From his first job as a teacher in a remote Indigenous classroom to the helm of one of the Queensland’s biggest employers, Dr Jim Watterston brings more than 30 years’ experience across all levels of education as Director-General of the Department of Education, Training and Employment.

From building blocks of knowledge with Year Ones, teaching science and overseeing results as a principal and regional director, he has led a suite of significant reforms to make schools better through senior executive positions including Deputy Secretary of the School Education Group in Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and Director-General of the Department of Education and Training in the Australian Capital Territory.

Dr Jim Watterston has also had a long-running involvement in the Australian Rules football industry with past positions including President of the West Australian Swan Districts Football Club, Chairman of the WAFL (West Australian Football League) Council of Presidents and most recently on the AFL Victoria Board of Directors.

Improving Australia’s plateaued school system post the pandemic: A catalyst for change or a retreat to the safety of the past?

The continuing impact of COVID-19 on schools and school systems around the world, and more particularly in Australia, has (to paraphrase Mark Twain) been the best of times and the worst of times.

Teachers have been lauded for their front-line leadership capacity and innovation that has resulted in an unplanned pivot from face to face classroom-based learning to external and predominantly virtual learning located in the home. While the professionalism and extended commitment of teachers been recognised across the country, the outcomes for students have been mixed at best.

What is remarkable however, is that almost all teachers and schools have been able to collectively change, almost overnight, the way they have traditionally taught students. It was immediately evident to all that it was the right thing to do, so without complaint or months of consultation, everyone just went ahead and created solutions on the run.

In a post-COVID world, would it be possible to use this newfound momentum and capacity for change to address the endemic and prevailing problems with our education systems? Could the proactivity and grass-roots leadership of teachers across the nation during COVID-19 be a catalyst for much needed educational reforms that were identified long before the pandemic or will we all retreat to the safety of the past once this challenge has been overcome?

We are scrambling to adjust school-based curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to take into account the realities of a turbulent world rapidly transitioning based upon the advent of artificial intelligence, robotics and digital process automation. With a growing anxiety and deep concern about the impacts of climate change, existential health concerns and geo-political destabilisation, many are questioning whether our Australian school systems are providing the contemporary preparation essential for our next generations and indeed, to sustain Australia’s economy and our place in the world. It could be a case of now or never!

This presentation provides an overview of the current state of education in Australia, focussing briefly from a national perspective on the performance evidence, organisational constraints and, most importantly, the post-COVID-19 opportunities potentially available to all schools and school systems in order significantly enhance the lives of our young people as they go forward into a globalised and continually uncertain world.