Inside Story

Dear Ms Plibersek

Labor’s shadow education minister faces the problem of working out why school reform has failed, and what a federal education minister could do about it

Dean Ashenden 5 March 2018 7406 words

What went wrong? Labor’s deputy leader and shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek (centre), with the party’s candidate for Batman, Ged Kearney, at Preston West Primary School in Melbourne last Friday. David Crosling/AAP Image

I write to you because you may well be the next federal minister for education, and the second most powerful figure, in a government with a mandate for significant change. And I write because the word is out that you are looking for bold policies for schools but not getting much help in developing them.

Boldness is badly needed — boldness in developing policy, in abandoning policies that haven’t worked, and in facing up to what can and can’t be done from Canberra. Above all, you will need to make a clear-eyed assessment of the educational achievements and failures of the last Labor federal government and its “education revolution.”

This means your priorities must be very different from those of the Rudd–Gillard and Abbott–Turnbull governments — and, indeed, significantly different from those you have flagged so far.

You should:

  1. Reclaim Gonski, by setting a Gonski Plus scheme against the Coalition’s Gonski Lite.
  2. Dampen down the monomania about “outcomes,” and begin measuring indicators that better reveal and explain what schools do (and what parents want from them).
  3. Push the responsibility for “performance” back to the school systems. Be clear: you intend to be the federal minister for education, not the national minister for schools.
  4. Shift the conversation about schools: no more talk about “revolutions,” much more about schools and social cohesion.

We’ll return to those four points shortly, as well as one other thing: the need to rethink your recent proposal for a national “evidence” institute.

Labor’s “education revolution”

Both your problems and your opportunities descend from 2007, when Labor came into office promising an “education revolution.”

All revolutions need stories to explain and justify themselves and to enlist wide support. As education minister and then prime minister, Julia Gillard told three stories. The first was that schools were, above all, a preparation for a turbulent but exciting future. Students and, through them, the economy must be equipped with the new, complex skills demanded by accelerating technology-driven change. A second story centred on “outcomes” in the foundational areas of language, maths and science. International comparisons showed that we weren’t improving while other nations — including our economic competitors — were; now, we needed to recover our position near the head of the pack. A third story was more familiar: we must achieve greater equality of opportunity in and through schooling. Schools are there, as Gonski would say, to “ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, power or possessions.”

A national agenda was intrinsic to each of these stories. Successful schooling was a national priority. The revolution was a national undertaking, to be led and driven by the national government.

Revolutions need strategies as well as stories. There were four of them, each related in different ways to the stories.

By far the most prominent was “Gonski.” It drew on the outcomes story and contributed to a more national architecture for schooling, but it was first and foremost the bearer of the equality story. A second strategy tackled the other end of the schooling machinery. Where Gonski focused on the big structures, the “educational practice” strategy targeted the day-to-day life of the school and the classroom with “quality of teaching” and “school improvement” campaigns. This practice strategy focused on — indeed, was obsessed by — outcomes, and demanded “transparency” about the “outcomes performance” of each and every school.

A third, less prominent strategy was to develop national infrastructure and machinery to guide and frame practice, deliver funding, and make and legitimate the big decisions. And the fourth was the storytelling itself. Julia Gillard was a tireless and articulate campaigner in the cause of the revolution.

This combination of stories and strategies successfully became the official agenda for schooling and erected a new national schooling infrastructure. It was entirely unsuccessful in its stated aim of lifting “performance.” Indeed, the available evidence suggests that the performance of Australian schools, on the revolution’s own measures, is worse now than when the revolution was launched.

The challenge facing you as shadow minister is to understand why this is so, and to work out what is politically possible for you to say and do about it. If you can’t, there is every reason to believe that the situation in ten years’ time will be much as it is now, and as it was a decade ago.

1. Reclaim Gonski and build on it

The Gonski report was sent to the minister late in 2011 and released to the public in February 2012. It gave the minister a winning formula which, over the next eighteen months, she squandered, leaving Gonski to be purloined some years later by a Coalition government. It must be your first priority to get it back, by restoring some of its original features, by doing a reverse purloin of a couple of Coalition improvements, and particularly by building on it.

