Geography and time have been obstacles that Deborah Netolicky, Cam Paterson and I have had to overcome in the creation of Flip the System Australia. Given that 1000’s of miles and different time zones separate us, coordinating the assembly has been challenging at times, but worth every minute. We are merely the editors, but it has been our privilege to receive, read and include in the book the contributions of a wide variety of people involved in Australian education and a few who take interest from afar.
As Cameron and Deborah have already written, the three of us met for the first time in the same place on Wednesday this week. We were afforded the opportunity to speak at a national leadership conference about the Flip the System movement and discuss key themes from the book. For my part I spoke about challenges of ‘leading’ in education (at any level), given the climate of seemingly relentless reform, a political rhetoric that is largely deficit in its description of our efforts, and considerable social change which impacts the fabric of our schools and communities.
What follows are some of the key questions I posed to the audience, as well as some observations and reflections on the chapters and vignettes on the topic.
How do you like your leaders and their leadership? Predictable, reliable, doing things you could do yourself which fill you with a sense of security and familiarity? Perhaps you prefer someone that challenges you to think deeply and critically about your work, supports you when needed and makes a decision you might struggle to comprehend, but grow to fully appreciate with time? This might be tough to answer because those who introduce the act of leadership into our professional lives have to perform multiple identities due to internal and external requirements. This may mean that we experience approaches and activity that make the objectives of leading, and our associated relationships with power complicated. Hyper accountability, school competition and performance measures bring with them a retinue of demands which can, for some schools, guide or constrain progress towards organisational goals.
Keddie (2016) and Heffernan (2016, 2018) both note that schools with some degree of self-governance, still experience constrained autonomy, the consequence of accountability protocols which require them to comply with department or national statutes. Leading any kind of professional practice in schools, it seems, is largely defined for us. It is regulated by a pervasive array of standards and regulations that orbit schools. Leadership, and therefore many institutional functions, are ultimately measureable and comparable. This may satisfy some who value uniformity or the strict attendance to expectation. However, to others, being able to perform ‘standards’ seem less to do with professional agency and more to do with centralised compliance.
Evidence, data and scientific measurement have made the surveillance of leadership and elements of school activity ever more visible. Under such scrutiny and with increasingly tighter capital and resource pressures, there is a sense that we must have instructional warranties or airtight strategy to validate our educational thinking and extract any risk that return on investment will not be realised. In such demanding times, it is no wonder that the profession is becoming sceptical and frankly judicious about what to believe, who to believe, who to be led by, or in fact, is demanding leadership of a different type and kind.
Celebrities of education who pack conference halls and shower us dopamine-inducing narratives about moral purpose or teaching precision, are playing their parts in sculpting a reform agenda that see us becoming stuck between a sense of hope (but with little substance behind the words), or mere technicians. The alacrity with which these high profile individuals peddle their select few studies or fields of evidence (or a complete lack thereof), is becoming tiringly familiar. It can conjure a sense of mistrust or that education requires ‘outside-in’ solutions.
We are minded of how susceptible education has been to the influence of those who would foist upon us reform and models of leadership to facilitate such reforms. Duncan Waite, writing in 2016 notes:
“We must be ever alert to charlatans and those others who would attempt to turn our love and longing for human fulfilment into taking up their reforms. We must expose the charlatans and demagogues, profit mongers and the rest. We must scrutinize even the most popular of reformers, for the herd is easily swayed by celebrity and by the ‘research says’ academics, the ‘brain-based,’ ‘what works’ and ‘best practices’ purveyors of reform. Locally produced, thoughtful responses to immediate educational problems and situations, while not sexy, slick and seductive, are likely to be the best, most appropriate educational reforms we can find. We must rise to the challenge. It is our responsibility as teachers and as educators.”
Flip the System Australia shows us that there is leadership in Australian education that overcomes unreasonable and unjust structures, remoteness and isolation, threadbare resourcing, boutique and deprofessionalising fads and predictably sanitised solutions to deep and complex problems. The testimonies reveal that there is resistance, that school communities (and most importantly teachers) are being led in ways that deliberately endow them with the capacity to research, think, plan and act that and elevate professional status. These largely unrecorded ordinary folk (who we know to be only a sample and snapshot), shine a spotlight on how to harness the knowledge and skills of internal expertise, prioritise trust and autonomy to allow teachers to make improvements in teaching and learning and support communities. This is something more than merely requiring us to be technically proficient and materially efficient.
