Barbara Preston on public education, the digital divide and teacher professionalism

Interview by John Graham

Barbara Preston is an independent researcher and consultant, working through her Canberra-based business, Barbara Preston Research. In the 1980s she worked as a research officer with the Australian Union of Students, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the Australian Teachers Union (now the AEU). In 1991 she began independent research and policy analysis consultancy work. She was the inaugural executive officer of the Australian Council of Deans of Education and carried out influential research on teacher professionalism, teacher and nurse supply and demand, competency standards and regulation, and schools policy. She continues to work on education policy issues. 

JG   How did you first come to be employed as a researcher for the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association of Victoria (which later amalgamated with the Federated Teachers Union of Victoria and the Kindergarten Teachers Association of Victoria to form the AEU Vic branch) and what was it like working there?

BP   I was first employed by Victorian teacher unions late in 1979, when I was recruited as a campaign and research officer for the needs-based staffing campaign of the three unions: the VSTA, the Technical Teachers Association of Victoria (covering teachers in technical  schools and TAFE) and the Victorian Teachers Union, (covering primary teachers). I was the first joint employee of the three unions and was a non-teacher among professional colleagues who all had been teachers in Victoria. I was based at the VSTA office and worked closely with a supportive, dynamic campaign team. I produced campaign material and research reports on staffing and attitudes to schooling during the six months of the project. I then worked for two years as research officer with the Australian Union of Students before joining the VSTA as Assistant Secretary, Research in 1982, returning to the same office and many of the same colleagues.

We worked differently in the 1980s, illustrated by the way the research officers in the three unions, located in different suburbs, worked together on research projects and submissions. We would prepare our separate, hand-written initial drafts, to be typed by our secretaries. We would then post our drafts to each other, following up with face-to-face meetings, which involved literally cutting and pasting to get a final combined draft to be then typed up. I still remember when the magic of fax arrived in 1986, and we could share our drafts almost instantaneously!

JG   What were the important education issues in Victoria that you worked on at that time?

BP   Public funding of private schools and the relationships between the sectors were major issues for the unions. I sought a way to better understand the impact of private school funding on public education and on the wider society. From the literature about social welfare I applied the concept of residualisation to public schooling in relationship with private schooling. Residualisation is a dynamic, vicious cycle: the more a service or sector becomes residual, the lower its status, apparent quality, influence, and attractiveness to those who can choose otherwise, to politicians who decide on funding, and the wider community. “Vertical fiscal imbalance” between the Commonwealth and the states is a crucial element in Australian schools funding, as the fiscally constrained states are responsible for public schools, while the fiscally free Commonwealth largely funds private schools. I developed the concept of residualisation in the context of an implicit Commonwealth Schools Commission view that stakeholders in public schooling were not entitled to be consulted on funding for private schools.

I also sought to interrogate the data underlying superficial views of the superiority of private schooling. This included the perennial matter of final year results, publicised in the media and purporting to reflect school quality. Once formal and informal selection and exclusion practices and the socioeconomic backgrounds of students are considered, the differences in school results are usually more than fully explained.

There were many other issues that were important to the VSTA that I worked on, including legal issues around federal industrial registration of unions; state and federal budgets; sexism as it affected teachers and students: senior secondary retention, and teacher education.

JG   After that you moved on to become a research officer at the Australian Teachers Union (the predecessor to the national AEU). What were the issues you spent most of your time researching there? To what extent do you think that progress has been made on resolving these issues since then?

BP   I continued the work on many of the issues I worked on at the VSTA, but often with a broader, national focus, as well as other issues, and I edited The Australian Teacher for a period. I will mention just two issues now.

Work on the relationships between public and private schooling was integrated with work on the public sector as a whole. Public sector union research officers were meeting to research and develop strategies around developments in the public sector: privatisation, corporatisation, contracting out and residualisation. We worked with academic and other experts on the role of the public sector, addressing common myths such as the public sector being “unproductive”, and critiquing the politically influential “public choice theory” and the all-pervasive neo-liberal approach. The unions provided funding for the Public Sector Research Centre at UNSW, which collaboratively researched, published, and ran seminars and conferences. We undoubtably had some impact, but the underlying issues will never be fully resolved, and the work continues— by many organisations and individuals.