Gonski recommended that schools doing the hardest educational yards should get extra funding, irrespective of which sector they belonged to; that state and federal governments should work out the cost and decide who would contribute what and how to distribute the funding; and that this should be done with the ongoing assistance of a new “national schools resourcing body.”

Gonski solved several problems at once. It cut through a tangle of state and federal funding formulas and schemes; it reduced the grounds for endless conflict between sectors about funding shares; it breathed new life into the dispirited struggle for equality; and it lent credibility to the revolution as a whole. For all these reasons it was popular and energising, among teachers particularly, but also more widely. Its slogan — needs-based, sector-blind — was concise and memorable, and “Gonski” quickly entered the language.

The Coalition’s Gonski is a mixed bag. On the negative side: it makes government schools largely dependent on the often indigent state governments but gives non-government schools the shelter of more reliable federal funding. This inserts a fault line that seems destined to become a split. On the positive: Labor’s “no school worse off” requirement, expensive and by no means “sector-blind,” has gone. The national schools resourcing body, proposed by Gonski but ditched by Gillard, has been resurrected. More ambiguous is the review being chaired by Gonski himself, which has been charged with filling a gap in the original plan by telling schools how best to turn extra “needs-based” dollars into outcomes. So, that is Gonski Lite.

And Gonski Plus? It must restore the original funding commitment because it is important to honour the commitment that has been given. It should return to the principle of all governments being jointly responsible for the funding of all schools. The “no school worse off” provision should lie unmourned in its grave. The National School Resourcing Board should be kept. I’m not so sure about the current Gonski how-to-get-most-educational-bang review. It might have some useful things to say, in which case you should support them (or borrow them), but for reasons explained more fully below, the federal government needs to get out of the business of telling systems how to do teaching and learning.

In any event, you should gazump Gonski Lite with a proposal of your own: extend the needs-based principle to resource allocation within schools as well as between them. Undertake to convene high-level conversations between the willing industrial parties — and only the genuinely willing — about how to give each school more scope for aligning its resources, and particularly its teacher time, with need.

There is one more ingredient in Gonski Plus, bigger than the others and more complicated. Its starting point is this: Gonski is not the be-all and end-all in the reform of the big structures of schooling, and if it is the end, it won’t work. It is a beginning, a very good beginning, but not more. Your problem, and your political opportunity, is this: what next?

Behind the Gonski prescription is the “residualisation” diagnosis. Schools in disadvantaged areas have the hardest educational job to do, but can’t attract the best teachers and principals to do it. Their “performance” falls. The families that can leave, do. That exodus increases the proportion of disadvantaged students, which increases the school’s problem in attracting staff and other resources, and so on down the spiral. Needs-based funding, Gonski proposed, would combat residualisation by lifting the quality of practice in residualised schools and hence improving outcomes and reducing inequality.

The trouble is that there’s more to the problem than residualisation, and more to the solution than better funding and practice. Residualisation is the extreme result of an across-the-board shift in school populations triggered in the early 1970s by the double standards built into the Whitlam government’s landmark Karmel Report.

The first double standard was that some schools would charge fees and some parents would pay them, and most schools wouldn’t, but all would get public funding — an internationally unique arrangement. The second: some schools (including some government schools) would be allowed to select and exclude students on grounds of capacity to pay and/or religion and/or academic potential, while others would be forbidden from excluding anyone on any grounds at all.

These double standards have meant that an unusually large minority of Australian families has an unusually wide choice of schools, yet many have little or no choice at all. Those with a choice have typically used it to send their sons and daughters to schools where they mix with students just like themselves. Equally, the sons and daughters of those who don’t have a choice end up mixing with each other too.

In other words, when Australia went for more diversity between schools it also got less diversity within each school. On the one hand is a steadily increasing “between-school variance,” up from 18 per cent in 2000 to 24 per cent in 2009 (compared with Finland, for example, up from 8 to just 9 per cent over the same period). On the other is a high and rising proportion of schools with concentrations of the “advantaged” (at one end) or the “disadvantaged” (at the other), and a correspondingly small and falling proportion of schools with socially mixed enrolments.

