Rachel Wilson

Teachers deserve more than love and praise. They deserve a raise.

Our second post on the NSW Teachers’ strike

It has been 10 years since NSW public sector teachers have taken industrial action. 

Within that decade, workloads for teachers have exploded, salaries have become uncompetitive, and the teacher shortage in NSW has worsened. 

The education sector is at a tipping point. 

NSW public sector teachers are currently renegotiating a new award to protect and improve their salaries and working conditions. But the findings from the Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession chaired by Professor Emeritus Geoff Gallop released in February this year found stark evidence of a profession in crisis. 

The evidence we presented to the Gallop Inquiry painted a picture of worsening working conditions for the profession and highlighted that urgent change is needed. 

Why working conditions need improving

Working hours are unsustainable 

Teacher workloads have reached an unsustainable level. Our research of over 18,000 NSW public sector teachers has highlighted that teachers are now working an average of 55 hours per week. Increased data collection requirements, constant curriculum changes, and more complex student needs have contributed to this.

Our research also found the average teachers’ work undertaken at home is consistently between 11 to 12 hours per week, indicating that work in schools is too great in volume to be undertaken on the school site. 

During school holidays, teachers also work excessive hours, on average 10 hours per week, but up to 40 hours in some cases.

Overburdened with administration

Most teachers who responded to the survey (91%) reported that administrative demands impacted their core work of teaching. Teachers reported they were coping with the challenges of this major administrative load by working longer hours. In NSW, over 96% of teacher-respondents reported that the volume of collection, analysis, and reporting of data had increased over the last five years. 

If these statistics aren’t concerning enough, the voices of teachers speak to the challenges they face:

“I am currently on leave from the head teacher position and am working as a classroom teacher. This decision was due to excessive work hours, averaging 80-plus hours per week in term and 50-plus hours in ‘holidays’ as a head teacher for six years. The stress of this unsustainable workload left me physically exhausted and mentally drained.”

“The paperwork and administrative work has increased enormously.”

“The administrative demands and all the other useless busy work are detracting from the ability of school leaders and staff to engage creatively and to be innovative in the delivery of teaching and learning.”

One teacher recently tweeted his litany of mandated non-teaching tasks. We note it is not exhaustive:

Precarious work is on the rise

Teachers are not only working harder, but undertaking their job in more precarious conditions than ever before.  Fixed-term contract teaching is a growing feature of the NSW public education system. While the category of ‘temporary’ teacher in NSW was established in 2001 in response to growing concerns around casualization and a need to ensure greater employment security for, in particular, women returning to the workforce after having children, today it constitutes an enhanced dimension of precarity within teaching. 

Around 21% of the NSW teaching workforce currently work in temporary roles. Although temporary teachers do similar work to permanent teachers, they often feel as though they work harder. Many perceive they need to ‘do more’ in order to keep their contracted jobs. 

Teachers told us that: 

“I feel there is an unspoken pressure for temp teachers to ‘do more’ in order to heighten their chances to get work for the next year.”

They are “at the whim of principals who pick and choose according to who toes the line.”

Student results are worsening while teacher shortages increase

The evidence from the survey suggested that negative impacts on students were likely to follow if current trends continued. Sadly, this is the situation that has played out with results of Australian students continuing to decline by international comparisons in particular broad-scale testing regimes.

Alongside the workload problem is the worsening teacher shortage in the State. Enrolment growth, an ageing profession and fewer students enrolling to train as teachers means the profession is at risk of “running out of teachers in the next five years”.

Poor pay plus increasing hours and intensity of work will make addressing a teacher shortage extremely difficult. Lifting pay is critical for the sustainability of the profession and is a signal of the increased attention and respect that is long overdue for teachers. Addressing teachers’ current working conditions is also critical to how shortages can be addressed.

Why strike action is on the table

There is no doubt that it has become more difficult for trade unions to legally engage in industrial action, with the parameters for legal industrial action now being so narrow. 

Indeed, after the NSW Teachers’ Federation announced its intended strike action for 24 hours, the NSW Department of Education (successfully) sought no-strike orders from the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.

