Two years spent putting my own advice into action.

It has been a long time since I have had the time to write about shaping places where we work, live and learn. Why the long silence? The very simple answer is that I accepted a job as principal of a P-12 school and this school was in need of a significant amount of “placeshaping”. The brief was to refresh, refurbish, replace, revitalise and thereby stimulate growth.

Now that I am three years into the job, a reasonable amount of that task has been completed and I return to this blog armed with new insights and experiences. I have strived to put my own advice into action – making the school a place for community, a place for work, a place for learning and most importantly, a place where people want to return to every day.

The first tip I can share about being an effective leader faced with a big challenge is simply “get started on something” and that something should have immediate positive impact on as many people as possible. This something should focus on the core purpose of a school – that is, providing all students with quality opportunities to learn. The results of your first significant action will give you keen insight into the existing culture of change and how enthusiastically new ideas are embraced.

How did I select that first, significant action? Firstly, before the staff and students returned for the new year, I spent two weeks completing a series of audits and inventories. I looked at the main processes, procedures and policies already in place for managing the organisation. I inspected every inch of the property. I made lists, took photographs, made notes and talked to people. I was actually conducting field research in my own school. (A Mind the Gap note: This was also particularly important for me since I knew the school well, having been the deputy for many years. I needed to see the school with fresh eyes and from a different angle as principal.)

I then looked at the school from multiple perspectives – what was the experience of a student each day? What was the experience of a teacher? What was the experience of the parent? What does each of them need to make their specific role in the learning process successful? Did we currently provide them with resources to meet those needs?

When you do this type of research, trends begin to emerge. You notice positives, strengths, resources that will support change, things that are urgent and things that will be challenges. A SWOT analysis is a good way to process this new information. The amount of information that you can generate this way needs to be managed, otherwise the enormity of the tasks before you will discourage the selection of that first significant, high impact action (or series of related actions, depending on the organisation’s capacity).

Next post, I will explore my choice of the first significant action.

A checklist for choosing a child’s school – why educators should pay attention.

David Gillespie’s new book, Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, is a valuable perspective on contemporary education from the parent’s point-of-view. Although Gillespie spent a great deal of time researching the current educational landscape, which the average parent might not necessarily do themselves, he maintains his parental perspective by focusing on what matters to a parent looking for the best schooling option for his children. SchoolIMG_0195 leaders are well advised to consider the book because Gillespie offers a systematic way for parents to evaluate and select a school for their child. It is supercharged advice from one parent to thousands of other parents and educators should take the opportunity of listening in on this conversation.

In Part 2 of his book, Gillespie articulates what matters and what does not matter when it comes to finding the right school for your child. The items that do not matter as much as parents might think are: gender-based schools; high fees; small classes and multi-age classes. While small classes obviously provide more opportunity for one-on-one time for each child, it does come at a financial cost. Single gender IMG_3245schools do not cause any significant academic advantages unless coupled with selective enrollments that target the most capable students and stream according to ability. The value added items a significant income can buy within a school (such as individual technology and impressive facilities) are recognised as making the task of learning and teaching more comfortable, varied and easier, but Gillespie says the research still points to the fact these items will not have the same impact on student achievement as effective teachers and principals will have.


The book concludes the quality of teaching in the classroom and the leadership offered by the principal matter a great deal more than any other factors. However, there are eleven other things that matter, once you have established the school provides effective leadership and teaching (Gillespie, 2014, pages 165-6).

  1. Learning to learn is important;
  2. Extracurricular activities (especially music) should be on offer;
  3. Languages other than English should be part of the curriculum (especially for primary schools);
  4. Effective use of technology will make a difference;
  5. Effective behaviour management is important;
  6. Homework policy does not make a lot of difference;
  7. Effective communication with parents (about educational matters) matters a great deal;
  8. Avoid primary schools that do not use phonics to teach reading;
  9. Avoid schools that stream according to academic ability;
  10. Look for schools that accelerate gifted students (if your child is a genius);
  11. If your child has special needs, know exactly what resources are available.

Running through the list of eleven things that matter, in addition to the two non-negotiables of teacher effectiveness and principal leadership, you have a reasonable summary of what happens in schools. By the time I had finished reading the book, I was already running through the responses I would give parents who happened to use this list to test the quality and appropriateness of my school for their children. It would be a good exercise to consider the criteria Gillespie shares and test out what your school prioritises. If your list is different to this one, then you may still need to be ready to argue your case against this very persuasive book and parents who arrive at their interviews armed with this checklist.

