Why we need to rethink the way schools work - Grattan Institute

Great teachers transform students’ lives. That’s why most of us remember our most inspiring teachers.

But preparing for great teaching takes time, and teachers are telling us they are too stretched to do everything we ask of them. We need to overhaul the way our schools work, and to do that, teachers have to be open to new ways of working.

Two recent announcements by NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell are promising first steps. The first is a commitment to try new ways of using administrative staff in schools to cut down on principals’ and teachers’ non-teaching duties. The second is a plan to provide NSW teachers with a full suite of sequenced, high-quality classroom curriculum resources.

If Australia wants better education for our children, governments need to equip schools with the right mix of skills and supports and help school staff to find the best ways to work together. Getting this right would go a long way to easing the workload pressures that are currently swamping our teachers.

A 2021 Grattan Institute survey of 5,442 school leaders and teachers across Australia found 92 per cent of teachers “always” or “frequently” don’t have enough time to prepare for effective teaching – the core part of their job.

We ask our schools to transform the lives of children with wide-ranging and often complex academic, social, and physical needs. Meeting this responsibility requires a broad range of staff in addition to teachers – from psychologists, speech pathologists, and disability support staff to business managers, facilities staff, and administrative officers.

But having more staff isn’t always better. How schools deploy the staff they already have can be just as important. In our survey, a large majority of teachers (68 per cent) indicated they could save two hours a week if not-teaching staff handled some of the tasks that do not require teacher training, such as supervising sports, debating, or yard duty.

So kudos to the NSW Government for planning to test different ways of deploying administrative staff in schools. If these trials are successful, it could lighten the load on teachers and principals, freeing up time that could be better used to directly benefit students.

But efforts to ease teachers’ workloads shouldn’t stop at administration. We also need our teachers to work smarter.

OECD data show that Australian teachers spend 33 per cent of their time each week on teaching activities outside the classroom, such as preparing lessons and correcting students’ work. But this time is not always used as effectively as possible.

Just over half (53 per cent) of the respondents to our 2021 survey said teachers at their school spend a great deal of time ‘re-inventing the wheel’ when it came to preparing lessons. This includes teachers individually searching for and creating their own lesson plans, assessments, and classroom resources. About 40 per cent of teachers pointed to a lack of access to shared curriculum materials in their schools as being a significant barrier to effective preparation for the classroom.

This should ring alarm bells. If our teachers don’t have access to high-quality curriculum materials, it is little wonder that so many feel insufficiently prepared when they step into the classroom. Scrambling to pull together lessons plans and activities of widely varying quality, often from the internet, means less time developing effective teaching strategies for the classroom and thinking about ways to support struggling students.

Our survey shows that teachers are crying out for more support in this area, and that it could save teachers a significant amount of time. A large majority of teachers (88 per cent) said having access to shared curriculum materials and assessments would save them about three hours a week on average.

The NSW plan to put these curriculum materials in the hands of teachers could be a significant step forward, provided the quality is carefully tested and that the materials can be easily adapted to particular classroom needs. Of course, just having access to materials doesn’t guarantee they will be used. Experience from overseas suggests teachers will need training, time, and support to put high-quality shared curriculum resources into use in their classrooms. The NSW Government needs to start planning for this now.

In the meantime, though, these are positive steps that should be welcomed by all those who care about teaching quality and student performance in Australia’s schools.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.

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