Teachers are not a militant profession but have a profound sense of care for the students they teach and the work they do in their communities. This is why industrial action is so extraordinary. 

Strike action is often a last resort. But our research has found that teachers can engage in such action when they feel that policies and political decisions are deeply and significantly threatening their core industrial and professional conditions of work, intensified by an uncooperative or dismissive government. The teachers’ union has said teachers feel this way

Striking is most successful when teachers are collectively aggrieved about multiple deficiencies in the system brought on by the policies of managerialist governments, like poor job security, increasing class sizes, undermining the professional status of teachers, increasing workloads, and bureaucratic models of performance management. 

An uncooperative government can also activate teachers to mobilise when governments are either openly hostile towards teachers and their union, or fail to consult with them on policies that affect their conditions of work. 

There are few occasions in history where NSW teachers have flexed their industrial muscle to take a stand against marketization and managerialism that eroded teachers’ working conditions. In one of the largest demonstrations in Australian labour history, some 80,000 teachers descended on The Domain in Sydney on 17 August 1988 to protest against the Greiner/Metherell cuts to public education funding and market-driven policies. 

The suite of pressure points currently facing the teaching profession brought on by a challenging reform environment sets the scene to rival the success of the 1988 strike. According to Buchanan, “today’s teachers would need a 15 per cent pay rise to restore them to their wage status three decades ago alongside comparable professions”. Given that, the demands seem very reasonable. 

Teachers’ voices must be heard now. If not, it will be too late. 

From left to right: Rachel Wilson is Associate Professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter@RachelWilson100 Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions. Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Will the Quality Time Action Plan reduce teacher workload?

Teachers want more time for lesson planning, not less.

Last week, the NSW Department of Education released the Quality Time Action Plan, intended to “simplify administrative practices in schools”. Having highlighted the concerning growth in administrative workload in schools in a report based on a survey of more than 18,000 teachers for the NSW Teachers Federation in 2018, we were excited to hear about this development. 

A way forward for reducing administrative workload?

The Plan provides a commitment to “freeing up time”, through a targeted “reduction of 40 hours of low-value administrative tasks per teacher per year”. Administrative work was the overriding concern for teachers in our workload survey, with more than 97% of teachers reporting an increase in administrative requirements in the five prior years. Further research shows that the heavy workload of teachers pre-pandemic was intensified by COVID19 in 2020. As researchers in the field and advocates for the important work of teachers, we find it encouraging to see tangible efforts made to address teacher workload.

According to the Plan, issues with administration are to be addressed through six “opportunity areas”: 1) curriculum resources and support, 2) assessment and reporting to parents and carers, 3) accreditation, 4) processes and support services, 5) extracurricular activities, and 6) data collection and analysis. Some of these areas, especially data collection and analysis, resonate with what we heard from teachers in our 2018 survey. And importantly, some of the actions in the Action Plan do seem to provide tangible reductions in the time teachers spend on this kind of work, such as automating data processing that was previously manual. 

Avoiding the narrowing of teachers’ work

But other target areas of the Plan were more surprising to us, particularly those around curriculum. The Plan acknowledges that “skilled programming and lesson planning are a critical part of teaching” – but also states that “this task can be quite time consuming”. It offers to improve “the accessibility and quality of teacher resources” to “save hours of time teachers previously used creating and searching for content”. We’re not the only ones who were surprised by this inclusion – we noted plenty of social media discussion from teachers about it last Friday after the plan was released to them. 

We don’t have access to all of the data upon which the Department is basing its Plan. Maybe there are teachers who have called for more assistance in programming and lesson planning. There is, to our knowledge, no published research suggesting that this is a problematic workload area for teachers, although it has been a noted challenge in relation to conversion to remote teaching during the pandemic. This Plan strategy does seem to be at odds with the findings of our survey that teachers’ most valued activity, the one that they saw as most important and necessary, was “planning and preparation of lessons”. Similarly, teachers reported wanting more time for “developing new units of work and/or teaching programs”. They did not want to do less of this kind of work, in contrast to what the Plan seems to propose. 

