Learning teams

– the important role of support staff

The recently released report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, entitled Through Growth to Achievement, calls for a number of radical changes in the provision of education to “enable all Australian school children to reach their full learning potential”. Cathy Hickey, Assistant Secretary of IEUA VicTas, examines the report for insight into innovative learning teams and an enhanced role for learning support staff – but finds it disappointingly lacking.

This report is the result of David Gonski’s second major review into Australian education and states that Australian education has stagnated and declined compared to other nations. It stresses that Australia needs to shift from the current, ‘industrialised model’ of schooling to a model focused on individual student growth and achievement to regain its standing among the world’s leading education nations. It purports that most Australian school education is based on a 20th century model that aims to provide a standard, mass education which does not support the widespread implementation of contemporary teaching methods, such as tailored teaching.

IEUA is pleased that the report acknowledges that the shift required for teachers to focus on the goal of achievement through individual student learning growth, is complex and sophisticated and requires significant support, different types of expertise and greater collaboration compared with traditional education models.

Investing in education

While the report states that we need to invest our resources in the interventions that will enable students to achieve concrete gains, it disappointingly still places considerable emphasis on the responsibilities and role of individual teachers to equip every student to grow and succeed in a changing world, and it gives far less attention to the other support structures necessary.

Effective intervention

A key theme of the Gonski report is the dramatic decline in Australian student results over the last decade. It maintains that our current model of school education is focused on each student achieving a minimum standard of learning outcomes based on year and age levels and is poorly equipped to respond to different initial levels of student achievement. It states that this can lead to less advanced students falling further behind others, with the progress they make being largely unrecognised, and more advanced students not being stretched to reach their full potential, and at risk of becoming complacent if the good progress for which they are praised is actually well below their real learning capacity.

The report acknowledges that one key driver of this decline is the variation in early childhood learning that results in different starting points of children entering school. It highlights the fact that students start school with significant variations in their knowledge, skills and capabilities and goes on to elaborate that unless these learning gaps are addressed early, they increase over the course of a student’s schooling. The gap between students from an advantaged background and those from a disadvantaged background grow from 10 months in Year 3 to around two and a half years by Year 9. (Goss P, Sonnemann J, Chisholm L 2016). The report calls for significant emphasis on high quality early learning, including calling for prioritising the acquisition of foundation skills in literacy and numeracy in the early years.

How is this to be achieved? The report stresses that a high quality teaching profession is essential – IEUA would strongly agree. But this is not an agenda for teachers alone to achieve. It is beholden on governments and systems to improve the overall ‘pre-conditions’ for success, including the adequate staffing of schools to enable the maximisation of those high level professional teaching skills involved in diagnostic assessment and individualised learning programming and delivery.

Teachers in Australia are still ranked among the world’s highest in hours of scheduled class contact time (with primary school teachers even higher than secondary teachers). They have little scheduled time for diagnostic analysis and collaborative team approaches, including planning of more individualised intervention. This feature – coupled with a continued resourcing model based on the much criticised ‘industrial’ model of one teacher in front of class groups of 27 to 30 students of widely differing capability levels – creates significant challenges. Australian education systems and schools still invest little in the development and utilisation of skilled learning support staff (LSOs) who can work collaboratively with teachers to deliver more individualised learning programs.

Building and using skilled support staff

Unfortunately, the Gonski report makes scant comment on LSOs. Its limited focus is on “different and innovative ways to free up teacher time, for example using more paid para professionals and other non teaching personnel, including trained volunteers, to assist with non teaching tasks such as lunch time or assembly supervision or administrative tasks”. (p57)

There is no doubt that teachers need to be freed from these non teaching tasks. However, the report’s interest in such solutions as encouraging “volunteers from the parent body” (p58) is short sighted, and its omission of any discussion of current or possible roles and responsibilities of LSOs, shows a lack of understanding of the complexity of effective and systematic individualised student learning intervention strategies and the level of resourcing required to deliver these.

Positively, what we do see in schools is that the education support staff classification structures being negotiated between employers and unions are now better at identifying and remunerating classroom learning support staff work with students and teachers.

The current Victorian Catholic Education Multi-Employer Agreement has three levels of classification for LSOs.

Level 2, for example, is aimed at roles such as:

assisting student learning, where discretion and judgement is required (including more individualised approaches and intervention strategies, and assisting in the identification of learning needs and evaluation of progress under the general supervision and direction of the teacher)

participation in monitoring and reporting of student learning and programs, and

under the general supervision and direction of teaching staff, undertake specialist assistance to students in specific learning areas, eg languages, technology, the arts.

Level 3 acknowledges LSOs undertaking specialist intervention strategies requiring advanced training and expertise.

The number of LSOs employed are growing in Catholic and independent schools. The qualification levels of LSOs are increasing, with large numbers now holding Certificate III and IV in Education, as well as degrees, and many are undertaking specialist professional development in areas such as autism, dyslexia, hearing impairment, positive behaviour support, and literacy and numeracy strategies.

Despite these developments, there is still a way to go. Some school employer approaches are unfortunately still marred by efforts to keep wage costs low by relegating support staff to the lowest levels of classification, and this is resulting in an under utilisation of the skills of learning support staff, and increased stress on teachers who bare the brunt of the ‘continuous improvement cycle’ – just do more! There is a need for opportunities, particularly time for innovative teams of teachers and LSOs to work together in more individualised student intervention programs.

However, the landscape is changing and that is a great thing for enhanced student learning.


Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools March 2018