In the midst of Australia’s rapidly transforming educational landscape, principals stand at the coalface, navigating complex challenges around evolving professional standards, the rise of Artificial Intelligence, the youth mental health crisis, and burgeoning workloads.
Below, The Educator speaks to Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) CEO Mark Grant, who has charted a path from teacher to principal to CEO. As the custodian of professional standards for Australia’s 400,000-strong workforce of educators, Grant and AITSL are at the epicentre of nationwide educational reforms and initiatives.
In this Deep Dive Q&A, Grant sheds light on the multifaceted challenges that teachers and principals are currently encountering, and some powerful opportunities to bring positive change to Australian education in 2024.
TE: In your role as CEO of AITSL, what are you most passionate about?
In Australia, we have four million students learning at schools, and we have a workforce of about 400,000 teachers and principals who are delivering that learning every day. I’ve come up through the education system myself as a teacher and through to a principal, and I’m really passionate about the difference that we can make to each student, each day. There are simple joys in life, and to some extent, I think some of the joy of teaching has been lost in recent years. But some of the simple joys as a teacher are just teaching that student hand-eye coordination or getting as young person excited about chemistry in the early years of secondary school, such that they develop a real passion for that subject and want to see that through as a career.
As a country, we need to see those chemists and other elements of society better served by students who want to go into what we call the STEM subjects. But I really do enjoy the moral purpose of what education is and the value it brings to both the individual and their family, and to Australian society as a whole.
TE: How much have the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers evolved in recent years?
AITSL is the custodian of those standards on behalf of all of Australia's education ministers. The Australian Professional Standards for teachers, and of course the Australian professional standard for principals as well, those two are driving most of the workforce across Australia.
The evolution of the standards over recent years has been informed by some practices in the early childhood sector where we have teachers. And at the moment these standards don't speak to teachers who work in the early childhood sector. They speak more to teachers who work in the school sector.
So, there's an area there that's been identified for change. And equally, we're certainly aware of the need to change the standards over the coming months on the back of the Royal Commission findings into South Australia’s early childhood sector.
In terms of evolving standards, the big one that's already underway are standards for middle leaders, and at the moment, those standards are being led by Queensland and are being developed for potential national applicability. But at the moment, they're being trialled across all three sectors – government, independent Catholic, in Queensland.
TE: The education landscape in Australia does indeed continue to transform rapidly. What changes are you expecting principals and teachers to be most affected by going forward?
I think already teachers and principals would say they've got too much on their plate, with what you might call their existing ‘business as usual’ work.
Reform is already underway across many states and territories on the back of workforce pressures to retain and attract the highly qualified workforce that we want in all 9,600 schools. And that's just in the school sector – not teachers who are doing such a great job in the early childhood sector as well.
But what I think they will be focused on going forward are the realities of the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, which includes 27 specific actions agreed to by all nine of Australia's education ministers. And some of those are very much focused on understanding data better at a national level to inform better workforce planning. Some of them are aimed at providing better guidance around induction and support, which is so critical for our early career teachers to benefit from. And then of course, there will be workload reduction components that sit across those 27 actions, and which are aimed at making a difference to the daily work of teachers and principals.
TE: Where does Australia currently sit with respect to offering world-class education leaders and who is leading the way?
Even though we have a debate in Australia about our education outcomes not being as equitable as we'd like, or as high as we would like, we still have an enormous standing on the international scene.
And from our perspective, I've never seen as many countries contact us in the last 12 to 15 months around the work we do, how we went about that work and how national standards and other elements similar to that have underpinned the lifting of the bar regarding the standards of our education workforce.
In terms of countries that are leading the way, it really depends very much on context. So, we do have some countries that are very different to Australia…more monocultural for instance…but also countries that are much smaller and don't have the diverse, rural and remote dimensions that we have in Australia. And so comparing countries is always a bit tricky, and there'd be many caveats I'd put there. However, it is generally thought that there are elements about the way Singapore go about their work that are worth learning and adapting from.
And to that point, we've been doing that here at AITSL. I've been doing it myself with some of the senior leaders in Singapore. When you boil it down, what they've done is they've created a narrative that is led by the Singaporean Prime Minister, and that narrative is about the critical nature of the teaching profession to the country’s future.