According to policy analyst and scholar Carol Bacchi, policy documents always serve to create or give shape to policy problems. That is, for Bacchi, any ‘solution’ given in a policy is actively constructing a particular kind of ‘problem’ to be addressed. So it’s interesting that the Plan constructs class preparation as part of the teacher workload ‘problem’. This suggests that the problem isn’t that teachers need more time to do their preparation, but that the way in which they have been preparing in the past has been inefficient, with the solution to instil a more centralised approach. While teachers may be appreciative of such resources, it’s not what they advocated in our survey, where the top recommended strategy was to reduce face-to-face teaching time to facilitate a closer focus on collaboration for planning, programming, assessing and reporting. Similarly, we note that the NSW Teachers Federation salaries and conditions campaign launched last week, ‘More Than Thanks’, is – along with higher salaries – calling for an increase in preparation time of two hours a week, to enable this kind of work. 

There are also other interesting framings of the teacher workload problem in the Plan. For example, the support around data collection and analysis seems to be mostly about ‘streamlining’ existing requirements rather than removing them. This tells us that the perceived problem is not the data itself but how it is collected and reported. 

Lesson planning is core to teachers’ work 

Given that the Action Plan’s intended focus is on ‘administration’, this makes us wonder what ‘administration’ in teaching is understood to include. What is considered ‘administration’ and therefore peripheral, and what is considered ‘teaching’ and therefore core? This is quite a high-stakes question. Because if we position some aspects of teachers’ work as simply ‘administration’, then we run the risk of sidelining work that teachers value as part of their professional identity, such as the creative and intellectual work of lesson planning. 

We are wary of any policy approach which re-purposes concerns over workload as an opportunity to control or limit the central pedagogical labour of teachers. Reforms which chip away at the core work of teachers, where both societal contribution and teacher satisfaction is most concentrated, run the risk of damaging the profession and the education system it carries.

This may not be what happens under the Quality Time Action Plan. But given recent concerns over the commercialisation of education data and resourcing, it is worth asking whether it would be the profession itself providing centralised programming and planning resources, or if this would be outsourced. 

Teachers’ voices matter: give your feedback 

There is an opportunity to provide feedback on the Action Plan. We encourage teachers – those who live these matters each and every day – to fill in the feedback form. Workload issues are as complex as they are important, and we heartily welcome the ongoing efforts of all stakeholders to effectively support the people who staff our schools. 

Rachel Wilson is Associate Professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions.

Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey

Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Scott Fitzgerald is an associate professor and discipline lead of the People, Culture and Organisations discipline group in the School of Management at Curtin University. Scott’s research presently covers two main areas: the changing nature of governance, professionalism and work in the education sector.

The government must know how to fix the teacher shortage. Why won’t it act now?

Schools are struggling with major teacher shortages and the reason is clear.

Australia’s education system is missing one fundamental part – a national teacher recruitment and retention strategy. 

Every other country I have reviewed has one; here’s England’s, here is Bulgaria’s, Zimbabwe’s is recently announced.  I’m not emphasising this because we should copy other countries. There is a much stronger argument –  internationally the importance of the teaching profession is widely understood, with appropriately weighty policy attention.

Australia’s current Quality Initial Teacher Education Review will make a contribution in this regard and it has broadened terms of reference to include “attracting and selecting high-quality candidates into the teaching profession“. However, the scope does not include retaining teachers nor effective allocation of them to areas of need. This is an area of pressing need and one of the structural systemic failings of our education system.

It will not be addressed with piecemeal policy shots. 

Policy gaps

The fact that we don’t have a national strategy on this speaks volumes about how teachers are undervalued in Australia; and how few with political power recognise the foundational role teachers hold in our economy, social fabric and democracy. 

The difficulties arising from this neglect, and there are many,  include: the current crisis in recruitment of teachers (shockingly evident in NSW where every week another school has to  take action because they are so understaffed), shifts to a less secure workforce, declining academic standards in admission to teaching degree, deteriorating work conditions and workload.

We desperately need a teacher recruitment and retention strategy – as a tool to redress this neglect, provide due respect to teachers and contribute to broader systemic reforms to reverse the declines we are seeing in many educational indicators (and no, I don’t just mean PISA scores). Piecemeal initiatives here and there are not enough, and those initiatives sometimes appear to willfully neglect the evidence base for what works in attracting and retaining teachers.