One problem with segmentation in school populations is that it’s a generator of under-performance, and not just in residualised schools. It is bad for outcomes and bad for equality of outcomes. Less noticed but more worrying is that segmentation makes for a narrow social experience and therefore a sub-standard social education, and it encourages the formation of social relationships within groups rather than across them. I have often quoted economics writer Ross Gittins on this point and will quote him again. He notes that Jewish kids go to one school and Islamic kids to another, and then asks a trick question: what did the rich kid say to the poor kid? Answer: nothing, they never met. Segmentation cuts across one of the basic tasks of schooling.

It’s so basic that you must do something about it. But what? This is difficult territory, but as Julia Gillard demonstrated when she commissioned Gonski, good policy can turn difficulties to advantage. Moreover, the politics of the issue have been transformed by the two Gonskis. Just one startling example: a Catholic schools authority has recently attacked the unconscionable policy of giving public money to high-fee private schools! You have much more room for manoeuvre than Gillard did when she commissioned Gonski.

At the very least, you should start making clear that diversity within schools is essential to better overall “performance” and a better society, and you should argue for new indicators of the extent of diversity within each school and of students’ social learning. On the last of these, more below.

You should also start thinking about what comes after Gonski. The light on this particular hill is the opportunity to replace Karmel’s double standards with a common funding and regulatory regime. That would include full public funding up to Gonski standards for all systems (government and non-government alike) willing to sign up to a charter of rights and obligations, including the obligation to increase diversity in each school’s enrolment.

You should start thinking about how to prepare the ground for movement in that direction. This would include talking about relieving parents of the burden of fees, and about making choice not more “widely” available but more equitably and sustainably available. You should make it a priority to explain why diversity within schools as well as between them is of fundamental educational and social importance.

You might also start thinking about another Gonski-level review to tackle the things that Gonski didn’t: those Karmel double standards. There is a historic opportunity here.

2. Dampen down the outcomes monomania, and push for a broader set of indicators

The “practice agenda” flowed from research that found teachers vary greatly in their “effectiveness,” as do “interventions.” Thus, a highly effective teacher could move students along one-and-a-half “learning years” in a single school year while an ineffective teacher might generate just half a year’s growth. In the same way, some strategies and tactics at classroom and school level “work” and some don’t. For example, smaller classes, repeat years and ability grouping aren’t “effective” (it is claimed), but peer tutoring, phonics instruction and feedback are.

This approach captured, even captivated, policy-makers and politicians. It was so clear, simple and plausible that even Christopher Pyne could say the words. It was “evidence-based.” And the policy implications seemed both obvious and practicable.

The “quality of teaching” could be improved by getting more effective teachers into schools and lifting the effectiveness of those already there (and, sotto voce, getting rid of very ineffective teachers); by linking better appraisal and professional development to more rewarding career paths; and by upgrading standards of entry and practice and lifting the standing of the teaching profession.

Getting schools to make more use of “what works” meant four things. Schools and their principals were given more “autonomy,” and hence responsibility, for “performance.” Evidence about “effective interventions” was more widely disseminated. The idea of a national curriculum was revived and renovated. And “performance” became a stronger focus via a new national standardised testing program (NAPLAN) and a new website (MySchool). Two new agencies, ACARA (the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) and AITSL (the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) would do the work.

The measure, the raison d’être, the sun around which these planets of reform revolved? “Outcomes.” When research found that a teacher or an intervention was “effective,” that meant better outcomes. When the “performance” of a school or a system was being discussed, that too meant outcomes. And if outcomes were the one true measure of effectiveness and performance, the one true measure of outcomes was PISA, the OECD’s triennial assessments of “what students know and can do” in the foundational areas of language, science and maths. That test was so central that the entire strategy would be measured against a single, culminating objective: we would be in PISA’s “top five by ’25.”

There are things to like in this agenda. If teachers don’t change the way they work, it’s hard to see anything else changing, and they can’t do that by themselves. Many schools do need the right kind of “autonomy.” Academic or “cognitive” outcomes matter in themselves, and capabilities in language, science and maths matter across the rest of the curriculum. Academic/cognitive learning is a special responsibility of schools. Students, teachers and school systems all need to know how students are going, and that certainly includes outcomes — there would have been no Gonski, for example, without data on outcomes.

