APPA: It takes a village - Education Matters Magazine
Australian Primary Principals Association, Policy and Reform

APPA: It takes a village


Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) President, Malcolm Elliott, discusses reforms to policy for the Australian education system at state and national levels and the APPA’s response to the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan and the National School Reform Agreement.

This year will mark my ninth year doing representative work for the education sector at the national and state level, and my fifth as President of the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA), representing 7,600 principals and school leaders, 156, 000 teachers and 2.27 million students.

One of the biggest privileges in this role is visiting a wide range of independent, Catholic, and government primary schools. Another is working with our National Advisory Council which meets every quarter, often in Canberra, where we get the opportunity to canvas for various issues and advocate for primary school leaders and primary school education.

In our first meeting this year, we will be collating feedback on the crisis in the teaching profession and responding to the Education Ministers’ National Teacher Workforce Action Plan. This will include the APPA’s review of the National School Reform Agreement, in response to which we have emphasised changes to the system that will require collective and proactive action to make a difference.

Since I first began my teacher’s training in 1978, I have seen many successful reforms to policy for the Australian education system at state and national levels. The country has come a long way, but there’s still more work to be done, especially this year as we navigate ongoing teacher shortages, the effects of COVID on communities and the implications of a largely digital, data-driven, society.


Schools in this country are facing a skills shortage crisis and formalising an adequate response to this will be priority number one. The Education Ministers agree on the criticality of improving the country’s teaching resources and developing the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan.

Competition for qualified teachers has come to a head with Australia and New Zealand now in direct competition with each other,
and wealthier areas of the country outbidding more remote areas for placements. There is a misguided focus on incentives to attract teachers to different regions using pay rates as leverage. What we should be doing is attracting more people to the profession, who are eager to be trained and qualified as teachers. This will start with raising nation-wide standards for teachers’ wages to align with inflation and cost of living, as well as further incentivising teachers to work in underrepresented areas, rather than leaving those regions to compete for priority.

Additionally, it is the goal of the APPA to encourage organisations like the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) – who are responsible for reform of NAPLAN – to return to viewing children as individuals that are as diverse as the country that we live in terms of culture, geography, and socio-economic backgrounds.

To address some of these core issues, the APPA has created a Five-Point Action Plan which has already been preliminarily discussed with the Minister of Education.


  1. The need for policy development input from schools

A total rethink of educational policy is needed. Schools are well-versed in using evidence-based research to support changing practice, but broad-based Australian educational indicators are not showing improvement. Serious school reform needs to look at structuring bureaucracy so that it works for, and more directly supports schools, rather than diverting energy from teaching and high- quality school leadership.

  1. Equality through equity

Social disadvantage is a well-documented factor strongly linked to poorer outcomes for children. APPA is calling for funding to facilitate education standards of the highest quality for every student, targeted toward students who need it most.

  1. Interagency and NGO coordination

To achieve true reform, the NSRA must extend beyond schools, to the myriad of agencies and services children and families rely on. NGOs, government assistance programs, and agencies, need to be integrated into the school system to move away from the fear- based idea of scarcity of resources between organisations. The more coordinated support services are, the more quickly we can provide early intervention for students in need.

  1. Accountability

APPA contends that we need a manageable set of indicators to measure educational performance and provide guidance for improvement. However, this should be focussed on the performance of the system, not the child. Furthermore, this matrix should be expanded to provide measures of whole of community strength.

  1. A new primary curriculum

The current primary and early childhood curriculum is too crowded, impossible to teach if taken literally, and is based on outdated models, steeped in coverage. The curriculum documents should begin with school and classroom practice realities, particularly in the earlier years.

When it comes to data driven decisions in schools, factors such as the influence of parents and peers, mental and physical health and wellness, unrecognised disability, and a host of other socio- economic factors that can impact the numbers.

There’s a common phrase used by educational policymakers to underscore the criticality of looking at the data: “we measure what we value, and we value what we measure”. This rolls off the tongue easily and when data is interpreted meaningfully, it is critical to the success of any organisation. However, when examined further, it’s a statement that doesn’t have much depth behind it. Essentially, it’s taking every child and reducing them to a number or a metric that is tracked only by measurable performance benchmarks.


A big goal for APPA this year is to ease up on the overwhelming focus on data as a driver for educational design and restore the national focus to the qualitative aspects of the education being delivered. I want to be clear the APPA is pro-data, but more than that, we are pro-development of every child as a whole person – not just what is revealed through particular system-driven data sets.

When it comes to primary-aged school children, data is not always accurate. There are many factors, such as the influence of parents and peers, mental and physical health and wellness, unrecognised disability, and a host of other socio- economic factors that can impact what primary school data looks like.

The view from the ground – mainly principals and teachers– suggests that affecting real change is not a linear process that can be expedited with bureaucracy and that educational barriers experienced by students from priority equity cohorts are unlikely to be solved by one-size-fits- all initiatives.

In other words, unless we have the holistic community, inter-organisational supports for high-risk students and families, we are unlikely to get anywhere. This is because abused, scared, alienated, hungry children, are not focussed on learning.

In conclusion, APPA will be pleased to expand on the other areas detailed in our response to the Productivity Commission’s Interim Report. In the meantime, however, we urge the next NSRA to set an agenda that can invigorate and stimulate the education sector in this country this year, with the understanding that this won’t be a quick fix, but the result of educators, researchers, and policy developers, working together.


About the author

Malcolm Elliott is the President of the Australian Primary Principals Association. He is a member of the board of AITSL and chairs the School Leadership and Teaching Expert Standing Committee. Mr Elliot’s 40-year career to date includes teaching from K-12; Principal of two high schools; and the role of Coordinating Principal in the Glenorchy Cluster of Schools. From 2015-2018 he was President of the Tasmanian Principals Association, where been closely involved in the consultation and implementation of Tasmania’s Education Act. In 2021 he was a member of the expert panel for the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review.

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