You will read about important work undertaken at the coalface to forge trusting school cultures that value rigorous professional learning, robust professional and disciplinary knowledge and skills, give school success a wider and more encompassing definition, and operate respectful and democratic places of work. Rebecca Cody powerfully attests the challenges and opportunities of ‘riding two wild horses’, desiring to thrive as a school whilst satisfying compliance and accountabilities. Paul Browning shares his thoughts on practices and approaches that leaders can focus on in order to create workplaces that are characterised by trust that can lead to effective collegial work and relations. Sue Bradbeer addresses some challenges she has experienced as a woman leading in a rural setting, and Ray Trotter depicts the journey his small Victorian school has taken to transform the essence of learning for their students in the face of socio-economic impediments.
Huberman (1989, 1993) wrote about why policy (and its translation on the ground) should not reduce teachers and school leaders to mere technocrats, defining the precise parameters of thinking and practice. While this might have the appeal of creating a secure relationship between practice and outcome, he argued that this does little to project a positive and affirming image of teaching or leadership as a career-long project, one that has status, agency and a valuable public identity. Equally, he goes on, we must not be compelled to become martyrs or missionaries. The aims and objectives of flipping the system (as a global movement) should propel efforts to reclaim a place at the table of policymaking by teachers and leaders. It seeks action in order to achieve plurality of agency and leadership that opposes and resists the rise of quick, populist solutions, anti-intellectualism, unnecessary compliance and mistrust of teachers as unthinking and uncritical folk.
What is needed and wanted for teachers and their work in schools is a combination of circumstance and aspiration. Suggesting that there is a clear scientific or evidence-based approach that can overcome Australia’s vast geographic separations, considerable inequality and conflicting system stances on the purpose of education, is troubling. That is not to say that evidence cannot tell us useful things. Creating a sense of how we can move to overcome these burdens, achieve purposeful outcomes for students and create the conditions to support effective teacher working, requires consensus. The book notes a desire for coalition and networked knowledge sharing to achieve these things, but also solidarity with solidity, a commitment to overcome political and ideological motivations that hinder progress. Clarity and coherence sit at the core of this. When we are divided on key matters, it can create opportunities for constructive debate, but debate must lead somewhere. Scott Eacott summarises the intention aptly in his chapter contribution to the book;
“As a profession, to think relationally … means that our actions can be justified and defended on the basis of an explicitly articulated vision for education. Through clarity and coherence educators can establish the narrative to which they are held accountable… For too long in Australia (as with elsewhere), educators have allowed others to set the agenda. The time is now to articulate an alternate vision for educating and through coherent actions lead the narrative of schooling.”
In the end, leadership is essential to education. However, top-down approaches have limited effect when accountability is wielded as the way by which to get the profession to cohere. Our leaders and teachers have strong ideas and evidence about what is locally needed and what ‘might’ work at scale. Some of these ideas may prove to be inconvenient truths for policymakers, but those closest to the action speak truth to power. We hope this book provides a helpful contribution to ongoing educational thinking and action.
Heffernan, A. (2016). The Emperor’s perfect map: Leadership by numbers. The Australian Educational Researcher, 43(3), 377-391.
Heffernan, A. (2018). The Principal and School Improvement. Springer.
Huberman, M. (1989). The professional life cycle of teachers. Teachers’ College Record, v91(1), 31-80.
Huberman, M. (1993). The lives of teachers. London: Cassell.
Keddie, A. (2016). School autonomy as ‘the way of the future’: Issues of equity, public purpose and moral leadership. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, v44 (5), p713-727.
Waite, D. (2015). Of Charlatans, Sorcerers, Alchemists, Demagogues, Profit-Mongers, Tyrants and Kings: Educational Reform and the Death by a Thousand Cuts. Urban Review: Issues and Ideas in Public Education, v48 n1 p123-148 Mar 2016