Let's get to know David Hetherington a bit better.
Tell me about where you grew up and your schooling?
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. At high school I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Sydney Grammar School at the start of high school but at the end of year 8 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 a 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 important social policy issues through a social justice lens. Since then that has been my primary passion.
You’ve established a successful public policy think-tank with Per Capita. What’s prompted you to change course slightly and 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 non-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 in this country?
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.
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.