The future of the Australian education sector

Fleur Johnston, CEO and Founder of PeopleBench, asks how bad will we let it get, before we implement real and transformative change.

As we stand at the threshold of 2024, the Australian education sector finds itself at a critical juncture.

We have the opportunity to solve persistent workforce challenges using contemporary and transformative organisational strategy and design processes, or the choice to continue to hope that the things we have tried in the past will yield different results to those we are experiencing today. Our decision to act (or not) will ultimately impact the sustainability of the sector, and the world’s ability to achieve the educational outcomes we aspire to reach.

There is no doubt that education’s persistent landscape of high workloads, high work intensity, and widespread staff shortages are continuing to leave teachers and leaders feeling increasingly exhausted and at risk of burnout.

In Australia, commendable marketing efforts are being taken to influence long-tail supply shortages, and the need to focus on recruitment efforts. The federal government’s recent ‘Be That Teacher’ campaign beautifully highlights the power of connection and purpose in the work of teaching when it is going well.

But the onus is on us now, as an industry, to bring this vision to life for the adults who choose to chart their professional paths in our schools and to act honestly on the issues that are making it go not well at all. The “marketing-to-practice” gap is potentially just another risk if we are tempted to take our eye off what is arguably the more important workforce ‘R’: retention.

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Retaining the teachers, middle leaders and other staff we have in our schools today—and providing conditions for them to flourish and maximise their impact through their work with students—is undoubtedly our best opportunity to address immediate and emerging workforce capacity and capability challenges.

When we released last year’s annual State of the Sector report, the data painted two diverse experiences of work within the sector: that of senior leaders, and that of middle leaders and staff. The difference between the two cohorts is stark, with senior leaders expressing substantially more optimism about their roles and the future of their schools compared to teachers and middle leaders who are focused on teaching and learning in the classroom.

This data picture should be alarming. About 30 percent of respondents who were not in senior leadership indicated that they did not expect to be in their roles in 12 months’ time. While the 30 percent possible turnover statistic in itself is not new for teachers, the fact that middle leaders have expressed this rate of intention to leave suggests our experienced school leadership pipeline is now at significant risk, too.

So, when we look at what the future holds for the education sector in 2024 and beyond, we have to ask ourselves: ‘how bad will we let it get before we start to implement the real and transformative change that is needed?’

One step in the right direction is likely to include the introduction of more flexible work. A “lack of flexibility” was one of the most cited reasons that participants suggested they were likely to leave. When we dig a little deeper, we can see that, objectively, schools have not kept pace with other industries when it comes to offering contemporary and dynamic work re-design. Participants also expressed their concerns that a lack of “change readiness and openness to change ” were among the factors causing them to consider exiting.

In some parts of the country, four-day working week options are being explored. In others, re-imagining the job families and roles types that schools may operate with in future are being explored as pathways to build a more contemporary and sustainable workforce for the future.

None of these ideas are radical, but when we observe the alarmist response from media, and in some cases the community and even the current workforce itself, there is little question that implementation complexity is the next hurdle to jump if the sector is to reap the benefits of new models of education service provision, and of improved employee experience.

To make the leap, senior leaders will need support to consider the changes that make sense in their unique contexts. They will need a plan for moving from the way they do things today to the ways they will need to operate in the future if they are to enjoy a sustainable future supply of staff who are impactful in their work.

Beyond “good leadership skills”, senior leaders in schools need access to strategic organisational transformation and HR tools, processes, and professional learning opportunities. These are resources and investments that other sectors have benefited from for some time—and we have let today’s and tomorrow’s school leaders down for them not to have access to them sooner.

Recognising this need to invest in the sector’s senior and middle leaders, so that they might improve outcomes for all staff and students is crucial, and this is where the need for our work at PeopleBench emerged.

Our mission is clear: to improve schools as workplaces and enhance student outcomes as a result.

Our work is about democratising access to ideas that should belong to school leaders everywhere, and we make use of technology—as well as human-centred relationship support—to help our clients accelerate their journey to become contemporary places to work.

At the end of the day, schools are places where incredible work is done by incredible people every day. It is those same incredible people who deserve for their experience of work, and their professional journey through the sector to be deliberate, to be supported, and to be “do-able”. Schools and systems who actively turn their attention to addressing the seemingly intractable challenges of attraction, retention, and wellbeing of staff will be the ones who solve them for their communities—and every community deserves for that to be the case.

School News

School News is not affiliated with any government agency, body or political party. We are an independently owned, family-operated magazine.

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