Professional Learning for School Teachers

Tabled: 20 February 2019

1 Audit context

1.1 What is professional learning?

Teaching is a profession that requires a highly-specialised and dynamic workforce. To practise in Victoria, prospective teachers must complete an accredited education course that enables them to develop a broad spectrum of skills and knowledge. Among these skills is the ability to understand and apply different pedagogical theories, strategies, and techniques.

Pedagogy explores the concept and practice of teaching, as well as its impact on learning. Teachers use different pedagogical techniques to create effective learning environments that support the unique needs of their students.

Research consistently shows that teacher quality has a significant influence on student outcomes. For example, students taught by ineffective teachers may struggle to keep pace with their peers and bridge critical gaps in their knowledge. This experience may negatively impact a child's perception of school and slow their intellectual development. Helping teachers to continually refine, adapt, and grow their skillsets, therefore, has the potential to improve Victorian students' wellbeing, achievement, and engagement levels.

Throughout their careers, teachers undertake various formal and informal learning activities to strengthen their practice, known as professional learning. According to research, improving teachers' capabilities through professional learning is a sound investment, as other factors that influence student outcomes—such as parental engagement—are far more difficult for schools to control.

What does effective professional learning look like?

Research suggests that traditional professional learning activities, such as conferences and seminars, have limited long-term effectiveness because they passively convey information with minimal follow-up. These once-off, generic events often occur outside the classroom and have limited capacity to explore the diverse needs of every teacher.

Lesson study is a teacher‑led professional learning activity that originated in Japan. Teachers work together to research, plan, deliver, and evaluate lessons. This enables them to harness their collective expertise and advance their personal skillsets through critical self-reflection and peer input.

During peer observation, teachers watch each other deliver lessons and provide constructive feedback.

In contrast, effective professional learning activities—such as lesson study, mentoring, and peer observation—are student centred, classroom based, and teacher-led. They translate theory into practice through the application and evaluation of different teaching techniques. Teachers who effectively engage with professional learning can assure its relevance by continually assessing its impact on student outcomes. Importantly, high-quality professional learning activities promote collaboration, adaptation, and reflection as the building blocks of effective practice.

Professional learning cultures

Research shows that professional learning can yield sustained and significant change if it is a school-wide priority. This is because best practice professional learning activities require teachers to collaborate with one another, engage in respectful debate, and take collective responsibility for student learning. True collaboration requires teachers to transition their classrooms from private to public spaces, and share their strategies, instructional materials, and queries with one another. Principals, therefore, have an obligation to nurture a strong professional learning culture that emphasises the importance of trust, growth, and self-reflection.

Professional standards for Victorian teachers

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) emphasises the important role that teachers play in preparing children to lead positive and productive lives, and provides guidance to the Commonwealth, state, and territory governments on excellence in education. Importantly, AITSL highlights the significance of professional learning in two major documents:

  • The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST), finalised in 2010—guide teachers' preparation, support, and development, and outline their expected capabilities at four career stages across three domains. The career stages are graduate, proficient, highly accomplished, and lead, and the key domains are professional practice, professional knowledge, and professional engagement.
    • Standard 6 explicitly states that teachers must participate in professional learning to improve their practice.
  • The Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders (the Charter), published in 2012—this document describes the characteristics of high-quality professional learning and emphasises the importance of a supportive school environment.

All Australian education ministers endorsed the APST in December 2010, and the Charter in August 2012.

1.2 Roles and responsibilities

In Victoria, professional learning is subject to minimal central control. The ETR Act assigns some legislated responsibilities to VIT; however, the practical implementation of professional learning is mostly at the discretion of Victoria's 1 531 government schools.

Victorian Institute of Teaching

In October 2018, the Victorian Parliament passed legislation that amended the ETR Act. This contained a proclamation that VIT must consider the safety and wellbeing of children—including by taking into account community expectations—when performing any regulatory function. This shift in focus will inform all VIT's activities going forward and highlights its critical role in protecting the rights and interests of children.

VIT is an independent statutory authority responsible for regulating the teaching profession. All teachers must register with VIT to practise in independent, Catholic, and government schools across Victoria, the early childhood sector, as well as other workplaces with education officers, such as universities, hospitals, and museums. Registration is one of VIT's most critical functions, as it assures the community that teachers are highly qualified, proficient, and reputable. All teachers—regardless of their sector—must periodically renew their registration to demonstrate their continued competence. This requirement applied to over 104 000 teachers in 2019.

