The Bureaucratisation of Public Education in NSW

The following is a summary of a new Education Research Paper on the bureaucratisation of public education in Victoria. It can be downloaded below.

Australia has long been infected by what world renowned Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, currently professor of education at the Gonski Institute of Education in Sydney, coined as GERM (Global Education Reform Movement). It is characterised by corporate management policies, test-based accountability of schools and fostering competition between schools to drive improvement in education outcomes. One manifestation of GERM is a bloated bureaucracy to police compliance with regulations, collect and record information and monitor performance.

The NSW public education system has seen an enormous increase in bureaucracy since the turn of the century. So-called school reforms beginning in the 1990s promised less bureaucratic control but instead have intensified bureaucracy at all levels of public education systems. Both Coalition and Labor governments have adopted GERM and expanded bureaucracy in public education.

The administrative demands on principals and teachers have been unrelenting and have derailed educational leadership in schools. As one principal told Save Our Schools, the Department is “directly policing principals….the so-called reforms came attached with handcuffs”. Both Coalition and Labor governments have adopted GERM and expanded bureaucracy in public education.

Bureaucratisation has increased throughout the system – at central and regional offices, schools and for teachers. From 2002 to 2019, the increase in administrative staff at the system and school levels was far greater than the increase in teachers and students.

Administrative and clerical staff increased by 87.3% in primary schools and 39.1% in secondary schools [see Chart 1]. The increase in primary schools was nearly six times the increase in teachers (14.8%) while the increase in secondary schools contrasted to the reduction of teachers by 8.5%.

The change for teachers may be underestimated because of a change in the classification of teachers in 2018. However, the increases in administrative staff far exceeded those of teachers over the period 2002 to 2018 when the same classification applied.

The increases in administrative staff also far exceeded the increase in enrolments – nearly nine times the increase in students in primary schools (10.3%) and over 25 times the increase in secondary students (1.5%). Administrative staff now comprise 24.9% of school staff in primary schools compared to 17% in 2002. Administrative staff in secondary schools increased from 15.2% to 21.3% of all staff.

Central and regional office staff increased by 69.1% which was twenty times that for all teachers (3.4%) and ten times that of students (6.7%). Detailed figures for staff in central and regional offices are available only from 2015. The number of executive (management) staff increased by 329.5% to 2019. This was 75 times the increase in students over the period which increased by only 4.4% while the number of teachers fell by 4.1%. Total non-school staff increased by 39.2%.

As a result of these changes, there was a large reduction in the ratio of students to administrative staff and all non-teaching staff in schools in contrast to little change in the student-teacher ratios [Chart 2]. The student/administrative staff ratio in primary schools fell from 81.4 to 47.9 – a reduction of over 40% – while the student/teacher ratio fell from 17.5 to 16.8, a reduction of 4% although it is likely to be an under-estimate for reasons discussed above. Overall, the student/non-teaching staff ratio fell from 65.6 to 41.1, a reduction of 37%.

The student/administrative staff ratio in secondary schools fell from 66.5 to 48.5 – a reduction of 27% – while the student/teacher ratio increased from 12.5 to 13.9, an increase of 11%. The student/non-teaching staff ratio fell from 51.7 to 40.3 – a reduction of 22%.

There was also a large reduction in the student/non-school staff ratio from 411.1 in 2002 to 259.5 in 2019 – a reduction of 37%.

Increased government accountability requirements and regulations have driven the huge increase in administrative staff in central and regional offices and in schools as well as placing increased administrative workloads on principals and teachers. The promise of more school autonomy and less bureaucratic control has turned into a monster of more bureaucracy at both the central and school levels.

Public schools in NSW, as elsewhere, are subject to widespread accountability measures covering financial management, student well-being, behaviour management and safety, teacher appraisal, compliance training, school review processes, curriculum standards, student progress based on standardised test results, workplace health and safety, and auditing. This requires increased monitoring and administration by managers and staff in central and regional offices. The system has resulted in a strengthening of central control over schools and a focus on management and administration rather than direct support for teaching and learning.

The NSW Department of Education is focused primarily on administrative and compliance roles rather than curriculum, teaching and learning support. Only three or four of over 50 branches of the NSW Department of Education appear to be directly involved in supporting teaching and learning. The vast majority are devoted to administration of finance, policing compliance to regulations, performance monitoring, human resource management and other corporate functions.

Despite the increase in administrative staff in schools, the administrative load for principals and teachers has increased. Data from the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018 show that principals and teachers are working longer hours on administration. Australian teachers spend the 3rd highest number of hours on management and administration in the OECD.

The bureaucratisation of public education has clearly failed. Achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students in NSW remain large at three to four years of learning at age 15.

Of course, public schools must be accountable, but the accountability regime imposed on schools has led to a significant misallocation of resources. The huge increase in administrative staff in schools and in central and regional offices has diverted much needed funding from supporting teaching and learning and derailed leadership in schools. The percentage increase in expenditure on administrative and clerical staff and other non-teaching staff in schools was over three times that on teachers since 2002 – 62.6% compared to 17.1% [Chart 3]. It has soaked up over one-third of the small increase in government funding for NSW public schools since 2002.

Increasing bureaucratisation is not the way to improve school performance and student outcomes. Public schools continue to face large shortages in teachers and many teachers are teaching out-of-field. As a result, nearly one-quarter of all students having their learning hindered by the shortages. The NSW Government must eradicate GERM and focus on directly supporting teaching and learning in schools, especially disadvantaged schools. Public schools need high quality human and material resources to reduce the large achievement gaps.

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