Vested interests thwart school reform - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Vested interests thwart school reform

A year into Labor’s administration, Education Minister Jason Clare has a unique opportunity to transform Australian education policy and practice — but success will depend on overcoming resistance from the sector’s vested interests, where others have often failed.

The Albanese government has not been shy in its approach to reforming industrial relations, energy markets, constitutional change, and the integrity commission, among others, while education policy comparatively has been on the backburner.

The Treasurer’s recent Budget speech dedicated no time to the investment in schooling, and while there have been no unforced errors in the portfolio, there have also not yet been any significant policies. That’s not for a shortage of reform opportunities, nor educational imperatives.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown the decline in Australian student achievement is steeper and more consistent than in any other country, outside of Finland. And while new results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) did not worsen over recent years, this is hardly a ringing endorsement for the system, given that the resources pumped into schooling in Australia are among the highest and fastest-growing in the world.

Reassuringly, the government has identified the right issues requiring its attention: namely the teacher workforce, teacher training, and school reform agreements. In turn, the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, Teacher Education Expert Panel, and a specialist panel informing a “Better and Fairer Education System” have been tasked with handing down advice to the government over the months ahead.

But will the government have the courage and ambition to act on the reform advice? To date, Clare has certainly proven the capacity to be consultative and to build consensus. But it’s likely that enacting change may require breaking, rather than making, consensus. Unfortunately, the educational establishment echo chamber has presided over the sector’s challenges in the first place — and will resist many policies aiming to ensure all children receive the best education possible.

Clare could look to Labor’s formidable legacy when last in office, when it delivered the most consequential education policy achievements for decades: NAPLAN, MySchool, and Gonski funding. These accomplishments were achieved despite significant opposition from vested interests in the sector. This determination will be needed again, as genuine reforms will require being at odds with education unions, academics, and state bureaucracies.

First, Clare must unambiguously endorse evidence-based teaching. It’s hard to ignore that Labor education ministers across the country have been uncomfortably more reluctant than their Coalition counterparts to embrace the growing movement toward science-informed teaching. Unions and academics have largely been hesitant or outright resistant on the issue.

This is holding back the much-needed scaling up of highly-effective explicit teaching. Around the world, education experts, advocates, parents, and policymakers have rallied to become more science-informed. Clare can make his mark by putting our school systems on the right side of educational history, but it won’t be welcomed by unions and academics.

Second, he will need to call out underperforming university-based teacher trainers. To improve classroom teaching practices ultimately requires starting at the source. And universities have long proven unable or unwilling to align teacher training with current evidence.

In recent years, reformers in the United States and United Kingdom have produced impressive and publicly-transparent performance reporting of teacher training providers. Those failing to meet standards have been closed or defunded — either by the hand of government or by the market. This is improving the sector in those countries, better informing consumers and employers, and helping policymakers in optimising public investment.

Clare’s predecessor, Alan Tudge, warned universities he was willing to defund underperforming programmes. Clare must show the same conviction if, almost inevitably, some remain reluctant to improve.

And third, laggard states will need to be challenged to do better.

The national school reform agreements to be concluded later this year are an important opportunity for Clare to lead. If it were ever the case that federal education ministers enjoyed only a limited remit, it no longer is.

Today, there’s appetite for national leadership (on everything including whether mobile phones belong in schools) and intergovernmental coordination of complex challenges. Sometimes it also takes distance from directly delivering schooling to provide necessary clarity.

But leadership demands being more than the cash cow for the states. Clare has implied he will impose improvement targets for states to work toward as a condition of federal funding. This is a reasonable step, but will surely face protest.

On all fronts, the government may be forced to decide between genuine reform and the interests of some of its traditional supporters. One year into the term, will the government be able to unshackle itself from vested interests to enable it to deliver transformative policy reform?

Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Max Fischer