The autumn leaves are starting to turn in Canberra, and for Secretary of the Department of Education and Training, Dr Michele Bruniges, it can only remind her of one thing – her childhood days spent at the Festival of the Falling Leaf in Tumut.
Dr Bruniges is in charge of the team that decides Australian education policy. She has a formidable resume; climbing the ranks from classroom teacher in primary and math classrooms through to the top of the pile, and earning herself an Order of Australia in the process.
It’s a high-pressure job with innumerable challenges, and she said her country upbringing has provided her with the resilience necessary to get it all done.
“I remember bushfire season and everyone rallying to help, during fire and flood the whole community would rally to help,” she said.
“There was a strong sporting culture which for me was really teamwork based.
“It was a very connected small community, it’s grown since [she lived there]. There were lots of experiences I had that really built my character; that gave me that resilience and tenacity.”
Dr Bruniges believes that all of the positions she’s held – from Tumut High student to NSW Director-General of Education – have come together to shape her into the person she is today.
“You’re a product of what you’ve done and the experiences you’ve had,” she said.
“I’ve treasured growing up in that small community and I’ve treasured working in the big city. It’s about that diversity of experiences. It allows you to judge the consequences of your impact on all the different parts of society.”
She’s one of the lucky ones who can look back happily at their high school experience – indeed, to such a degree that she decided to stay in education for the rest of her life.
“I have very fond memories of Tumut High, I really enjoyed school and I enjoyed learning,” she said.
“There was that sense of community and a sense of adventure; you felt safe, you felt secure, and it was a great environment to grow up and learn in. I remember the Tumut and Adelong Times, you’d read the paper every Friday and see everyone and what they were doing.”
As for current Tumut High students, she asks that country kids don’t limit their imaginations when it comes to what they are capable of achieving.
“I would say to be really aspirational,” she said.
“Be brave, use personal courage to stretch beyond what you think you can do. Sometimes people underestimate what the future possibilities are. I never anticipated a career path where I would end up as Secretary of a Commonwealth Department!
“The policy fields are great fields to work in – in education you can do anything from working in the classroom to working on public policy internationally. I’ve been really privileged and fortunate to stay in education and training, from the classroom through to administrative and policy roles.
“Education changes people’s lives – what more can you ask for?”
Dr Michele Bruniges is the Secretary of the Australian Department of Education and Training. The department administers the Australian Government’s interests in quality early learning, schooling, higher education, international education and research, skills and training.
Prior to this, she led the NSW Department of Education, one of Australia’s largest state government departments with a workforce of over 84,000 staff and direct responsibility for over 2,200 schools.
Her qualifications include a PhD in Educational Measurement and a Masters in Education.
Dr Bruniges was recently announced as the first Australian to be appointed Chair of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Governing Board in recognition of her expertise in assessing educational outcomes based on evidence, effective data collection and analysis.