​SSTUWA Response to the Learning First Strategy

SSTUWA Response to the LEARNING FIRST: Western Australian Department of Education Leadership Development Strategy - October 2017.

The above referenced research paper by Learning First’s Ben Jensen, is a follow on from his paper released in November 2016.

The Public School Leadership Strategy was commissioned under the previous government with a particular view on school autonomy and privatisation.

The first report was a situational analysis containing some preliminary findings. This second report takes those findings and “develops a comprehensive approach to developing the high quality school leaders that meet WA’s unique needs”.

While there are aspects of this second report with which the SSTUWA can agree, there is much which causes great concern. The report appears to offer little hope in achieving a socially just outcome of providing quality public education for all students, regardless of postcode, through ensuring quality school leadership across Western Australia.

The SSTUWA has been strong in recognising the need to build the capacity of school leaders in practical and supportive ways that meet the context of Western Australian schools and that has been acknowledged in the school leaders’ log of claims for the next EBA.

The approach taken by the SSTUWA is outlined in Attachment one; that approach has more in common with the direction of the convergent research on school leadership from well-known researchers and the recent capacity building approach being taken by the NSW (Attachment two) than the low cost compliance and qualification based system suggested by the Jensen report.

It is worth noting that absent from either of the Jensen reports is any acknowledgement or explanation of how or why the current state of the system’s leadership strategy has been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that it has. This omission means that the proposed strategies for implementation may not in fact rectify existing problems or avoid repeating the same mistakes.

The report simply confirms that the concerns expressed by the SSTUWA (Attachment three) and by school leaders across our system in response to the initial report remain:

There is no doubt that a leadership development strategy is needed and that this discussion is timely and welcomed by many leaders. However, leaders need to be alert to the risks inherent in such discussions occurring at a time when budgets are extremely tight. A system strategy should be exactly that – system wide and not confined to a selected few which will be the temptation, unless this strategy is properly resourced. Unfortunately, discussion of increased qualifications, increased performance management, short contracts and compulsory moving of principals all lean towards the negative end of the spectrum – division and competition - rather than what we know is best practice in leadership development – quality professional learning and system support through ongoing coaching.

The report takes a punitive approach to school leadership and principals in particular as indicated by the proposal of a performance management system which labels principals as A to D. The accompanying definitions, particularly in relation to the C category – Coasting(!) are simplistic at best and demeaning at worst. They display little understanding of the reality of being a public school principal in 2017.

We reject rankings for our students and we certainly don’t rank teachers in this way; to treat principals as is proposed here is professionally disrespectful and guaranteed to further devalue the principalship, at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to fill principal positions with suitably experienced applicants.

To add insult to injury, the report, having identified lack of mobility as an issue, proposes to solve that problem by the introduction of fixed term employment. Rather than explore other possible options such as rotating positions, or other forms of limited tenure in a particular school, the precarious employment option is presented as the solution.

This is another example of systems thinking overlooking the professional and personal needs of the people working in schools.

The suggestion that principals will be more likely to ‘give back to the system if they know this will be part of the selection criteria for their next job’ (p74) is deeply offensive, not to mention outright cynical!

Overall, the report and the survey contain generic ideas that both research and school staff would accept as self- evident truths:

  • A talent identification strategy
  • Meaningful performance management process
  • Supportive development processes
  • Support mentors/ coaches for leaders/ principals
  • A whole of system perspective
  • Encouragement to move to the country schools
  • Professional collaboration and Networks
  • The provision of alternate pathways for experienced, highly effective leaders.

But for any new proposal to deliver meaningful improvements to the quality of leaders selected and then their ongoing performance there needs to be agreement on key essential understandings, a common understanding and commitment to the qualities of effective schools, leaders and staff and the competencies required by individuals to fulfil these qualities. The generic term lead is an essential starting point; currently this word would have a different meaning for many school principals working in schools today.

From autocratic leadership at one end of a continua, to those that influence through meaningful conversations, provide challenges, ask question requiring deep thinking, provide up to date professional learning opportunities, provide a supportive environment, immerse themselves in the day to day operations of the school, spend time in classrooms and playgrounds, form relationships with staff, students and parents and see themselves as part of team approach at the other end.

