Campaign method keeps local issues from spiralling

Federation’s Delegates Conference offered a workshop that focused on organising around local issues and problems to develop the skills, strengths and capabilities of our on-the-ground activists.

In their book What Makes a Good School?, Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro described school culture as “the way we do things around here” and identified “shared purpose and commitment”, “high morale”, “expectations and standards” and “relationships of trust and respect between all the players” as vital elements of a school’s culture.

To contribute to a positive school culture, Federation Workplace Committees must be transparent in their actions, embrace the collective knowledge and experience of colleagues, and promote and support collegiality and professional dialogue when dealing with problems or issues inside the school gate.

The “spiral approach” to organising has been developed from a method used in popular education and trade union training that foregrounds learning and collective decision-making. The process involves:

  • defining the problem based on the experience and knowledge of colleagues
  • adding new information in the form of Department and Federation policy, procedures and advice
  • assessing the level of engagement in the school community
  • considering the full range of possible actions
  • committing to a considered course of action
  • reflecting on the action taken and its outcomes.

Participants were organised into mock workplace committees and given a detailed case study. They then worked through the spiral approach together, making critical, collective decisions about what to do next.

“Issues raised in schools can be very complicated and it’s not always clear where to start or how to proceed,” said Nick Benson, the Federation Representative at Randwick Boys High School. “The spiral approach enables a considered and coordinated response from a committee.”

Defining the problem

Brett Lynch, a Federation Workplace Committee member at Waratah Public School, appreciated the way the process encouraged committees to start with the experiences and knowledge of colleagues “to tease out the real issues and become solutions focused”.

“The collective wisdom of all participants works to identify the issues and find workable solutions,” Mr Lynch said.

Federation Representative at Bangor Public School Denise Alexander believed it was important for committees to have a scaffolded approach that helps members move from their grievance or issue to solutions.

“Many people grumble about issues but can’t define what the real problem or issue is, or they don’t know what the solution could be,” Ms Alexander said. “This approach helps people work together as a team to achieve an outcome that is satisfactory for all stakeholders.”

Add new knowledge

Thoroughly defining the problem is critical. This requires committees to size-up the problem or issue against Department policies and procedures and Federation’s policy and advice.

“Defining the actual problem against policy and procedures” rather than “just approaching it as something people don’t like” was a key message for Mat Cambey, Federation Representative at Blayney High School.

Policies and procedures help regulate our work and use of resources. Many problems and issues emerge in schools when there is a gap between the policy and practice. Kellie Griffin, from Hunter Sports High School, valued this “exposure to DEC policies and documents” and learning how to use them “as a new Fed Rep”.

“It enables the Workplace Committee to approach potential whole-school issues with purpose and clear direction,” Ms Griffin said.

Assess the level of engagement

Workshop participants were given additional information about the level of engagement at the fictional school depicted in the case study. Considering whether a problem or issue is felt “widely and deeply” helps determine the level of support and informs the next step.

Learning to assess the level of engagement in a school was a key outcome for Trish Scott, Federation Representative at Beresfield Public School. The willingness of teachers to express professional views or concerns can vary from school to school, across a school, and even within a stage or faculty.

“I am now reflecting on my staff’s level of engagement. Is it what I think it is?” Ms Scott said.

Strategise and plan for ‘considered action’

There is usually more than one thing that members can do when addressing a problem or issue, but not all possible courses of action are necessarily wise or effective. Committees need to exhaust all reasonable avenues to have a matter resolved, and action should be informed by the policies and procedures that are relevant to the problem at hand.

Federation Representative at Passfield Park School Jenni Kell-McCue thought the cyclic approach was good for building engagement and support on an issue. “Small steps can be good and result in action,” she said.

Reflect on the process

There are four questions a Federation Workplace Committee should consider at the end of each cycle when organising around local problems and issues: What was the outcome? As individuals, what did we learn and how have we developed? Are we better organised as a committee, and a school, of Federation members? What’s next?

Federation Representative at Liverpool Public School Martina Baranowski identified the importance of “ensuring there is engagement in the issue to drive action”.

“It is an organised and systematic approach to identifying issues, problem solving and taking action,” she said. “I feel I can effectively apply this approach in a variety of situations in my school. I’ve walked away with more tools in my Fed Rep kit.”

Emma Craswell, Federation Representative at Gunnedah Public School, said the approach modelled “the system of problem solving we would like to see from those above us” in the public school system. She said that requires everyone to be transparent about a problem, and then educating, consulting, acting and reflecting together.

Michael de Wall City Organiser
Kelly Anderson Country Organiser