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Three ways to fix our schooling



These days, a deluge of teachers is spilling the beans about what's wrong with Australian schooling. Their stories tell, from the inside out, of the damage that international measurement, low tertiary entrance requirements for education students, constant national testing, and the general politicisation of schooling has had on the morale of students, their teachers and principals. Indeed there is much to fix in our schools, but three factors should frame our discussion of school reform and renewal.

Cartoon comparing chaotic Australian education based on inequity with simpler Finnish education based on equity. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonFirst is inequity. Across the world, discourse about inequity and social division gathers momentum. Since at least 2009, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a peak body for international educational achievement measurement, has found that social equity and strong academic performance go together. Countries with low levels of 'social stratification', in other words low levels of inequity, have better overall educational performance.

In Australia, our levels of inequality in schooling are high. The best indicator is the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage score (ICSEA), available on the myschool website. Take for example the case of schools in my own city, Canberra. A school with a high ICSEA score is Canberra Grammar and a school with a low one is Calwell High. The former has 85 per cent of its students living in households with the highest quarter of income in the country. The latter has zero per cent.

At the other end of the income scale, Canberra Grammar has no students at all in the bottom quarter of household income compared to Calwell High with 41 per cent. Indeed, at Calwell High 71 per cent of all students come from households in the two bottom quarters of income compared to Canberra Grammar with 98 per cent from households in the two top quarters of income. Consider how these sharp differences impact the provision of equal access to learning, equal access to opportunity and equal access to learning outcomes.

Second is school structures, systemic elements that are rarely spoken about, perhaps because these structures are not apparent from outside a school. On a recent visit to two American middle schools in high performing state districts, I learned that in these jurisdictions a teacher teaches only her subject area and only a single year group, for example year eight maths. In this way she will cover one particular topic five times every day to every student in the year group.

Imagine the expertise these teachers have in their subject area and their capacity to know their students and record and address student growth! This is a stark structural difference to most Australian secondary schools where, every day, a teacher moves across year groups and sometimes across subject areas.

A third factor, not much discussed in Australia, has to do with the politicisation of education. Almost every aspect of our education policy is politicised, usually along party lines in federal and state houses of parliament, among state and territory lines in national forums, and among sector lines in public, catholic and independent school associations. Look how difficult it has been to introduce an Australian curriculum and a set of professional standards for teachers. Only an excavator on a building site would face more resistance.


"As a nation we are capable of prioritising education just as we do multiculturalism and safety."


Compare this to Finland, a world leader in schooling, where there is widespread consensus on the main pillars of education policy; in other words, bipartisan support from government. Here, policy is characterised by cooperation and continuity in a tripartite partnership among government, trade unions and employer organisations to ensure an integrated approach to policy-making. Objectives and broad lines of policy are defined at central level, but the implementation of these is the responsibility of the local level.

In Australia, we have tried to do this with the implementation of a national curriculum, hosted by Australian Curriculum And Reporting Assessment (ACARA), and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, hosted by the Australian Institute for Teachers and School Leaders (AITSL), but there has been push back from every direction, every step of the way. True, Finland is a small nation. True, it is currently more culturally homogenous than Australia. But we are still well placed to follow their lead on this.

It's not as if we can't do bipartisan policy in Australia. We can. Look at our approach to multicultural policy since 1975 when we introduced the Racial Discrimination Act as a defining pillar of national identity. As recently as 2017 the Australian government released its latest statement of commitment to multicultural policy. And we do it with gun regulation too. In both instances there is a shared understanding among political parties that it is in the interests of society as a whole to cooperate and collaborate. It is time to do the same with education policy. As a nation we are capable of prioritising education just as we do multiculturalism and safety.

If, however, we continue to foster unequal access to quality education, we might expect to see similar social divisions as those being identified across the world in Trump's America and Brexit's Britain. In an article for the New York Times David Brooks draws on the findings of a recent study of American voters, conducted by More in Common, entitled Hidden Tribes, that reports there are seven groups of voters ranging from extreme left, Progressive Activists (8 per cent), to extreme right, Devoted Conservatives (6 per cent), with five groups of moderates in between. The study shows that the views of the two extreme groups on most issues, such as immigration, are polar opposites, whereas the middle groups, the 'exhausted majority', have no narrative.