Reference: David Gillespie: Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, MacMillan, 2014.

What the best* performing education systems are doing – focusing on teacher quality and training

* the criteria for best relates to student results in testing such as PISA and other benchmark testing in literacy and numeracy

When I visited some Scandinavian schools in 2012, I had the opportunity to talk with teachers and observe their classrooms. One of the great riddles of the time was “why were the Finnish schools performing so effectively?”. Two of the few metrics available to education are: effectiveness measured by student results and teacher quality measured by student performance. It seemed one part of the answer in the high-performing education systems, such as Finland, was teacher quality – the best and the brightest taught in schools. In Australia, a common answer given to the question “how does a system secure high quality teachers” was reward them with a substantial salary. However, this response seemed incomplete. For example, after talking with many Scandinavian teachers about their salaries and after doing a quick calculation, it turned out the Finnish teacher is paid something similar to the Australian teacher. There had to be more than just the monetary incentive and the intrinsic motivators that are evident in much of the research on teacher satisfaction – motivators such as, knowing what you do matters and helping young people achieve their goals or a personal passion for a subject area.

What I did notice was an emphasis in the Scandinavian schools on giving teachers time to prepare specific programmes and working directly with other professionals on designing curriculum for their classes. It seemed most of the professional development time was given to working on the teaching at hand, developing one another’s skills and flexible timetabling that gave more opportunities for working one-on-one with students or lesson preparation.

Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, makes a similar observation and adds insight into teacher training. In Finland, all teacher preparation courses/colleges are selective and set a very high standard for entry. The thinking behind this approach is to recruit only the best and brightest of each generation to enter the schools. Therefore, the emphasis upon quality teaching begins with competing for the opportunity to train as a teacher. Finland has made the judgement that it takes substantial intellectual ability and demonstrated skill to be a teacher, and has structured their selection and training programme accordingly. A current report by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) found the path into teaching was varied and of those who entered with an ATAR (or equivalent) only 28% had an ATAR 81 and above. This would suggest we are not selecting only high achievers as Finland is doing. Turning graduates into highly skilled and accomplished classroom teachers and school leaders is completed during the training stage and not after a number of years in the profession. An amazing outworking of this shift to being highly selective about who and how many train to be a teacher (this approach started in the 1970s) and an ongoing emphasis upon high standards of practice amongst teachers, has meant the government has been able to reduce the top-down control of education. Much of the work within schools is now entrusted to the teachers and the curriculum is not mandated. As a result, school leaders and teachers can “generally design a more creative system than any centralised authority ever could” (p.151). The community is also aware how accomplished the teaching profession is as a result of this shift. A recent national study (2013) in Finland found teachers had the highest satisfaction rating of any other professional group. The satisfaction was a result of significant professional autonomy and the belief in their ability to influence children’s lives.

Teachers’ workspaces look the same the world over. Here is one in Finland and another in Denmark

Teachers’ workspaces look the same the world over. Here is one in Finland and another in Denmark


In Denmark, there were a number of pedagogues (cover your eyes, David Gillespie, for I know you loath edu-speak) in the schools I visited. These social educators worked alongside the core instructional teachers, but I was a little confused by what exactly a pedagogue did and where they fitted into the construction of curriculum. It turns out these professionals are quite unique to Denmark, so I could be forgiven for being somewhat ignorant of their role in students’ education. The pedagogue’s work encompasses children’s educational needs, as well as their social and emotional development and physical wellbeing. They focus on creating learning experiences that develop the child’s ability to work with others and build personal skills that equip them for learning. These professionals worked alongside the curriculum teacher and the class aides as a resource teacher, creating a teaching team that worked together to construct the class programme.

A pedagogue prepares afternoon in classroom kitchen with the children participating in the after school programme.

A pedagogue prepares afternoon in classroom kitchen with the children participating in the after school programme.

Teacher and children do homework the kitchen classroom.

Teacher and children do homework the kitchen classroom.

