CEO reflection

When I first took on the leadership role at VicSRC, student voice, agency and participation was more of an idea than a practice and much of my role as an advocate was to remind the decision makers at the table the importance of including students.

A women in a pink blazer stands in front of greenery. She is looking off to the side with a thoughtful and slightly mischievous smile.

VicSRC is the only independent, student-led, education-based advocacy organisation in Australia and operates with a unique governance model where students lead the organisations supported by an adult Board of Trustees and staff team. When I first took on the leadership role at VicSRC, student voice, agency and participation was more of an idea than a practice and much of my role as an advocate was to remind the decision makers at the table the importance of including students.

Over half a decade later, VicSRC supports students to be involved in decision making at every level of education, including representation on all key education advisory and reference groups. And I am by no means the only advocate in the room for student voice.

This is successful collective impact. 

After nearly seven years at VicSRC and nearly six as Chief Executive Officer, I am stepping away from this amazing organisation.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with some of the most creative, passionate, and dedicated young people (and “older” young people as we refer to ourselves) on the Student Executive Advisory Committee, the Board of Trustees and the staff team.

I have learned so much about leadership, governance, advocacy, and education during my time at VicSRC that will influence the rest of my career and I’d like to share three of these learnings.

1. Authentic collaboration is hard. But necessary for good governance and long-lasting change.

Collaboration is a word that is bandied around when we talk about creating change but what does it mean to collaborate effectively? In my experience, the most effective collaborations are when everyone involved understands what they bring to the table. Authentic collaboration can only happen when everyone is willing to accept that they do not have all the answers and that the solution can not be reached unless everyone brings their own expertise into the equation.

It has been challenging to get to the point where I feel comfortable to say; “I don’t know, what’s your understanding or opinion about this topic?”. My own ego and the pressure to know everything is unrealistic and a barrier to collaborative decision-making. My role as a leader is to create space and opportunity to bring diverse perspectives, experiences, and ideas to the table and facilitate rich discussion and debate – not to have all the answers.

2. Good relationships are an enabling factor to doing almost everything well. 

During my time at VicSRC, I have prioritised developing relationships with students, staff, the Board, volunteers, teachers, parents, policy makers, educators, advocates, and others who care about education. I have made time to talk to people to understand the who, the what, and the why. I have learned about their lives, their own experiences in education, their motivations, and they have learned about mine. Sharing stories creates trust and trust enables honest and authentic relationships.

It is through these honest and authentic relationships that I’ve found opportunities to influence, and be influenced by, ideas and ways of thinking. I’ve found myself in difficult conversations and disagreements but the mutual trust in the relationship has always enabled a positive way forward. 

3. We need to be creative, bold, and courageous to create an education system that works for all children and young people.

We MUST empower children and young people to develop ideas and solutions to make education work for EVERYONE. The adults have had their chance for the past 150 years and we have not delivered.

Creativity means looking above and beyond. It’s about the “what ifs” and the “let’s imagine” not the “because research says” or “that’s how it has to happen”. The system doesn’t create enough space for creativity or value it in adult or student leadership which means we will only ever go so far.

If adult experts and decision-makers can work in collaboration with students to explore their ideas for positive change in education and be brave enough to lead from behind, we can achieve education reform in Victoria.

As I move on to the next phase in my career, my key advice to the education sector is:

  • Be brave and bold.

  • Recognise and use all the expertise.

  • Collaborate early and often.

VicSRC is a remarkable organisation. It was before I arrived, and it will be long after. I feel incredibly proud to have led it through some notable achievements, including establishing VicSRC as an independent not-for-profit and establishing a uniquely student-led governance structure, helping to position VicSRC as a thought leader in student voice, agency, and participation, and solidifying VicSRC’s influence in Victorian education decision making.

I am excited to see what the next chapter holds for VicSRC and student voice, agency and participation, and I extend my thanks and gratitude to everyone I have worked with over the years for their support and friendship.

About the author

Nina Laitala CEO VicSRC