The Victorian Government is Floundering in Education

A guest column by a school principal on the ‘hare-brained’ teacher appraisal scheme introduced by the Victorian Government.

For a few fleeting days principals dared to believe that common sense had prevailed and the Victorian state government’s controversial performance appraisal idea had been abandoned.

In a memo sent to all government school principals on October 22, Education Department, Secretary, Richard Bolt appeared to attempt to allay widespread concern amongst principals, teachers and education support staff that school principals were expected to identify between 20 and 40 per cent of their staff annually as ‘underperforming’ with his reassurance that, “we do not have negative view of staff in our schools”.

Principals had also been told in the weeks leading up to October22 at regional briefings that they themselves, together with all education department personnel, were to be included in this hare-brained scheme – 25 per cent would be identified as underperformers.

To make matters worse, the penalties for being outed as an underperformer are variable and based solely on whether the unfortunate teacher or principal is at the very top of their pay scale or not. Those at the top of their pay scale suffer no pecuniary penalty; they simply wear the unwelcome label. Those lower down the pay scales are denied access to the next pay increment as well.

How such an inconsistent approach will lead to an improvement in the calibre of our school staff is beyond belief.

To rub salt into the wounds of government school personnel, this scheme would not apply to our Independent or Catholic schools, despite the fact that Minister Dixon makes much of the fact that he is the Minister for all Victorian schools. It should also not be forgotten that taxpayers’ money does find its way into our non-government schools.

It was not lost on government schools that they alone would be facing the brunt of an ill-conceived Liberal government policy initiative, one that bore all the hallmarks of punitive action for not accepting a performance bonus pay scheme in the recently ratified EBA Agreement.

Just two days later on October 24 the Australian Principals Federation (APF) and the Australian Education Union (AEU) lodged with the Fair Work Commission a dispute with the DEECD over the new Performance Development program.

A closer reading of the Secretary’s October 22 memo revealed what can reasonably be described as a clever use of words, camouflaging very little change in the original plan. This realisation was crushing to principals and teachers alike who had dared to hope for better.

For example, principals would still have only until the end of November to have the process completed and all results in with the education department. In effect, principals would have little more than three weeks at their disposal to complete a contentious appraisal process for all staff with the possibility of naming up to 40 per cent of their staff as underperformers.

This possible outcome, in any language, reflects an important ‘changing of the goal posts’ midway through the appraisal process. That simply wasn’t agreed to in the new Agreement, nor should it have been. Dealing with the potential fallout so late in the school year, with so much else on for principals would only exacerbate an already impossible expectation.

Despite protestations to the contrary by Richard Bolt, an implicit threat is easy to find by already wary principals when he states, “It is for you to decide how many staff are assessed as meeting your expectations…(but) we have issued a guiding range to ensure greater rigour in future performance assessment by principals. The final decision remains yours, and you will have the opportunity to discuss your rationale for results outside the guiding range with your senior advisor.”

Compounding suspicions, on the matter of the 25 per cent annually of principals and DEECD staff being found to be ‘underperformers’, Richard Bolt’s memo was tellingly silent.

Of course teachers differ in their calibre and no-one argues that every single teacher and principal is a high class performer, but to even suggest that up to 40 per cent of our government school professionals are ‘underperformers’ is outrageous and insulting, not to mention very damaging to our sector. Such a claim flies in the face of all the evidence and appears to have been simply plucked out of the air. In fact were it true, it would be hard to believe Richard Bolt was sincere when he wrote that he does not have a negative view of staff in government schools.

In the wash up, the Napthine government has forfeited considerable credibility with many Victorians in its capacity to lead worthwhile reform in school education. Sadly for many dedicated and talented teachers, education support staff and principals it is increasingly difficult to believe that this government actually cares about state education and we will all be the poorer for that.

Henry Grossek
Berwick Lodge Primary School

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