Friday, 24 February 2017

New South Wales gets tough on high school graduation

I note that NSW is going to require demonstration of the ability to compose effective writing before they will issue the school graduation certificate.  Good on them as I predict that it will help these students in the big wide world beyond school.  One serious rider is consideration for those with complex language learning difficulties like dyslexia.

This toughening up will also affect science, mathematics and ancient history.  A bout of rigour has broken out.  Are we seeing one of those all too regular full circle manoeuvres from the NSW Ed Dept?  I hope the change innovators have thought it through and will implement it using a change process that teachers can identify with.  Over my years as an educator I have witnessed so much waste of resources fiscal and human in ill-conceived educational change.

May the Force be with you!


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Principal : educational leader

With Aussie schools now settling into routine you my colleague Principals are busy : an understatement.

If you lead a very large school, especially a secondary school or a K-12 school your administrative duties are legion.  I'm sure you have suitably delegated so that you have time each week to focus on the teaching and student learning programs and on the wellbeing of your staff and students.  Another vital weekly focus is to be on top of communications with the parents and/or guardians of your students. Even though you may have the good fortune to have a Curriculum Coordinator and Heads of Subject Departments, in the final analysis the buck stops with you if the students are not learning.

If you are Principal of a large primary school you will have deputies to help with the administrative load and to assist with curriculum co-ordination.  To have this latter role makes a Deputy's job really worthwhile.

You may be a Principal of a medium sized primary school or a small primary school where you also have some teaching to do.  These roles are some of the hardest in the Principal game.  Members of your staff team can rise to the occasion and provide leadership support in their particular areas of expertise.  Your admin clerical staff are vital for you to keep things running smoothly.

In very large complex schools it is easy for the Principal to become too far removed from the teaching and learning programs.  The most effective Principals in this situation know how to strike a balance such that they are successful delegators with an expectation that those to whom roles are delegated are clear on what is required and accept the responsibility to perform.  These Principals develop effective reporting back channels so that they are aware of how well each delegated person is performing, but they are not tempted to be too hands on and interfere with the role that has been delegated.

I am now a retired Principal and Superintendent of Schools and have time to reflect on this matter of delegation.  I say modestly that others have judged my roles as Principal and Superintendent to be pretty successful, but I know several areas where I could have done better and conserved energy to focus in a balanced way across my role.  I had a constant internal battle to not be too hands on and at times I failed in this respect.

There are three very small books that you might find helpful.  Don't be put off that they were published in the 1980s as they are still relevant if you find delegation difficult.   These works are:

  • Blanchard K & Johnson S, The One Minute Manager, Harper Collins, 1983.
  • Blanchard K & Lorber R, Putting The One Minute Manager to Work, Willow Books, 1984.
  • Blanchard K, Oncken Jr W & Burrows H, The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, Fontana Collins, 1990.

A reasonably fast reader would bowl them over in a night.

May there Force be with you.


Sunday, 29 January 2017

Compulsory testing for year 1 students

Email to Simon Birmingham Minister of Education
(Sent on 30/01/2017)

Minister I feel it important to establish my bona fides to say what I feel I need to:

I am a retired school principal of a K-12 school and concluded my career with 12 years as a Superintendent of Schools.  My career with the Eduction Department of WA and beyond covered some 40 years.  I have taught both at primary and secondary school levels. I am a Fellow of the Australian Council of Educational Leaders.

This compulsory testing idea will never work.  Effective teachers already take the little ones in and in two to three weeks by normal diagnostic processes work out the level of each child in basic mathematical and word knowledge.  From there in classes grouped heterogeneously by general ability you will find the teachers teaching to three groups for word knowledge and reading and often applying this also to mathematics.  Let me call the group with the least word knowledge the Leopards, the middle group the Jaguars and the group with the most knowledge the Panthers.  These effective teachers recognise that each child is at a stage of intellectual and social development based on all the factors that have affected there daily lives so far.  In a school district that I administered there were many low socio economic areas and the schools servicing these knew that the year 1 students were likely to lack a lot of word knowledge compared to students from higher socio economic areas. There were a lot of Leopards in the schools servicing the low socio economic areas.  These Leopards should never be treated as if they are behind and need too catch up.  They need to be taught at least in the english language and mathematics areas based on the principle of mastering the knowledge and processes needed for the new learning to come, the next step as it were. Many Leopards will take longer to move through the english language and mathematics syllabuses moving at a pace based on the mastery I have described. As they move through the junior primary years some of the work they will be doing in english language skills and mathematics will be at a year level below what their age grade suggests in relation to the year levels of the Australian National Curriculum.  They are not behind and should never be regarded as such.  Every piece of successful mastery is to be hailed as a giant step forward.  This is the reality on the ground.  Some Leopards may respond quickly and soon be at the required curriculum year level for their grade.  It’s not about students catching up. It is about basing new learning on the mastered building blocks needed for that new learning to have any chance of succeeding.

The problem for this mastery principle is that teachers naturally feel a pressure to have as many of their charges at the curriculum year levels normal for their grade.  NAPLAN requirements haven’t helped although I must say that as a Principal I would have been okay with NAPLAN.  Over the years Leopards have been moved on to new learning without the mastering the basic building blocks for the new learning to come.  We thus see secondary school students with poor literacy and numeracy skills.