But it didn’t work. A decade on, nothing has changed. Every third year the education minister of the day issues another PISA-prompted “wake-up call.” The “top five” is further away than ever. In some parts of the system things are not even failing to improve. They’re getting worse.

How can this be? Perhaps the practice agenda has worked well enough in enough schools to reduce the impact of rising segmentation? Perhaps. And it is more than possible that it suffered from poor execution, on which more in a moment. But there is also very good reason to conclude that the whole agenda was a dud.

Compare and contrast with Gonski. Gonski was grounded in a penetrating analysis, historically, sociologically and politically informed, of the dynamics of the Australian school system. That analysis was not complete, but it was revelatory nonetheless. It tracked down interrelated problems of funding, governance and educational delivery, and responded with practical policy. The changes it proposed would ripple out across the system and into the future. It was politically smart. “Stakeholders,” numerous and entrenched, were lined up behind the proposals before they went to the minister. It had that catchy, compelling slogan: needs-based, sector-blind.

Gonski appealed to people, in schools and elsewhere. It tapped into a deeply and widely held belief that every kid deserves a fair go and that schools must give it to them. So successful was Gonski in winning hearts and minds that it ran the risk of being seen as the answer to every prayer. The lawns of Parliament House were spiked with thousands of hand-shaped cut-outs, each declaring: I give a Gonski!

The practice agenda was none of these things. It was fully imported, off-the-shelf, pre-bundled. Both the underlying research into “effectiveness” and the “what works” prescription were made in the United States by people who dealt in generic “factors” rather than complicated relationships particular to place and stretching over time. It was a miscellany of measures, neither internally coherent nor consistent with other policy. The MySchool website, for example, reported raw-score “outcomes” for each school. That effectively told parents which schools to avoid, thus fuelling the residualisation spiral that Gonski was trying to arrest. The emphasis on teachers and teaching encouraged teacher-centred instruction, which cut across the story about developing “twenty-first-century capabilities.”

The assumption underlying much of the practice strategy was that “transparency,” pressure and competition would cause schools and teachers to lift their game. But teachers saw the “teaching quality” push as none too subtly blaming them for the problem, and saw the policies arising as merely remedial. That in turn contradicted the stated aim of lifting the standing of the profession. Teachers also saw the exclusive focus on a certain kind of academic outcome as a trivialisation of what they and schools were on about, and a treatment of the symptom rather than the cause. The emphasis on appraisal and accountability was minatory, and “transparency” could be seen as a euphemism for naming and shaming. Stakeholders (including teacher organisations) were blitzed rather than enlisted. The lawns of Parliament House were not crowded with I want MySchool! placards.

To compound all these problems, the one part of the practice agenda that could have offset at least some of these negatives went largely unimplemented. Teaching does need better pre-service training, better career structures and professional development, more respect and a higher professional standing, but any gains were at the margins.

Visiting Australia in 2009, Canadian whole-of-system change expert Michael Fullan predicted that the practice agenda wouldn’t work. “It might be considered unfair to judge [the reforms] before they have an impact,” he said, but they were using “the wrong drivers,” and there is “no way the… wrong drivers can motivate the masses, which is required for whole system reform.” The OECD made the same point more crisply. “School reform,” it said, “will not work unless it is supported from the bottom up.” In Australia, it wasn’t, and it didn’t.

The problem for you as shadow minister is that the practice agenda is entrenched in a national apparatus of assessment and accountability and in policy-makers’ heads. When the latest round of PISA brought the usual bad news, the minister issued the usual “wake-up call,” as if to say that we’ve got the right policies and all we need is for schools to pull up their socks. For your part, your recent national schools forum spent three of its four sessions (on “Improving learning outcomes,” “Raising the status of the teaching profession,” and “School leadership”) cocooned in the mental world of a failed agenda.

A rethink should begin at the centre of it all: “outcomes.” The problem is not so much the thing itself as the way it has been used, and “outcomes” have been used very badly indeed. Outcomes data should never have been used as a public measure of each school’s “performance.” As the seminal McKinsey report on school reform notes, systems that are in the top five “refrain from target-setting and only make system-level data available publicly.” Nor should outcomes data as generated by NAPLAN ever have been given to parents as an index of their child’s progress. And nor should outcomes ever have been seen as the only part of schools’ work that is crucial. The misuse of data has been mitigated by the introduction of “like school” comparisons and measures of progress, but much of the problem remains.

