She was one of the speakers at a public forum, How will we empower and support school leaders: Responses to Gonski 2.0 from research, policy and practice.
The University of NSW’s Gonski Institute of Education held the event on June 28. It focused on the final report, the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, known as the Gonski 2.0 report, which was released in late April.
Forum speaker Nastasi was, until the end of last year the Principal of Clancy Catholic College, a co-educational secondary school in Western Sydney.
She’s also on the Board of the NSW Standards Authority. She listed about a dozen ‘voices’ in the ear of a typical principal ranging from calls for workplace health and safety, child protection, human resources, enrolment compliance and accreditation among many more.
Silencing some of the voices
Speaking about the Gonski 2.0 report, Nastasi said it was a “set of dreams and ideals I’d love to see in practice”.
“It offers more questions than it does anything else. Teachers need time to think; principals need time to think. So, what is it that we will remove; which noises will we silence?” she said.
“My capacity as a strategic and relationship leader opens up my power as an instructional leader.
"I work out how to relate to my students and teachers, then I have the capacity to be an instructional leader. It doesn’t have to come entirely from me and I don’t need to be in the classroom, but I have to continually prioritise that - my teachers, leaders and me as learners.
“For me, learning is the priority, the centre of everything we do, but to do that, something has to change.”
Nastasi said she also agreed with the report that principals needed to be across their finances and business.
School autonomy a double-edged sword
“You can delegate that, but you need to be in charge of that," Nastasi said.
"The whole area of autonomy is really important, the report says, and the principal must be able to decide where the starting point is. Principals must have room to innovate, to imagine, to think,” she said.
Meanwhile, Dr Richard Niesche, Deputy Head of School (Research) and Senior Lecturer at UNSW’s School of Education, said at the forum that Gonski 2.0 didn’t offer “anything more than what’s happening now – it adds more layers to what principals are already doing”.
Also, he said that autonomy comes with baggage that principals didn’t anticipate.
“It’s a source of problems for our principals. School autonomy has been put forward as an educational response to declining standards and educational performance. It’s where a lot of discussion is happening, but there’s very little research about more autonomy increasing performance,” he said.
“We’re hinging reforming our education systems towards those aims and with that purpose in mind. Linking with school autonomy is fraught with problems … my research and [Associate Professor] Philip Riley’s, has been very enlightening about work intensification, bureaucratic overload that principals deal with on a daily basis.”
Wishful thinking – instructional leadership
Despite this, the Gonski 2.0 report sees principals as a main source of instructional leadership at their school.
In chapter four, it talks about empowering and supporting principals to focus on instructional leadership to drive school performance. In fact, high-performing leaders boost student learning by two-to-seven months with a year, it claimed.
“The present reality is that principals do not always shave the mandate and the scope to focus on instructional leadership,” the report said.
In fact, the average secondary principal spends almost half of their time on administration and just 17 per cent on teaching-related activities.
“We don’t have a sense from Gonski, what instructional leadership means and the literature is not very clear. There’s a wide response among principals of what it looks like and means. Principals think it means visiting classrooms,” Niesche said.
The report actually defers to the Australian Professional Standard for Principals to clarify the role of principals. That standard says vision and values, knowledge and understanding, personal qualities, social and international skills are leadership requirements.
However, the report recommends the standards be reviewed, saying its “leadership emphasis lens is a weakness … and makes the fundamental accountability unclear”.
Niesche stepped into the ambiguity with an interesting take.
“It’s a shame we overemphasise the person at the top who doesn’t get to be as hands-on as much as they like.
"That’s a fundamental question – should the principal be the instructional leader – are they the best person to take on that? … maybe it’s more creating an environment for others to take it on.
“There are so many compliance and bureaucratic expectations that go with school accountability, these pressures lead to compliance rather than innovation.
"There’s been some emphasis to give principals more support, but it’s too little too late in terms of what we've already implemented schoolwide."
Opening principalship to new ideas
Principals needed to get new and different ideas from “outside their system”, Dr Scott Eacott, Director of Higher Degree Research at UNSW’s School of Education, said at the forum. He’s also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan.
Eacott suggested we look at how to best personalise learning for current and aspiring leaders. His research found there’s no nation-wide database of where such leaders are getting their professional learning.
So, he analysed keynote speakers at educational leadership conferences.
“Who’s giving those keynotes? What if the only time you’re exposed to research in your field as a current and aspirating principal is the keynote someone gives you at a conference. What if that someone has a higher profile than their research would suggest?
“I tracked down the relationships between the researchers and social media, narrowed it down to people who are just the ‘Kardashians’ – famous for being famous. There’s a group of researchers who just tag and copy in each other all the time, go around giving keynotes, who may or may not be doing current research,” Eacott said.
He questioned whether it was good practice for principals to go through the same program at the same time.
“How do we start to reframe the structures of these programs? Is it enough we are just learning to lead in our system; where do we start to get new and different ideas from outside their system, ideas they may have not completely engaged with before; how do we deliver personalised learning for current and aspiring school leaders and what does it start to look like?,” Eacott asked.
"Do we want to get better at the game we currently have or get better as school leaders and people who work with school leaders having clarity about what our purpose is as educators?"
What’s missing the in the report
The forum heard that Gonski 2.0 gave little mention to the context and pressures that rural and remote schools face as well as overall, equity and social justice. The latter two were at the “heart and core” of needs-based funding, Niesche said.
“Equity is there in the executive summary, but it’s missing from the whole report. It’s a huge oversight and given the problems we’ve had with it in Australia, it’s extremely concerning.
“These are fundamental challenges … so they should be at the front and centre in terms of reforming that system.”
This means ensuring all children could participate in the learning environment, but understanding they “all start in a different place with different barriers” to their participation," he said.
He also said needs-based funding is about resourcing and there needs to be recognition of where disadvantage occurs and address it.
Another panel member, Robyn McKerihan PSM, spoke as an educator with more than four decades’ experience.
“What Gonski has done is put the very high-level concepts up and the difficult challenge we'll have is as a system and co-ordinated system of states, coming up with an implementation plan that doesn't necessarily meet the recommendations, but meets the outcomes of kids in our school."
Buy yourself more time
In closing the forum, former NSW Education Minister and now Gonski Institute Director Adrian Piccoli added his two cents’ worth on time management.
“Principals want to be involved in everything, but [if] ... the most valuable person in the school, the most expensive person, is doing the least valued work such as checking the tuck shop menu ... this needs to be pushed off to other workers.
"We can give schools more money, but if principals don’t do things to buy themselves more time, it’s not going to happen.”
UNSW will hold its next public lecture on the Gonski 2.0 report on 14 August to discuss assessment. It’s expected to be livestreamed online. For more info, visit https://bit.ly/2KpFVU0