“The fish has died”: The demise of NSW public schools

Nov 12, 2022
Gladesville Public School -image: iStock

Conditions in Australian public schools are at crisis level. In searching for a cause, there is a Chinese proverb ‘The fish rots from the head’. A clear-cut example is the Department of Education in NSW, where modern neo-liberal, rational management of a public service has failed under current leadership.

It is beyond dispute that the conditions in Australian public schools are at crisis level, this is most evident in NSW. On an almost daily basis the Minister or Premier announce some desperate ‘new’ policy yet teachers continue to resign in significant numbers fed up with the conditions in which they are asked to work. This is a clear-cut example of why modern neo-liberal, rational management of a public service will fail under this type of leadership. There is a Chinese proverb ‘The fish rots from the head’ and this is the case with the Department of Education in NSW.

Historically, leaders of any enterprise rose up through the ranks gaining experience that allowed them to provide solutions to the inevitable problems that would come about. However, these managers who emerged from the work-force have been replaced by the graduates of the ‘Harvard’s Master of Business Management’ style courses created in the late 1960s. This rational approach to management following the launch of these business practices has been driven by the principle of maximum profit through efficiency. This is to be achieved through using the qualities that make for great organisations, big picture approaches, ‘visions’ translated to long and short-term goals with supportive data collection and analysis. There is emphasis on robust decision making backed by efficiencies and accountability. And it has to be acknowledged there was a significant improvement to the profit margins in business. The record level of profits for the few is confirmation that this market approach works.

Politicians and Public servants have always kept an eye on the business world and the adoption of such rational approaches. Who can forget Britain’s ‘New Labour’ under Tony Blair. Blair was the darling of the press and his use of all the weasel words that accompany rational leadership initially had everyone excited particularly the right-wing press. In fact, Blair not only parroted the rhetoric of the rationalists he appointed fellow advocates to his own senior staff to run his office. He appointed Jonathan Powell, a former managing director of an investment bank as his chief of staff and Alistair Campbell as his press secretary whose style became the model for future communications in politics and business.

In reality the decisions of Blair’s government led to the decline in the living conditions of the British public and Blair is now a source of ridicule.

The ‘steady increase’ in professional administrators and control of the news cycle of Blair’s Government reflects that experienced in the NSW public schools and has coincided with the ‘steady decline’ in the quality of our school system. Not since Fenton Sharp has there been a top bureaucrat in Education emerged from the ranks of the education system and currently only one of the senior executive team has been a classroom teacher.

This professional management style began with Terry Metherell who was Minister of Education for the NSW Liberal Party. In 1988, he initiated a series of reforms including, ‘Excellence and Equity’, ‘Schools Renewal’ and the ‘Carrick Report’ all driven by the desire to treat schools as businesses. He was the first ‘smart’ political operator in education that observed how business was thriving and adopted the same rhetoric.

The classic example of such an operator who led the NSW Education Department is the current Vice Chancellor of Sydney University, Mark Scott. A graduate from Knox Grammar, Scott became an advisor to the Liberal Party, then on to a senior role in the Fairfax Media Group. From there to Director of the ABC and then onto the leadership of the Education Department and finally at his current position. Granted, he went to school but not a poor public one. To my knowledge, other than attending a school as a child the organisations he has managed have nothing really in common with schools or in their ‘production’, that is what they manage. More about Scott later!

In the past, the incoming Minister inherited a public servant who was an expert in their portfolio. The tradition now is for the incoming Minister to select a department ‘head’ that reflects their way of thinking. This assumes that the politician understands or has experience in their portfolio; of course, this is rarely the case. In NSW the education portfolio predominantly goes to a member of the National Party as some coalition deal, hardly the selection of the most experienced or most talented. In the new Federal Government Jason Clare has been appointed much to the surprise of Tanya Plibersek who had been the shadow minister for many years. Clare comes with no experience in education having served in numerous Junior Ministers of shadow roles over his time in Parliament.

However, within weeks the new Federal Minister is making ‘learned comments’ about all things educational and his remarks about NAPLAN reeked of a bureaucrats notes. He is aware that there is a problem with teacher shortages and has convened a task force to design a National Teachers Workforce Plan. The draft note of this plan highlights the complete disconnect between the bureaucrats who designed the draft and the reality of the situation in schools. Of the 28 targets not one addresses the concerns of the teaching workforce as outlined in the Monash University report, ‘Teachers Perception of Work 2022’. None of the targets address the conditions within schools that are driving teachers away. These rational administrators have no ability to reflect on their performance and so have to blame the people who work in the classroom where the forgotten children go!

It is ironic that the task force has engaged Mark Scott as the leader of an ‘expert’ panel to recommend ways to boost graduation rates, and broadly ensure graduating teachers are better prepared for the classroom, one of the targets. Surely the Vice Chancellor of such a prestigious University could not be so critical of the quality of his graduates. In fact the silence of all teacher training institutions about the poor quality of teachers is confusing. These comments are insulting enough for the remaining teachers but that slur is also directed at the Universities of which Scott would be considered a significant spokesman.

Teachers cite the problems as being the reduction in the public appreciation of their worth, decrease in the satisfaction of their work together with ever increasing administration and data collecting tasks. A quarter of teachers feel unsafe and this reflects the incidents of physical violence attacks on thirty-nine percent of principals. This increase in threats or actual assaults has been tolerated by politicians who never want to upset voters and the popular media love nothing more than to bash teachers. 

At the beginning of this piece I quoted that Chinese proverb ‘The fish rots from the head‘, this is not quite accurate. In the case of NSW Education the head is decapitated from the fish.

Right now, the leadership in NSW Education must be under enormous pressure with teachers leaving the profession in record numbers and students across the state not having a teacher in their classroom; if they are not, then the schools are in real trouble. The morale of the work force, those who actually teach are fed up with the extra levels of administration and accountability. The teachers work in schools, they know what is required because they do the job.

So we have professional educators and professional managers. The unfortunate situation is the managers have the power and so instead of consulting those with the corporate knowledge they are just ‘managing’ harder unaware that ‘the fish has died’!

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