It is a testament to the energy and dedication of teachers that hundreds of them from the ACT and surrounds gave up a Saturday to attend September’s Sharing Best Practice conference in Canberra, which particularly focused on the foundational areas of literacy and numeracy.
However, it also shows that teachers are increasingly looking outside the system for answers to the problems they face. They know firsthand that the status quo isn’t good enough.
So, it’s welcome news that in June 2024, an independent inquiry – supported by the whole Legislative Assembly – will report to the ACT Government on the state of literacy and numeracy teaching in the territory’s schools.
With such an opportunity, it’s critical that the inquiry’s coming terms of reference (TOR) accurately recognise the problems and then provide solutions for them.
First, it must be acknowledged that the annual reporting of NAPLAN scores is in terms of mean scale score which, when turned into a ranking of the states and territories, puts the ACT on top. But this is misleading when only 13% of ACT government school students are classified as having low socio-educational advantage, compared to the Australian average of 31%.
Second, lack of funding — despite the constant refrain from vested interests — is not the problem; the ACT is the jurisdiction to have fully-funded government schools in accordance with the Schooling Resource Standard.
Despite being better funded and less disadvantaged than other states and territories, analysis from multiple sources shows ACT students are performing below peers in similar schools elsewhere.
This is not a revelation to the government. It was precisely observed in an ACT Education Directorate-commissioned report in 2016 and then a report from the Auditor-General in 2017.
So, it is clear why there must be an inquiry into what exactly is causing results that are far below the ACT’s capacity to deliver. The exact nature of the inquiry is yet to be confirmed, but it’s vital to get the terms of reference right, to avoid simply restating the problem — which has been known to policymakers for years.
The final report must generate new findings that explain what has gone wrong and make real recommendations to fix the problems. This has implications for the TOR.
The terms should specify that the review investigate two specific areas: the practice within schools and classrooms; and the relationship between individual schools and the ACT Education Directorate.
For a start, what is happening in schools and classrooms? What teaching methods are being used in the classroom? What is informing the decisions of teachers and schools to implement some methods rather than others? Do these methods align with what is supported by the best empirical evidence? This should entail visits to schools, observations, and discussions with staff.
Another facet of this is to use school and student-level data to focus on schools that are delivering great outcomes for their students, regardless of their demographics and student intake. By exploring their practice and finding out what they are doing right, the inquiry can shine a spotlight on them, so other schools and the system can learn from them — and help good practice spread.
The second key area of focus is the relationship between the Directorate and individual schools.
How well are schools supported by the system to teach in a way that aligns with the best evidence? Can the system do more to make the complex and detailed curriculum at all year levels into classroom-ready materials? What happens if students are not making progress… are schools given additional support and guidance as to how to help these students succeed? Or are they being left to figure out solutions on their own?
Finally, while the review should consider matters of social equity and student welfare — as they are concerns for schools and systems — questions must be asked about how these matters are prioritised relative to high-quality teaching and learning practices.
Schools cannot do everything for their students, and teachers are not social workers or psychologists. What work are schools doing currently and is this being done by appropriately qualified staff? Is this work best done by schools, or do other community services have greater capacity to assist students and families?
Teachers are, by and large, committed to better student outcomes, and believe education shouldn’t be a lottery; each student deserves to leave school proficient in the skills that are foundational to future success.
If the ACT government truly values educational equity and a high-performing public education system, they will do more to support schools and teachers to deliver excellence for every student.
Trisha Jha is an education Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.