Education chief an open book on SA public schools

In his first sit down interview in the job, Education Department chief Martin Westwell tackles storms, school culture, Year 12 exam controversies and high school fight videos.

Nov 18, 2022, updated Nov 18, 2022
Prof Martin Westwell at Brighton Primary School. Photo: supplied

Prof Martin Westwell at Brighton Primary School. Photo: supplied

It’s been a long week in education for Professor Martin Westwell after storms battered power networks and shut down more than 40 of the state’s 510 public schools and 380 pre-schools under his watch.

Public schools are being battered on other fronts, with media focus on videos of students fighting at Golden Grove High School over the past few months.

And then it was revealed that some Year 12 students were using a literacy app during their English Literature exams last week.

Westwell is measured and open as he talks about leading the response. He comes with four years’ experience heading the SA Certificate of Education board responsible for Year 12 examinations before becoming Education Department CEO in April this year.

He doesn’t believe English Literature students using the Grammarly tool will be advantaged, saying the exam focused more on assessing deeper learnings than an ability to spell long words.

“It shouldn’t have happened, I understand students have a sense of unfairness but when you drill into it no one will be adversely affected or disadvantaged,” he says.

As for Golden Grove High School and public dismay over videos emerging of students fighting in its school yard, there is a broader issue  Westwell is keen to address.

“When I go to Golden Grove and talk to the students, they say what’s being seen on social media or read in the press is not reflective of the school overall,” he says, adding that work is underway to build a more positive culture.

Westwell says any incidents of violence or bad behaviour are unacceptable but that a growing disconnect among the state’s 176,800 government school students more broadly is the greater worry.

A problem exacerbated by students being stuck home during COVID, of missing important interactions with students and teachers, and an underlying general global decline in young people feeling a sense of belonging.

He cites an international comparison of 15-year-olds around the world by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that showed students’ sense of belonging to a school had fallen over the past 20 years.

“When COVID started early on people around the world were talking about the loss of learning, talking about the number of school hours kids had missed,” Westwell says.

“But the thing we didn’t talk about so much was the loss for learners in their connection to school, their connection to each other, their connection to teachers.

“Then what we started to see was the results. At the lowest level principals reported more litter in schools, the kids were less proud of their schools.

“One principal said the bell would go at recess and some kids would stay out at the end of lunch. When one principal went out to say come inside, a student asked ‘Why? We have a different teacher each day, we are not really doing anything interesting at school’.

“It wasn’t about the number of hours, kids started disconnecting from each other and once we are disconnected it is easier to be a bit meaner as well.”

When young people rely on social media to connect rather than through human interaction at school it creates another set of problems, with  Westwell saying this again makes it easier to be mean to each other online.

He is determined to make a positive impact on building a greater sense of belonging for the state’s young people.

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He is passionate about public education and thinks South Australia has one of the best offerings in the world, the drawcard that led to him moving to South Australia from England with his family in 2007.

His two sons attended public schools and are now following their own passions – one supporting children with autism and the other currently snowboarding in Canada.

Now Westwell sees a clear need to focus more on student wellbeing, saying: “We know some students have been impacted by COVID and we are increasingly dealing with more mental health issues.”

Work is underway to improve wellbeing networks with Premier Peter Malinauskas announcing $50 million earlier this year to employ 100 new mental health and learning support specialists for state schools.

This month, Westwell’s plan to redefine an Education Department purpose statement also started.

The first of a series of student forums was held with almost 500 students in Adelaide and more are planned in coming months in country regions including Port Lincoln, Port Augusta, Waikerie, Clare, Tintinara, Mount Gambier and APY Lands.

Other forums will hear insights from educators, along with employers and industry, the data then analysed to reinvigorate the department’s approach.

Education Department chief executive Martin Westwell at Governor’s reception. Photo: supplied.

The work in South Australia attracted international attention at the Global Educational Leadership Conference in Singapore earlier this year.

Westwell said he intends supporting a public education system that is transparent,  equitable and accepts and nurtures students of diverse backgrounds.

And he believes “it would be nice to see the same level of accountability” at Catholic and independent schools that are receiving significant amounts of taxpayer dollars.

“It’s a great strength of ours that we are inclusive regardless of who you are, where you come from, what your background is, the amount of money your parents make, abilities or disabilities, your sexual orientation, your gender identity,” he says.

“Regardless of all of those things, public education is going to serve every single kid.”

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