Failed school reforms remain three years after ‘ad-hoc’ policy dropped

Education officials lost oversight of staffing and budget decisions at NSW schools as a result of a failed reform that was not fully wound back, sensitive briefing documents given to the new Labor government reveal.

The papers reveal there have been no material changes to settings that dictate school decision-making since the former Coalition government admitted changes were needed to the Local Schools Local Decisions policy.

The policy was designed to give principals autonomy to make financial and educational choices that suited their schools and students.

Quentin Jones

The controversial reform transferred the bulk of the state’s multibillion-dollar school budget from the Department of Education and gave it to principals to enable greater autonomy, but, instead, it was linked to ad-hoc decisions.

“There have been no comprehensive revisions or changes of the settings and approaches as they relate to local decision-making … this means schools do not have clear guidance or support across a wide range of their activities,” the April 6 briefing document to the government, seen by the , states.

The advice comes amid a teacher shortage crisis across NSW schools, with a survey of 200 secondary principals revealing almost a third of respondents had four or more teacher vacancies in their school.

NSW Secondary Principals’ Council president Craig Petersen said that under the Local Schools policy the department had ceded centralised oversight of staffing gaps across schools.

‘Schools were cut adrift … in far too many instances schools were not able to secure teachers and other educational services required.’

Angelo Gavrielatos from the NSW Teachers Federation

“At a time when there are significant teacher shortages, the department needs to urgently streamline their system to provide better visibility over the full staffing situation,” he said.

“That needs to include where there are gaps in casuals, temporary teachers and those staff on leave.”

Local Schools was launched in 2012 to allow principals to make financial and educational choices that suited their schools and students. But the former government in 2020 was forced to wind back the program because of “unintended consequences,” including that it made it harder to track increasing amounts of Gonski funding.

It was replaced by the School Success Model in December 2020, which set new school performance targets for the HSC, NAPLAN and student attendance. However, the target model was significantly disrupted by the pandemic.

The report was handed to Education Minister Prue Car.

Janie Barrett

Advice prepared for new Education Minister Prue Car this week said the Local Schools policy led to “a lack of a centralised approach to school improvement, and meant the department lost line of sight on key local decisions including staffing, use of budgets and technology”.

An evaluation of the policy in 2020 found that while it gave schools control over local decision-making, it did not improve student outcomes, and it removed visibility of and accountability for how schools spent their funding.

Spending on unauthorised school works and curriculum resources, professional learning weekends for school executives without clear outcomes and inconsistent IT infrastructure that exposed schools to a high risk of cyberattacks are among examples of how funding was used.

President of the NSW Teachers Federation Angelo Gavrielatos said the union had opposed Local Schools since its inception.

Many primary school principals have reported difficulty filling teaching jobs.

Glen McCurtayne

“Effectively schools were cut adrift and system support decimated. In far too many instances schools were not able to secure teachers and other educational services required,” he said.

“What we need now is to convert discretionary funding into a staffing guarantee to ensure the implementation of education programs.”

However, Petersen said blaming the policy risked being a “catch-all” that oversimplified complex problems across schools. He said a March survey of 196 secondary school principals revealed a critical concern was that teachers are abandoning public schools for the private sector.

One principal told the survey state schools were “losing great teachers, and it’s only going to be a matter of time before parents see teachers being paid more as an indication that they must have ‘better’ teachers in the private system. The department needs to act.”

The survey found teachers have been paid up to $50,000 more to take up positions in private schools.

A key election pitch by the Labor government was a promise to improve teacher conditions and lift stagnant student outcomes.

Car said the government was only just “beginning to understand” the size of the problems and the issues affecting the education sector.

“We have some big challenges ahead, but the first step is to understand exactly what is happening inside the education system and that’s what we’ll be doing over the coming weeks and months,” she said.

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