So, any country's future is really orientated around its future workforce, meaning the young people. And we need to have that kind of narrative characterise Australia's discussion, too. Health and wellbeing practices have never been as top of mind and vital as they are right now.
TE: What is your recommendation for how schools can best approach health and wellbeing with students and staff?
It's rarely that I have a discussion with anybody where health and wellbeing are not a component.
Having been a principal myself in a couple of schools, I, do know that context is king, meaning that each school is very different to neighbouring schools. Although they may share similar characteristics of the student and community in which they work, we need to empower principals to respond to the specific needs of both the health and wellbeing of their students and their staff as well.
Post-Covid, we certainly have a number of staff and student issues that we're much more aware of now than was the case pre-Covid. And I'd like to see the outcomes from the National School Reform Agreement that Minister Claire has commissioned that reports in October this year, and which is being led by Dr. Lisa O'Brien.
One of the elements within the terms of reference goes to the wellbeing question. And given we put out about $30bn annually under the National School Reform Agreement across Australia, I'm certain there'll be initiatives within that Agreement that will empower principals to better meet student, staff and general health matters within their school.
TE: The subject of AI is an increasingly complex one. What are your thoughts on how educators and students can best work with this technology going forward?
AI is almost a topic de jour around Australia, and even just in society, not just education of course, but certainly in education. I think the power I would like to see Australia really own is adapting AI to suit education as much as adapting education to suit AI. In this respect, I'm really keen for education to harness the potential of AI, and I'll give you two quick examples; Firstly, we often have some of our secondary staff teaching in what's called out-of-field subjects, meaning that they're teachers who've been trained in one area, but they're teaching in another.
I see AI having the potential to do some initial work to provide that teacher with the world's best intentions of teaching a group of kids with some initial thoughts that the teacher can then take in a conversation with their head teacher to then design and finalise that lesson for delivery.
We can't run our education system without out-of-field teachers, but I think AI can make a difference to the workload of those teachers – and this goes the same for our beginning teachers.
When a lot of our beginning teachers graduate from university, they go straight into some classroom environments; they haven't had the benefit of ten, twenty or even thirty years’ worth of wisdom and experience. But again, sometimes AI can degenerate the sample lessons that might be suitable for a group of students. And so the teacher is just doing the finessing of that to ensure it is contextually relevant to the group of students he or she are about to teach.
TE: How can teachers and principals be better supported by relevant stakeholders to ensure they're adequately equipped to do their jobs?
That is a very big question, so I'll try and be succinct about it. Money is part of the problem, but it's not the whole answer. I mentioned the National School Reform Agreement, and when the new one kicks in come January 1st, 2025, it will distribute about $30bn across Australia's education systems. But money isn't the only answer. Part of it needs to be professional recognition and a society that actually values the work of its teachers, principals and all the other staff within our modern school system.
To support the diverse needs of students and school communities, we definitely need to have a really serious think about what the workload is that we want educators – as opposed to non-educators – to do in our school.
Sometimes we've got people with the most experience doing some of the least valuable work from a teaching and learning perspective. We have to change that. My final point would be that we need a situation where the expertise of teachers who are actually teaching students as opposed to teachers doing work outside of a classroom, but those teachers who are teaching students receive the financial remuneration that keeps them as an incentive to teach students.
Some of our best teachers are ultimately attracted to other roles because those other roles pay more and/or because they’re trying to help their family to get ahead in life. They actually have to leave the delivery of teaching and learning for students in order to do that, and it's the wrong driver.
We are taking people away from the classroom when in fact what we need to do is provide the incentives for people to continue to deliver high quality lessons day in, day out.
TE: What's your number one piece of advice right now to affect positive change in education?
It would be for school principals to receive not just the finances that they need to run their school, but the very clear direction on the things that make most difference to student learning. Principals also need relief from distracting admin and red tape matters that both keep them away from being the number one educational leader in their school, but also keep some of their staff occupied on things that do not have a centrality to teaching and learning.
So, any measure at the school level, or by the employers of education around Australia, or by ministers themselves, that alleviate that distraction for both principals and teachers would be my number one wish. And by doing so, not just returning the joy to teaching, but really returning the benefit to our learners.