July lead story

Farewell, John Firth

John Firth sitting at desk smiling to camera

On Friday 14 July, the VCAA bid farewell to our CEO John Firth, who entered retirement after a long and memorable career in education. John started out as a teacher at Williamstown High School in 1974. But curriculum was calling his name, and in 1986 he started at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board (VCAB). It was there that John was involved in one of the most significant revisions of the school curriculum in Victorian history – the development of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).

John’s dedication to providing Victorian students with world-class senior secondary pathways earned him the eventual appointment to General Manager Curriculum at the Board of Studies (BOS), which was established in 1993 to replace the VCAB. After BOS was replaced by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), John became Chief Executive Officer in 2005.

Since then, John has overseen many innovations that have kept Victoria at the forefront of curriculum and assessment development and says he is ‘immensely proud and privileged to have led the VCAA for the past 12 years as CEO’.

During this time John has overseen the development and implementation of the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework and its subsequent revision; the development and implementation of the Victorian Curriculum F–10; the continued development and growth in the senior secondary certificates VCE and VCAL, including VET as an integral component of both; the administration of NAPLAN in Victoria; the development of high quality classroom assessment tools through On-Demand and significant increases in the offering of the VCE internationally, especially in China.

John has worked tirelessly to form partnerships and collaborate across states and sectors, working closely with the Catholic Education Commission and Independent Schools Victoria, sister curriculum and assessment agencies around Australia and becoming a founding member of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority Board. This has meant over the past few years states have developed an increasing a sense of collaboration to tackle common issues. He has also been closely involved with senior colleagues at the Department of Education and Training as a member of the Executive Board since 2010. Reflecting on this experience, he says ‘I would particularly like to thank Gill Callister and her predecessor, Richard Bolt, for their support and leadership. I, and the VCAA, have benefited greatly from my participation in the broader governance of the Department.’ For John, the work of the VCAA in leading ‘informed discussion about what we most value for students to learn performs a critical role in a democratic society’ and doing this collaboratively and with integrity is central to the ongoing development of the Education state.

John acknowledges this would not be possible without our partnerships with schools and the teaching profession, who make up our curriculum working parties, reference groups and cohort of expert assessment setters and markers. ‘Everything we do is motivated by the commitment to providing the best possible education for Victorian students and this of course is entirely in the hands of the teachers who deliver it’, he says. ‘In all of my time at the VCAA, Board of Studies, VCAB and, going all the way back to VISE, our work has been driven by the expert input from teachers, by their feedback to drafts and by the quality of the education discussions.’

He also views one of the great advantages of working for a Statutory Authority as being ‘the advice and support provided by the Board Chairs and members’. For decades John has been attending Board and Board Committee meetings in various roles, saying ‘the expertise and experience the members provide has been critical in grounding our decisions in the perspectives of key practitioners in all school sectors, universities, the training sector and business’. John feels fortunate to have been able to work with many great Chairs, including Stuart Hamilton, Professor Peter McPhee, Professor Adam Shoemaker and Chris Wardlaw, who he says ‘have all been excellent chairs of meetings, sources of wise counsel, personal and professional support and great company. I have enjoyed working with each of them and I thank them all for their friendship and leadership.’

John also expresses thanks to the VCAA staff, calling them ‘a source of pride and inspiration’. He leaves us with gratitude and looks forward to the continuing success of our work. ‘The professionalism, dedication, sense of support and warmth of our full time staff and our army of sessional staff and volunteers is a testament to the strength of education in Victoria.’

John Firth and David Howes sitting at table smiling to camera

L to R: John Firth, retired VCAA CEO, hands over to incoming CEO, David Howes

‘Choosing to finish up such a challenging and rewarding position was difficult. There will always be new and exciting work looming for the VCAA. I am comfortable that it’s the right time for me and the VCAA. and am very pleased that we were able to run a rigorous and extensive recruitment process after I decided to finish and I am able to hand over the reins to David Howes’. John’s presence at the VCAA will be sorely missed but he is leaving the VCAA ‘in very capable hands’ with our new CEO, ‘David is an outstanding educator with a strong history here as Executive Director, Curriculum prior to his recent stint as Assistant Deputy Secretary, Schools at the Department.’

Farewell John, thank you for your hard work and lasting legacy in the development of Victoria’s education system.

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