In 2011, all Australian education ministers endorsed AITSL's National Framework for Teacher Registration (AITSL's framework), which brought an element of consistency to each state and territory's unique approach. According to AITSL's framework, Australian teachers who want to renew their registration must:

  • consent to a national criminal history records check every five years
  • submit evidence of at least 100 days of professional practice (teaching) across the previous five years
  • submit evidence of at least 100 hours of APST-referenced professional learning activities across the previous five years
  • demonstrate their ongoing proficiency against the APST.

As shown in Figure 1A, VIT proportionately implements AITSL's framework. This means that teachers must submit legally-binding self-declarations that assert whether they have completed at least 20 days of professional practice and 20 hours of professional learning each year. VIT, therefore, engages with its teachers more frequently than most regulatory bodies across Australia. VIT also grants 'non-practising' registration to qualified professionals that wish to document their continued suitability to teach but cannot fulfil VIT's annual requirements.

Figure 1A
Length of registration cycle for each Australian state and territory

Jurisdiction

Length of fixed registration period

Australian Capital Territory

1 year

New South Wales

5 years (or 7 years for part-time and casual teachers)

Northern Territory

5 years

Queensland

5 years (annual update for professional practice and professional learning elements)

South Australia

3 years

Tasmania

5 years

Victoria

1 year

Western Australia

5 years

Source: VAGO, derived from AITSL's One Teaching Profession: Teacher Registration in Australia, prepared for the Council of Australian Governments' Education Council, September 2018.

Under the ETR Act, VIT has several responsibilities related to professional learning. For example, VIT must:

  • develop and maintain a professional learning framework that supports and promotes teachers' ongoing education and development
  • advise the Minister for Education regarding matters that concern teachers, including their professional development needs
  • facilitate professional development programs that align with its key functions
  • conduct and promote research that explores the effectiveness of teaching and learning practices.
Review of the Victorian Institute of Teaching

In 2017, the Minister for Education commissioned an independent review of VIT's management, operations, and governance following serious concerns regarding its decision-making processes. The review made 34 recommendations to VIT, which the Victorian Government largely accepted. VIT is currently addressing these recommendations and is undergoing significant restructure. VIT's Council has recently approved its updated regulatory approach, which directly responds to one of the review's recommendations.

Department of Education and Training

DET's key objective is to foster a smarter, fairer, and more prosperous Victoria. It oversees the provision of primary and secondary schooling in Victoria and employs principals and teachers to deliver high-quality education.

DET's central office is primarily responsible for the development of policy and strategy. It authorises principals to make local decisions for local needs and allocates responsibility to them for their schools' day-to-day operations, including educational, financial, and management issues. In contrast, DET's Regional Services Group provides more tangible, on-the-ground support to schools. The Regional Services Group works out of 17 area offices situated across DET's four regions—North Eastern, North Western, South Eastern, and South Western Victoria.

DET's strategic focus

The Department of Education and Training 2018–2022 Strategic Plan articulates DET's vision for a 'high-performing, empowered, valued, and supported' workforce that delivers 'world class outcomes'. To achieve this vision, DET's goal is to build the capacity of principals and teachers by ensuring that every school participates in high-quality professional learning. DET delivers some professional learning to teachers, but it is neither the major nor the sole provider. Instead, DET's key role is to support schools to create and sustain strong professional learning cultures that encourage collaborative and reflective practices.

Responsibilities of principals and teachers

While there are no legislated requirements regarding professional learning, principals and teachers have obligations to continually engage with innovative and emerging research. As a condition of their employment, principals must:

  • conduct regular reviews of their school's teaching and learning practices to ensure that they align with robust and up-to-date evidence
  • manage the development, implementation and monitoring of their school's professional learning strategy to increase teachers' capacity, knowledge, and skills, and to achieve the school's overarching objectives
  • ensure that their staff's performance and development plans (PDP) encourage engagement with high-quality professional learning.

Likewise, to practise in Victorian government schools, teachers must fulfil VIT's registration requirements and engage with DET's performance and development processes.

