Queensland's education revolution: letting principals run the show

By Jason Whittaker

September 29, 2014

Parents agonise over which school to send their kids to. But it’s the disparity in education within schools, not between them, that is greater. “It’s the luck of the draw within the school,” according to Queensland’s teacher-in-chief, Dr Jim Watterston.

At a conference in Canberra earlier this year, the director-general of the Department of Education, Training and Employment produced a telling slide. “We haven’t seen a return on investment because we put it into class sizes, we put it into IT, and we put it into bricks and mortar but we haven’t put it on the whole — to teacher quality, to teacher capacity building,” Watterston told The Mandarin.

Return on investment: government expenditure verses test results
Return on investment: government expenditure versus test results

Watterston’s Twitter profile describes him as a “passionate family member [and] perplexed educator”. He knows the answers to improving educational outcomes — he rolled out successful reform in the ACT and Victoria — and he’s impatient to implement them for Queensland kids, who statistics show are in more need than most.

The need to invest in teachers — and enforcing teaching standards — is understood by researchers, he says — and increasingly his colleagues in the department he took charge of in April. But not by policymakers broadly.

“I don’t think it’s well understood in terms of the absolute imperative and the kind of prioritisation that it needs to have. People think you can do it all — you can still have lower class sizes, you can still have more IT in every school. I think we’ve really gone to the sort of point where we’re making decisions based on what works rather than what feels good.”

Watterston has spent enough time at a blackboard to know: he taught for two decades, and has been a school principal, since his first job in a remote indigenous community in his native Western Australia. He’s been director-general of ACT’s Education Directorate, and most recently a deputy secretary in the Victorian bureaucracy with responsibility for school education.

It’s no coincidence that both those states sit at the top of the educational outcome tables. The Newman government hopes Watterston can push Queensland higher — comparing 2012 NAPLAN results, the national benchmarking exercise for literacy and numeracy, ACT was on top, Victoria second and Queensland a distant second-last. Why?

“I think what’s common to the ACT and Victoria is that they boast two things that are almost paradoxical. One is about giving autonomy to principals, so they’ve allowed principals to make decisions about what they’re going to do within their own school. But the paradox part is that they’ve also built the whole system on collaboration and sharing performance data.

“When they [the ACT] started working with schools, sharing their data, sharing their strategies and giving opportunities to even put resources together, then suddenly they got a lift that they weren’t otherwise getting. In Victoria … they get the best results for the return on investment because they’ve got a system where principals are empowered to make decisions but they work together in clusters. So it’s driven from the local context rather than driven from the central office. I think both those states stand out for those reasons.”

Queensland, despite its greater geographic spread, has historically been even more centralised. Watterston wants to empower principals; head office should provide the support — and the necessary accountability.

“What we’re trying to do now is shift the whole decision-making framework so that principals get to make decisions and then the back end, the regional office, the central offices are there to support, challenge and provide resources and to be able to help with implementation rather than direct the performance process.”

Dr Jim Watterston
Dr Jim Watterston

That’s a significant cultural shift — one that veteran principals may struggle with. “A lot of principals haven’t grown up in that system and don’t have that sort of background or understanding of where things are working in other places,” Watterston said, highlighting the need for both up-skilling and sharing learnings across the state.

“So we don’t mean that if you’re an autonomous principal in Queensland you can just tie up your shoes and go your own way, we’ll never see you again. What we mean is that you are part of a system. You have that obligation to contribute to make sure that the system works. The autonomy is we’re going to trust you to make the decisions. Providing the decisions improve performance, then we’re going to get out of your way.

“But if performance isn’t improving, then we’re going to have to build possibilities to help you do those fundamentals … making sure that every teacher in the school is a high-performance teacher … It’s really about making sure that high performers get to manage their own improvement trajectory, but they also contribute back to the system and help bring other schools with them.”

It’s all music to the ears of government types: a better result for the same overall investment. The department might be smaller, but teachers will be better.

“You don’t need central offices that are as big as they have been. You don’t need massive regional offices that sort of cap resources either. So part of this process over the next few years is to identify where some of these tasks can be performed at school level and take away the funding that’s been soaked up in residual and regional offices and allocate that directly to schools.

“We started doing that already but Victoria and the ACT [are further along] … They’re really down the track in terms of making sure that, instead of running programs or having a one-size-fits-all professional development model, that schools get their own allocation of those resources and then buy in whatever they need.”

Early education, community engagement

Watterston is also a passionate advocate of early education. Queensland is playing catch up — the state system has only had a pre-school preparatory year for six years — but improvement will come. At the kindergarten level, some 97% of kids are now enrolled compared to less than 30% half-a-dozen years ago. “We’ve got a year-and-a-half more education than Queensland’s ever had,” he said.

But it goes beyond the school. Watterston wants schools to be “community builders”, working with daycare and kindergarten providers, largely in the private sector. The department, he says, should be one of “lifelong learning”.

“So if the schools provide support to those organisations and offer them professional development and talk about transitions and make sure that they can be supported in those early years, really working towards making sure the kids are successful when they do make that transition rather than just working in isolation.

“So we’ve now got a program we’re running out, talking to primary school principals about how they can offer their services for free in a sort of social capital kind of sense, and about working within local clusters and developing those pathways.”

Watterston says the union and other stakeholders are buying into the philosophy. But he admits there’s still nervousness among teachers and principals. “There’s a whole lot of people saying, ‘why? That’s not our job?’,” he said. And perhaps only half of the state’s schools have shown an interest in the “social enterprise kind of thing”.

And at the departmental level? Watterston says he’s building a “grand theme around it”, a legacy that will last beyond the current term of government. Last week the department held an accord with hundreds of stakeholders to “develop a sense of core strategies going forward”.

“People need to see some sustainability to this. I think that’s starting to emerge. In fact, I’m absolutely certain … I don’t want to overcook it and tell you that everything’s perfect and we’ve sort of cracked the code, but I think there’s a belief here that Queensland can not only do better but they know what to do to get better …

“I didn’t need this job. I was in a great job at Victoria. I took this job in Queensland because I could see that there was incredible growth still left here in terms of education performance. So for me, it’s the kind of dream job in the sense of being an educator because I really think things can happen here that will wake people up.”

Even better, he says, than teaching at a blackboard.

More at The Mandarin: Independents Day? The report card on autonomous public schools

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