Schools are taking on more responsibility for managing staff and budgets.
The moves are generating mixed reactions. Supporters say the changes will promote flexibility and reduce red tape and critics claim they are cost-cutting exercises with serious implications for principal and teacher workload, resourcing and curriculum.
Monash University researcher and senior lecturer Dr Philip Riley – himself a former teacher – says two things are clear: a high attrition rate among newly qualified teachers is costing the nation billions of dollars in lost talent and training and managing chronic underperformers out of the education system is a continuing headache for principals and school communities.
It is estimated that between 25 and 40 per cent of teachers leave the profession in their first five years of teaching. Riley says it’s a terrible return on investment: “If business had a result like this someone would say let’s stop the whole program and have a rethink but, of course, we can’t do that with teacher education.”
His research and other studies of teacher satisfaction and performance indicate that more HR support is needed at departmental and school level.
Sheree Vertigan, president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association, which represents government school principals, says many school leaders want to recruit and manage their own staff but they need support to do it effectively. Vertigan says principals would find life easier if schools, or clusters of schools, had someone with dedicated HR responsibilities.
Victorian government schools have recruited their own teachers and largely managed their own staffing budgets since the 1990s, while other states have retained more centralised staffing models, where teachers are recruited centrally or regionally and then allocated to schools.
Former government school principal and former president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Brian Burgess, is now an associate with Insight SRC, a consultancy with a 20-year history of working with schools. He says following the Victorian lead will offer school leaders in other states greater influence over organisational culture.
Much of Burgess’s day-to-day work involves helping school leaders understand what climate surveys of staff, students and parents can tell them. Insight SRC surveys are used in government and Catholic schools but Burgess often finds that government principals have received little or no training in how to use the data that is collected.
Nationwide, there is little agreement on how best to address teacher attrition and encourage good teachers to stay. A wave of disillusion threatens to affect the whole teaching workforce if the politically pressured federal government fails to deliver on reforms recommended by the high-profile Review of Funding for Schooling headed by businessman David Gonski. The review panel’s view that schools, especially government schools, need a significant increase in funding, is widely accepted but politically unwelcome in an era of budget cuts.
Teacher pay is another hot issue. In Victoria the Baillieu government is under fire from unions for failing to deliver on a pre-election promise to make the state’s teachers the best paid in the nation.
HR lessons learnt
“There’s so much research showing that teacher quality is the most powerful influence on student achievement, we know we must attract and retain high-quality staff in order to get the best outcomes for students,” says Clare Talbot, director of people and strategy at St Michael’s Grammar School in Melbourne.
Her understanding of management, organisational design and HR was gained in the private sector, tertiary institutions and healthcare industry and she regards embedding HR knowledge within a school as critical to successfully managing employees and generating a positive culture.
Talbot says having a dedicated HR function in a school can prevent as well as manage poor performance and provides support and advice to those managing staff, especially when they are new to positions of responsibility.
Talbot believes an element of successful HR management in education is tackling the assumption that when students are on holidays teachers are too.
Pay scales at independent schools are generally tied to the state salary structure so pay rises for government teachers can be a cause for concern: “If government school teachers have a large pay rise, that will be an issue for the independent sector as it could mean an increase in fees. There is the perception that families who send their children to independent schools are wealthy families, but this is not always the case. With increasing costs to the school come increased costs to families who cannot necessarily afford it.”