To make the mastery principle work strong and innovative school Principals are needed to bring the parents and the politicians along with this process.  Such Principals will arrange in-service sessions for their teachers whereby the teachers are given time to discuss the prescribed syllabus outcomes for english language skills and mathematics and come to some agreement about what would indicate mastery of this or that learning outcome.  It appears to be a laborious process but it isn’t.  I’ve done it with teachers and in two days of intensive application they have worked their way through the prescribed syllabus learning outcomes for english language and mathematics agreeing on the meaning of each outcome and what would signify mastery of it.  When they go off to their classrooms they are on the same page. To make this work in a large primary school all the teachers of say the three year 4 classes group together for the discussion.  In smaller schools the groupings are the teachers of the junior primary years, of the middle primary years and of the senior primary years.  In general this could be deemed a standards setting in-service.  Another plus is that in such group discussions teachers learn a lot from one another about the learning experiences that work for students.

I plead with you to withdraw from the compulsory testing decision and let the Principals and their teachers do what they are trained to do.  If the process is right the results will take care of themselves as every good sporting coach knows.  Australia will move speedily up the international rankings if that is what you want.

I add this rider.  For a time phonics, which is the basis of word knowledge and spelling, fell into disrepute, but my reading suggests it is back and well.  Teachers are using it along with whole word recognition procedures.  Phonics will bite throughout the schools and Australia’s world rankings in english language skills will lift.  I do worry a little that contemporary young teachers who have grown up with the sound bites of modern communication may be a bit weak in sentence and paragraph construction.  If this is true this is easily remedied through more effective teacher training in our universities.  Rigour needs to be the catchword as the trainee teachers present their papers and assignments.  I have  proven on the ground that you can teach secondary students a simple process on how to write a good essay.

Minister, the compulsory testing idea will not achieve what you desire.  I know you are acting with the best of intentions to ensure our children can read, write and calculate but compulsory testing of the little ones is not the way.  I say with the greatest of respect that your decision could also be interpreted by hard working effective teachers and Principals as an insult to their professionalism.

There is lot more I could say especially about the pivotal role of the Principal and the movement to make government schools ‘independent’.

I will be disappointed Minister if your minders don’t let you actually read this email.

Bruce Lyons (BEd, BA, MEd: FACEL)

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

First Principalship

Oh boy what a feeling.  I'm the Principal and I need to develop a team to make it all happen for the students.  Its a bit daunting.

For what it is worth keep a cool considered head.  If you want to make changes to your school size up the current situation and consult widely with your staff members.  Teaching is a busy hands on job that does not benefit if the teachers become embroiled in too much and too rapid change. For a new Principal to sweep in and make many changes early in that Principalship is a recipe for disaster, unless you have inherited a school that is in a very sad way as far as school effectiveness is concerned.

A surfeit of enthusiasm from you can become misplaced if too intense.  Nonetheless expect a high level of enthusiasm across the staff team.

Convince your staff that teaching is a true profession and teach them what this means.

Look at your students and recognise that they enter your gate each day being who and what they are based on all the in-school and out-of-school experiences in their daily lives.  Be patient and analytical with students who struggle to manage school.  Find out what ails them and show them the joys and relevance of taking the current learning opportunities.  Let them know that they are respected in your school even loved and as part of this you are diagnosing the problem and seeking solutions.

The wellbeing of students, staff and parents is paramount in an effective school.  Measure it regularly and make adjustments if things get out of whack.

Good luck with your first principalship.

May the Force be with you!


Saturday, 31 December 2016


A very happy and prosperous 2017 to all my viewers.

May the Force go with you!


Thursday, 1 December 2016

Australia slips in world rankings for science and maths

The airwaves have been abuzz this week with the bad news about Australia's academic school performance rankings against other countries.

It was mainly about science and mathematics, but the phonics advocates are out in force and even the rote learning of tables devotees.  They admit that phonics is back and express their relief.  There seems to be less certainty that rote learning of multiplication tables and number facts is again common practice in the schools.

Aussie school principals what is your position?  For mine phonics is back and I am relieved.  Phonics will aid spelling.

Recent experience with one of my grandchildren revealed an expectation from the school that the home should provide a lot of the rote table learning to back up the school. I also had another teacher support this view in discussion with me.  As an ex school principal and Superintendent of Schools I cannot support this.  It is the school's job to empower its students with a memorised knowledge of the tables and number facts.  If a student has these facts as instant memory recall then basic mathematical calculation is so much easier.  I'm afraid that the mathematicians gained control of school curricula pushing youngsters too early into processes that would eventually be the basis of higher mathematics.  Basic numeracy was required to take a back seat.

To offset the wave of communication grabs that have now overpowered longer and more complex communication, I urge principals as educational leaders to entreat their teachers to return to the traditional letter writing format that invites clear simple sentence structure and easier paragraph construction.  These skills can be the basis for descriptive writing as in science studies and be further translated to the more difficult creative writing.

Even with the discipline of phonics and rote table memorisation the best teachers make the learning an exciting experience.

Enough already!


Saturday, 19 November 2016


Hi school principal colleagues!   Across Australia you will be winding your schools down for the long summer vacation and putting in place as much preparation for 2017 as possible.  I hope 2017 sees the establishment of a student wellbeing program or the continuation of the one already in place. I am convinced that student wellbeing is the #1 school effectiveness criterion.

Encourage your staff to make a lot of time to be with their close loved ones during the vacation as it is these relationships that are the ultimate nature of reality.

Have a fruitful break, rejuvenate and return in 2017 to one of the best jobs in the world:  School Principal.