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Want to improve our education system? Stop seeking advice from far-off gurus and encourage expertise in schools

Glenn C. Savage, Associate Professor of Education Policy, The University of Western Australia, suggests that reviews of the Australian Curriculum, including comparison to the PISA rankings, are not working and are not revolutionising schools.

“Not only has Australia gone into a rapid free fall on PISA but multiple other measures of performance have stagnated or gone backwards. Roughly one in five young people in Australia do not complete year 12, intolerable gaps in outcomes persist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and the race for high ATARs (and entry to elite universities) is dominated by young people from the wealthiest backgrounds. Australia is replicating a deeply inequitable and underperforming system.”

All over the world, governments and policy makers are seeking to align schooling policies to evidence that tells us “what works”.

The primary issue with this approach is that while there might be some evidence to tell us a reform works “somewhere”, proponents often take this to mean it will work everywhere.

A report from the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) says it is clear many of today’s young children will not receive a ‘fair go’ in accessing education opportunities, for no other reasons than family background, demographic characteristics and geography.

“The staggering divide between the most and least disadvantaged areas is a sobering reminder of the level of inequality that still exists, with many children falling far behind in educational access, performance and outcomes”.

Gary Banks, former Chairman of the Productivity Commission, and now Chief Executive and Dean of of Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), states in his paper to an ANZSOG Conference: “Education not only enhances human capital, it also enhances ‘social capital’—the networks of relationships, and norms of behaviour, trust and cooperation, that enable a society to function effectively (PC 2003). An educated population will also be politically more sophisticated, have a better understanding of policy choices and be more demanding of its leaders. Education assists individuals to develop their talents, capacities, self-confidence, self-esteem and respect for others. It is therefore instrumental in helping to overcome disadvantage.”

Professor Duncan (BCEC Director) said funding is not the magic bullet in narrowing the education gap in Australia.

“To reduce inequality requires so much more in the way that teaching is delivered, the way that students are engaged, the opportunities that they have after school and the partnerships between the education sector and community and business, to make sure that aspirations are raised for all.”

Governments are necessarily involved in the education decisions and curriculum by way of funding the public and private sector.

As the funding source, various federal governments have attempted plans for uniformity across Australian schools in order to compare them and reach uniformity on starting age, portability of education from one system/state to another and a more uniform Year 12 certificate level.

While greater uniformity should bring national benefits in some areas, it can have risks in others. The fact that so much is contentious about educational system design is cause for caution. The imposition of a uniformly bad approach can turn what might have been a local problem into a national one.

Glenn Savage suggests that Australian schooling policy is being put together backwards.

What is a better way forward?

Glenn has three recommendations.

“First, Australia needs to stop listening to the loud voices of education gurus and members of the global “consultocracy” who claim to have “the answer”.

Second, we need to move beyond industrial modes of thinking that liken the work of educators to those of factory workers on a production line.

So, while it can be useful to have some external evidence and standards to inform practices, its relevance to practical and local knowledge is only partial at best.

We only really know evidence works when we see it work in specific classrooms, and what works in one class won’t work in all classes.

Instead, we should invest energy and resources to inspire local networks of evidence creation and knowledge sharing. This organic and bottom-up approach puts faith in the profession to experiment, solve problems and collaborate to create solutions in context.

Third, we need to move beyond the damaging assumption that sameness and commonality across systems and schools is the path to improvement.

Rather than approaching education reform as technicians seeking to make “the machine” work better, perhaps we should think and act more like gardeners, seeking to build the ecosystems needed for diverse things to grow and flourish.”

Education is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Neither is teaching. Read more at the links below.

The IEU continues to lobby and make submissions to government and its agencies to ensure that educators are heard. You can assist your fellow educators by introducing them to IEU membership and expanding our collective voice.