Victorian Government Schools Agreement 2017

The Victorian Government Schools Agreement 2017 (VGSA) applies to all employees of the Victorian teaching service. It has two new provisions that aim to support teachers' professional learning:

  • The introduction of the learning specialist position—this enables high‑performing teachers to progress their careers while remaining in the classroom. Learning specialists provide ongoing support, guidance, and mentorship to their colleagues by facilitating professional learning activities, such as demonstration lessons.
  • The allocation of four professional practice days each year—beginning in 2018, this initiative releases each teacher from their scheduled duties for one day per term to undertake work that strengthens their practice (pro rata for part-time teachers). This work should align with departmental and school priorities, and focus on the following areas: planning, preparation, curriculum development, assessment of student learning, collaboration, relevant professional development, and peer observation. According to the VGSA, each teacher nominates the timing and focus of their professional practice days in consultation with their principal.

1.3 Victoria's reform agenda

The Victorian Government is implementing an extensive reform agenda to ensure that every child has access to high-quality education. It frames professional learning as a critical lever in improving the knowledge and skills of teachers, and thus their ability to meet students' needs.

Education State

In 2015, the Victorian Government committed to enhancing each student's educational outcomes—regardless of their classroom, school, upbringing, or postcode. This initiative—known as Education State—aims to equip Victorian students with a world class, dynamic skillset that meets the needs of Victoria's ever-changing economy.

DET is progressively implementing a range of policies, guidelines, and toolkits to help schools achieve this vision. Its commitment to sustained and significant change encompasses service and funding reform, organisational restructuring, an increased emphasis on partnerships and innovation, and improved workforce strategies. Importantly, the Education State reform agenda not only focuses on enhancing the learning opportunities of Victoria's students, but its teachers as well. At the school level, this equates to an increased focus on improved training, guidance, and planning for teachers and leadership staff.

The Victorian Government articulates its vision for Education State through 10 targets across four key areas—see Figure 1B. Professional learning is pivotal to achieving these outcomes, as teacher quality is the greatest in-school controllable factor impacting student outcomes.

Figure 1B
The Victorian Government's vision for Education State

Ambition

Target

Learning for life

More students excel in reading and mathematics

By 2020 for Year 5, and 2025 for Year 9, 25 per cent more students will be reaching the highest levels of achievement in reading and mathematics.

More students excel in scientific literacy

By 2025, there will be a 33 per cent increase in the proportion of 15-year olds reaching the highest levels of achievement in scientific literacy.

More students excel in the arts

More Victorian students will reach the highest levels of achievement in the arts.

More students develop strong critical and creative thinking skills

By 2025, 25 per cent more Year 10 students will have developed excellent critical and creative thinking skills.

Happy, healthy, and resilient kids

More students will be resilient

By 2025, Victorian students reporting high resilience will grow by 20 per cent.

More students will be physically active

By 2025, the proportion of students doing physical activity five times a week will increase by 20 per cent.

Breaking the link

Breaking the link

By 2025, there will be a 15 per cent reduction in the gap in average achievement between disadvantaged and other students in Year 5 and Year 9 reading.

More students stay in education for better pathways

By 2025, the proportion of students leaving education during Years 9 to 12 will halve.

Pride and confidence in our schools

Raise the levels of community pride and confidence in Victorian government schools

By 2025, 20 per cent more parents will have high levels of pride and confidence in the Victorian government school system.

Note: The 'Breaking the link' initiative aims to mitigate the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantage and lower academic outcomes.

Source: VAGO, derived from DET.

Framework for Improving Student Outcomes

In 2015, DET developed FISO to support the goals of the Education State reform agenda. FISO helps government schools to focus their improvement efforts on the areas known to have the greatest impact on student achievement, engagement, and wellbeing. The framework trickles through each tier of a school's planning architecture—from high-level strategy to day-to-day operations. It provides a 'common language' for principals and teachers to discuss opportunities for improvement, including participation in professional learning activities. Importantly, reconceptualising professional learning as a routine, everyday practice requires thorough planning, as principals and teachers must explicitly prioritise their development to ensure that it occurs amidst their busy schedules.