I also worked on explaining the role of education as social infrastructure, an investment and foundation for culture, society, and the economy. It is much more than the development of individual human capital; it plays a collective role—we are all affected by the quality, extent and nature of the education of others, and that effect is enduring, permeating society over the long term in a way that is more profound than the road or rail network. Public schooling strengthens social cohesion through the development of relationships and understandings among people from diverse backgrounds.

JG   After the ATU you eventually became an ‘independent’ researcher providing research services to various organisations. Why did you decide to work in this way? Do you believe you can provide a different perspective because you are not tied into an academic or corporate employer?

BP   I did not make a deliberate choice to become an independent researcher. Early in 1991 I took leave for three years from my ATU position to work in the secretariat of the National Project on the Quality of Teaching and Learning, a public service position in Canberra. However, the NPQTL position did not work out for me and I left at the end of the year, but could not then go back to the ATU. Before I left the NPQTL I was offered consultancy work researching teacher competencies and teacher supply and demand by the then president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education. I sometimes thought I would look for a “real job”, but the consultancy work continued to be offered, especially by the ACDE, the deans of nursing and midwifery, and the unions and regulatory authorities of teachers and nurses and midwives.

The independent role was important, but I had to be aware of commissioning organisations’ perspectives while maintaining research integrity, which has similarities with union research. Independence meant that I could research and write (unpaid) on many issues that I thought important. One example was the misleading conclusions drawn from the use of an area-based (rather than school-based) index of disadvantage to measure the socioeconomic level of schools for the purpose of comparing NAPLAN results in the early version of the My School website. The use of such an index inflated the apparent socioeconomic level of public schools (except selective schools) relative to private schools, and thus made public school results appear much lower than those of private schools with supposed similar socioeconomic levels.

Another area I worked on was teacher professionalism, including clarification of the differences between teachers’ professional representative organisations (such as unions and other membership organisations) and professional regulatory bodies that perform functions such as registration. I was responding to the then influential view that teacher representation and regulation (registration), should be done by one body, and that body should not be a union.

JG   You have done a great deal of work on the social make-up of schools. What are the key variables in the social make-up of schools? To what extent do you think that its social make-up predicts the student outcomes of a school?

BP   My reports on the social make-up of schools, prepared for the AEU (federal) since 2003, are based on ABS Census data. Data items included type of school attended (primary or secondary; government Catholic or independent); family income; religion; languages spoken and English proficiency; housing tenure and sufficiency; Indigenous status; geographic mobility, and, in recent years, internet connection at home. Each of the variables can be important for particular policy purposes, and are associated with student outcomes in different ways. But the most important general indicator from the census associated with outcomes is family income, and the change over four decades reflects the residualisation of public schooling I referred to earlier. In 1976 the family incomes of public school students was much the same as that of Catholic and independent schools combined. This had changed by 2016, with students with low family incomes increasingly concentrated in public schools, and students with high family incomes increasingly concentrated in Catholic as well as independent schools.

There is no doubt that in Australia overall student outcomes have been influenced by factors such as family income, parental education and school remoteness. But this is not necessarily so, as the experience in some other countries, as well as particular schools, communities and individuals in Australia attests. Ensuring that such factors do not lead to lower student outcomes requires substantially increased funding on a needs basis, as well as a responsive and inclusive curriculum and school culture and practices.

JG   What is your view about the current health of Australian public school systems?

BP   My view is mixed. There are no longer the virulent attacks on public schools and teachers that were so demoralising in the 1970s and 1980s. There is greater recognition and sharing of brilliant work occurring in many schools, and there has been strong public attestation to the quality of public schooling generally and at a local level. There has also been some recent slowing, even reversal, of the public sector’s decline in enrolment share, and in the increasing concentration of disadvantaged students in public schools.

However, the situation is fragile. Many public schools serving the most disadvantaged communities are currently struggling with insufficient resources and support, and with very severe localised residualisation relative to private schools and some more advantaged public schools. In addition, Catholic and independent schools are now usually much better resourced than public schools, and the Commonwealth’s schools funding arrangements for the coming decade locks in continuing and substantial real funding increases for private schools. In contrast, the future appears potentially catastrophic for public school systems as their major funders, the states, have fiscal constraints unknown to the Commonwealth and which are sure to be in a dismal state post-COVID-19. There is hard work ahead for public school supporters.

