Inside Story

An end to the industrial model of schooling?

The latest Gonski report points a way to the future of school reform, but has not broken with its disastrous past

Dean Ashenden 4 May 2018 2475 words

Ancient schisms: David Gonski with education minister Simon Birmingham and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at Ermington West Public School in Sydney for Monday’s release of Gonski 2.0. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

In a few words, the story so far. The first Gonski review proposed “needs-based, sector-blind” schools funding. The schools doing the hardest educational yards would get extra resources so they could lift academic performance and so reduce inequality. National and international test results plus the MySchool website would make them accountable.

But were they capable? Would all that extra money disappear in the black hole of schooling? The questions were asked of the first Gonski’s sponsor, Julia Gillard, who came up with the risible idea that every school would have to submit a performance plan for approval. When the Coalition, via education minister Simon Birmingham, abruptly switched from opposing Gonski to embracing it, the are-we-wasting-all-that-money question became Mr Birmingham’s to answer. His response was to recall David Gonski and ask him to “examine the evidence and make recommendations on the most effective teaching and learning strategies.”

Gonski and his colleagues set to work in August 2017 and sent their report to the minister in late March. It was released to the public at the beginning of this week.

The panel was constrained by four realities. It was asked to “focus on practical measures that work,” an approach that, it turns out, it didn’t really agree with. Second, what no doubt looks to the minister to be a perfectly reasonable effort to ensure value for money may look to others like a velvet glove around Canberra’s financial fist. A third difficulty is that the report had to come up with an approach that could and would be implemented faithfully by each of Australia’s twenty-plus very different school jurisdictions. And, finally, the review was required to focus on school and classroom practice when most of the problems, including problems in practice, have their origins elsewhere.

In sum, the panel was asked to resolve two deep and ancient schisms in Australian schooling — the conflict between “conservative” and “progressive” educational approaches, and the conflict between the federal government and the states — while pinning down the notoriously elusive relationship between school funding, educational practice and academic outcomes — and to do it all with one hand tied behind its back, in eight or nine months.

It is in the nature of the task that the Gonski 2.0 report would lack the clarity, coherence and do-ability of Gonski 1.0. The report hovers uneasily between a strategy, a list of things that would be worth doing, and a “vision statement.” It offers only elements of a strategy, but not a fully formed strategy. Some of its specific suggestions are worth pursuing, but they don’t add up to a plan. The great achievement, and the biggest risk, is in the vision. Gonski 2.0 is the first official declaration that a long-familiar model or “grammar” of schooling, premised on selection and therefore success purchased at the price of failure, is obsolete, and must be replaced.

The report begins with a compelling tale, but fails to draw its morals. Things are going badly — falling rankings in the OECD’s league tables, worse outcomes in 2015 than in 2003, a decline in maths performance across all four socioeconomic quartiles, falling attainments across all sectors, a substantial gap between the best-performing countries and Australia, and so on, and on. It boils down to the fact that since Australia adopted a strategy that promised to improve outcomes, outcomes have continued to deteriorate. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this strategy, organised around “outcomes” and the notion that accountability and competition would cause teachers and schools to lift their game, has been a complete failure, and should be ditched.

The review panel doesn’t say this and probably couldn’t. But did it have to accept the basic premise of the failed strategy, that “outcomes” are indeed the problem? Of course academic outcomes are crucial, particularly in the foundational areas of language, science and maths. But they are a problem, not the problem. The problem, or the most substantial single problem in Australian schooling anyway, is the massive redistribution of the population across schools and school systems, a continuing increase in the concentration of “advantaged” students in their schools and “disadvantaged” students in theirs, and a shrinking proportion of schools with socially mixed enrolments.

This segmentation is destructive in several ways. It encourages relationships within rather than across social and cultural groups. It narrows the social understanding and learning needed in a democratic, multicultural society. It is at least as important, educationally and socially, as academic outcomes, and is, moreover, a primary driver of our outcomes problem. Declining outcomes are a symptom of an underlying problem as well as a problem in itself. (I wrote at greater length about this problem in an earlier article for Inside Story.)

