No evidence of hurry to follow Gonski advice on research body

03 December 2019 | The Canberra Times

The Commonwealth received the Gonski Review to Achieve Education Excellence in Australian Schools in April 2018 and accepted one of its key recommendations to establish an ‘evidence institute’ to “coordinate the strategic development of national research and evidence … to improve student outcomes.”

Eighteen months later, we are still waiting for details.

Despite the ‘evidence institute’ enjoying bipartisan support and being included in the National School Reform Agreement signed by all states and territories and operational since the beginning of this year, nothing has happened.

We still do not know exactly what the institute will do, who will run it, its governance, whether it is a wholly Commonwealth body or one of those bureaucratic federal-state ones. Nor do we have any idea of its budget, who pays what and for how long. Nor how any of its proposals will make it to the classroom.

What has the Commonwealth and its Department of Education been doing?

The sole observable action appears to be what can only be described as a furtive review established in August to “identify options for, and make recommendations on, the most effective and efficient institutional and governance arrangements which will support implementation of the eight national policy initiatives in the National School Reform Agreement.” – one of which as highlighted, includes, “an independent national evidence institute.”

The crucial question is exactly where will the new ‘evidence institute’ fit into existing “national architecture for schooling in Australia” and its functions?.

That architecture currently involves the joint federal-state Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the wholly-owned Commonwealth Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and the commercial Education Services Australia (ESA).

There is currently much jockeying between these existing institutional players as to whom might earn the ‘evidence institute’ prize and the resources and potential influence it promises to bring.

Moreover, unlike the many other reviews into education past and present, this review into the national school architecture is plagued by some peculiarities.

First, it is being made under the auspices of the Education Council (a collection of Commonwealth and state and territory education ministers) rather than the Federal Education Minister — which seems odd, given the federal origin of the Gonski Review into Education Excellence, its proposal for an evidence institute and that the Commonwealth will probably end up paying most of its costs.

Second, its establishment was not accompanied by any public statement by the Education Council or ministerial press release concerning its terms of reference or membership. Outside the formal Commonwealth-state education bureaucratic machinery, key parts of the education community knew nothing or little about the review. So much for stakeholder consultation.

Third, the review is being conducted by a former Queensland senior public servant with seemingly no direct administrative or policy experience in education. Notwithstanding the possible benefits of the appointee’s lack of education baggage, and substantial legal expertise which may be more pertinent in resolving the existing complex institutional governance arrangements and those concerning the evidence institute,  it is still puzzling that a review of this magnitude is conducted by an education ‘outsider’.

The review is expected to be discussed at the forthcoming Education Council meeting on 6 December, but it’s not clear there a great deal of information about the actual roles of the evidence institute.

Although some key stakeholders — including those in the non-government sector — were consulted by the review once it had been established, most have not been informed about its final recommendations.

So, given the subsequent necessary processing of its recommendations by federal, state and territory education ministers at the Education Council in December and then consultations with their respective governments, as well as eventually with others — do not expect the evidence institute to be operational for some considerable time yet.

Things move slowly in education; after all it is merely our children’s future at stake!.

It could all be for naught anyway. There is precedent for recent national reviews on the national school architecture largely being ignored, sidelined and subverted.

We’ve seen the Nous group’s 2014 report on “Future arrangements for national education entities,” the 2015 review of ACARA, and the 2015 Functional and Efficiency Review of the Commonwealth Education Department.

More recently, the Productivity Commission’s report on the national education evidence base was released in 2017, canvassing possible institutional arrangements to develop, collect, hold and distribute data and evidence to improve student outcomes. A revised ACARA was recommended. The Commonwealth gave no official response to the report.

We have also been here before. A similar national body — the Education Research Development Committee (ERDC) — was established by the Gorton Coalition Government in 1970 to “advise on priorities in education research,” and to allocate research funding. It was abolished by the Fraser Coalition Government in 1981 as part of its razor gang exercise.

To avoid history repeating itself, and to avoid further disappointment, there is a need to articulate how this new, possibly Canberra-based, ‘evidence institute’ will actually have any impact.

Research in education — unlike what many consider is the case in medicine and science — is not always conclusive. Its cause and effect are less direct, the quality of evidence highly variable, and proposals more hotly contested as personal, organisational and ideological positions and vested interests shout loudly to impede implementation.

Also, our school systems are almost completely controlled by state and territory governments, staffed by a union-dominated profession with teachers trained by faculties of education — all of which have at different times shown resistance to the abundance of quality evidence already available.

Sound evidence is readily found on issues ranging from class sizes, reading instruction, classroom structures, school and principal leadership and autonomy, through to testing, transparency and homework. One just needs to look.

How the new institute will overcome this problem is unclear.

Regardless of the form it eventually takes, the institute’s research will probably be accused of bias, its recommendations inevitably compromised, and — even if useful proposals are developed — implementation will be thwarted at many levels and take many years to have any impact on outcomes.

With the reputed costs of the institute to be $100-200 million, one could be forgiven for lamenting another expensive window-dressing exercise to persuade the sector and the community that something is being done to address our nation’s education decline.

And to add to the confusion, the New South Wales Association of Independent Schools just announced a new AISNSW Evidence Institute to do education research – not to be mistaken for the AISNSW Institute launched in October 2015 to perform a similar task (which then became defunct).

And when it comes to the matter of education research, just what is it our universities do again…?

 Scott Prasser is a Senior Research Fellow in the Education Program at the Centre for Independent Studies. He was formerly Senior Adviser to two federal Education Ministers and has written extensively on royal commissions and public inquiries.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email