Currently Professor Geoff Masters from ACER is working with the Department of Education identifying the essential key attributes of effective leaders in education and yet there does not appear to be any seamless connection to this report.

Specifically, this second Jensen report identifies four key policy actions:

  • Talent identification and selection
  • Leadership development
  • Performance management
  • System leadership

Each of these for some reason has listed policy outcomes. What is the purpose of these policy action areas would appear to be a more appropriate heading - given that if you then plan appropriately and the strategies are implemented with strong alignment to the purpose - the success or otherwise can be measured by the outcome.

Looking at each of these policy actions in turn and in response to Policy Action One – Talent Identification and Selection - the fact is most would endorse a purposeful approach to building a strong organization with many leaders at each level by identifying talent early, offering structured leadership development opportunities and then - providing it is an appropriately sophisticated mechanism or process - comprehensively assessing talent for promotion.

However, as previously stated, the policy actions appear too narrow to provide the leadership required going forward. This is especially so if we consider the work of Petrie, Munby and Fullan, Robinson and Goleman that suggest our current performance management data fails to identify the relational skills, emotional intelligence, self-reflection skills and professional knowledge required to be an instructional leader.

The strategies that fall out under these policy actions only seem to endorse some modest tweaking of existing strategies that appear to be more guided by budgetary constraints than any real interrogation of major building capacity strategies (such as those recently announced by the NSW system).

In response to Policy Action Two – Leadership Development - most again would want school leaders to be on a continuous improvement journey and mentoring for aspirants and early career school leaders; but a more sophisticated approach to develop experienced leaders is required. A coaching model (which is not considered in this report) based on professional learning with experienced colleagues, that does indeed have the elements of differential leadership training, feedback in a trusting, collaborative, mutually respectful, developmental and capacity building environment makes sense.

Again, the policy actions seem to be simply tweaking the current paradigm. If Policy Action One and Policy Action Two strategies do indeed have the desired outcomes, then the system should be sending competent principals to the country instead of suggesting a separate development program for them.

In response to Policy Action Three - Performance Management - there is no doubt that the current process has failed. A fragmented, remote process that is almost unrecognisable as genuine performance management and that has no value other than compliance with the Public Sector Management Act devalues everything that is valuable about performance development processes. This has significant and negative effects on school leaders.

A major contributor for this systemic failure has been that component of the IPS initiative which sees the realignment of responsibility for IPS Principals’ Performance Management to the Director General. Whilst the 34 original participants might have been a manageable number to support (although research tells us this is still too big a span of direct control to be effective), this number quickly grew to the current number of 524 schools. Aligning PM Agreements with a generic Delivery and Performance Agreement has taken away a real and authentic personalised approach from these principals.

This breakdown in the effective management of principals was matched in an equally destructive manner when different regions adopted varying approaches to the development of computer generated PM processes for non-IPS principals that again were generic in nature and were devoid of any face to face contact.

The broader issue is not about increasing accountability for school performance and improvement but about strategies for collaboration, sharing and planning for improvement in a positive environment with colleagues in a process that is educative and leads school leaders to build improvement strategies into their own and staff performance rather than being judged A, B, C, or D by external inspectors.

This is especially so given that the current agents of this approach - ERG and DES - have not had any researched impact on improvement in school performance or student achievement.

Policy Action Four - System leadership – is sorely lacking in what we have traditionally understood to constitute system leadership. There is no suggestion of direction or support being provided by the system. In fact some of the suggested strategies will simply repeat what has happened with networks – some are working well but many aren’t. There is no recognition that for these ideas to work they need direction and support from the centre.

It is would appear obvious that for leaders to develop system perspectives time and breadth of experience is required. A broader and mature system perspective is a product of broader leadership experience; how fixed term contracts are expected to build this perspective has not been explained, and risk a number of unintended consequences.

The SSTUWA categorically rejects the Jensen report in its present form. While there are some parts worthy of further discussion, for the most part it is poorly constructed, convoluted and ignores the poor record of leadership development of the Department of Education over the last decade.

In addition the feedback process outlined is hopelessly inadequate – a simplistic survey to be completed within a very short timeframe is hardly consultation. Further, the structure of the survey provides little opportunity for respondents to say what they genuinely feel about the proposals.

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