According to Brooks, the 'middle voters' have no coherent philosophical worldview to organise their thinking and compel action. He suggests that when they do, then the political paradigm may alter and be more open to positive change focusing on gifts not deficits, and the sharing of assets. Are we clever enough in Australia to reduce the inequity in our schooling in order to help our moderate voters develop a strong narrative of sensible sharing to shape our future? Or, will the inequities in our schools contribute to ever-deepening divisions?

In Australia, we are well placed to reduce these inequities. After all, our entire population is the same size of a single Chinese city, Shanghai, and we have a history of being courageous. We can increase equality of access, opportunity and learning outcomes for all of our school students if we face these inequities, examine our school systemic constraints, and adopt a bipartisan governmental approach to educational policy.

When we take education off the campaign trail and make it a bipartisan priority, then perhaps all people will have equal access to high-quality education and training. Let's make the same opportunities to education available to all citizens irrespective of school type, household income or location. A basic right to education and quality of life should be a fundamental Australian value.



Pauline GriffithsA former school principal and AITSL certified Lead Teacher, Dr Pauline Griffiths is a lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Education at the Australian Catholic University. She is a member of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL) and founder of Quality Teaching Australia.

Topic tags: Pauline Griffiths, education



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Existing comments

Removing the funding of any fee-charging schools is the only way we can "fix" the situation of inequitable schooling. Private schooling is a failed model - both from the perspective of segregation by wealth and by the other "values" that it enables: racial and religious segregation. That the private schools both shirk their share of higher needs kids and take more of the lower needs kids means they drive up the per student cost in public schools - then use that as a justification for their "efficiency" when they are a huge duplication of costs and fail to deliver any educational benefit (study after study shows this). So ending private education is the bit lever for fixing educational equity, fairness and efficiency.

Nathan | 26 October 2018  

The word limit means I cannot say as much as I would like, so let me stick to equity first. This issue is normally presented as a contrast between a government and a non-government school, the non-government school always being an elite one and the government one always being a poor one. Yet, we can make the same contrast between the well-off Balwyn Primary School and the poor Holy Rosary Primary School in Kensington. But commentators never do because the official narrative is to paint the government sector as deprived because of those publicly subsidised rich people in elite non-government schools. The public education lobby is always complaining that its schools have higher proportions of students who are disadvantaged than non-government schools have, yet, rather than present the obvious solution, it just demands that money be taken a from the non-government sectors and given to the government sector. If we want to do something about equity, we will support the non-government sector to take on more disadvantaged students not support a funding model that concentrates them in government schools, which is what the Howard/Gonski/Turnbull/Morrison SES model does.

Chris Curtis | 26 October 2018  

Finland, New Zealand and Victoria all have genuinely needs-based funding models that support a more equitable distribution of students among the different sectors, but our federal politicians seem unable to even comprehend the issue. They are fixated on Gonski and the false “needs-based”, “sector-blind” mantras that are almost universally attached to it. The principle is quite simple: low-fee schools should get more public money than high-fee schools, and no-fee (i.e., governments) schools should get the most. Instead we have a funding model that punishes low-fee schools and forces the poorer students in them out and into the government school, thus adding to social stratification and inequity. The abysmal standard of media reporting on funding issues provides an excuse for members of the public who don’t understand what is really happening, but politicians should take the time to think the matter through.

Chris Curtis | 26 October 2018  

In NEw Zealand there are hardly any private schools and nearly every child goes to a public school or integrated school and the first new zealanders are integrated with their culture into the school system. ALl boys learn the haka etc. It is easier because New Zealand government does not have to do deal with different state governments.

stuart lawrence | 27 October 2018  

Education is big business in Australia - second biggest export. I know this article isn’t discussing higher education, but the inequalities in higher education are also vast. Considering this is where most Australian teachers are educated, there is an immediate need for a bipartisan approach to higher education addressing equity - and also quality. There is a vast difference in the experience of elite private school students, where their friends are more likely to enrol in the same course. Class sizes are huge. Group work assignments are the norm. These students cluster together in their prexisting friendship groups, leaving students without prexisting friendship groups to cluster together - international students, mature aged students, state school students, etc. When you consider the students in the first group probably don’t have to work to survive and the students in the second group very likely do, you can begin to see how inequality is perpetuated and amplified by the current system. Although every student will have been accepted into the course on their merit, their experiences and chance for success will be vastly different. A lack of accountability and transparency in higher education on all levels encourages discrimination filtering from the top down.