Neither a federal minister nor anyone else could abolish the whole thing, even if he or she wanted to. What you can do is announce that, as minister, you will press your state and territory colleagues to commission an expert national review of how information about the “performance” of students, schools and the system can be collected and used in ways that support improvement, broadly construed. Such a review might take as its starting point McKinsey’s finding that successful reformers release system-level but not school-level data, preferring to use the latter to engage schools “in a private dialogue about how they can improve.”

You should also say that, for your part, you support moves to measure and report on “twenty-first-century outcomes” (learning to learn, collaborative problem-solving, and so on) but you are also persuaded that cognitive or “academic” outcomes are not enough. They should be at the centre of reform efforts, but not by themselves.

“Non-cognitive” outcomes, the values and attitudes that kids take from schools, are every bit as important. The experience of school matters as much as outcomes of whatever kind; school is not only a preparation. Twelve years or so represents a fifth or more of most people’s working lives. Are they good years? Safe, happy, engaging, rewarding? And schools are about the ties that bind, or fail to as well as each individual’s learning and experience. Schools matter more to the social order than they do to “the economy.” They help (or fail) to sustain the cohesive social order on which economic activity depends. In a democratic, multicultural, wealthy society, that means schools that are socially, ethnically and culturally diverse.

You should be clear in your mind that these things need equal top billing with academic outcomes, which means measuring and reporting them just as strenuously as we measure and report academic outcomes. None is easy to measure, but nor are any of them harder to measure than cognitive outcomes.

Putting the spotlight on non-cognitive outcomes, on the quality of the experience of schooling, and on the diversity of school populations would pay off in several ways. Technically, it would give a much clearer picture of how schools are actually going, and a stronger basis in evidence for finding out why. And a set of indictors that more fully reflects what parents (and students) want from schools, what teachers do and try to do, and the complicated, multipurpose, difficult-to-steer reality of schools would help to turn passive resistance to reform into active support. Politically, it would sustain the sentiment that when it comes to schools, Labor is the one that cares.

You must concern yourself with “outcomes” because they are part of the national framework within which systems and schools operate. The rest of the practice strategy — the “teaching quality” and “what works” agendas — are not. They are to do with teaching and learning, matters into which the federal government has long intruded, to the cost of all concerned.

3. Push responsibility for “performance” back to the school systems

The taken-for-granted in each of Julia Gillard’s stories about the schools revolution is that the revolution would be national.

Australia’s unique way of being not-national in schooling includes close involvement in schooling by two levels of government, the division of schools into three sectors — each with its own funding, organisation and governance — and the replication of these arrangements in each of eight states and territories.

Labor’s ambition was to bring a new level of coordination and common purpose to these twenty-plus “jurisdictions” through a new (national) funding scheme, a new mechanism of cooperation between governments, a new (national) curriculum, new (national) accountability instruments and institutions, and a single (national) reform agenda driven by unanimous subscription to a single theory of school reform.

Ironically enough, this approach replicated in form if not in specific content the approach that gave us the problem in the first place. Since the 1960s it has been a Labor article of faith (to which I subscribed until relatively recently) that better schooling and more equality in and through schooling would come from Canberra, not the states — indeed, in spite of the states. That the states have floundered in schooling is a matter of record. That Canberra can make matters worse is not.

Of the four elements of the Rudd–Gillard “national approach” — rationalised funding, cooperation between governments, a performance infrastructure, and a school-reform doctrine — only the funding scheme (Gonski) was likely to work, and that was the only one not implemented. The others were implemented, more or less, and served to compound the problems.

The idea of a peak body of governments to align policy on things such as schooling was not Labor’s invention, but the Rudd government did come to office determined to use it to drive a different kind of federalism. The idea actually came from one of the states (Victoria) and involved pursuing a “national reform agenda” through “national partnerships” hammered out by new COAG (Council of Australian Governments) working parties.

