Saturday saw Ross Cameron – for whom political disgrace has been liberating, apparently – sounding off at the Teachers’ Federation. Good to see him occupying moral high ground. It encourages a belief in redemption. Stephen Aitken is closer to the truth.

This clipping is from the May 19 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit

Give power to principals to choose their A-team
SMH – Saturday, 19 May 2012 – Page 38

The strike by NSW Teachers yesterday is an important moment in the life of the O’Farrell administration. Any government can do the easy things – writing press releases, announcing inquiries, changing the names of departments. The test is who can do the hard yards of reform that will improve the quality of life of ordinary citizens. Real reform will be resisted by powerful vested interests. So it is with the push by the NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, to give greater power over budgets and hiring staff, to school principals.

It is not a new idea but it is a good idea. We cannot expect to hold principals accountable for their performance if we do not give them the executive authority required to do their job.

Anyone who has ever run a voluntary organisation , a company, a football team, will tell you that the most vital decisions relate to personnel. One person with the wrong attitude can drag down and infect the entire show. By the same token, one skilled and motivated teacher can make a huge difference. Recent American research showed that the impact on life outcomes of losing a really good teacher was so great that parents would be rational to pass the hat around to keep that teacher in their child’s classroom.

It is also the case that conditions vary across geography and time. The principal is the person to judge what personnel the school needs, and what options are available. The principal should decide if the school is better served by two deputies (which is the template) or one deputy and a literacy resource. The principal ought to be free to employ casual and contract staff – immediately increasing the field of potential candidates.

You might be astonished to learn how little executive authority is vested in a principal when the most decisive factor in whether a school flourishes or fails is not funding, class sizes or demographics but the presence, or absence, of an inspirational leader.

While one may have a low regard for the leadership of a range of trade unions, education unions – and the NSW Teachers Federation in particular – are by far the most malignant because they have the power to shape the next generation of young Australians . It’s not the left propaganda that worries me, it’s the overwhelming mediocrity of the enterprise, the lack of faith in human potential , the hostility to discipline, excellence and diversity – the focus on teacher entitlements rather than student outcomes.

The thing that has provoked the fury of the federation is the Minister’s belief that every school principal should be able to make 50 per cent of teacher appointments “on merit” . This is the measure that the federation president, Maurie Mulheron, describes as ‘‘ the most extreme proposal by any education minister in the past 25 years’’ .

There are public school principals all over NSW who have not made a voluntary teacher appointment in the past decade. This is a disgrace. It would be equivalent to saying to the Wallabies coach: ‘‘ We expect you to build a winning culture in this team but you can’t choose any of the players … they will all be sent to you by a bureaucrat based on their rights of tenure under permanent employment contracts regardless of their skills, work ethic or suitability for the positions you need to fill.’’

Someone needs to inform the education unions that they do not run education. The proper order of influence is: 1. The school principal ; 2. The parent body of each school; 3. The democratically elected Minister for Education; 4. Other parties, especially teachers, interested in supporting the educational project.

The teachers unions have such a big say because of their repeated threats to shut down schools if they don’t get their way. Every teacher who ‘‘ downed tools’ ’ yesterday was making an explicit decision to prefer their own interests to the interests of the children they teach. Each one of them should feel the blow torch of the personal criticism they deserve, but they won’t because parents worry their children will be victimised if parents express their feelings. Those on strike yesterday betrayed their vocation.

We ought to remember that it is not just governments that shape communities – we citizens also shape the limits of policy that our leaders are brave enough to offer. When we find a good minister doing the right thing, against a ruthless cabal, he should be strongly supported.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald