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What is next after COVID-19

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Malcolm Elliot has been a teacher for over 40 years. From 2015-2018 he was president of the Tasmanian Principals Association, representing government primary and secondary school principals. He is now president of the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA).

The attention of more than 7600 primary school leaders is turning to the question of “what next?” We could all do with some certainty about the future. It is for this reason that I put forward the idea of multi-year resourcing agreements as a pivotal strategic consideration for decision makers.

Before the pandemic (BTP) there was, I thought, something of a blind spot in regard to the underpinnings of school effectiveness. We know that children do best in environments where there is a strong sense of routine and order. They need stability in relationships and order in their lives. We also know that for many Australian children, no matter where they live, this is not the case.

This is also true of what children need from their schools. Professionally effective and caring relationships and trust are at the heart of high achieving schools. Stability and sufficiency of staffing and other resourcing is critical. This is why I am putting forward the notion that school resourcing be considered over four-year cycles, rather than the typically annually adjusted formulae with which so many of us are familiar.

The school’s staffing establishment would be set at the end of 2021 and be sustained at that level for the period of 2022 to 2025, for example.

School organisation and programming are vulnerable to shifts in student population. In some schools a diminution of 15 students from one year to the next results in a staffing loss of a full-time teacher. Unless the school is able to sustain this loss from its own financial resources ie pay for a teacher, the school will have to be re-organised. This often means that the library, art, language, music or other important programmes are affected or even lost; or that a composite class is created for financial, rather than educationally strategic, reasons.

If a resourcing agreement is in place a school would not lose any funding over the four-year period, thus insulating the school from the effect of transience in its population and providing stability in planning and implementation of teaching programmes. Should there be a change in population upwards, schools should gain funding commensurately. And, if there is a change in policy such as additional funding to support literacy, for example, schools would still gain.

And the downside? If the school population was trending downward over that four-year period, the resourcing would be adjusted accordingly at the commencement of the new funding cycle. School leadership would have had appropriate time to work with teachers, parents, systems, boards and other stakeholders to adjust operations in line with adjusted resourcing.

A cycle of four years could deliver some answers to clogged transfer arrangements that exist in parts of Australia. An assignment of one or two cycles would provide teachers, principals and systems with far greater predictability, and possibility, regarding movement and recruitment – facilitating a sense of systemic engagement with a state or territory’s mission of teaching and the range of opportunities to be explored as an educator.

Let’s return to the school where 15 or so students have left. Under the four-year system the school would now notionally have 1.0 full time equivalent staffing to allocate as it saw fit. The simplest way to allocate this staffing would be in the maintenance of the organisational structure, meaning some staff members may have a little more time with their students. Over time, other opportunities may become apparent. There would be the chance to maintain levels of programming comparable with other schools meaning there would be good reason for new families to enrol their children.

The longitudinal study into principal health and wellbeing conducted by Professor Phil Riley and colleagues over many years shows principals and other school leaders working long hours in an environment of work intensification. One of the most difficult tasks is managing the staffing and the flow on effects when a school loses staff. Readjusting the staffing and class allocations is no easy task as many readers will know.

Teaching’s reputation as a sought- after profession is damaged when new teachers have little sense of tenure and must make important life decisions in that context. In short, the uncertainty is a disincentive to join the profession.

It is very tough for principals and colleagues to farewell staff members who, but for a change in student numbers, would be staying in the school. It is often a tearful experience for students who have got to know their teachers, to depend on them, to trust them.

As our profession considers “what next after COVID-19” there is a strong case to provide certainty for schools through a resource guarantee. This will provide a strong base for adaptive strategies and the relationships between learner and teacher which will underpin recovery from this time of turbulence and uncertainty.

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