That did not survive. On one flank were Canberra’s bureaucracies. Their reflex was to tell the states what they would deliver in return for federal money. On the other side were state ministers who soon saw that the “more national” approach was in fact a more Canberra approach. COAG and its working parties became arenas of contestation as much as cooperation. There were structural problems as well, including the fact that government school systems were directly represented but non-government systems, controlling a third of the nation’s schools, were not.

Chronic overlap in and confusion about who was responsible for what was intensified by the practice agenda. It took the federal government deep into teaching and learning, deep, that is, into the core business of the systems. Hence the spectacle of the only minister who employed not a single teacher and ran not a single school stumping the country telling the others how to lift their educational game, and of a Coalition minister who took it for granted that he could set up a review of the “national” curriculum and have it report to him for action as required.

The construction of the federal minister for education as a de facto national schools minister has continued. You have promised that a Labor government would “work closely with principals, school leaders, [and] teachers.” In the same vein the current minister has, among other things, told school systems what kinds of teachers they should be recruiting, and advised schools on what they should do about students’ smartphones.

We can respect the concerns, but not the overreach and mission creep. Teacher employment is none of Simon Birmingham’s business, and your referents, if you take his place, should be systems, governments and national organisations, not principals, school leaders and teachers. These solecisms are the tip of an iceberg comprising a long history of federal governments using tied grants, funding agreements and targeted programs to get the states and, through them, the government and non-government systems to do Canberra’s educational bidding. Some of these programs appear to have been productive if seen in isolation but not as parts of a whole.

Perhaps the most counterproductive component of the “national approach” is that each increment in “the national” — in curriculum, in performance indicators, in accountability and performance, in the articulation of a theory of teaching and school reform — has meant a decrement in the capacities, the sphere of action, and the expectations and sense of responsibility of the twenty-plus systems. In the upshot, no one — not the federal government, not the emergent “national” apparatus, not the state governments, not the systems themselves — is capable of driving reform.

Theories of whole-of-system reform agree on two fundamental requirements: “alignment” of the many elements of schooling — values, objectives, curriculum, assessment, the organisation of teaching and learning, teacher selection and training, career structures, kinds and degrees of school “autonomy,” accountability, resourcing — to support each other and pull in the same direction. And, second, this effort must be sustained over extended periods. As the Nous report to Gonski put it, “the key to improving Australia’s education system is not in doing a lot of new things, but rather it is in applying what we know works in a comprehensive, integrated and sustainable manner.”

To give Julia Gillard one of her several dues, she saw that the Australian school system wasn’t capable of doing anything in a comprehensive, integrated and sustained manner. The trouble is, her fix didn’t work either. The “more national” approach fell between two stools. It did not produce a national system, and it did not empower local ones.

What can you do? Here as elsewhere you are between a rock and a hard place. The government systems are protected by the Constitution and incumbency, the non-government ones by incumbency and interest groups. Any attempt to push further into their territory will guarantee a repeat of the 2007–13 experience. In any foreseeable future, there will be no national system or anything like it.

Nor can Australia follow the example of Canada, or the advice of one of the Abbott government’s reviews: get the federal government out of schooling. Both sides of federal politics are locked into Gonski-style funding commitments, and the sector system makes that almost impossible to avoid. The national agencies and apparatus are established facts and would be very difficult to dismantle. The electorate expects that federal governments — and particularly federal Labor governments — will “do something” about schools and will vote for those that do.

If you cannot go forward and cannot go back, you will have to go sideways. The imperfect but best available answer lies in a redefinition of the federal government’s role, and of a “national approach.”

The “national” should be confined to a broadly specified framework, with goals, objectives and funding on the one side, “performance” on the other. Within that framework school systems should be responsible for finding their own salvation, their own way of aligning curriculum, assessment, approaches to teaching and all the rest, subject only to full disclosure within the terms of the framework, including disclosure of exactly where the money went and why.

In other words, the “national” should cease to be “federal” in thin disguise. Neither the “national” nor the federal government should promulgate theories of the reform of teaching and learning or get involved in their conduct or reform. Specifically, the national curriculum should be joined by a statement of principles to guide school systems that want to develop or adapt other curriculums. Each system should be free to develop its own performance indicators as a supplement (or alternative to) those specified in the Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia.

