In July 2023, during a National Press Club speech, Federal Education Minister Jason Clare outlined the government’s efforts to make Australia’s school system “better and fairer”. A national review of school funding is underway, and the plan is to “fix” it. This ‘fix’ will hopefully set right the historic failure of federal and state governments to fully fund public schools.
However, a central tenet of the process is to not only ‘fix funding’ but to also invest in ‘things that work’. Specifically, to tie funding to evidence-informed initiatives that Minister Clare says will “help children who fall behind in primary school to catch up in high school, and to finish Year 12.”
Lifting the quality of teaching
There are already signs that small-group tutoring may be one of the ‘proven’ initiatives the federal government will embrace and roll out across Australia, much like the Victorian government’s tutor learning initiative, which is funded to the end of 2025.
Another likely candidate is professional learning and development (PLD) – viewed by policymakers and politicians as a key lever to widely lift the quality of teaching in schools. While acknowledging that PLD programs are highly varied and so are their outcomes, professional learning has been proven to ‘work’. At the very least, PLD will accompany new initiatives, particularly those focused on improving teaching practices to help students catch up.
Less than half of teachers agreed that they are supported to undertake sufficient and appropriate professional development.
There are, however, several issues emerging within the research about how PLD is viewed and framed by policymakers and politicians, as well as its efficacy as a lever for whole system improvement. One issue, apparent in Clare’s public statements, is a top-down focus on student performance as measured by NAPLAN and PISA testing, rather than on student learning and wellbeing more broadly. As Professor Alan Reid sates, NAPLAN has become “the basis of the performance targets set, the resources provided, the professional development programs and school reviews instituted, and the incentive schemes proposed.”
This narrows what’s possible for PLD. For example, results from the AEU’s 2023 State of Our Schools survey indicate a tension between top-down mandates from governments and the bottom-up needs of employees. Of the 2,285 Victorian survey respondents, just under half (46%) agreed that they are supported by their school to undertake sufficient and appropriate professional development, and 9% strongly disagreed. Consultation with the profession matters and it is crucial to addressing the gap in student outcomes.
A second, related issue is a tendency to focus on teacher quality, rather than teaching quality. Language matters. In the Oxford Review of Education, Professor Jenny Gore notes that when the focus is on teachers, the solution is to ‘fix’ them as the problem – usually by specifying standards, setting hours of required learning, and assessing performance. Alternatively, and much more preferably, a focus on teaching opens the possibility for all teachers to be viewed as capable of excellent teaching with the right kind of support.
Trust, time, and support
Finally, while the idea of improving the education system through PLD is good in theory, it is difficult to achieve in practice. Targeted professional learning has been found to be highly effective – yet, when scaled up, quality and cost-effectiveness can be difficult to maintain. Many factors can hinder effective implementation; PLD tends to be under-evaluated, and so more trust, time, and support are needed for school staff to embed their learning into practice.
The AEU’s Education Committee is currently exploring the issues and tensions related to professional learning for school staff. The committee is a key union forum to consider and address the range of professional issues (pedagogical, curriculum, and so on) relevant to members, including school leaders, teachers, and ES staff.
While PLD clearly isn’t the policy lever that will solve the immediate challenges of workforce shortages and chronic underfunding, it can play a small, yet important, role in creating a positive working environment – one in which school employees feel valued and keen to stay in the profession. For this to happen, the assumptions underpinning the government’s selection of ‘what works’ to ‘fix’ the education system may need to be interrogated and re-imagined.