Inside Story

What is to be done about Australian schooling?

Another bad PISA report suggests that Australia has not learned the basic lesson: school reform won’t work in the absence of major structural change

Dean Ashenden 3 December 2019 4376 words

Meriel Jane Waissman/iStockphoto

First published 15 October 2015

Over the past two or three months alone, no fewer than five prominent individuals and organisations have tried to answer an increasingly vexing question: what is to be done about Australian schooling?

All five of them agree that Australia is among the school reform dunces of the Western world. While other countries forge ahead (the argument goes) we are stuck. Some schools and school systems – government, independent or Catholic ­– and some curriculum areas have done better than others, but since around the turn of the century none has done much more than flatline, despite strenuous efforts by state and federal governments.

It is on this stubborn ground that the battle of the reform agendas is being fought. Some of the reformers want to press on in the current direction. Some want a quite different agenda. And some want a different system.

To press on is to persist in the view that if schools are exposed to the right combination of pressures and given the right capacity to respond, they will lift their “performance,” and this will be reflected in better student results in standardised tests. Since Julia Gillard become federal minister for education in 2007, this has been the dominant Australian reform agenda, prosecuted through NAPLAN, the MySchool website, and a flurry of other measures aimed at encouraging parental choice, making schools more accountable for student attainment, and taking us to “top five by ’25.” Gillard’s Coalition successor in the education portfolio, Christopher Pyne, bought the line and packaged it up as the “four pillars” of reform.

Two of the five recent reports ­– one by prominent academic and consultant Brian Caldwell, the other by the Centre for Independent Studies, or CIS – belong to this agenda. Their concern is not with the “pressure” side of the equation, but with the amount and kind of elbow room schools need if pressure is to turn into “performance.”

Caldwell has been the leading Australian proponent of school autonomy since the publication of his seminal The Self-Managing School (written with Tasmanian principal Jim Spinks) in 1988. He was among the first to argue that autonomy should serve educational as well as professional and organisational ends, and was therefore among the first to realise that a causal chain with ill-defined “autonomy” at one end and closely specified “outcomes” at the other end is a long and tangled one.

The most recent of Caldwell’s many investigations of the connection, based on the experience of four government schools in Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, finds that, yes, “autonomy” does improve “performance,” or it can anyway, sort of. The analysis “tends to confirm,” Caldwell concludes, “that higher levels of school autonomy are associated with higher levels of student achievement providing there is a balance of autonomy and accountability” (emphases added). In other words: in the universe of schooling, where everything is related to everything else, it all depends.

Such inconvenient caveats, qualifications and distinctions eluded the sponsor of Professor Caldwell’s study, then education minister Pyne. “Great schools have leaders and teachers who have the independence to make decisions and deliver the education that best suits the needs of their students,” he enthused in launching the report. “And the research, including the findings by Professor Caldwell, tells us this is the right approach.”

It doesn’t, and it didn’t, of course. The concept of “autonomy,” along with the Commonwealth’s $70 million Independent Public Schools Initiative and Caldwell himself, has been roped into a highly politicised and dubious campaign that is not interested in whether, how and to what end relationships between schools and systems need reform. It is interested, instead, in making public schools more like private ones.

The CIS is also a supporter of autonomy and of independent public schools, but wants to go several steps further. It wants Australia to follow the example of the United States, Britain, Sweden, Chile and, most recently, New Zealand in introducing “charter” schools. Models vary, but the general idea is that charters are public schools privately operated (by for-profits as well as not-for-profits) within the terms of a contract or “charter.”

In the CIS proposal, charters could set or choose their own curriculum and make their own industrial arrangements. They could be either “conversions,” which take over failing public schools, or “startups” going into competition with existing schools. One objective is, of course, to lift “performance,” but the CIS also argues that charters could encourage innovation and bring choice to families currently deprived of it for reasons of income and/or a preference for non-religion-based schooling.

Considered in its own terms the case is plausible, attractive even. The charter mechanism (unlike the “autonomy” approach) recognises that the whole web of relationships of which “the school” is part needs to be rejigged. Schools working with “the disadvantaged” – the clientele the CIS has in mind – do need better ways of organising teaching and learning, hence different staffing profiles and deployment, and hence different industrial arrangements. They certainly need school-based or school-shaped curriculum. And even if the evidence about the “performance” of charters is mixed, as the CIS concedes, well, there’s still the claimed benefit of extending “choice” to those who don’t already have it.

It is not until we step outside this advocacy that the real problems appear. Wanting to introduce charters into the US system in 1991 (when the first charters were established) is a very different thing from wanting to introduce them into Australia in 2015. In the United States the charters were designed to tackle the public school monopoly in the interests of variety, choice and innovation. Australia already has plenty of all of these features, and they have not served us well, not least because the ground rules are so different.