NSW’s recent announcement to provide what amounts to a cash incentive to attract mid-career professionals over to teaching, with six months of coursework and a six-month paid internship is yet another example of foolish policy. 

This approach has already failed once, as demonstrated by the Commonwealth Government response to the Action now, classroom ready teachers report some years ago. 

Attracting, recruiting and retaining candidates to a profession is a complex, multifactorial and lengthy process that will not be solved with a single incentive. It needs coordinated, comprehensive strategic response, with a long-term plan and system wide reform. This is not the same as the National teacher Workforce Strategy which does not lay out a plan to adress problems, but suggests monitoring via the Australian Teacher Workforce Data project which is still not fully operational after more than a decade in development.

We need a strategic plan built on evidence.

What the evidence says

A systematic review published earlier this year by See, Morris, Gorard and El Soufi provides an up-to-date analysis of the relevant literature. As a systematic review, which excludes research that does not meet research quality benchmarks, it provides a quality-assured evidence base. What does it say?

I am guessing this will not be news to the teachers out there:

“The only approach that seems to work at all is the offer of monetary inducements, but there are caveats” (See, Morris, Gorard and El Soufi, 2021, p.2.)

The caveats include that monetary inducements work only in attracting those already interested in teaching. The monetary inducements must also be large enough to compensate for challenging work conditions – and provide some offset for teachers who could be attracted to better paying jobs. Reforming both working conditions and financial incentives is important to attract high quality candidates to the profession. The recent Gallop review Valuing the Teaching Profession made it clear current teacher salaries are not competitive with those of similarly qualified professions – addressing this would require a 10 to 15 percent rise in teacher salaries. 

The systematic review also suggests that financial incentives also work better for attracting young females to teaching. They are less likely to work on older and male teachers. It is unclear how they would work in attracting diverse candidates to work in diverse Australian schools. Importantly, the monetary incentives are also only temporary, with no residual benefit. Once the incentive is finished, its power is gone. However monetary inducements do also work in retaining teachers, especially in changing school contexts. Thus, effective policies are more likely those with incentives for entering initial teacher education, and satisfactory pay across the full career span with special incentives for those working in challenging schools.

The review found no evidence for locally recruiting and training teacher education programs intended to supply hard-to-staff schools. Nor that teachers trained via alternative routes are more likely to stay in teaching – why would we keep investing money there then? It also found no good evidence that “pathways” improve recruitment into programs, with only one program shown to be effective in that regard.

There were some, complex findings regarding the effect of professional support for all teachers and mentoring for beginning teachers. Such effects impact on working conditions and workload, which are important considerations.

Uniquely Australian

Australia faces some unique challenges in regard to teacher recruitment and retention. In the 2020 report The Profession At Risk I had the unsavory task of analysing Australia’s declining trends in Initial Teacher Education admission standards, and degree completion rates.There are clear and disturbing trends in ATAR scores, but limited transparency on standards overall. Despite more and more students entering teaching degrees, less than 60 per cent of education students complete their degree within six years. I argue that the poor transparency and low standard for entry in Australia, far below international benchmarks, may be contributing to ( not a result of) the dwindling esteem of the profession- adding a unique element to the Australian teacher recruitment landscape. 

Other analyses suggest Australia also has specific problems with allocation of our teaching workforce.The OECD report Effective Teacher Policies shows that, uniquely, Australian schools have more teachers, and better qualified and more experienced teachers, in advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools. 

But we also have a notably low share of top performing students who go on to be teachers; and those students are also more likely to teach in advantaged schools. This stands in contrast to the majority of OECD country who allocate the most high achieving, qualified and experienced teachers to the most disadvantaged schools. This is another reason why we need a comprehensive and coordinated national strategy. 

