In 2019, Fleur Johnston, a behavioral scientist and entrepreneur, founded PeopleBench with a dream to reshape education. Today, it's a powerhouse making waves globally.
PeopleBench provides an evidence base and tools for principals to inform their school workforce strategy and decision making. With Australian schools struggling with crippling teacher shortages in recent years, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the company has been seeing significant demand for its services.
Johnston says the struggle to attract and retain teachers, coupled with a diminishing leadership pipeline, demands strategic action from education leaders.
“Teacher shortages, high workloads, and work intensity are persistent and compounding issues, and when looking at our State of the Sector survey results this year, as many as a third of teachers are considering leaving within the next 12 months,” Johnston told The Educator.
“The disparity in perspectives between principals and teacher experiences in schools is also clear, emphasising the need for senior leaders to be more attuned to teachers' experience. But it is important to acknowledge that, despite the challenges, schools remain places where incredible work is done, and these strengths should be celebrated as much as possible.”
Johnston said Australia’s schools and systems are also “genuinely rising” to meet the workforce challenges in front of them.
“We remain optimistic that the situation is anything but hopeless. The important voices we are hearing now are the ones who want to be the change – our students and communities depend on it.”
Urgent need for casual and contract teachers
In the short-term, addressing the acute shortage of casual and short-term contract teachers, heightened by educators leaving the profession and a declining supply of new graduates, is crucial, says Johnston.
“This year's State of the Sector report highlights a pronounced demand for specific roles, intensifying the challenges schools face in finding staff,” she said.
“Ultimately, solving the underlying workforce challenges the sector faces will involve deliberate and collaborative work to redesign schooling delivery models, organisational structures, roles, and key processes to ensure the sustainability of schools.”
Johnston said that to bridge the gap between these challenges and solutions, it's essential to acknowledge that innovative strategies are not just beneficial but necessary when it comes to preventing these issues from worsening and spearheading the transformative changes required in Australia’s schools.
“The real question is not ‘how important are new ways of working?’, the real question is ‘how bad will we let it get before we start to implement the real and transformative change that is needed?’”
For its part, the Federal Government has spearheaded the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan to address the most serious issues facing the profession – a key one being the declining status of teaching in society.
In October, the Federal Government launched a national campaign to address this. The ‘Be that teacher’ campaign – a joint initiative of the Federal Government and State and Territory Governments – will feature eight real school teachers, one from each jurisdiction.
“We need to change that,” Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare said. “This campaign is all about changing the way we as a country think about our teachers, and the way our teachers think our country thinks of them.””
Johnston said the stories this campaign is sharing highlight the power of connection and purpose for educators and the role they play in the lives of students and communities.
However, she noted that while this campaign is a positive step for branding the profession, this shouldn’t distract education policymakers and other key stakeholders from the other ‘R’: retention.
“Retaining the teachers we already have, providing conditions for them to flourish and have maximum impact in the classroom will be our best recruitment strategy,” she said.
“Unfortunately, the consequence of branding campaigns that raise expectations which are not met through the realities of the work that people do post-recruitment can exacerbate negative perceptions of work. So, while positive brand campaigns are important, they also raise the stakes for those of us involved in making schools genuinely better places to work than they are today if we are truly focused on retention.”
‘We help all boats to rise’
Johnston said the work being done by PeopleBench in 2023 is at the nexus between workforce data, research, and changed practice.
“Across State, Independent, and Catholic schools in Australia we are working with our clients to make schools the best possible places to work so they can be the best possible places to learn,” she said.
“In this pursuit, our tools, like the Workforce Resilience Tracker™ and the Workforce Culture Tracker™, are helping leaders measure what matters in schools. Our Workforce Strategy Builder™ is demystifying the process of workforce strategy and giving school leaders actionable insights to create a clear, evidence-based workforce strategy—a holistic approach to workforce improvement.”
Johnston said PeopleBench ensures education leaders have access to strategic organisational transformation and HR tools, processes, and professional learning that other sectors have had access to through large HR teams.
“So, we co-design them with our clients in the education sector, use technology to make them available to everyone, and hope that, in doing so, we can help all boats to rise,” she said. “This is about democratising access to ideas that should belong to school leaders everywhere.”
‘Our vision is a global one’
Johnston said she has been honoured by recent accolades, particularly AmCham Australia's recognition with the Digital Economy Award, and the acknowledgment as a finalist in the Premier of Queensland's Export Awards.
“These highlight the meaningful work we're privileged to do with schools not only in Australia, but also the United States,” she said.
“Our vision is a global one, focussed on improving schools as workplaces, enhancing student outcomes, and transforming education – because we know that when school become great places to work, they become great places to learn.”
Johnston said with ongoing collaboration between the U.S and Australia, PeopleBench is committed to scaling its reach and making a lasting impact on K12 schools in Australia and beyond.
“These awards are only possible because of the partnership with our amazing customers and the work of our dedicated team.”