CHRIS BONNOR. The pendulum swings (yet again) for NSW schools

Mar 9, 2020

One thing we used to tell beginning teachers was to never punish the whole class because a few students were misbehaving.

It never works: the naughty ones get off relatively easily and the rest of the class becomes resentful, seeing it as being unfair and unjust. But it seems that’s what the Berejiklian government is about to do to NSW public schools.

According to the SMH, the government will take back control of schools and reduce the power of principals. Apparently the government has lost its ability to intervene in classrooms and keep track of more than $1.25 billion in Gonski money. The NSW education minister, Sarah Mitchell, said that the government’s own local schools, local decisions (LSLD) initiative has removed the policy levers the government needs to address school underperformance, to scale evidence-based best practice across the system, and to help principals spend their money on things that will improve the educational outcomes of students.

Leaders of the peak principals’ groups, together with some high-profile principals, quickly responded. As the SMH reported, Christine Cawsey, the principal at Rooty Hill High School, said NSW principals [already] follow strict, centralised rules on finance, staffing and assets and the curriculum is also tightly mandated. She added: “In my 23 years as a principal many of the worst decisions have been mandated centrally.”

On the surface it apparently doesn’t matter to the premier and minister that principals make significant breakthroughs in programs which lifted student engagement and achievement, guiding young people to work and further learning, creating new partnerships with families, employers and tertiary study. The government should leave them alone and deal with any who are not up to the mark. The minister did move to reassure principals that she was only targeting the latter.

But she is glossing over the essential problem: It seems that unless school achievement can be measured, counted, compared and definitively linked to the money going into schools it won’t be valued by the number crunchers in the Department of Education. Standardisation lurks beneath. In the words of our latest ‘education premier’: “to ensure students receive the best education we must be able to enforce best teaching practice consistently across our schools.”

Best for which students? Perhaps the premier should have read the far more measured SMH editorial, or considered Christine Cawsey’s view from the chalkface: “the complexity and diversity of schools means that different schools have students with different needs and that school and class-based decisions are at the heart of professional decision making every day,” Try reducing that to any average measures or standardised teaching. What will it do to the best bits coming out of the recent NSW curriculum review?

Governments and some (but not all) bureaucrats don’t like such plain speaking, including from the heads of the peak school groups, this time from Phil Seymour (primary schools) and Craig Petersen (secondary). It’s sure to be a coincidence, but last week also saw a report on how schools are allegedly sitting on vast amounts of money. Such reports seem to appear every half dozen years, usually at times when principals and the system weren’t on the same page.

Of course it’s still early days and eventually there will be enough agreement on the current initiative. After the initial tub-thumping the cooler heads will prevail and the sillier ideas will just quietly go away. T’was ever thus: years ago I coined the term ‘Monday government’ to describe the odd policy initiative. It worked like this: the Sunday tabloids would beat up a school issue and anyone involved would then be dragged through the Monday morning toxic swamp of talk-back radio. After an exciting couple of hours in the offices of the department and minister, the premier’s office would issue an instruction which morphed into a policy in time to head the Monday night news. Fortunately the news cycle would be mercifully short and both the issue and the new policy would quietly go away – at least until another Monday.

The current reversal of policy by the government may last longer, something which won’t be news to the older hands. After all, centralisation and devolution in school management and curriculum has been pulling NSW schools in contrary directions for almost half a century. Usually each reversal has come with a change of government: Labor centralizing, Coalition devolving. Successive restructures, inevitably launched with hyperbolic titles, are well-remembered. My favourite was ‘building the future’, a euphemism for closing schools. The only future it guaranteed was one where we would (and did) run out of schools for inner Sydney. A real constant over these years of countless restructures has been a gutting of the systemic support available to schools.

Governments have always wanted to play with policy levers in school education. Oddly, they actually don’t have all that many at their disposal – and as long as schools do their very best and have the confidence of their communities they are surprisingly immune from the vagaries of policies and pendulums. From governments, schools need resources to do the job, the best professional advice, appropriate accountability measures … and trust. Every now and then schools get the first three, but the trust is always in short supply.

Chris Bonnor is a retired principal and a former president of the New South Wales Secondary Principals Council.

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