Like waiting for Godot

Teacher recruitment and retention isn’t a new issue for Australia. There have been periodic crises and reviews over that last four decades. A review way back in 1986 suggested a more coordinated, and politically neutral approach was needed. Recommendations have rarely been acted upon. A 2014 Australian DFAT report Teacher Quality Evidence review, exploring suitable policies for international development recipient countries found   

“The systemic development of teacher quality is dependent, first and foremost, on effective teacher recruitment strategies…Supporting effective teacher workforce management by donors can and should include strategies and interventions to deploy teachers in hard–to-reach areas as well as supporting national governments to develop rewarding conditions of service for teachers, ensuring that they are adequately remunerated

If this is the advice we are providing for international aid programs a decade ago, why are we yet to address it for our own precious education system?

Rachel Wilson is associate professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

The terrible trap of temporary teaching: I need to do more to get a job next year

These days, there’s a new kind of teacher in NSW public schools: the ‘temporary’ teacher. 

The category of temporary employment, a version of fixed-term contract work, was introduced in 2001. The category has been steadily growing while the proportion of permanent positions has declined and casual positions have remained relatively stable, as indicated in Figure 1 below. Today, about 20% of NSW public school teachers are in temporary positions. 

Figure 1: Permanent, Casual and Temporary union members, 1970-2017 (percent of total)

Source: NSWTF Annual Reports, 1970-2017. Data for 2004 are not published.

While a teacher employed in a casual capacity is employed day-to-day, a teacher employed in a temporary capacity is employed full-time for four weeks to a year, or part-time for two terms or more. Temporary teachers tend to be newer teachers – but beyond this, there is  very little known about how this category of employment is experienced. 

Our research, recently published in the Journal of Educational Administration and History with a free version available here, drew on a large state-wide survey on teacher workload conducted in 2018 – you can find the full report here. We disaggregated the data from more than 18,000 teachers to identify 3,689 temporary teachers and examine both quantitative and qualitative data on how their experiences of workload might be similar or different to that of teachers in permanent and casual roles.  

This is what we found.

Quantitatively, teachers in temporary roles report similar levels of workload to their permanent counterparts, both of which are considerably higher than those in casual positions. Teachers in temporary roles estimated working an average of 56 hours per week during term time, compared to 57 hours for those in permanent positions and 40 hours for those employed as casuals. In addition, while 72% of permanent teachers and 70% of temporary teachers report that their job ‘always’ requires them to ‘work very hard’, this is only the case for 58% of casual staff members. Similarly, while 66% of permanent staff members and 62% of temporary staff members report never or rarely having enough time to complete work tasks, this is only the case for 40% of casuals. We note that in these figures, numbers are still high for casual staff – just not as high as they are temporary or permanent teachers.  

Yet interestingly, teachers in temporary positions feel like they work harder than those in permanent ones. As one respondent put it, ‘I work as hard if not harder than many permanent teachers’.  

This feeling of working harder may be due to the temporary, and more precarious, nature of their roles. These teachers know that their continued employment depends on ‘impressing’ those around them, particularly the school principal. There was a sense of an ‘unspoken pressure for [temporary] teachers to ‘do more’ in order to heighten their chances to get work for the next year’. This need to impress was not, however, felt by those in permanent positions. This appeared to be leading, for some teachers, to tension between staff in different employment categories. As one respondent recalled, ‘two permanent teachers have even stated, “I don’t have to do anything else, I am already permanent”’; another described experiences of permanent teachers ‘prey[ing]’ on temporary teachers by ‘shift[ing] work’ to them. 

An additional dimension of our investigation arose when we looked at the differences between men and women teachers in temporary, permanent and casual roles. More men reported being in permanent employment than women, with women being much more likely to be temporary than men. With the tendency of teachers to be predominately women, we found that, in fact, there are more temporary teachers than there are the total number of men teaching in NSW public schools. Our data also suggest that women may also stay longer as temporary teachers than men do, with potential implications for future career opportunities and leadership positions in schools. 

Finally, it is worth noting that, in our data, only 27% of those in temporary employment were working in that capacity by choice.

Our findings would imply that something should be done about the growing category of temporary employment in NSW public schools. Addressing this issue has, in fact, been one of the recommendations of the recently released ‘Valuing the Teaching Profession’ report of the ‘Gallop Inquiry’. Working out ways to attract new teachers is also part of the terms of reference of a recently announced review of initial teacher education

We would also argue that, at system level, the conversion of, in particular long-serving women temporary teachers into permanent employment would be a good thing, signalling respect for the work they do and building benefits for the profession, schools and ultimately students. A widespread reduction in the overall proportion of temporary employees, as well as work hours and workload demands, is also needed. 

