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Outrage and polarisation have not been mandated

Updated: Jun 24

I heard on a podcast recently that there are two types of education consultants.


Consultant 1: “I am right.”


Consultant 2: “I am here to help you get it right.”


There seems to be the same binary for academics, politicians, political commentators, and system and school leaders. One teeters on the delicate borders of hubris and narcissism, their knowledge may be deep, but it is superficial in a practical, useful sense, and they’re wanting to dictate and control, usually to satisfy their own aims and ego. The other is willing to be patient and measured and collaborative and learn alongside, they can appreciate complexity and nuance and trade-offs, and rather than being self-centred, they’re more interested in empowering others and supporting them to achieve their goals. 


Why am I sharing this? Because over the last week all the usual suspects have been out and about, ranting and raving. We have heard a lot of “I am right”, but is endless rhetoric from two opposing poles actually helpful to school leaders and teachers, who mostly sit between them?


What am I talking about? On June 13, the Victorian Deputy Premier and Education Minister, Ben Carroll announced a few things. The following items (to be implemented in all Victorian government schools from 2025) were key:

All students from Prep to Grade 2 will be taught using a systematic synthetic phonics approach as part of their reading programs, with a minimum of 25 minutes daily explicit teaching of phonics and phonemic awareness.

This will be a core component of a comprehensive reading program that also includes explicit teaching of oral language, vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension.

Firstly, Ben Carroll (and the brilliant people within the VPS who helped prepare for the announcement and who are working on all the associated projects) should be commended for his bravery. Politics is hard, quite impossible really. If he did nothing, he’d be critiqued mercilessly by some, and now he’s taken a stand he’s being critiqued by others. For a long time, Victoria, more so than other jurisdictions, has been the land of freedom when it comes to teaching and learning. I enjoy aspects of this in my own school. Autonomy is nice. As leaders we get to make decisions every day that we think are best for our colleagues, students, and school community. But that’s the thing isn’t it, someone must make decisions, and sometimes that sits best with system leaders and sometimes that sits best with school leaders.


One of the hardest parts of school leadership, I think, is deciding what is tight and what is loose. What will you ask, what will you tell, and what will you just let go or let be? It’s not easy, especially when at the end of the day the buck stops with you in your domain, and after working on it for some time, I still don’t know what the right balance is. In the literacy space in my school, we have probably prescribed more than most. What is prescribed and fully resourced is:


-       All Reading, Writing and Speaking & Listening curricula across F-6

-       Instructional models

-       Time allocation for sub-elements of reading and writing (set F-2 and 3-6 English timetables)

-       Assessment tools


What this allows our teachers to do is focus fully on how they will deliver the fully resourced curriculum to their students in their classroom. They are best placed to decide what they will alter, differentiate, scaffold, spend more time on, spend less time on, etcetera, but we want all students in every year level to experience the same core curriculum across all elements of literacy.


We already allocate 30 minutes every day in F-2 to teaching phonics explicitly and systematically. We have a scope and sequence, all lesson plans are provided, and all teachers engage in PL to build knowledge and skill in word-level instruction. After four years at it, from year to year, on average, we are now getting 90-95% of F-2 students to at or above benchmark on word-level reading and oral reading fluency assessments. It’s taken a lot of planning, resourcing, prescription, oversight and learning together to get these results. I think it’s easy to underestimate what it takes to get aspects of literacy instruction right, and to get all students set up for success. My experience with phonics leadership and teaching in my own school and many others has been that some things likely need to be mandatory (prescribed) for teachers and students to be maximally successful. And fully resourcing and scoping a phonics curriculum is a huge time saver.


In response to the announcement, The Australia Education Union (Victoria) told members to ignore the mandate. While this response may be predictably reflexive and ignorant of evidence and what many other systems have already announced or implemented, it is very reasonable for a union to want to know what any announcement or mandate means for its members. I do wonder what those going after the union would be saying if what was being mandated was something they disagreed with. They’d likely be the first to say, “We’re not doing that in my school.” So, do we like autonomy? Or do we not like autonomy? Well, it would seem it depends.


Tom Mahoney wrote an op-ed about what the mandate might mean for the teaching profession and staffing in Victorian schools. I think it is very reasonable for an educator to worry about teacher satisfaction and retention in already challenging times, now with policy flux. Understandably leaders and teachers who don’t already have these curriculum and teaching structures in place want more information, and I think (I hope) this will come shortly.


Is the mandate necessary? On any given year I work with about 100 Victorian schools directly and about 1000 indirectly. Every week I’m in classrooms, coaching sessions, workshops, and leadership meetings across the state. On any given year I work directly with thousands and thousands of Victorian teachers through professional learning series and the many communities of practice I lead. I think I have my finger on the pulse when it comes to literacy teaching in our schools.


What is consistent in Victorian schools is a desire to see students be successful, to feel fulfilled by the art and science of teaching, and to also have a life outside of work. Every single school I’ve ever worked in teaches phonics, but what is taught, how it is taught, and how much it is taught, and how much progress students make varies wildly. When it comes to phonics instruction, in my experience, while things have shifted a lot over the last few years, it is not yet standard for Victorian schools to have:


-       A detailed in-house scope and sequence stipulating what will be taught and when

-       A clear lesson structure

-       A set time allocation

-       Aligned assessment tools (screening and diagnostic)

-       Year level expectations

-       Consistent practices between classes or grades

-       Specific, targeted additional supports (Tier 2 or 3 interventions within TLI) aligned to Tier 1 classroom practices


Given all of this, it shouldn’t be controversial for our government to take a stand, in line with the federal position and that of many other jurisdictions, and mandate 25 minutes of systematic phonics instruction in F-2. High quality systematic phonics instruction in the first three years of school, when we allocate 20-30 minutes per day, seems to be the best bet to get most students to grade level in word recognition. I always say phonics instruction is the most important least important thing. It’s a small part of literacy teaching, but without good word reading skills, students are locked out of literacy. It’s critical we get it right and currently we aren’t consistently getting it right for many students.


Governments and systems mandate things all the time for systems, services and even professions. There are already many things that are mandated in schools, they just seem to be the things that don’t have anything to do with teaching and learning. We already do a lot of things in schools because we must, and we don’t really think twice about these things in the everyday running of our schools.


At the same time, it is reasonable for the AEU, leaders, and teachers to have concerns and reservations about any significant changes, and it is reasonable to want more information to understand what this actually means for day-to-day leadership and teaching in schools. It is also reasonable for union members to feel let down, when they believe the mandate can only be good for them individually, good for the standing of the profession, and good for students reading outcomes. I think it’s good and helpful for all of us to stop and reflect often on the many views and experiences of others. This is part of wanting to get it right, rather than having to be right.


As far as I know, schools will still have choice over phonics curriculum and programs, although curriculum will be provided to schools as part of the lesson plan projects underway. All that is being mandated is the very important and necessary protected time and method to teach students the sound-letter relationships and word knowledge they need to access the wider, richer world of literacy with ease. This can only be a good thing. Am I right? Outrage and polarisation have not been mandated. Let’s all be willing for some personal trade-offs to get this right, together.

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