Education State: Mid Term Report

As we approach the midway point of this state government’s term of office it’s worth reflecting on how well we’re doing in making Victoria the “Education State’. I’m sure there are many perspectives on this, I can only offer that of a government school principal.

The first thing to be said is that we’re well advanced on where we were two years ago. In James Merlino schools see a minister who is well cross his portfolio, notwithstanding his additional Emergency Services responsibilities. He seems prepared to both lead and listen and seems to be particularly responsive to issues related to marginalised and disadvantaged students.

Within the bureaucracy Secretary Gill Callister has been impressive. She’s overseen a significant reshaping of the structure of the department and many new faces in leadership positions. I’m not sure many of us in schools are as familiar with the new structures and leaders as in the past but that may come in time. Out of the IBAC shambles she has crafted a system wide response focused on public sector values and integrity. One of the most obvious impacts of this was on the approval process for interstate and international travel, which still seems disproportionate and runs the risk of making our system insular and unresponsive. This should soften in time. Financial controls have been strengthened in schools and, although we can’t see it, in the department itself I’m sure. The longer term value will be in the reshaping of the culture of the department and schools.

The four (previously nine) regions have been given additional resources. Unlike under the previous Labor government regions appear to be playing a role which is less top down and more supportive of individual school interests under the department’s Framework for Improving Student Outcomes. It looks like they’re trying to strike a balance between Labor’s previous top down approach and the laissez faire tendencies of their immediate predecessors.

A major focus is emerging on the establishment of school networks. We’ve seen this in other guises over the last 20 years but this time around there appears to be a coherent structure, plenty of support and the opportunity for groups of schools to focus on what matters most to them. Historically the biggest risk to these groups has been the hijacking of their agenda by central or regional offices; let’s wait and see how it pans out this time.

One of the functions moving back under the control of regional offices is the Student Support Service structure through which schools get access to psychologists, speech therapists and so on. Four years ago management of these staff moved to school networks and now they’re moving back again. A good thing I say, although some in Melbourne schools may think otherwise.

As could have been predicted, schools are experiencing a reshaping of internal processes such as schools reviews, strategic planning and staff performance and development management. This is about more than compliance; these processes are significant drivers of school improvement. I would say schools are being held more accountable. School governance gets a look-in periodically and the previous state government had proposed changes, some of which were needed and some of which were impractical. It’ll be interesting to see whether this becomes a focus for the government in time.

At the election the government made a $120m commitment to deliver ten Technical Schools around the state. To be fair no-0ne was clamouring for this which may account for the time taken to make progress. Schools needed to develop cross sectoral management structures and then engage community and industry. This has taken time and there will be some pressure to deliver all the new centres by the next election. Most of these centres are shaping up as variations on a STEM theme which will align well with the needs of schools and industry. Challenges will remain in how schools access the centres but at least the state has learned from the federal Trade Training Centre program and is providing operational funding. Having done little initially to dispel the notion this was a throw back to a model from the 1960’s, the government seems committed to a contemporary model which it hopes will strengthen links with universities and TAFE’s as well as providing a careers focus on emerging industries.

The two major practical challenges facing the minister on coming to government were recurrent funding and capital works.  The latter had shrivelled under the previous government and a major investment was needed. It’s been forthcoming albeit that the government still faces a massive challenge to renew infrastructure and cater for demand in growth corridors and inner suburban areas experiencing regeneration. The budget commitment shows the government is making a serious effort to meet demand. A commitment to regeneration projects seems to have re-emerged which is good because there is still inefficiency in provision in Melbourne where there need not be. On the downside maintenance funding is still a challenge in many schools.

In terms of recurrent funding the game has been all about additional equity funding, both from the state and the commonwealth. Despite some tiptoeing around the state’s own financial commitment to the Gonski funding reforms schools have now seen this additional equity funding in their budgets in 2015 and 2016. If James Merlino and his NSW counterpart have their way we’ll see significant additional commonwealth funding flow to schools from 2018 when Simon Birmingham releases his new funding model. There are contradictory signals coming from Canberra; bet on a compromise between what Canberra has already promised and what the states want. If there is no additional funding emanating from Canberra the Victorian government’s decision to lock in funding of non government schools at 25% of the rate for state schools will look even more questionable.

Negotiations are underway for a new EBA. This promises to be as protracted as usual. There will be pressure on the government to increase teacher salaries and introduce working conditions that will effectively push up teacher numbers. Both would come at a significant cost to government. If there’s a choice they should should opt for the latter because the major stressor in schools is teacher workload, not salary levels. Historically the union has aligned more closely to Labor than the coalition and this has been reflected in their rhetoric but the government can’t afford to give up too much in the EBA given the additional commitment it is making to capital works and equity funding.

The education department is reflecting the government’s broader inclusiveness agenda. We’ve seen support for the Safe Schools and Respectful Relationships programs (yes they’re separate things) and the introduction of a Doctors in Schools program into needy schools. There’s been support offered to assist schools in meeting new Child Safe Standards. These have been welcomed by schools notwithstanding some of the tensions from interest groups and individuals who perceive that there’s a social engineering agenda at play. The department will have to strike a balance between wanting to ensure schools are inclusive and telling schools what to do e.g. in terms of signing up to the Safe Schools network. I’d say trust the judgement of people in schools.

One area needing attention is the number of alternative settings across the state. In their various guises these seem to have grown in number but there doesn’t appear to be any coherent framework within which they can operate or be funded. The best lead here is the work KPMG did for the department in 2009. The existence of these programs is a reflection of the fact that schools aren’t presently able to meet the needs of all vulnerable students and since this work falls predominantly to the government sector there is an imperative to develop quality standards and provide predictability of funding.

One of the big levers of improved educational outcomes is the engagement of children in good quality early childhood programs. I suspect more can be done to link early childhood centres and practitioners to primary schools although we are seeing more integrated facilities developed. If there’s work happening in that space it’s not readily evident to those of us in schools.

I can’t see that we’ve made much progress in addressing the significant imbalance in educational outcomes for regional and rural students in our state. At least not through initiatives specifically targeting those schools (although the Technical Schools initiative will impact on some regional centres).

Also missing in action is a coherent digital learning strategy for the state. This could align with a new approach to regional and rural education but it’s bigger than that. We have devices and broadband to spare but we need to revisit – I almost hesitate to say it – some of the principles that underpinned the Ultranet initiative. In particular we need to think about how we can better use technology to promote collaboration, share expertise and improve learning opportunities for students in all schools.

Some of the points raised above were picked up in various ways in the Bracks Report. People in schools are not sure what, if anything, has come of that report but perhaps we’ll suspend judgement for the moment. There’s a lot going on.

On taking government I imagine James Merlino felt one of his goals was to rebuild confidence in the government school sector. By my judgement he’s done a very good job to date. More to do, to be sure, but there always is.



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