While teaching is a cognitively, emotionally, and physically strenuous job, historically it has relied upon its reputation as a secure, permanent, and stable career to attract strong candidates to the profession. As pay rates are now notably low, compared to other professions with equivalent levels of education, growing problems with the security, workload and work conditions of teachers become even more critical. Our new teachers, many of whom are temporary, will be tomorrow’s school leaders, and are central to the provision of public education. To maintain a strong teaching profession, it is important that we look after them.

From left to right:

Rachel Wilson is Associate Professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions.

Meghan Stacey is a former high school English and drama teacher and current lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education. Meghan’s PhD was conferred in April 2018. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey

Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Scott Fitzgerald is an associate professor and discipline lead of the People, Culture and Organisations discipline group in the School of Management at Curtin University. Scott’s research presently covers two main areas: the changing nature of governance, professionalism and work in the education sector.

COVID-19 and school closures – what the research says we should be doing

Schools in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia will go pupil free from Monday, taking only children of essential workers. I have been having a close look at the available research and evidence on school closures and the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am wondering why there is no urgent national call to close all Australian schools to pupils, and certainly why it has taken this long for state authorities to begin to shut down their schools.

Internationally there are now 140 countries with full national school closures, if there is evidence to support keeping schools open, then it is unknown to large swathes of the planet.

Research suggests the potential of school closures to provide reductions in disease and mortality is moderated by the timing of school closures. Early closures, particularly early reactive (in response to school cases) and gradual closures, are associated with stronger positive effects. This is evident even in recent, hot-off-the-press, COVID19 research from France.

Leaving closure until things look grim, near or after the epidemic peak, means that they are likely to be less effective in slowing the disease.

School closures do bring very substantial costs to the economy, and risks to the education and welfare of many children. Some also argue that they curtail our response to the virus, by adding additional burdens on parents who may be working against the pandemic.  These considerations, and strategies to mitigate them, must be weighed against the potential of school closures to delay and reduce virus transmission.

However, if you delve into the research evidence outlining the effects of school closures – and extrapolate the research effects to the current mortality rates for the COVID19 epidemic the number of lives that could be saved is staggering.

Research evidence on school closures and novel influenza outbreaks

There are two recent systematic reviews on this. A systematic review is a comprehensive trawl and review of research evidence. Most of these reviews also apply research quality criteria to the research found, so that only research that meets a minimum quality benchmark can be considered in the synthesis of evidence on the topic at hand.

The first systemic review I want to tell you about was published in 2018. It examined school closure in response to novel flu epidemics and included recent studies examining the impact of school closures on the 2009 Novel Flu epidemic in Mexico, the US and elsewhere. This review examined 668 research articles and synthesised findings for 31 high quality studies. Primary conclusions of the review are:

  • An average 30% reduction in the peak of the epidemic
  • School closure BEFORE the epidemic peak reduces the overall burden of the epidemic
  • Earlier implementation can delay the epidemic peak as well as reduce it.
  • The longer the school closure the longer the delay on the epidemic peak.
  • School closure is correlated with virus ‘attack rate’ and a longer infectiveness duration.

Another review examined different closure strategies and performed a model-based analysis of the effectiveness of four types of school closure for influenza outbreaks. Closure models ranged from the nationwide closure of all schools at the same time, to county/district closures, to reactive (in response to school cases) and gradual closures (starting from class-by-class, then grades and finally the whole school).

The review found that, under specific constraints on the average number of weeks lost per student, reactive school-by-school, gradual, and county-wide closure gave comparable outcomes – all provided infection attack rate reduction, peak incidence reduction and peak delay. Optimal implementations for flu required relatively short closures, with just a one-week closure enough to break the transmission chain without unnecessary disruption.

