For more than five years there has been a vision to put a Highly Accredited or Lead Teacher in every Australian school. That means every school would have a teacher certified at one of the top two tiers under the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, working in class and working with staff every day.
AITSL chair Professor John Hattie is the greatest champion of this dream. His vision is to identify and value teacher expertise and impact and spread it to every corner of the country. In 2016 he fashioned the idea for Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers (HALTs) as one of five goals to re-boot education in Australia.
So, to fulfil the dream of HALT in every school, (based on the latest count from the Australian Bureau of Statistics) the nation would require 9542 certified teachers. Yet the reality is that only 891 educators have achieved certification since 2012 (2020 numbers). Every year about 100 teachers are certified by various state and territory authorities.
But the gap, the gulf between the dream and the reality, is not closing.
Promotion of HALT certification has been persistent and high profile. At various times $10,000 bonuses and study grants have been offered as incentives. AITSL has devoted significant slabs of the internet to promote the scheme and there’s an exclusive summit laid on for HALTs every year. The enduring promotion efforts are premised on the belief that the presence of a HALT improves a school’s learning outcomes, contributes to an increased culture of learning amongst staff and enables quality teaching to impact across the school (AITSL HALT Spotlight, 2018).
A 2020 research program as part of a Master of Education (Research) study overseen by Edith Cowan University aimed to determine teacher attitudes about certification. The study worked with focus groups of secondary teachers from the independent system in the ACT to determine what teachers are considering when think about applying for HALT certification. Teachers said they were more likely to consider preparing their own application, if they believed:
- The entire teaching sector recognised the value of HALTs;
- Their own system and their own school supported teachers who were working towards HALT status;
- There were regular platforms to highlight the work of HALTs, and
- The application process was simpler.
Based on the study, more Australian teachers are likely to consider certification if they feel it is truly national scheme. Currently not every state and system recognises HALTs – not across Victoria, not in Tasmania, and not in all of WA. In Queensland, there are specific requirements from each system. The idea that a teacher is certified as an expert practitioner in one state or one system – but not all – undermines the credibility of the entire scheme.
Part of the credibility gap lies in inconsistent approaches regarding payment for certified HALTs. A patchwork of bonuses across systems and jurisdictions unpicks the credibility of certification. A consistent approach to rewards would provide a banner to show how Australia’s educational sector values and rewards expert teachers.
Focus group participants were apprehensive about the application process to become a HALT. Uncertainty, misunderstanding and lack of trust surrounded this aspect of the HALT landscape during their discussions. These teachers believed preparing an application was complex, expensive and relied on opaque processes and procedures. Teachers said they would feel better about applying if the process was simpler, more open and less expensive.
The focus group participants raised further questions – what do HALTs do, and why is it important? They felt specific and regular demonstrations of the impact of HALTs – how they bring ‘more’ to classes and schools – may help address the uncertainty about the value of HALTs. The respondents pointed to cross-school leadership and prescribed roles within schools as possible areas for public demonstrations of HALT impact, increasing the credibility of certification.
HALT certification in 2022 seems to be a badge searching for a role. While the label is promoted and presented as an elixir for each school, many teachers remain unconvinced about the value of the outcome. For the applicants each year who plan portfolios and curate evidence, who prepare to have their career judged and assessed – these efforts must be about more than a shiny badge. Systems to apply rigorous inspections and then identify expert teachers must provide outcomes greater than a smile and handshake, a framed certificate and an email signature block. Defining the purpose of certification, defining roles and career progressions for HALTs, and making HALT matter on the national stage are essential to make meaningful progress in the growth of HALT numbers.
The ACT is one of the most consistent suppliers of certified teachers. On a pro-rata basis, it is a powerhouse, with 88 HALTs working in the territory’s 136 schools – 65 per cent of the way to securing a HALT in every school. The ACT Teacher Quality Institute is the regulating authority for HALT certification and has developed a vibrant package to help expert teachers achieve HALT status. They have adopted a modular approach to application, spreading the workload over two years. They have provided exemplars and mentors for applicants. They have arranged for payment to be made over two years, rather than 10 months. Their efforts to make the application process much clearer and more direct are at an early stage, but they could provide important indicators to remove wider concerns. But the skepticism of ACT teachers participating in the study, who operate in an encouraging environment, suggest teachers in other areas may hold more serious apprehensions.
Teacher concerns about applying as HALT were direct – “it’s too hard, it’s not relevant, I’m too busy, what’s the point anyway?” Without a clear direction of the value of certification, these questions remain unanswered. Certification may be recognised in pay, in promotions, in leadership roles, in community advocacy. The exact nature of that value is yet to be determined on a national scale. Gonski 2.0 recommended better career paths for teachers. Grattan Institute has provided a blueprint for making use of expert teachers. To encourage teachers to pursue certification, the nature of HALT certification has to provide more impact – for HALTs to do more, to lead more, and for the scheme to be more than just a badge.
John Cole is a Highly Accomplished teacher from the ACT, first certified in 2013 and again in 2019. His research with Edith Cowan University was part of a Master of Education program, looking at teachers’ attitudes towards HALT certification.