FISO includes the following key components:

  • An Improvement Model—this identifies four statewide priority areas that contain 16 dimensions. DET has identified six of these dimensions as high impact improvement initiatives—see Figure 1C. Using the Improvement Model, each school must identify at least three goals to achieve over a four‑year period. The SSP captures these goals and highlights their supporting dimensions. Each year, schools put their SSPs into operation through AIPs that outline their key improvement strategies, targets, actions, and professional learning priorities. We discuss this further in Part 3.
  • The FISO Continua of Practice for School Improvement (the Continua), first published in 2016 and progressively updated by DET—this document helps schools to self-assess and monitor their improvement by outlining a continuum of achievement for each dimension. The Continua enables schools to pinpoint their status as emerging, evolving, embedding, or excelling, and defines their expected capabilities at each stage.
  • An Improvement Cycle—this evidence-based model helps schools to enhance their teaching and learning outcomes by implementing a continuous approach to improvement that enables principals and teachers to regularly review their progress against established targets. It contains four major steps:
    • evaluate and diagnose
    • prioritise and set goals
    • develop and plan
    • implement and monitor.

Figure 1C
FISO's four priority areas and 16 dimensions

High impact improvement initiatives

Other dimensions

Priority area 1—Excellence in teaching and learning

Building practice excellence

Evidence-based high impact teaching strategies

Curriculum planning and assessment

Evaluating impact on learning

Priority area 2—Professional leadership

Building leadership teams

Instructional and shared leadership

 

Strategic resource management

 

Vision, values, and culture

Priority area 3—Positive climate for learning

Empowering students and building school pride

Health and wellbeing

Setting expectations and promoting inclusion

Intellectual engagement and self-awareness

Priority area 4—Community engagement in learning

Building communities

Parents and carers as partners

 

Global citizenship

 

Networks with schools, services, and agencies

Source: VAGO, derived from DET.

Critically, one of FISO's four statewide priority areas is 'excellence in teaching and learning'. This priority contains four dimensions, including a high impact improvement initiative that explicitly relates to professional learning—building practice excellence. According to the Continua, a school that excels in this area should:

  • develop, monitor, and evaluate an evidence-based professional learning plan that supports and aligns the individual and collective development of its teachers with the school's overarching improvement strategy
  • routinely collect, analyse, and overlay data regarding student achievement and different pedagogical practices to determine whether teachers are having the desired impact in the classroom
  • trial and assess innovative and effective teaching practices from other jurisdictions and contexts
  • establish collaborative teaching teams that thrive on self-reflection and constructive feedback
  • foster a trustworthy, supportive environment that respects the value of continuous learning, growth, and inquiry.

1.4 Why this audit is important

Transforming Victoria into the Education State is heavily dependent on the quality of the teaching workforce. VIT and DET, therefore, must have a clear understanding of how teachers perceive, practise, and prioritise professional learning across Victoria's 1 531 government schools.

In 2013, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conducted the second Teacher and Learning International Survey. The survey expanded on the results of the 2008 edition by asking Australian teachers to reflect on their professional learning opportunities over the preceding 12 months. It found that 85.7 per cent of respondents attended courses and workshops, while only 44.4 per cent engaged in formal mentoring or peer observation sessions. This suggests that Australia is yet to fully embrace the shift towards collaborative teaching and learning practices.

1.5 What this audit examined and how

Because of the system's extensive reform agenda, VIT and DET are currently undergoing widespread change. Both agencies are re-evaluating their policies, procedures, and programs with the aim of improving their knowledge of teachers' professional learning needs and practices. As a result, this audit did not examine the efficacy of a specific initiative, rather, we evaluated whether VIT and DET have a clear and accurate understanding of the professional learning that occurs in government schools, including its planning, cost, and impact.

Considering this change, we have not made formal recommendations to either agency. Instead, we intend for our observations to assist VIT and DET to implement their professional learning agendas to achieve good outcomes for teachers and their students.

We conducted our audit in accordance with section 15 of the Audit Act 1994 and the Australian Auditing and Assurance Standards. The cost of this audit was $770 000.

1.6 Report structure

The remainder of this report is structured as follows:

  • Part 2 examines whether VIT fulfils its key functions and legislated responsibilities regarding professional learning.
  • Part 3 examines whether DET effectively oversees the professional learning that occurs in Victorian government schools, including its planning, cost, and impact.

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