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What might school principals want in 2014?

2013 is behind us and a new school year awaits. I’m not sure what school principals got in their Christmas stockings,  but I’m sure most had quite a wish list. I don’t know if these were on it, but here’s my list of eleven areas of interest in Victorian education this year:

1. Alternative settings. The previous state government commissioned a report from KPMG which was delivered not long before the 2010 election and never really saw the light of day as policy.  It was an attempt to document the many different types of alternative settings and programs established by individual schools and clusters, which appear to have grown in parallel with the push to re-engage young people outside education and those struggling to cope inside traditional school structures.

There’s a need to get some consistency in place regarding standards and funding and to document the outcomes from some of these programs. They are expensive to run, mainly due to the staffing ratios needed to cater for the high needs of the students involved. While the application of Gonski type funding might make it more attractive in time for other operators to venture into provision, at the moment the work falls predominantly to the government sector. The government should put a policy and funding framework in place.

2.  On the subject of Gonski, 2014 is the year when schools will expect to see some flow of additional funding into their budgets. Late in 2013 the government released additional funds for low SES schools and a token amount for others. Schools have been told work is underway on a new budget model for 2015 and whatever this looks like, if it doesn’t deliver extra dollars into schools there will be some heat generated.  Government school budgets are delivered in late September and a canny government might be able to get some electoral mileage out of a funding kick for all schools leading into the November state election.

The small set of senior secondary schools in the state will be looking particularly closely to this issue. We already have less to spend than other schools on our Year 11 and 12 programs and the government now has an opportunity to do something about it without taking funding away from others.

3. Expect education to be the usual topic of interest in the state election campaign. Labor would see education as traditionally being their territory and there have certainly been some trying issues during this term of government, including the long running dispute over teacher pay. But the government can fairly lay claim to having done a good deal of foundation level work for further reform of state education, despite the instability generated by new structures and personnel in central office positions. They’ve done a good job of shielding schools from most of the budget cuts felt elsewhere in the bureaucracy.

High among the government’s achievements is the agreement over Gonski funding and there appears to be a strong commitment to ensuring the full 6-year deal is honoured by Canberra.

4. Schools will expect to see the infrastructure tap turned back on, at least to some extent, in an election year. Claims of underspending in the last four years need to be weighed against the fact that commonwealth investment through the BER added significantly to building stocks, particularly in primary schools.

The urgent needs are for new schools in growth areas (rather than ceding this territory to the non government sector), maintenance and secondary schools.

5. Governance. An extensive review of school governance has been carried out and schools are waiting with interest to see what the future might hold. There have been signs the government is interested in giving more authority to school councils but there’s no real appetite for this in schools or in councils themselves. The government will need to make a strong case, and provide some incentives, for schools to take this up. This is a potential point of difference in the election campaign.

6. Choice. What can I say? Apart from regional and rural areas where it is not attractive for the non government sector to operate, parents have always had choice about where they send their children to school. But this choice has been limited by cost. At its heart, the choice agenda is really about reducing this barrier.  A small issue might be the fact that non government school fees have risen at a rate well above inflation despite significant increases in federal and state funding over the last decade. But that’s a story for another time.

A real choice agenda would recognise that in order to provide parents with genuine choice, government schools must present themselves  as a viable alternative to their non government neighbours. The government sees its reform agenda as achieving that objective and to some extent that’s true.  But while government schools lack funding and the ability to set their own enrolment policies and compulsory fees, it’s hard for schools to buy that argument. The government needs to be mindful of opportunities to talk up its own schools rather than having every new policy or initiative seen as necessary to ‘fix’ government schools.

7. School Support Services. One of the first actions of this government, to honour an election pledge, was to dismantle the existing method of managing services of specialist staff to schools – psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists and the like. This has served many metropolitan schools well but in other parts of the state throwing the responsibility of managing these services onto schools has not been well received at all. A differential model is possible. Another possible election issue.

8. Regions. Under this government the previous nine regions have shrunk to four and in keeping with its philosophy regions have played a less significant role. The absence of top down initiatives and command and control has been welcomed, but some questions remain about the role of regions and their efficacy.

9. Performance management of teachers will remain a hot topic. The government is on the right track here and the increased rigour in school based performance management processes has been welcomed, despite misgivings about timing and quotas for under performing staff. In 2014 schools would like to see some more support emanating from the centre and an understanding that such a cultural change will take time and require support.

Principals will be in two minds if the government pushes ahead with plans for them to be able to fire staff. The number of cases where it would be necessary would be miniscule but there is concern over the legal ramifications  should an appeal occur. Again, some clarity and support will be needed.

10. School level data. This will be of little interest to people other than principals and school leaders, but it’s a cause of great angst in many schools. Until the last couple of years schools received an annual consolidated data set known as the ‘school level report’. When this was done away with it was replaced with an online portal where data could be accessed as it became available. It’s a shocker. Data formats have changed and detail previously provided is not always available.

Worse, for people like me, the portal is only available from a school administration computer. Since there are never enough of these to go around, I and many others find ourselves unable to easily access data. I can log in to department sites which show highly confidential information such all my staff details and salaries, for example, but I can’t access school performance data in the same way. Something has to be done here, particularly when schools are increasingly dependent on rich data.

11. Will the government finally move to establish a Victorian Virtual School? Work is underway on a digital learning strategy and a virtual learning strategy. In considering the range of current options, headed by the Distance Education Centre of Victoria, the government might be edging closer to a well resourced, cutting edge model which serves the needs of students in all schools – including regional Victoria – and improves curriculum access and enrichment opportunities through the clever use of technology. The key is having high quality content and high quality teachers. Imagine what a difference that would make to schools and students.

I’m sure others will have things they consider equally or more important. Commonwealth and state interaction will always be interesting but I’ve focused here on state matters alone. It’s an election year and rogue ideas can always surface – remember the 2010 boot camp policy?

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