Evidence will provide education solutions

It is the duty of the State to educate, and the right of the people to demand education (Edmund Barton, Prime Minister of Australia 1901-1903)

Australia’s first Prime Minister, the Honourable Edmund Barton, was an outstanding scholar, dux of Sydney Grammar School and a prize-winning graduate in classics at the University of Sydney. A passionate advocate of Federation, he told audiences that ‘For the first time in history, we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation.’ Barton supported the provision of free, compulsory education and believed that schooling should be ‘unsectarian’.

How might he view the state of education in the 21st century?

On the basis of official reports and public commentary, Barton might well observe that Australia’s youngest citizens could be better served. Surely he would marvel at the very low level of public confidence in education, relative to the extraordinarily high levels of taxpayer funding.

Today’s educational deficits are due to the absence of genuine national commitment and collaboration as well as the ongoing adoption of fads and trends in the hope of quick fixes.

A clever Australia — to channel the late former Prime Minister Bob Hawke — needs powerful nation-building philosophies and strategies. This is particularly true of education, a public good that transforms lives and societies like no other and whose success depends on the intellectual credibility and humanitarian aspirations of its champions.

Evidence of a national loss of confidence in education comes from those who defend Australia’s annual program of standardised tests for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. However flawed NAPLAN may be, they argue, it must be retained because it constitutes the only objective mechanism for measuring student performance, monitoring teacher effectiveness and providing data to parents and schools.

Given the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on school education every year, it should be easy to point to steady improvements resulting from careful investment. While there are wonderful examples of achievement and innovation around Australia, the findings are largely negative, with descriptions such as ‘stagnant’, ‘declining’, ‘lacking in rigour’ and ‘inequitable’ appearing all too often.

Not only are Australian students underperforming in the national tests of literacy and numeracy, international assessments such as PISA reveal that our secondary school students are increasingly less academically competitive with their international counterparts. Employers and tertiary institutions are concerned about the poor knowledge and skills of school leavers, too many of whom need remedial support. Teacher morale is low, reflected in part by the continued high attrition rate of early-career educators.

Many factors contribute to a respected, high-performing system of education. Some, such as student motivation, parental involvement and socio-cultural understanding and support, are more external and can be hard to gauge and grow. Others are the business of school leaders and teachers, education authorities and professional bodies, such as setting consistently high academic standards and expectations of classroom behaviour and school culture, delivering high-quality instruction, designing useful, robust assessment tasks and reporting honestly and effectively on student performance.

Under Australia’s federal model of government, the states and territories carry constitutional responsibility for the education of all children. However, in recent decades, concerns about the direction and quality of schooling have brought changes in the national education infrastructure.
National collaboration was identified as one of the key strategies for achieving the educational goals articulated in the Melbourne Declaration; the ‘roadmap’ signed by all federal and state education ministers in 2008.

In addition to a national school funding model, Australia now has a national curriculum (the Australian Curriculum, completed in 2016), a national program of standardised testing (dominated by NAPLAN) and a national reporting instrument (My School), the last three managed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Another national body, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), is responsible for the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals.

The limitations of federation are clear, however. For example, only five of the eight states and territories have adopted the Australian Curriculum in its original form, and even that applies only to students in Kindergarten to Year 10. The policies and practices applicable to students in Years 11 and 12 vary significantly across the country; there are no agreed national academic standards for school leavers and there is minimal alignment of approaches across primary and secondary levels, including teaching, assessment and reporting. It can be very difficult for students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders to grasp what success looks like at the various stages of Australian schooling.

Duplication of effort is a waste of time and money. A useful first step would be to undertake an independent, comprehensive national information audit – likely the first of its kind –to ascertain the nature, extent and effectiveness of expenditure, collaboration and innovation in Australian school education. This would provide a unique platform on which to identify successes as well as overlap, blockages and deficits. Most importantly, it would demonstrate cross-sectoral commitment to national goals.

This great country, with its small, dispersed population and limited taxpayer base, has its work cut out to design and deliver the best possible education for all young Australians. A common sense, evidence-based approach will provide the solutions to most challenges — and this should not cost the earth.