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Shining a Light on Australia’s Public Education System


Monday, 2nd October 2017 at 8:51 am
Lina Caneva, Editor
A passion for looking at policy issues through a social justice lens and a desire to shine a light on the great work of the public education system has led David Hetherington to take on a new leadership role with the Public Education Foundation. He is this week’s Changemaker.


Monday, 2nd October 2017
at 8:51 am
Lina Caneva, Editor


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Shining a Light on Australia’s Public Education System
Monday, 2nd October 2017 at 8:51 am

A passion for looking at policy issues through a social justice lens and a desire to shine a light on the great work of the public education system has led David Hetherington to take on a new leadership role with the Public Education Foundation. He is this week’s Changemaker.

The Public Education Foundation was established 10 years ago as a way of supporting public schools through scholarships and awards and it is supported by the NSW Department of Education.

It works in collaboration with schools, communities, individuals, the private sector and government agencies to help students achieve their full potential and acknowledge teaching and learning excellence in the public education system.  

It’s new executive director is Hetherington. He spent 10 years as the founding executive director of the progressive think tank Per Capita, and has also worked at the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research and with LEK Consulting in Sydney, Munich and Auckland.  

Hetherington has authored more than 100 reports, book chapters and opinion pieces on a wide range of economic and social policy issues. He has two children at NSW public schools. In his new role at the foundation he hopes to shine a light on Australia’s public education system. He is this week’s Changemaker.

David HetheringtonWhat attracted you to the Public Education Foundation?

I believe profoundly in the value of public education in its value to students, but also its wider value to our communities and our country. A strong public education system makes for a prosperous, fair country. I also feel that public education benefits from strong voices. Other education sectors have well-organised and well-resourced voices that champion their activities and I think public education deserves the same.

Where did you grow up and what was your own schooling like?

I grew up in middle ring suburbs in Sydney in Chatswood – a very typical suburban middle class up-bringing at a public primary school. I spent a bit of time in Wollongong, but Sydney has been my home primarily. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Sydney Grammar School at the start of high school but at the end of year eight my parents announced that the family was going to live in the Philippines. So I finished my high school at an international school in Manila. 

I had been doing quite well as a competitive swimmer and I was lucky enough to get accepted into the University of California at Berkeley, for both swimming and academics, where I spent my first couple of years of university. I finished my degree in arts with majors in history and political science at University of New South Wales. My studies didn’t end there. Later on, mid-career, I went to London School of Economics and did a Masters in Public Administration.

You’ve spent a good deal of your career involved with social policy. What’s the main attraction to this area of work?

For the first part of my career I was a management consultant for one of the big strategy firms. But I was conscious that I was applying my abilities in an area where many other capable people were trying to help businesses perform better. As I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, I felt I could apply whatever talents I had, better and more purposefully in the public policy space. That’s when I had a mid-career change and went off to London School of Economics. I then worked in a think-tank in London. Here I looked at a lot of important social policy issues through a social justice lens. Since then that has been my primary passion.

You established a successful public policy think-tank with Per Capita. What’s prompted you to join the Public Education Foundation?

Really, the success of Per Capita has allowed me to think that I contributed to creating something important and valuable. I’ve enjoyed the process of building a not-for-profit social change organisation from scratch and through its early formative years. I wanted a new set of challenges and the Public Education Foundation combines two different kinds of challenges. One, a focus on a space that is very important to me, public schooling. But also the foundation is coming out of its early year start-up phase and it has the opportunity to leap to a new level and I want to be part of that journey.

What do you think are the key challenges facing the education sector generally in Australia?

The obvious one that is eternally revisited is funding. All our public spending on essential services like education is under funding pressure constantly. That is a debate that never goes away and we’re going to have to remain vigilant on an ongoing basis. But there are other important things going on in public education that aren’t necessarily funding-related.

Australia has been slowly sliding down the scale of international performance, from a very high level, admittedly. But each time these big PISA scores come out we find that, on the basis of test scores, we’re falling back. It’s not the only way you measure school performance or the contribution of an education system, but it is an important measure. And so understanding that, and contributing to a wider movement of organisations and people who want to turn that around, is important.

Another thing that I am conscious of is that there are families out there that rely on the public education system for whatever opportunities they are going to have presented to them in life. Public education is the springboard for a child that grows up in a disadvantaged family, in a family with no working parent. It’s the public education system that has to provide that kid with a platform to go on and do great things in whatever area they choose. It is important for that child and for us as a community to ensure that everyone has access to a great public school. It’s important to ensure that that child can continue to contribute to the prosperity that Australia has enjoyed for a long period, but that we certainly can’t take for granted.

What are the current challenges your organisation faces?

One would be the challenge of championing and advocating for public education in a public debate that can be quite febrile and contested and in which there are voices that talk down public education. We don’t see the world that way, and we want to be shining a light on the great work of the public education system.

A more practical challenge is simply getting the word out about the scholarship activity that we undertake, letting people know that there is half a million dollars or more that we have available each year to support deserving students and educators. But getting that message into every one of the thousands of public schools in Australia is challenging and we are always thinking about how to do it better.

As new executive director of the foundation what do you hope to achieve first in the short-term and then the longer-term?

In the short-term I’d like to be a successful custodian of the core strengths of what the foundation has already built. I’m conscious that I’m arriving on the back of the outstanding work of many people: the founding board group and the staff group. We have a thriving scholarships program that provides real difference, real opportunity to hundreds of students but also teachers and principals. I want to see that continue to thrive and grow.

But I think there is an interesting opportunity to add some initiatives alongside that. It is very early days for me. We are in the process of asking the staff team and the board what those new initiatives should be. But I can see potential roles in advocacy, in research, in sharing best practice and innovation. The foundation could act as a broker or a catalyst or a platform for many of the different players in the education sector to come together to invest, to share, to build together in a very collaborative way. I think there are creative combinations out there that I would be keen to pursue in my time as executive director.

What does your work day look like?

There is really no such thing as a normal work day. Every work day is genuinely different. A share of my time is spent focusing internally on the management of a small not-for-profit organisation. I work with my colleagues to keep the train on the tracks. And the other significant part is talking to external stakeholders, existing supporters, potential supporters who are interested in public education. It’s fascinating to encounter a real range of parties who believe they have a stake in the success of the system and to explore our common interests.

How do you find time for yourself?

I have worked in the not-for-profit sector for many years now and one of the things that you learn is that resources are scarce and demands are many and you have to be well-organised with your time and you have to accept that you and others around you lead busy lives both professionally and personally and you have to be quite disciplined in ensuring that you keep your reserves tapped up.

So, I make a point of finding time to read, I make a point of carving out time to spend with my children on their education and on their personal activities and I try and travel a couple of times a year to extend my own horizons.

Do you have a favourite saying?

I’m tempted to say something from a Rolling Stones song, but I think more profoundly I was taken by a saying I was reminded of recently that originally comes from Nelson Mandela but was amplified again very recently by Barack Obama: “People must learn to hate – they can be taught to love because love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite”.

I think in the context of a very challenging world environment at the moment it’s worth keeping in mind quite simple precepts like that.


Lina Caneva  |  Editor |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and Editor of Pro Bono Australia News since it was founded in 2000.

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