This is where my observation connects with David Gillespie’s observations of what made for better performing systems. He identified an emphasis upon colleagues developing the effectiveness of one another. Children at this school attend an after-school programme held in their own school. Gillespie argues the secret to the high performing systems of Shanghai-China, Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong lies in the emphasis upon teacher improvement and this is achieved in the main through less time in front of the class for each teacher. This approach is funded by large classes – more students for fewer hours each week per teacher (eg. a Chinese teacher spends 10-12 hours with their class), whilst in Australia we have adopted the opposite approach of employing more teachers to teach smaller classes for most of the week (on average 20 hours). However, the teachers do not go home early in the hours saved in the performing systems. These teachers spend a significant amount of time in other teachers’ classrooms and being mentored in classroom management strategies and subject-specific guidance (what we used to call teaching method at teacher’s college) according a very structured programme. Staged mentoring is provided by teachers further along in their classroom careers. It operates like a guild system within the teacher’s own school and district. Classroom observation (both of their own and others’ classes) is emphasised and feedback is specific. Typical areas observed are student information (profile of class and context), where the teacher placed most of their attention in the lesson and degree of teacher involvement. The structure is designed to keep the best teachers in the classroom, through the incentive of keeping everyone well prepared for the task of teaching and allowing expert teachers the opportunity to exercise increasing influence over the effectiveness of colleagues. I imagine there will be many who will argue against Gillespie’s conclusions but it does seem to ring true in relation to the substantial body of research that points out these countries are clearly doing something different to Australia, the USA and UK and the research that concludes educational improvement relies upon constantly improving the quality and skills of teachers placed in front of our classes. For many years now, Professor Steve Dinham (University of Melbourne) has emphasised the importance of placing a quality teacher in every classroom and more can be done to improve education by improving the effectiveness of teachers than by any other single factor. Professor John Hattie’s famous meta-analysis of over 50,000 studies on major sources of variance in student achievement concurs. After the influence of the student (50%), the teacher accounts for 30% of variance and therefore, is very powerful in the learning equation. What teachers do, know and value matters a great deal to the performance of an education system. A recently released report by the Grattan Institute (Making time for Great Learning, 2014) emphasises the same finding. Improving the effectiveness of teaching is the best way to lift school performance, and this involves focusing on what teachers do in the classroom.

A few final and perhaps controversial points to be made relate to in-service professional development, mentoring and impact of teacher registration on the type of professional development Australian teachers will choose. I would give a big tick to the recent developments in professional mentoring and Beginning Teacher programmes. The increase in teacher-to-teacher mentoring, collaborative research projects within schools and the focus on retaining new teachers is excellent. However, I would argue we need the same approach but different programmes for more experienced teachers so we can retain them mid-career and to encourage them to stay in the classroom. We also need to consider what programmes are best suited to the teacher towards the end of a longer career, programmes that do not shuffle them off to areas of low impact but instead focus on revitalisation and sophisticated ways of using the skills and knowledge they have developed over many years in the classroom.

Finally, I am concerned that the new prescriptions for professional development under the national registration scheme will prevent any opportunity of following the teacher development programmes that are in place in high performing education systems. Our registration requirements drive teachers individually towards stand-alone day courses that are invariably sourced from outside the school environment. This model makes it difficult for colleagues and schools to pursue a systematic, embedded programme of professional development as part of the registration process. Once we have pursued the mandatory hours of accredited professional development and completed the self-identified hours and completed the mandatory training in a plethora of crisis areas such as WH&S, asthma, Child Protection, anaphylaxis, there will be little time or energy for other improvement programmes. The Grattan Institute’s report argues the best teacher development a teacher can receive is to directly help them teach their students. A significant stumbling block to giving this development is the provision of time for effective professional learning programmes. The report explores a variety of possibilities for creating real time for teacher learning and many suggestions challenge age-old taboos.

As far as I am concerned, what is the take-away point? Teacher training and on-going teacher improvement that aims at being able to guarantee the best trained and the most effective teachers are working in our classrooms should be a number one priority. How we achieve it and fund it will no doubt continue to fire up many debates, reviews, proposals and research projects. As Ripley observes, we may be spending too much time trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture. It seems reasonable to reward, train and dismiss teachers based on their performance but that approach assumes poor performers will improve significantly and the worst teachers will be replaced with better ones. I am inclined to agree with Ripley’s view that we should expect our teachers to be the best and brightest of their generation and they should be of that calibre the moment they enter the undergraduate programme.


Prof. Steve Dinham, What we need to know about student achievement and quality teaching, ACER, DEECD Knox Network, 29/1/10, [http// accessed 29/3/14]

David Gillespie, Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, MacMillan, 2014.

Dr Ben Jensen, Making time for great teaching, Grattan Institute, March 2014.

Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World and how they got that way, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013.