Optimal length of closure might be very different for COVID19 given its long, two-week, latency, high transmission rate and pandemic status. However, the researchers broadly conclude:

“policy makers could consider school closure policies more diffusely as response strategy to influenza epidemics and pandemics, and the fact that some countries already have some experience of gradual or regional closures for seasonal influenza outbreaks demonstrates that logistic and feasibility challenges of school closure strategies can be to some extent overcome”.

In just published research on COVID19 in France, it was found:

school closure alone would have limited benefit in reducing the peak incidence (less than 10% reduction with 8-week school closure for regions in the early phase of the epidemic). When coupled with 25% adults teleworking, 8-week school closure would be enough to delay the peak by almost 2 months with an approximately 40% reduction of the case incidence at the peak. This is critical to reduce the burden on the healthcare system in the weeks of highest demand. Moderate overall reduction of the final attack rate (15%) would also be achieved.”

The same research found:

Real-time evaluation of currently adopted measures in France, as well as lessons learnt from the experiences of other countries implementing stricter policies (e.g. closing commercial activities and forbidding all sport and leisure activities, as in Italy and Belgium) will become crucial in the next few weeks to inform interventions and recommendations adapted to the evolving epidemic situation in the country.

And:

If school closure is stopped too early, a rebound effect with an acceleration in the generation of new cases is likely to occur, as known from previous studies6. Here we assumed telework to last for the full simulation; its feasibility still needs to be assessed. If telework [*] is stopped after a certain period, a rebound effect is expected in this case too, due to the increase of social contacts.

*‘Telework’ is working from home using technology.

Partial and full closures

But at the moment across Australia we only have partial school closures in state schools, even though many private schools fully transitioned their teaching to online weeks ago. In NSW, for example, the Premier has asked parents to keep children at home if they could but baulked at closing schools down. At the moment NSW state school parents are choosing whether to send their children to school or not.

So, at a national level what is happening in Australia amounts to a partial school closure for our nation, which according to UNESCO makes Australia one of just 12 countries with such an approach (including the USA). However, there are now 140 countries with full national school closures, impacting over 80% of world’s student population.

These countries have taken the option to close all their schools in order to contain the pandemic, even countries that currently observe very few confirmed cases of COVID19 (like our neighbour Timor which has only 2 as I write this).

Given that some 140 countries have already tackled the logistical difficulties with national closures, the question remains: Why is Australia not embracing the medical benefits of school closures?

It could be too late for gradual and reactive closures

The immediate problem In Australia is that it may already be too late for reactive and gradual school closures.

This is because widespread proactive closures are now probably needed. As social scientist and physician at Yale University, Nicholas Christakis, tells us – community spread cases in schools “are the canary in the coalmine…when you detect one case there are probably dozens or hundreds of others.” We already have some of these in our schools, but our governments have not heard the canary.

Experts, including thousands of Australian doctors, recommend that community spread cases in schools mean that regional or national proactive school closures are needed. Given the unprecedented threat posed by COVID19, the current voluntary approach, where parents are encouraged but not required to keep their children at home, is a risk of enormous magnitude.

Proactive district, state and national closures, as Christakis tells us, have been shown:

“ …to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy. Proactive school closures work like reactive school closures not just because they get the children, the little vectors, removed from circulation. It’s not just about keeping the kids safe. It’s keeping the whole community safe.”

The example of the Spanish Flu in 1918

Previous school closures have been associated with a two-thirds reduction in death toll.

Research from the worlds’ last great pandemic, the Spanish flu in 1918, examined proactive versus reactive school closures and the timeliness of school closures relative to the growth of the epidemic. They found proactive school closing saved many lives. St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh.

We must close all schools in Australia before the spike in the epidemic. Whistle-blowing doctors argue this is a critically important part of using ““every mechanism to ‘flatten the curve’ “ and will buy them time to equip and cope with the rise in cases.

Rachel Wilson is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. Rachel is currently the program director for the Master in Education – Management & Leadership program. She has particular expertise in educational assessment, research methods and program evaluation. As such she has broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system level reform and innovation and has been involved in many university and education sector wide reforms.

