The Highly Accomplished or Lead Teacher (HALT) program has been called a “badge searching for a role” but amid the political machinations in NSW, it’s taking on new angles – as a timely pre-election promise and a reusable political football.
Sarah Mitchell, NSW Education minister, has a goal: the appointment of a further 2,500 HALTs by 2025. There are already 310 HALTs in NSW. After a decade of HALT certification, NSW has added an average of just 31 teachers a year. Mitchell is “thrilled that we are on track to meet this target, with almost 600 new teachers signing up since we streamlined the process last year.” Some quick maths makes it clear that there is still something of a gap of 1,590 teachers, with only two years left to reach the goal.
This rate of gain of HALT numbers within New South Wales would provide something that the accreditation has not seen before. Especially considering that nationally, there have been an average of 100 teachers per year, across all jurisdictions, being certified as HALTs. To add 800 teachers in each of the next two years in NSW alone would change the dynamic of certification – and change the landscape of teaching in New South Wales and possibly Australia. Cynics may ask “where has the commitment been for the past decade in NSW?” Moving from 30 teachers being certified each year to a goal of 2500 seems to be a surprising change in pace – without a lot of explanation of the thought process underpinning such a move.
The new appetite in New South Wales is a contrast to a patchwork of progress towards certification around Australia over the past decade.
Indeed, not all Australian teachers are able to become certified, as much as they might like to, as the program has not been adopted in every jurisdiction and system.
Notably it’s not currently available to Victorian Government teachers. Tasmanian teachers can wait for the outcome of a pilot scheme started in 2021. In Western Australia, seven teachers were certified as HALT in 2012, and the state’s public sector has not certified another teacher since.
It’s not like alternatives to HALT don’t exist – Western Australia has the support of the Department and the union to operate the Level Three system which certifies 100 teachers every year. Some independent systems run their own accreditation system beyond HALT – using the Australian Professional Teacher Standards (APSTs) as a basis for an independent system of teacher certification. As noted within the National Teacher Workforce plan, Victoria’s ‘Teaching Excellence Program’ and New South Wales ‘Best in Class Program’ are also similar models which could reasonably be rebadged as HALT, or counted towards the count. However, the Victorian model only admits 100 teachers per year, so it seems unlikely to contribute significantly towards the lofty goal of one HALT in every school.
So while the opportunity in New South Wales is an important one to establish a bold direction for HALT status, it stands precariously this week. It’s a Liberal Party promise delivered in the shadow of an election (NSW voters go to the polls on March 25). Shadow education spokesperson Prue Car was asked for input for this article about the Labor Party’s position regarding HALTs in NSW. While she was unable to reply before publication, her public pronouncements about the Liberals’ plans leave little room for doubt – calling it an election stunt that was “too little too late”. If there is a change of government in New South Wales it would appear the opportunity for this mode would be lost (in NSW, for the next four years, at least).
Leadership gaps, become a HALT, then what?
As noted within a recent discussion, the HALT process sits rather oddly within the middle leadership space within Australia which, similar to HALT, is inconsistent across jurisdictions and lacks clarity. Genuine opportunities for experienced teachers to develop themselves tend to be tied to academic pathways, in-school leadership positions, or roles within education Departments. Systems such as Finland and Singapore have leadership and development pathways more like lattices than ladders, where experienced teachers can explore consultancy, policy development and instructional coaching roles. Whereas Australia, and NSW specifically, has a tendency to provide a ladder of opportunities with many rungs missing.
In this respect, the HALT process itself may be viewed as an innovative process ahead of its time. The progression from teacher to HALT may be a learning experience, or it may not, with the potential for further pay, and then…. uncertainty..
It’s hard to conceive of a development process that leaves you where you started, in this case ‘in the classroom’. With that in mind, the program begins to look more like an ill-conceived teacher retention strategy that assumes that teachers’ primary levers of influence are fiscal. We know from research however that teachers are less influenced by monetary incentives to select between teaching jobs, and a small bump in salary compared to more lucrative non-teaching roles elsewhere seems unlikely to retain teachers. It can be tempting to assume that all policy directives that work on a neoliberal, market-based ideology are flawed, but this need not be the case.
One approach among many?
With a recent study suggesting there is no appreciable difference between early career teachers and experienced teachers in teaching quality, it’s interesting to consider what this could mean for HALT. Indeed the paper itself suggests that expert teachers are typically selected based on non-classroom factors such as teaching awards and recommendations, with the HALT process being similar to a teaching award application process.
Most would agree that teacher pay needs attention, as just one strategy among others. As the Federal Education Minister Jason Clare works at a broader National Teacher Workforce plan proposes a raft of actions to address the looming and worsening teacher shortage. The current document, open for review and submissions, notes “Streamline Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers (HALT) processes to make it less burdensome for teachers, set a target to increase the numbers of HALTs, and incorporate recognition of equivalent qualification and certification processes”. So while it remains under review, it seems likely that HALT, and similar processes, have a home within the Australian education policy patchwork, the outcome of the NSW election will be pivotal to just how well supported it is within New South Wales, the unofficial home of HALT within Australia.
Steven Kolber is a career teacher and researcher, exploring ways to empower teachers within their careers. He runs workshops at Victoria University. His recent book with Dr Keith Heggart: Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling: Perspectives from Australia considers many possibilities for ways to develop and improve teacher status.
John Cole is a middle school teacher in Canberra and was certified as Highly Accomplished in 2013 and 2019. He is studying for a Doctor of Education at The University of Melbourne, examining schemes to advance Australian teaching careers.