In the review’s defence, it could be said that fixing the segmentation problem was the business of Gonski 1.0, and so it was. But Gonski 2.0 could have lined up clearly behind Gonski 1.0 by pointing out that there is only so much that schools can do as long as they are rowing against the segmentation tide. It could have said that laying the foundations of social cohesion is as fundamental a task for schooling as delivering better outcomes performance, and it could have pointed out that tackling segmentation head-on is the most promising way to lift outcomes.

That would mean, among other things, drawing as much attention to declining diversity within schools as to declining outcomes, and asserting that arresting and reversing segmentation is the top priority for reform. It would mean recommending that social learning and diversity within schools be tracked and publicised just as assiduously as we now track outcomes. Unfortunately, the review did none of these things.

The panel makes a number of specific recommendations. Two of these relate to those particularly troubled phases of schooling, the early years and the senior secondary years. Others bear on schooling as a whole: better career paths and professional development for teachers; ditto for school leaders; better workforce planning; more innovative and adaptive school systems; a national “evidence institute”; and the biggie, a transition from an “industrial” model to teaching premised on the continuous progress of every student.

Three of these areas, early learning, senior secondary schooling, and workforce planning, are delegated to further reviews. The early learning review is already under way. The senior secondary review will take in the “purpose, content and structure” of the last two years of schooling and tackle the “disengagement” of so many secondary students. The suggestions seems to be that Australia might follow many other systems in making age fifteen or thereabouts the moment of choice between two distinct forms of schooling, one essentially academic, the other vocationally based.

The workforce planning proposal is less convincing in several important ways. It fails to link workforce planning to the future of schooling or to link educational with industrial relations considerations. It therefore misses the opportunity to engage teacher organisations and draw them away from oppositionism and a narrow focus on the terms and conditions of employment. And, since most industrial relations questions are settled at the state level, any review process should include the local as well as the national.

All this implies a sustained, strategic collaboration rather than a conventionally framed, fly-in-fly-out review. Pending such a major undertaking, the review’s proposals for change in the career structure, professional development and rewards of teaching and school leadership will remain, like their many antecedents, merely the kind of thing that has to be said.

By far the most important of the review’s conclusions is that the “industrial model” of schooling — the forty-five-minute lesson in a single subject delivered to twenty-five or so students of the same age by a teacher standing at the front of the classroom, followed by assessment of all against a single standard — is obsolete. Formed in a long-gone era, it leaves the slow behind and the quick bored, and fails to develop the kind of broad competencies that life and work increasingly demand.

The essence of a better model or “grammar” of schooling, the review says, is a focus on growth rather than attainment measured against a single standard for a given age, to make it possible for “every student [to] progress regardless of starting point or capabilities.” The review wants the curriculum — in other words, the work that students are asked to do — to be organised around “learning progressions” against which growth can be assessed and by which further “personalised” work can be guided.

This is a powerful idea that makes intuitive sense to anyone who has tried to cope with the typical class comprising students four, five or even more learning years apart. It owes much to “measurement science” and to the advocacy of three Melbourne-based institutions, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the Australian Council for Educational Research, and the Grattan Institute. It would be surprising if the panel’s moving spirit in this was not Ken Boston, member of both Gonski panels and a former head of Britain’s national curriculum body.

The big problem in this very big idea is obvious. How do we get from here to there? The review offers several suggestions: a web-based assessment tool, the recasting of curriculum as a series of developmental progressions, and professional development for teachers and school leaders. Its version of the “evidence institute” is more sophisticated than Labor’s, and could be construed as supporting the new grammar as well as dispensing “what works” advice.

