At its heart lies an understanding that principals, directors, executives and the secretary have a responsibility to deliver the very best education to each NSW public school student.

If the school exceeds its target, the department will identify the factors driving that success and see if it can export them to other schools. If it fails to meet it, the department will review its teaching practices and look at whether the school’s money might be better spent.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the system needed to shoulder the burden to get students to meet benchmarks.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the system needed to shoulder the burden to get students to meet benchmarks. Credit:Kate Geraghty

The achievement benchmarks drew fire when they were first described to principals as stretch targets, so they have been rebadged as “zones of aspiration” in HSC and NAPLAN, student growth, phonics, attendance, wellbeing, Aboriginal education and post-school pathways.

Department secretary Mark Scott said each school’s target was determined by looking at how its data compares with 40 statistically-similar schools, then discussing that particular school’s challenges with the principal.

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“The schools agree to their targets,” Mr Scott said in a recent interview with consultancy McKinsey & Company. “There can be some healthy debate and discussion.”

The department already keeps the attendance, HSC and NAPLAN data that it will use to measure school performance. Primary schools will be set targets for achievement in the year 1 phonics check, which becomes compulsory from next year.

The wellbeing target will be measured by a bi-yearly survey known as Tell Them From Me, which looks at students’ sense of belonging, their relationships with teachers and peers, and their experiences of bullying.

Pathways targets will be based on data to be collected from next year showing whether students are studying, working or unemployed five years after they leave school.

The head of the Secondary Principals Council, Craig Petersen, said school leaders have been told that the policy is intended to ensure the department shoulders more responsibility for supporting schools.

“Previously, if I wasn’t meeting my literacy targets, it was my responsibility,” Mr Petersen said. “What’s being proposed, is now the department is saying [to its own executives], what are you doing to support that school? Right up to the secretary, is what’s been explained to us.

“If that’s what happens, and it’s a supportive process, then there’s merit in that.”

Principals have already been discussing targets with their regional directors. “Some are happy, some think they can do better, others are saying we’ve got such a high level of disadvantage, even the lower level of aspiration will be very challenging for us,” Mr Petersen said.

However, Mr Petersen had reservations about some of the data that will be used for the measurements. “Some schools find Tell them From Me to be of great value,” he said. “But particularly in secondary schools, we find the completion rate too varied.

“We’re concerned it is not yet fit for purpose, particularly if you are going to mandate it as a target-setting tool.”

Robyn Evans, the president of the Primary Principals Association, said most schools were already striving to excel.

“To make that announcement at this time of year is a tricky one, but that’s our job, that’s our role,” she said. “We have expert teachers in our schools, and we will deliver. Principals are striving for that continually.”

In 2012, the Coalition introduced Local Schools, Local Decisions to allow principals to make financial and educational choices that best suited their students. It also axed support staff within the department who travelled to schools to provide help.

The government has admitted the decision had “unintended consequences”, such as making it harder to centrally track increasing amounts of Gonski money, and hindering its ability to intervene when schools struggled.

The School Success Model will replace Local Schools, Local Decisions.

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