If systems want to collaborate, in whatever combination, the federal government should offer to convene and support such collaboration. It should keep and publish the national books. Unavoidably, it will continue to be the biggest single funder of schools. And, as I’ve suggested, the federal government still has fundamentally important work to do in reforming the funding and regulatory elements of the framework of schooling.

To repeat, this is an imperfect solution. The line between a framework for schooling and the conduct of teaching and learning is obviously blurry, particularly in the accountability area.

More consequentially, the school systems (and particularly the government systems) have serious structural problems of their own. What should be expert and arm’s-length decision-making is highly politicised. Authority and responsibility are dispersed across statutory authorities, government departments, ministers’ offices and the universities, most of them influenced or even dominated by interest groups. Ministers and senior bureaucrats have short half-lives.

Systems are captive to quasi-legal industrial agreements that specify everything from class sizes to the disposition of time to career structures. Most systems have made the mistake of pushing teacher organisations to the margins instead of drawing them into a big, long-term strategy of reform. And teacher organisations have made the mistake of focusing on immediate gains in terms and conditions rather than considering these with a view to the long-term future of teaching and learning and the schools workforce.

Many systems, and particularly the smaller ones, have lost intellectual capital and institutional memory. There are continuing difficulties in getting the right relationships between “autonomy,” support and accountability; between schools in the same neighbourhood; and between governments and the “government” and non-government school systems.

These are dolorous facts, but they will be there, disguised and compounded, in any “national approach.” Federal governments have a particular role in convening the development of a national framework within which school systems can operate more productively, but beyond that their only contribution to driving “comprehensive integrated and sustained reform” is to keep out of the way. You should be clear about where the responsibility for the reform of teaching and learning lies, and that a federal government cannot be held responsible for things that it does not control.

Unless and until that point is taken, school systems will continue to look for national resolution of local problems and hide behind the PISA-encouraged obfuscation that it is “Australia” that has the school performance problem.

4. Shift the conversation about schools, and put social cohesion at its centre

In a labour-intensive, hearts-and-minds industry like schooling, storytelling can be a powerful strategy, but only if the stories ring true, and can be acted on. Julia Gillard was a gifted storyteller, and it got her into trouble. Her story about schools and equality worked because the schools–equality relationship is something that people really care about and want, and, in Gonski, the story came with the means of its realisation. The stories about schooling and the economy, and about “outcomes” as the one true measure of schools, were unconvincing because they were based on fallacies. But the story that really went wrong was the one about “revolution.”

It is not hard to see how it happened. There is a great deal that needs to be done in schooling, perhaps even enough to warrant the term “revolution” (as long as it’s a lower-case “r”). Both Rudd and Gillard subscribed to the Labor doctrine that Canberra has a special mission in schooling. For well-known biographical reasons, both cared about schooling and believed in it. The trouble was that the aspiration was way out of kilter with the means. For reasons discussed a moment ago, Canberra cannot make a “revolution” in schooling, however much it might be needed, and talking as though it can raises unmeetable expectations, invites disappointment and cynicism, and effectively takes responsibility for an unavoidably unsatisfactory result.

Bearing that cautionary experience in mind, what stories should you tell?

Your first story should be about what you can and can’t do. You should promise a federal government that will play its part and expect other governments and school systems to play theirs. You will deliver better funding in a better way, and you will press hard to build on Gonski and to deliver a stronger national framework within which systems and their schools can do their job.

Your second story should go to the heart of that framework, to the kinds of schools that parents, teachers and students want, and to the proper appreciation of the work that schools do. You should commit to fighting for measures of schooling that see academic progress as crucial but care equally about the experience of children and young people in school, and their personal and social development.

Third, you should make out the case for schools as builders of social cohesion, as giving students the chance to learn for real that they belong to a wonderfully diverse society with some big common values, including a commitment to democracy and to multiculturalism. This story will have to take on the tricky task of explaining that in this area Australia is not travelling as well as it has, and that schools are compounding the problem rather than reducing it, and that is why you will give so much of your attention to shaping a national framework that encourages and rewards greater social and cultural diversity in each school.

In short, you should be the human face of an alternative federal government that, in schooling, is committed, thoughtful, encouraging and realistic. There should be no mention of revolutions. And no “wake-up calls.”