JG   You have recently published research about the gap in digital access experienced by many public school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This became particularly important as schools turned from face-to-face to remote learning. What is the extent of that gap and what are its implications for student learning? What needs to be done to address it?

BP   The census data I analysed indicated that in 2016 around 5 per cent of public school students (more than 125,000 students) did not have internet access at home—not even via a smart phone, gaming console or smart TV. Of public school students with the lowest third of family incomes, 9 per cent did not have internet at home; of the more than 50,000 public school students living in remote or very remote areas, one in five did not have internet access at home; and more than one in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait public school students did not have internet at home.

Ensuring physical access to the internet is possible with the provision of appropriate devices and data at low or no cost. However, that is insufficient for successful remote learning, whether it is complete schooling or homework and independent study. What is needed is digital inclusion, and that includes digital ability as well as physical access. Digital ability includes enthusiasm, confidence and a sense of control when using the internet, as well as experience, skills, and knowledge in use of devices and the internet. The digital ability of parents and carers is especially important for younger students. Without digital ability, there cannot be successful remote learning relying on digital devices and communication.

Developing effective digital ability requires sustained, individualised support for students and their parents or carers. It also needs to take account of the other commitments of parents or carers, language spoken and English proficiency, and other circumstances, such as overcrowded or insecure housing, and household stress or conflict. It takes time and dedicated resources to ensure all students develop the digital ability necessary for full digital inclusion. In the meantime, those without should receive additional and alternative intensive, personalised support during and after periods of remote learning, which might include paper-based materials and work, direct telephone communication, and one-to-one tutoring.

JG   You have written about effective teaching being ‘democratic and collaborative’ and referred to the ‘democratic professionalism’ of teachers. Can you explain what you mean by this and why you think the profession of teaching should be ‘democratic’?

BP   I worked on the concept of teacher professionalism while developing the 1991 ATU policy on teacher education. At the time there was scepticism about the application of ‘professionalism’ to teachers and their work, and it was important to make clear that teacher professionalism, as democratic professionalism, “does not seek to mystify professional work, nor to unreasonably restrict access to that work”, but “facilitates the participation in decision-making by students, parents and others, and seeks to develop a broader understanding in the community of education and how it operates”. This participation in decision-making and the treating of students and their communities with respect are integral to effective teaching practice. It is possible to have other models of teacher professionalism. However, effective teaching of all students (not just the “already taught” and “easily teachable”) requires the respect and personal connection of a democratic approach.

National policy work on teacher professionalism and competency standards progressed in the early 1990s, and I was concerned with the individualistic conceptualisation of teacher professionalism associated with competencies, and with the internationally influential view that unions were not proper professional representative organisations for teachers. I argued that the collective and strategic nature of teachers’ professional practice needed to be recognised, developed and valued. Teachers’ work is not primarily the aggregation of discrete, one-to-one relationships between professionals and clients; rather, students’ education depends not only on good relationships with their immediate teachers, but also on the intentional inter-relations among many teachers and students over many years, occurring within and forming the institutions of schools and school systems. In addition, teachers’ collective organisation through their unions (and other organisations) is a significant part of the professional practice of the profession as a whole. Democratic, collaborative, collective and strategic professionalism is integral to the effective practice of teaching in a way that does not occur in most other professions.

JG   There is a growing realisation about the value of good quality evidence in determining the important policy issues in education. Do you think that there are sufficient accessible sources of necessary data to provide that evidence? If not, what is missing or could be improved, and what needs to be done to remedy this situation?

BP   A major problem is failure to access or properly interpret and use the data that is available. That said, there have been initiatives to address deficiencies in data collection and availability under the auspices of AITSL, and academic researchers appear to be more connected with schools and systems than in the past. However, the collection and management of policy-useful data is likely to have limitations because of the autonomy of school systems and the self-sufficient complacency of parts of the private sector. In addition, without greater national support, effective university research will be limited even if recent practices are developed and enhanced. And now potentially serious problems loom: the recent government decisions on university funding and the likely post-COVID-19 situation of universities are likely to damage the nation’s educational research capacity well into the future. Ensuring there is the best quality evidence for good policy will be a continuing struggle.

Much of the material referred to by Barbara in this interview is available at


John Graham is editor of Professional Voice and works as a research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic). He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. He has had particular responsibility for the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education.

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.2 Learning in the shadow of the pandemic.

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