What has Driven the Education System to a Point of Crisis, and What Can We Do About It?

Increasing compliance and responsibilities have left teachers stressed and ready to leave the job.
The profession
Cracks in the system.

The education system is in crisis. Teacher Unions, independent reviews and Government briefings have clearly identified several factors that are contributing to industrial action, shortages in staff and the profession in crisis. Uncompetitive salaries, the intensification of teachers' work and the profound changes in workload for teachers and school leaders are at the core of this crisis. Public sector wage caps and increasing costs of living have galvanised teachers and school leaders in taking industrial action.

The recent fires and floods have challenged the resilience of schools and communities, and are dynamic factors that have added to the work of schools. Teachers and school leaders played a crucial role supporting students, and often each other. The continuing effects of the pandemic are straining the ability of schools to cover classes. Government policy and health settings have changed testing, reporting and isolating requirements, which has impacted both teachers and students.

The 2021 independent inquiry, 'Valuing the teaching profession' reported two-thirds of teachers who state they are reconsidering their future in the profession due to the workload. Three-quarters of teachers and school leaders said they felt stressed frequently or all the time at work. The authors concluded that "All aspects of the work of teachers has grown in volume and complexity."

Professional disengagement is highlighted by the startling figure quoted in recent news items that 70% of teachers are considering leaving the profession soon. The NSW Department of Education has identified that the number of unfilled positions has doubled since 2012. Education economist Adam Rorris found that 11,000 teachers will need to be recruited before 2031.

Political ideology has driven systems devolution. While the intent of this was to allow schools to engage with key stakeholders and make local decisions, the reality is school leaders have become site managers, responsible for the Work, Health, and Safety of the site, be the instructional leaders of the school, and manage school budgets. While family, social and community commitments are not part of this role statement, it is difficult for any school leader to find a healthy work-family balance.

The craft of teaching, once learnt and acknowledged with a Teachers Certificate is now replaced with Standards-based accreditation. This is a welcome statement of the professionalism of teachers. The link between standards-based salary and accreditation has changed how teachers and school leaders work and engage with career progression. This work must be recognised as part of teacher's working conditions and requisite time must be afforded.

Data collection has become the metric that informs external validation, school assessment, and the measure of value that teachers add to student performance. Students are now seen as a unit of productivity. Data entry consumes school time, extending workdays into nights and across weekends. The introduction of high stakes testing has increased the requirement to collect, analyse and draft school improvement plans. Data entry is managed through compliance tasks and are continuing to change the work in schools. Healthy work and life balances are significantly disrupted as the workload of school leaders and teachers has become more challenging.

The 2020 NSW People Matter Employee survey reported that only one-third of teachers say they have time to do their job well. The Sydney University study, 'Understanding Work in Schools' (2018) reported that school leaders work 62 hours per week, head teachers and assistant principals 58 hours per week and classroom teachers 55 hours per week.

The Australian Curriculum is yet another tool of political ideology adding to the increasing demand of systematic compliance and administrative tasks that school leaders and teachers must balance with their core business – teaching. Teachers’ workload is bursting in efforts to meet the increasing needs of students. A constant stream of curriculum updates and new syllabus inspired by systemic desire to highlight differentiation swamp an already exhausted workforce.

The response of government must reflect the concerns of the education community.

To advert teacher shortages, uncompetitive wages and increasing workloads, key stakeholders must be decisive in planning for the future growth and stability of the education system.  Reform of the School Resource Standard is a necessary and has been resisted for too long. Teacher salaries and workload must be more clearly defined from administrative tasks. The importance of professional learning and the development of workforce capacity must be separate from online compliance tasks.

The crisis in education is failing our kids.

Image by Aaron Kittredge