These recommendations assume that much or all of the matching of learning to learner will be done within the organisational frame of the lesson, the teacher, the class and the subject. The review, advised by a “measurement science” derived mainly from the discipline of psychology, has limited its recommendations to teaching, curriculum and assessment. In the initial stages of a transition, that would be plenty to go on with, of course, but sooner or later — sooner for some students, schools and areas of learning than others — the focus would need to shift from technique to the organisation of people, time and space. That raises the question of the capacity of school systems to inspire, plan and carry through a substantial reorganisation of work and workplace.

On these issues the report’s talk of “obstacles” is allusive at best. The current model of schooling is embedded in heavily defended industrial awards, in the physical infrastructure of schools, in the habits and skills of the workforce, and in parent and community views about what real schooling should look like.

If the report’s picture of a new grammar is limited by language and purview of psychology-derived research, its view of school systems is limited by management-speak. It wants school systems to confront these “challenges” by being “innovative” and “adaptive” through “continuous improvement.” But there is not much point urging systems to be innovative and adaptive if they are not capable of it.

I have relied before on an observation by the chairman of the long-gone Schools Commission, Ken McKinnon, that Australian schooling is good at gardening but not at engineering. A new model of schooling can be gardened into existence only to a certain point, beyond which engineering is required. The school systems weren’t good at engineering in McKinnon’s time. Have they got the hang of it now? My own view is that they are less capable now than they were in the 1970s because the structural circumstances within which they work are even more constraining now than then.

Within each state, authority is dispersed across three sectors, and then between statutory authorities, the industrial relations systems and teacher organisations, universities, government departments, and ministers’ offices. Decision-making is often heavily politicised, and conducted by a constantly changing cast of governments, ministers and senior public servants.

The problem is compounded by the Rudd and Gillard’s consolidation of a “national approach.” The key areas of strategic policy formation and accountability, as well as some aspects of resource allocation and curriculum, have all been ceded to national agencies and processes, leaving the states and non-government systems as not much more than retail outlets. Looked at from the other direction, the national “system” has no authority over the many matters still in the hands of the states and systems.

Perhaps worst of all, the “national approach” herds every system into a single reform strategy. When it fails, all fail, and there is no alternative to learn from. Of course systems should collaborate, but at their own initiative and in varying combinations, not in a lock-step march to the “national” drumbeat.

The “shared ambition, action and accountability” the review calls for will not overcome these limitations. It is very difficult to imagine that each of Australia’s twenty-plus school jurisdictions — some big, some small, some tightly hierarchical, some “devolved,” some in this sector, others in that, some already advancing elements of the review’s agenda, others not — will want or be able to do the report’s bidding. This is not the fault of the review panel or its report. To the contrary, they have made the best of a bad job. It is simply to point out that nobody, not the state governments, not the systems, not the federal government, not the national apparatus and processes, is capable of the “sustained, long-term and coordinated improvement” that the review correctly says is required.

These realities have bedevilled countless reviews over decades. Teacher education holds a dubious record of being the subject of more than a hundred reviews since the 1970s without actually changing much. Reviews are endemic in schooling, one form of the prodigious quantity of talking done in and around schools and school systems. Talk is the virus-like means by which slow, haphazard and not necessarily intended change is effected. Most reviews are stones thrown against castle walls, expressions of frustration at the gap between what could and should be done and what is done. Reviews kick the can down the road, as the old hands put it. Their net effect is a cumulative incrementalism in which problems and costs mount up more quickly than solutions can be found and implemented.

The first Gonski report was an absolutely outstanding exception to this rule. The rule will continue to apply, however, unless that report is seen as a platform upon which further structural and governance reform can be built. The second Gonski report is closer to the rule, but it has one very good chance to escape the oblivion into which its many predecessors have sunk: it has made the genuinely historic call that the familiar way of organising and conducting teaching and learning is obsolete, and that a very different grammar is needed and available. The risk is that the “transition” from one to the other is beyond the capacity of the system, and that the failure will be put down to the idea. •