Public confidence in Australian school education may be low, but no one could complain about a shortage of official reviews and reports.
High-powered panels and prominent figures continue to produce lengthy publications recommending various strategies to achieve one mighty goal: improve the academic performance of students.
The long list includes the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools (Gonski 2.0), the Independent Review into Rural, Regional and Remote Education and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015.
From the start of this year, all states and territories have signed up to a National School Reform Agreement that has the overarching objective of ensuring that Australian schooling provides a high quality and equitable education for all students. That Agreement will expire on 31 December 2023.
Success will depend on what the Agreement refers to as ‘the long-standing practice of collaboration between all governments to deliver school education reform’.
But wait, there’s more! One of the most important — albeit most abstract — documents guiding Australian school education since 2008 is also being reviewed.
The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, signed by all education ministers serving at the time, has steered the development of the Australian Curriculum and other reforms. It followed the Hobart Declaration (1989) and the Adelaide Declaration (1999).
All these national frameworks have stressed the importance of collaboration. As the Hobart Declaration put it, working together “to enhance Australian schooling” would be the key to success.
But collaboration isn’t easy in a federal system where each jurisdiction has separate responsibility for schools, teachers, curriculum, assessment, student credentials … and so on. There are still far more differences than areas of common practice. Notwithstanding the flexibility states and territories need to do their best work for their own schools and students, this is not leading to the best results.
As ministers consider the review documents landing on their desks, collaboration should be at the very top of the subsequent list of action items. They should insist on an honest assessment of the cost and benefits of education between 1989 and 2019 — particularly as seen through the lens of national agreement and the goals of the three documents.
If nothing else, better collaboration would set a great example to young Australians. After all, isn’t this one of the exciting new 21st century skills they are supposed to be learning?
Ministers would be wise to tread cautiously with regard to all proposals for solutions. Australian education has been all too vulnerable in the past to a range of fads and trends, much of which explains the challenges we face now.
It would be good to think that 30 years of talking about teamwork won’t be wasted.
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