Could methods and approaches behind management consultancy provide skills for struggling principals and teachers?
Annie Fogarty has seen her fair share of dysfunction and disadvantage while leading her titular foundation, but the continuing struggles in Western Australia’s education system stand apart from the rest.
For a wealthy city in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Ms Fogarty remains astounded at the disparities between student outcomes that appear across Perth’s rich and poor communities.
Traditionally, this disparity has informed demand for greater funding to schools in need.
However, Ms Fogarty, thought the issue was far more complicated than that.
Part of the issue, she believed, was that schools facing greater dysfunction and disadvantage were often trying to feed or clothing students.
As she saw it, having to immediately cater to students in such a way prevented schools from focusing on broader, strategic concerns, leaving challenges to fester and go unnoticed.
This top-down approach forms the basis of the foundation’s three-year, EDvance program.
“Just getting the kids to school is great … but then to really improve their educational outcomes is huge,” Ms Fogarty told Business News.
“It’s difficult for them to be strategic, so this program gives them the opportunity to set strategies and planning, which they have to do anyway, but we help them do the work they need to do.
“We knew that we could have the most impact if we could build the capacity of the leaders of schools in disadvantaged communities, they would be in a much better position to make decisions, set strategy and make change happen in those schools.
“We may be working with a few hundred leaders, but they would then be impacting tens of thousands of students.”
Driven by the mentoring and support of former principals, many of whom have worked in disadvantaged communities, schools are given direction on how to pursue major overhauls and strategies as well as implement data-driven feedback.
Rather than targeting students themselves, the program suggests the quality of a school’s leadership is the most important factor in a student’s achievements.
While this approach followed discussions with leaders in the business and not-for-profit sectors, evidence-based practices from the likes of Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company are also central to the program’s method.
That includes focusing on organisational health to improve the function of the school overall, and the use of a 360-degree feedback method to create thorough appraisals of teachers.
“Part of the importance of that is schools can look at (the results) and go, ‘Oh gosh, we thought we were really good in that area, we realise we’re not’,” Ms Fogarty said.
“How then do you have those difficult conversations?
“You can then start having those conversations about what needs to be done if it’s obviously not being done.
“It’s not about making a personal criticism (of principals or teachers), it’s about what needs to be done as a school to make changes.”
EDvance has been in operation for about a decade now, and in that time has been deployed in 96 schools across WA, with more than 300 school leaders teaching to 42,000 students having received mentoring.
Primary schools comprise about 70 per cent of those schools, with about three-quarters of all schools located in Perth’s metropolitan region.
About 60 per cent of all schools have achieved what the foundation deems significant improvements over the program’s lifetime.
While conscious of room for improvement, Ms Fogarty understands the process is long and that results will speak for themselves as principals develop wider networks and move between schools during their careers.
“We know improvements won’t just happen in three years, it’ll take longer that,” she said.
“How do you sustain that, particularly when you have big changes in the staff and leadership of the school?
“We know that these principals and deputy leaders involved will go on and teach or lead at a range of different schools.
“They’re going to take all this knowledge with them.”