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Three ways to fix our schooling

  • 26 October 2018


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.

First 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