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Dr Scott Eacott: The role of principals in enabling equitable excellence

Schools, and school systems are constantly bombarded with calls for change. Everyone seemingly has an opinion on what is needed to ‘fix’ the current or enduring crises that apparently plague our schools. However, few provide the means through which our schools can address the many varied purposes of schooling. Bold visions to reimagine schooling mean little without a plan on what to do.

 

That said, we have the principles by which we can design schooling to deliver on international and national commitments to equity and excellence. Working with design principles rather than the latest fad, fashion, or product being sold by the currently touring edu-guru enables principals to lead contextually sensitive schooling while focused on over-arching principles of equitable excellence.  

 

As laid out in the preamble of the Australian Education Act 2013 [CTH] and the 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration, we have a goal: that the quality of a student’s education should not be limited by where the student lives, the income of their family, the school they attend, or their personal circumstances; we have the markers of achievement: successful learners, confident, creative individuals, active and informed citizens, leading to a highly skilled and inclusive workforce, strengthened economy, increased productivity and greater prosperity for all; and we have the expectation of schools and systems: continuously improving, especially against regional systems.

 

This agenda requires a subtle, but significant shift. One that often makes those in government and systems nervous. It requires a shift from inputs (e.g., equal opportunity for all) to outcomes (e.g., did we deliver equitable outcomes?). An outcomes-based approach is much more confronting. It asks tough questions. It arguably results in managing up, as it requires attention to the systems and structures (within and across schools) that generate inequities. And it is possible to do this without defaulting to ideological driven battles.

 

What has been missing has been a way to operationalise this agenda. Threshold questions, with matching tests for legitimacy, strength and the impact on staff and students provide such resources. Put simply, does this activity (either current or proposed) make our school more equitable and excellence. If the answer is no, then that activity has no place in our school. Threshold questions can work from government to the classroom. Importantly, threshold questions provide educational leaders and educators with the resources to assess the contribution of activities to delivering on nationally agreed goals for schooling. And as a bonus, a principled approach to managing up when asked to do things that compromises the work of schools. The cost is that you just might end up with staff asking questions about tasks they are asked to do which get in the way of them delivering the highest quality teaching.

 

Whether we like it or not, schools remain wedged between the agendas of many. Systems are seeking to reduce variation and inefficiencies across schools. Students and staff, our primary concern, want to be known and valued. Society at large oscillates between wanting standardisation and personalised learning. In the absence of overarching principles, debates about schooling get reduced to ideological attacks on anyone not delivering schooling as one believes it ought to be.

 

Employing threshold questions based on the design principle of equitable excellence provides the basis for justifying actions in the face fo critique, are a mechanism for identifying activities that compromise purpose, provide a basis to prosecute alternatives, and enable a principles approach to decision making and resource allocation. The end result is an approach with the greatest likelihood of enabling equitable excellence from the individual classroom to the entire system.

Scott Eacott, PhD is Professor of Education in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan. He has previously worked at the University of Newcastle and Australian Catholic University and prior to academia, the New South Wales Department of Education as a teacher and school leader in primary schools.

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