Dump NAPLAN stress: here’s a better way to do our national literacy and numeracy testing

We need to reform our national assessment program as a matter of urgency. Anyone who has stepped into a school in the lead up to NAPLAN knows the high stakes culture that has evolved around it. This happens often despite efforts by principals to keep it low key and efforts by teachers to protect their students from the stress involved.

The announcement by the Coalition that, if it wins the election, it will extend the national assessment program to our very young school children in Year 1 makes me believe change is now imperative.

I am not arguing against national assessment programs, I am saying there is a better way.

I am proposing what educators call ‘a softer touch’. We can still test our children but we can do it in a way that does not cause stress to children, teachers or schools. We use the technology available to us and dump the costly and stressful exam style regime currently imposed on our children and schools.

Here’s how the ‘softer touch’ would work

  1. Create a national question bank

An item, or question, bank can be developed from old assessments (NAPLAN and their predecessors like Basic Skills Tests); these questions are well understood and map neatly onto the Australian Curriculum and the standards expected for children at different stages of learning. The bank could grow with appropriately developed new questions.

  1. Teachers log in and generate their own tests

As teachers cover curriculum and become satisfied that their students have covered topic areas, they can log into the national system and generate a test at an appropriate level of difficulty for their students. The test can be printed or completed online.

  1. Tests are done at random times

The students complete the test; the teacher marks their papers then enters marks online and retains the paper copies for accountability purposes.

  1. Results are recorded immediately and used by the teacher

The marks entered online are immediately referenced to the national standards and the teacher receives a performance “dashboard” reading, showing each student’s performance against the national standards – and more importantly showing where there is still room for improvement.

Two Key advantages to the ‘softer touch’ approach

It conducts the assessment in a comfortable environment that can be seamlessly integrated into students’ lessons.

Thus the system is not merely for assessment, but it is also helpful for learning. By removing test anxiety and other “performance factors” this approach has greater assessment validity. It can produce a truer measure of students’ abilities. By delivering the assessment within lessons, students can develop a conception of assessment that is linked to learning. They come to understand that after an assessment it is very helpful to review what you have learnt and pursue the answers to questions you got wrong.

Alternative and ‘softer touch’ systems gives responsibility to teachers

There is evidence that since the introduction of NAPLAN teachers have shied away from their own classroom assessment. This is an important part of teacher professionalism and evident in highly capable teachers.

Quality classroom assessment has higher validity than external assessment because classroom assessment can draw upon the relationship the teacher has with students.

Classroom assessment can be strongly integrated with the recent and future learning of the students. It serves to provide the teacher with an intimate and timely account of how they are going in teaching and is therefore extremely powerful in professional effectiveness.

Softer touch’ assessment is being used in other countries

The ‘softer touch’ has been done successfully in other countries. For example, in New Zealand teachers use e-asttle technology to assess students against national standards on a regular basis in normal class time – as opposed to NAPLAN’s approach, which presents national assessment as a high-stakes, high-pressure, exam experience for students.

High stakes testing is last century and damaging for children

We know from research that high-stakes tests can have detrimental effects and we also know that high levels of stress in young children can have negative effects upon their approach to learning and, more broadly, upon their development in general.

In today’s world NAPLAN is yet another source of stress for young children. For a small number of children NAPLAN may add to a range of stressors and contribute to unhealthy levels of anxiety. For others a negative NAPLAN experience may have the simple and direct effect of putting them off school. Certainly, given our technological capabilities, it is an unnecessary stress that harks back to early twentieth century schooling.

Current plans are not enough

The current plans to shift NAPLAN to adaptive online tests, that are computer-based tests that adjust to students’ ability, do not address this issues I have outlined here. They do not return responsibility for assessment to teachers; they do not counter the anxiety-producing culture.

We need to diffuse the pressure on students to perform, avoid detrimental effects and achieve more valid measures of what students are capable of.

The only way we can do this is to empower teachers. Australian teachers should now schedule and deliver their own tests, or parts of the tests, in a supportive and low-key way throughout the school year.

 

Rachel Wilson

 

Rachel Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Research Methodology, Educational Assessment & Evaluation. As such she has broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She has a particular interest in early childhood education and she has recently published a book on Emotional Development, co-authored with her father. She also has a particular interest in trends in educational participation and standards.