A postscript: please rethink your proposal for a national evidence institute

You recently committed to spending $73 million over four years to establish and operate an independent organisation to commission research, assess programs sold into schools, and publish summaries of “evidence on best practice.”

Four things can be said in favour of this proposal, and rather more against. Politically, it provides some insurance against the Gonski 2.0 report, due soon. It supports teachers rather than monitoring them. It implicitly acknowledges the loss of intellectual input to the schools sector. And it is proposed to be independent.

And against? The proposal comes from the tradition of federal intrusion into the core business of systems discussed and criticised above. For that reason alone, it should not proceed in its present form.

Like the forum you convened late last year, the proposal belongs to the mental world of the Rudd–Gillard reform-of-practice strategy. It is, moreover, redundant. Those wanting to find out more about the “what works” approach have no difficulty in doing so, as a simple Google search on “what works in schools” will demonstrate. The proposal arrives very late on a well-populated field; it is now fifteen years since the US Department of Education launched its What Works Clearinghouse, for example.

As for research, Australia has 3000 full-time-equivalent education research academics, and contributes 4 per cent of the discipline’s total global output. Australia does more than its share. Research on effectiveness is grossly overdone. You will no doubt be aware of John Hattie’s formidable digest of 800 meta-studies (soon to be expanded to 1200), themselves digests of more than 50,000 studies of effectiveness. In short, there is no case for more; but there is a case for different. Cost-effectiveness research, for example, offers a much more useful and needed angle of view than the effectiveness approach and should be encouraged. As minister responsible for higher education you would be well placed to suggest such redirection of effort.

Then there are the limitations of information, of “evidence,” and of evidence on “what works.” It is true that until quite recently schools proceeded on the shaky basis of assumption, experience and professional folklore. Putting these to the test of research represents a crucial step forward.

But no evidence, including that generated within the effectiveness paradigm, can be the basis of practice, as both the term “evidence-based” and the proposed name of the institute imply. That idea has been imported into education from the health industry by effectiveness researchers, but schools are fundamentally different from hospitals and surgeries. The latter are sites of the delivery of a service (of medicine); schools, by contrast, are sites of production (of learning), a much more elusive matter in which judgement, character, intuition and values do and will continue to play a large part. By paying no attention to a fundamental input (cost) and ignoring all the consequences of schooling except one (cognitive outcomes), the claim to be following in the “evidence-based” footsteps of medical science has been a political rather than an epistemological success.

Evidence and its cousin, technique, are increasingly important elements of practice. They inform it, but not mainly through mere reticulation. In school and classroom improvement, as in system-level change, many things, including information and evidence, must be aligned within a strategy pursued over years. The clearing-house idea encourages a quite misplaced plug-and-play expectation.

Perhaps the most fundamental limitation of the effectiveness approach is its symbiotic relationship with a “grammar” of schooling familiar to all: thirty-odd “lessons” per week, each in a “subject,” delivered by a teacher to a group of students of the same age, and so on. Effectiveness research tells us what works in that particular setting.

Will that grammar of schooling serve into the foreseeable future? Probably not. It has never worked for a significant minority of students (teenage boys particularly). It is a highly person-dependent and therefore low-productivity work process. It has great difficulty in exploiting the digital technologies. And it is not well suited to the circumstances in which children and young people do and will live, or to the kinds of learning they need.

Moreover, it seems at least possible that a very different grammar is emerging. It focuses not on the quality of teaching but on the organisation of learning. Specifically, it looks to the reorganisation of schooling around the continuous progress or growth of each student, and to a very different student working day and “learning career.”

The shift towards a grammar of that kind would (or will) bring with it a problem that the right kind of intellectual effort could help tackle: how can systems and schools make what they’ve got work better and at the same time move towards what’s needed? Now here is something for an institute to do, not by “research” or even research and development, but by something closer to development-research-development, a well-organised, sustained interaction between thinking and doing.

Not every school system will see that as a priority, or not yet anyway, in which case such an institute could be (like the OECD) subscription-based. The role of a federal minister? You could float the idea and see how many hands go up. You could encourage, convene and, perhaps, use some of that $73 million to subsidise, but all within a clear understanding: this is your call, systems, not ours. •