Jo | 29 October 2018  

The biggest problem for curriculum designers is not political parties but state and commonwealth rules and regulations. I took minutes of meetings aimed at allowing two TAFE colleges on different sides of the border to rationalise courses and share some facilities but the rules and regulations they worked under made it impossible. The meeting would ended happily with everyone in agreement but the answer from the powers that be on one side or the other would prevent most good ideas to go untested. This is the experience of many industries that work across borders.

Margaret McDonald | 29 October 2018  

Thank you, Pauline, for this excellent article. You are absolutely right when you argue that inequality, school structures and the politicisation of education need to frame our discussion of school reform and renewal. And Chris, I like your argument that, "The principle is quite simple: low-fee schools should get more public money than high-fee schools, and no-fee (i.e., governments) schools should get the most." We desperately need a bipartisan approach in Australia to helping those students most disadvantaged and in need. Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing this material. Not facing up to the challenges about which Pauline has written will only lead to a more divided, unequal and violent Australia.

Robert Van Zetten | 29 October 2018  

Robert, Thank you. I’ve been pushing this argument for a while. It’s the policy of the Victorian Labor government, but not the federal ALP, which for reasons unfathomable to me supports the Hoard/Gonski/Turnbull/Morrison SES funding model that ignores school fees in the allocation of funds. I have been trying to get the federal ALP to adopt this approach for 10 years now, ever since I wrote to Julia Gillard in 2008. I have written dozens of submissions and thousands of comments on it (letters to the editor, blog posts and emails to politicians and journalists), but the policy are is under the control of a few “experts”, so I get nowhere. Even so, I am not giving up.

Chris Curtis | 30 October 2018  

I also feel educational inequality can’t be properly addressed until all government education becomes completely free. At present government schools charge each student with a levy or fee and then also ask them to pay for basic essentials such as computers, i Pads, electives and camps. On top of all this parents are expected to buy the required school uniforms, bags, textbooks and stationery. Many parents living below the poverty line and struggling to feed their families can't possibly make all these payments and this in turn disadvantages their children's education. When students can't afford all the requirements of the school they attend they risk falling behind in their learning. And then they fall out of education completely, with little prospect of obtaining meaningful employment. One of the best ways to work towards eliminating this huge risk is for every aspect of state school education to be entirely free for all students. This will of course come at a cost for our state and federal governments. But those of us with ongoing, properly paid employment can afford to pay increased taxes as can the vast majority of Australian businesses and corporations, including multinational companies.

Robert Van Zetten | 30 October 2018  

One has to ask why Dr Griffiths hasn't managed to make inroads with her published ideas and commendable philosophy into practical efforts within her Faculty to do something about them. For instance, where is/are the initiatives from ACU for a research project to resolve the inequitable problems that she lucidly describes? Years ago, while employed by Catholic education and in becoming aware of the inequity in Catholic schools that charge fees as a condition for gaining enrolment, the Executive Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission apprised me of the Berkeley Report which recommended the integration of low-fee non-government schools, primarily Catholic, into the ACT public sector provision. I did a PhD on the topic, consulting the views of many Catholic aficionados, almost none of them in favour and with most of them lacking the policy literacy that Dr Griffiths displays. When I sent a complimentary copy of my dissertation to the ACU Vice-Chancellor, he returned it to me, chiding me for not including a 'one-page' summary, when there was a three page summary available for him to read had he or anybody else chosen to open it. The ACU Education Dean at the time even lacked an educational doctorate.

Dr Michael Furtado | 02 November 2018  

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