the most to lose if we let them fall through the cracks.

As you all know, teaching is a hard job and it isn’t for everyone.

We are lucky to have access to more research and innovation than at any other time in history.

But this has also meant that the expectations, and the possibilities, are higher than they’ve ever been.

We are asking more of you than we ever have before, because students need you more than ever.

The late Harvard Professor Richard Elmore describes teaching as being like rocket science – only harder. I couldn’t agree more.

We can – and must – provide teachers and schools with the support they need and take as much off their shoulders as we can.

But at the end of the day I can’t make your job easy, or lower the stakes.

Because no minister can lessen the impact that you can have to make or break the course of a child’s entire life.

Final remarks

I know that 2020 was a hell of a year.

In recognition of the hours I know teachers across the State spent transitioning lesson plans and assessments to online learning - every single teacher will receive 5 hours of credit towards their accredited professional learning.

I know that no amount of hours could ever truly recognise the dedication you all displayed last year, but the fact that our HSC students performed on par with previous years and our check in assessments only showed stagnation, and not a slip, goes to show how well you all adapted to unprecedented circumstances.

As research last year showed us - this was recognised by the community and respect for the profession has never been higher.

We can be divided by issues of accountability or united by purpose fuelled by shared responsibility.

For the student at a rural high school who wants to be Prime Minister.

For the student with disability who lives independently and works in a field they love.

For the Aboriginal student on my new student council steering committee who throughout that process has realised he has the capacity to be a leader in his community.

Every student, no matter where they live or what their circumstances may be, deserves the opportunity to thrive in their schooling and beyond.

Thank you for the opportunity to share with you today. Unfortunately as Parliament is sitting I have to head off shortly and won’t be able to join you for the entire day. I really would much rather be here than in question time - but I know as always that there is an incredible line up of speakers. Congratulations to you Lisa and the SMH for organising another great summit, and I wish all of you the very best for the year ahead.

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