Can you take me back to the start of your career? I know you achieved a First Class Honours degree in Psychology from the University of Wales. What was your career path prior to your government roles?
Well, it kind of started a bit before that ... I had a place in a top law school after I finished my A-levels in the UK. [But] I think I’d just had enough of studying ... I come from a military family; so my father was in the military and my grandfather. And I actually just decided that I’d had enough of studying and I walked into army careers one day and said, ‘I’d like to join the army’... And so that’s what I did; I stopped studying and I went into the intelligence corps in the '80s ... It was great ... [but] it was pretty hard to go [into] because there was a lot of terrorism, and I specialised in terrorism.
With the IRA and with, particularly, Northern Ireland, I imagine.
Yeah, and the Balkans. So at that point it was also the back of the Gulf War – that was just wrapping up. We had a lot of Irish terrorism ... and we started to see the rise of Middle Eastern terrorism. And I was heavily involved in all of that work really ... For a while there I was working on the Bosnian crisis ... following the Croatian Army and what they were doing, but also advising ministers around the kind of next steps really. So here I was, I was very young ... but I had some incredible opportunities and I did some very, very strange stuff (laughs).
Wow! So how then did you progress from that? Because you’ve got a background in strategic policy, research and insights analysis – how does that then morph outside of the British Army and then into education?
So, of course, you’re a finely-tuned machine by the time you’ve been in the corps. You’re trained in dealing with information – anything, any form of data, you can use it as intelligence. I built my craft in terms of using information in order to provide advice to decision-makers ... and you become quite good at it because people’s lives depend on it. But the army... it probably wasn’t a great career for a woman... So it was from there I left the army and I went to study and I did my psychology degree... And then, at that point, like you do, I fell in love (laughs) ... I was studying for my PhD, which I never completed because my husband was a Kiwi, and we decided to move to New Zealand. But I had this background ... I got to New Zealand and I looked for all the psychometricians and the people that were involved in things like multi-level modelling and there were very few. That’s where I first met John Hattie ... I came from a psychology background, he of course from education, but I understood the work that he was doing in terms of psychometrics and the measurements. And so from there I went into education.
Before joining AITSL, you were Deputy Secretary, Early Learning and Student Achievement in the New Zealand Ministry of Education. How long were you in the role and do you feel you succeeded with your objectives?
So, I was kind of in and out of education for about 15 years ... I had two second-tier roles: one was the early learning and student achievement, the other one was evidence, data and knowledge ... research and restructure... But in those second-tier roles, you’re running a whole system, you’re not just running your business unit. So my role really was to be making sure that the things were in place that schools needed but also, then providing advice to ministers about what could be and what you could do – and delivering on their decisions whilst keeping the ship going. And I loved it! I’m one of these people ... I don’t generally sit still (laughs)... A lot of people kind of look around – they look for somebody else to perhaps make a decision because they think somebody else can make a decision, or they think that somebody else might have a great idea... But I had this mantra: nobody else is coming ... you’ve got to just go for it, you’ve got to do the right things. And so I just saw opportunities to improve the system to make things better for kids.
So you were obviously thriving in the role, you had a good relationship with the people around you, it was all great – what then made you apply for the role in Australia?
Because I’d done the dash, you know? I loved it and the problems were tough... But they weren’t particularly challenging anymore... I never intended to be in the role that I’m in – I never intended to be in any of the senior roles that I’ve had. But the thing that leads me there is not necessarily the passion to personally succeed but the passion to do the right thing by kids. And to do that you need to continue to challenge yourself – you need to continue to improve.
What are some of the biggest differences between here and New Zealand?
Well, apart from the weather? (laughs)... The curriculum is very different. So in New Zealand there aren’t age-based progressions particularly. Whilst there are national standards, the curriculum is a levels-based curriculum and there is an acknowledgement that everybody starts in a different place... Now, I’m not saying that’s completely different in Australia, but in Australia it’s an age-based progression... What I have experienced more of here is that the syllabus is taught to the age of the class rather than the curriculum being taught across the learning progression of the individuals in the class ... I think – many schools do this in Australia – but I think we can support teachers better to be able to differentiate and maximise the opportunity in the Australian curriculum ... The second big difference – which is alongside that – [is] the focus on standards-based assessment... You guys have got expertise, experience and the infrastructure to deliver some very sophisticated assessment instruments. The difference, though, is in New Zealand I think that ... they prioritise professional judgement over a summative test ... you are certified and accredited for the skills and capabilities that you have, rather than tested on a narrow definition of what the discipline requires.
What are a few of your main priorities and objectives heading into 2018?
OK. So deliver on TEMAG – we’ve got to do that ... Induction. We have 30,000 students in any one year in initial teacher education; 18,000 go on to graduate, 11,000 get a job, fewer than 6000 remain in the profession. Now, the thing that worries me the most ... is those beginning teachers and the induction that they receive... If we could do something in regards to supporting principals and schools to put in better induction practices, that’d be great ... Career pathways for teachers... We need to ... support teachers to be doing those deep dives into their practice whilst they're proficient in order to get to highly accomplished and lead. Now, not all teachers might want to get there, but I think we need to provide the opportunity for all teachers to progress in terms of professional standards – and in all states and in all territories ... And, of course, principalship... We’ve got 9000 principals in this country and we need to ensure that we’re able to identify and attract the right talent into those principal roles.
Vital ... There doesn’t seem to be an enthusiasm, would you say, on the part of teachers now to come through to the role, because of the stress involved in the job, because of how much bureaucracy...
Well, it’s a funny one this one... So we’ve got 9000 principals, right? ... And when you ask them about their job satisfaction, they score higher on their job satisfaction than most other professional careers... So what we hear is this rhetoric around how hard the job is. I [do] think the job is particularly hard, I think the expectations have changed over time ... but great principals do a stunning job and report that they have fun doing it... So for me, we’ve got to start telling the real story around this; it is a challenging job ... but actually, you get a lot out of it and the principals that are currently in the role love it so much that they’re staying.
As a leader, I would like to be remembered as... someone that did the right thing.
A few non-education sector related people I really admire, are... Barack Obama, the Queen (what a bugger of a job she’s got) and Oprah.
Away from my work, to wind down, I like to... run.
A couple of my all-time favourite TV shows are... Downtown Abbey and Mrs Brown’s Boys
If I could swap jobs with one other person, it would be... a secondary school PE teacher.
If I won the lottery, the first thing I would do would be... make sure my family are all sorted and then finish my PhD.
My friends would describe me as... a good mum who’s driven and works hard.
The things I’ve enjoyed most about my relocation to Australia have been... the challenge, the opportunity, the people – the experience.