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Principals and teachers report impact of school devolution on worklife

12 December 2016

A collaborative University of Sydney project investigates the effects of devolved public secondary schools in NSW, WA, and Sweden. 

Students being taught maths at a whiteboard

Principals are struggling to adjust to new roles and responsibilities, demanded by increasing competition for students. Image: iStock


Critical national and international reports on Australian primary and secondary education have prompted rigorous debate and calls for solutions, following underwhelming performance in maths, science, and literacy. 

As policymakers and educators consider evidence-based approaches, a collaborative research project at the University of Sydney is identifying the impact of school devolution reforms on teachers’ working conditions and student outcomes in Australia and Sweden.

Associate Professor Susan McGrath-Champ and Dr Rachel Wilson are researching the effects of market forces on Australian schools, with Luleå University of Technology’s Associate Professor Karolina Parding, and Curtin University’s Dr Scott Fitzgerald. The research team has interviewed more than 60 teachers and principals across NSW and WA, a number expected to rise to 100 on completion of the research in 2018.

Early interviews detail increasing pressures on educators, with one teacher describing “a tsunami of paperwork”. There are also indications that principals are struggling to adjust to new roles and responsibilities, demanded by increasing competition for students.

“We argue that because reform presents risks, as well as opportunities, ongoing research is needed to monitor how policies impact school teachers and student outcomes,” said Dr Wilson, a senior education lecturer at the University of Sydney. “After all, the professional working conditions of teachers are key to sustainable positive outcomes for pupils.”

After all, the professional working conditions of teachers are key to sustainable positive outcomes for pupils
Dr Rachel Wilson, University of Sydney

Australia shares many dynamics of the Swedish schooling system, where a shift to greater school autonomy, and the creation of a market for schools where some schools succeed and others fail, has raised questions of equity for poorer families.

Associate Professor McGrath-Champ said: “It is widely agreed school autonomy changes the traditional roles of teachers and principals but the consequences are not clear. Our study addresses the dire need to discern how these changes are redefining teachers’ and principals’ work in public secondary schools and establish an evidence base to inform good policy decisions and strong practice.”

Associate Professor Parding’s research included a nationwide survey of 5,000 upper secondary teachers has found significant working impacts under the country’s model of school choice and decentralization, where each municipality has budgetary responsibility over the schools in their area. Sweden's reforms have yielded more student testing and standardized documentation and evaluation – reducing teachers’ time for core work.

“A profession with high status and good conditions is a prerequisite to be able to attract new students, let alone the very best students, into the teacher training programs, which is absolutely pivotal if we want to be able to deliver quality education in the future,” said Associate Professor Parding.

The collaborative research project on Teachers’ Working Conditions and School Choice is funded by the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Higher Education (STINT), which was established by the Swedish government in 1994.

Luke O'Neill

Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)

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