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100 Women of Influence: Michele Bruniges
02 October 2014
When the NSW Secretary of the Department of Education and Communities Michele Bruniges (pictured above) was a young teacher at Leppington Public School, she remembers her female principal, Miss Allen, asking her if she cared about the children in her classroom… and the ones in the classroom next door… and those down the road at Bringelly Public School?
Michele’s emphatic answer was: “Of course, Miss Allen, of course.”
The next words Miss Allen said to her continue to resonate with Michele: “You get out there and use that educational voice to influence education as far as you can.”
“Her encouragement,” Michele acknowledges, “spurred me on to take personal and professional risks outside my own comfort zone. To be brave enough and have the professional courage to take on roles where I didn’t know ‘all the bits’.
“She was also ahead of her time when it came to removing obstacles to employment and creating a flexible workplace,” continues Michele, who remembers returning to work when her daughter was six-weeks old.
“I’d bring her in to the classroom in a bassinette and put her in the back of the class until 9.30am when one of the school’s auxiliary staff, who was my babysitter, would come and take her for the day. She’d then bring her back at 2.30pm and deposit her at the back of the classroom.
“It wouldn’t happen nowadays with Work Health and Safety,” says Michele laughing.
All this is why, when Michele’s appointment to the role of NSW Director-General of the Department of Education and Communities was announced in 2011, she distinctly remembers jumping to take one particular phone call of congratulations.
It was from Betty Allen.
“She [Betty Allen] had been watching me for all those years. She’d recognised I was hungry to learn and do more. I think what she recognised even before I did was my passion for education and desire to give back to a system that had given me so much.
“That opportunity to contribute back has been key for me in my career,” Michele says, explaining her deliberate choice to remain within the education system and to pursue public service.
Thinking through the work she has done, Michele counts developing and putting in place a needs-based funding model for education in NSW as her career’s crowning, most effective achievement.
One of the fundamental issues facing education at a national level, she believes, is sorting out roles and responsibilities for funding and for who does what across the continuum from early childhood learning to higher education. The process of sorting out those roles and responsibilities must be approached in a way that forces the development of better strategic alignments among stakeholders to get better outcomes for students and people.
At the State level that has come down to building a robust needs-based funding model, which the department has been given the go ahead and resources to operationalise, and which Michele believes will lead the nation.
Says Michele: “The move from the current pattern of funds distribution, which was a per capita model, meant we had to have very good data, right down to the individual student level. We had to be able to mount an argument using strong evidence to demonstrate to the government where the funding needed to go to be effective. From our data we also knew that concentration of disadvantage had to be taken into account.
“The continual collection of data allows us to stay abreast of demographic and needs-based changes in school populations.”
In the learning space, the biggest issue for education is relevance and engagement. Literacy and numeracy can be measured and are important but if we fail to understand attitudes to learning and how we value that, Michele believes, we won’t be able to drive a knowledge based economy or, for that matter, knowledge into the future.
She is already at work designing a well-being framework that defines the characteristics associated around those other ‘soft wired’ areas in people, resilience and engagement for example. She sees the data being used to pinpoint where education is not meeting the needs of students and correct imbalances: “Literacy and numeracy are important but we would be negligent if we did not design and take into consideration emotional education - areas that are more intangible but matter a lot.
“I see education as an investment not a cost. Early in my career I figured out that unless you had a good handle on data you couldn’t participate in the debate. So I went and did my PhD in educational measurement. It was a steep learning curve, but I wasn’t going to sit around a table and be stymied by someone using statistics as an argument and because they had that body of knowledge, and I didn’t, it won the day.”
One of the largest organisations in Australia, the NSW Department of Education and Communities provides services in the areas of public schools, TAFE NSW, vocational education and training, early childhood education and care, Aboriginal affairs, , volunteering and youth.
The Department has an education and training operating budget of $14.4 billion and employs 100,000 staff across the state, and it puts Michele in charge of the education and safety of 756,000 students enrolled in 2218 public schools.
To be effective in that role comes down to feeling “comfortable in my own stride. In 2218 public schools there are going to be days when something will go wrong. The day I don’t have a high level of empathy for those critical incidents will signal to me it’s time to stop.
“The reality is I am there to pick up the phone and talk to the principal and ensure the relevant counselling is in place for students, parents, teachers and support staff. I always try and get out to the school. There is decency and a way of working you owe the community.
“I also make a conscious decision to deal with what matters most at any one time and give it my complete attention.
“If I’m in a meeting dealing with the National Disability Insurance Scheme or one on educational outcomes then it has my fullest attention. I try not to think about what has gone before or the meeting after. I am very clear I am here for this purpose for this amount of time, and I deal with it once, make the decisions, set direction and move to the next thing knowing that it will happen behind me.
“I used to look at pieces of paper two or three times and think, ooh, that looks a bit hard, and put it aside rather than dealing with it. Now, I ask the questions, get the answers and deal with it.”
100 Women of Influence
As the head of one of Australia's largest government departments, and one of the world's largest school and vocational education systems, it should come as no surprise that Michele Bruniges is also an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee. She topped her award category, Public Policy, in the awards’ first year, 2012.
Along with Dr Mary Foley, the head of NSW Health, the two women public servants control around half the NSW State budget between them. Michele admits, though, it’s the classroom - the relationships with children, pupils, teachers - she still misses: “It lifts my spirits, which is why I try and get out to schools as much as possible.
“I grew up in NSW and went right through its public education system to become Regional Director in Western Sydney. I knew if I wanted to do greater things in NSW I had to move away to do that. I had to expand my knowledge base, so I went to the ACT. I was there for five years and then when the position with the Commonwealth came up in early childhood learning I took it.
“It was ‘green fields’ policy. In my second week ABC learning collapsed. I learned a lot about corporate governance,” explains Michele, who went on to lead the national school reform agenda as an Associate Secretary with the Federal Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.
The roles have brought her face to face with issues outside her field of expertise and led her to complete a graduate course at the Institute of Company Directors, something she pushes colleagues to consider taking on.
“I was very uncomfortable sitting the three-hour exam. It was so confronting but wonderful once you’re through it. It’s what it’s all about in the end extending yourself; seeing things through a different set of eyes,” she finishes, but not before showing Ruby the ‘hall of fame’ photograph of educational directors the State has had since the 1880s.
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of black and white shots of men with whiskers and very few females in the line-up: “I’ll be the second woman and I’m thinking of having my shot in colour to at least inject a little modernity,” she says smiling.
For more on the 2014 100 Women of Influence, click here.
Join us to celebrate this year's Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence at the Sydney Town Hall on October 22.