The failing pursuit of school success in NSW

Dec 8, 2020

Yes, it was announced in a Sunday newspaper, but this is serious: The NSW Department of Education will intervene in public schools that fail to meet performance targets in priority areas such as HSC and NAPLAN results, and other measures of success.

Credit – Unsplash

As the Department of Education explained it, the new School Success Model replaces Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD). The latter was introduced by Adrian Piccoli to enable school principals, the education leaders, to drive school innovation and improvement. Alas, as the Department laments, while the reforms enabled many schools to address local needs more effectively, it did not lead to improved results across our system.

Creating innovation, then reversing it, has become somewhat an art form in NSW education, especially around central versus local control of schools – ironically a less important issue when it comes to school and system quality. Historically education was centrally controlled until Nick Greiner decided 30 years ago to let a thousand flowers bloom, creating greater freedom of local management. The Carr Labor government had other ideas, top-down management was reasserted. The flowers still bloomed, but more in response to issued directions. Sunday’s announcement is a little different: on this occasion a Coalition government is reversing its own policy. Bets can safely be placed on how long it will last.

Local Schools, Local Decisions didn’t fail, it just wasn’t allowed to thrive, and certainly didn’t prove to be the magic bullet solution preferred by politicians, despite their endless search for such solutions. Recent research by Maurice Brunning actually points to a depressing continuity: LSLD was never sufficiently ‘local’ and it ran up against NSW Education’s one-size-fits-all ethos. Principals found that top-down, centralist and compliance-based policy constrained their leadership, effectively placing a ceiling on their real-world effectiveness. LSLD wasn’t sufficiently ‘local’, and ‘decisions’ had to overcome decades-old hurdles.

Another important point is raised by that research. The school principals posited that to improve their situation, the system would require a deeper understanding of change processes, how they operate in functioning schools, and an acceptance of shared responsibility for ensuring that sustainable change was achievable. The proposed School Success Model doesn’t reflect any such deeper understanding. Interestingly, it does say that everyone in the education system will now share responsibility for improvement. Bets could also be placed on the future success of that decision.

The main problem of the School Success Model is in the way it targets and scales up good practice. Successful schools are best identified by a combination of data and thorough professional reviews of practice. But the identification of deficiencies and success in this new scheme won’t include the latter – school reviews on the scale required were largely abandoned in NSW years ago. On the plus side, the target areas for success see Aboriginal education, attendance, student growth and post-school destinations added to measures of NAPLAN and the HSC. The problem is that, while we’ve long acknowledged the wider purposes of schooling, it is the test scores which will most likely shape the conclusions drawn about schools.

There are many innovative schools in New South Wales that are high achievers in these other areas. Big Picture schools, for example, record high attendance and retention, and outstanding student growth. Almost all their students transit to employment and/or higher education. NAPLAN scores vary, and not all students want, or need, a Higher School Certificate. How might such schools rate in a “success model” that risks diminishing the scope and impact of their efforts and success?

How will the School Success Model address the beyond-school impacts on student achievement: how “success” is distributed amongst schools and how this changes over time? It won’t. Like the parade of school reforms over the last two decades it proceeds as if these factors don’t exist – despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Arguably, such reforms are designed to distract from the massive and decades-old structural failure in the way we provide and resource schools. Unlike many other countries, Australia is avoiding this problem – preferring to recycle inadequate and even discredited school reforms.

Chris Bonnor is co-author, with Jane Caro, of What makes a good school.

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