In the United States, neither mainstream public schools nor charters are permitted to charge fees or to select on academic, racial, income or other grounds. Without seeming to notice the implications, the CIS suggests a level playing field for Australian charters and mainstream public schools: they should be funded to the same level, should not be permitted to charge fees, and should be non-selective.

This raises an obvious question. If a level playing field is a good way to run the public system, why not the system as a whole? It might be assumed that a think tank committed to free and open competition, and to its educational correlative, equal opportunity, would be the first to ask the question, and to pursue the questions that then arise. It could ask, for instance, whether the lack of levelness in the playing field contributes to “educational disadvantage” and whether more levelness might reduce it. But the question is not posed.

How is it that the CIS wants to import the charter idea, but not its regulatory framework, from the United States? How come the CIS has public schools for the “disadvantaged” in its sights but does not even mention arrangements for the “advantaged” or what has produced such a yawning chasm between the two? Why doesn’t it mention the possibility that a “failing” Catholic school might become a “conversion” charter? Why no consideration of the pros and cons of converting at least some independent schools to charters? Or of the pros and cons of more cooperation between schools in disadvantaged areas as against more competition between them?

My purpose is not to question the sincerity of the CIS and its authors in wanting to do something about a serious educational and social problem. It is to point to a downward gaze that has trumped the CIS’s own first principles. Disadvantage is being addressed on the strict proviso that certain interests and arrangements remain not just untouched, but unmentioned. It is a question to which we will return.

Geoff Masters is the long-time CEO of Australia’s preeminent education research organisation, an international authority on the complex interactions of assessment, teaching and learning, and a prominent critic of the all-too-familiar lockstep curriculum. To these research and educational credentials Masters has added a concern with how reform should proceed. In this he draws on arguments advanced by Canadian guru Michael Fullan and others, and particularly on Fullan’s critique of the Gillard agenda (title: Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform).

Masters argues that, contra Caldwell and the CIS, choice, competition and school autonomy are best understood as elements of an agenda that doesn’t work. That agenda (Masters says) is based on the mistaken belief that “improvement will occur if schools are given incentives to improve,” including rewards, sanctions and the need to compete for students.

Countries pursuing these strategies, Masters says – referring to but not naming Britain and the United States – “tend to be the countries that have experienced the worst declines in student performance.” Research is now casting doubt both on the “theoretical underpinnings” of the incentives agenda and on associated assumptions about what motivates people to give of their best. Rather than persist with an agenda based on rewards, sanctions and competition, Masters wants Australia to build the “capacity” of teachers and school leaders, and to ensure “high quality practice across the system.”

Masters offers an outline of just such an agenda: a higher-status and more academically capable teaching profession; a “twenty-first-century curriculum”; more “flexible learning arrangements focused on growth”; early and extra attention for children “at risk of being locked into trajectories of low achievement”; and a narrower gap between the best- and worst-performing schools.

Another to depart from the dominant agenda is the most recent in the Grattan Institute’s impressive series of reports on schooling. Like Masters, Grattan urges “more flexible learning arrangements focused on growth.” Where Masters points the general direction, Grattan gets down and dirty, reporting in detail on the work of schools that are putting the learning-based-on-growth approach into daily practice by collecting detailed information about each student’s progress and using it to inform curriculum choices and teaching strategies.

It is at least possible that Masters and Grattan share something else: a loss of faith in or hope of large-scale reform. Until recently Grattan was a leading importer of ideas about how systems could and should be reorganised, but it has moved steadily from telescope to microscope, from reform of the system to reform of practice and to the school as “the unit of reform.” Masters, meanwhile, is straight-out despondent.

There is (he says) “little evidence” that the status and academic capability of teachers is about to change, while “many features of the school curriculum have been unchanged for decades.” It is not obvious that “we have policies in place to reform mathematics and science curriculum in ways that might reverse the trend in subject enrolments and performance.” The counterproductive age-based organisation of teaching and learning “is deeply entrenched and reinforced by legislation” and “there is little evidence that… we are doing a better job of reducing the number of students on long-term trajectories of low achievement.”

Masters doesn’t investigate why all this is so, why the “wrong drivers” have been chosen, or why his preferred agenda has not been pursued. Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow do, and what they find justifies both a gloomy prognosis and a different approach to reform.

Lyndsay Connors is, among other things, former chair of the Schools Commission, while Jim McMorrow was the Commission’s money man and remains the authority on where “resources” come from, where they go, and what they do. As might be expected of an experienced journalist and a de facto forensic accountant, Connors and McMorrow come at the problem in a quite different way from Caldwell and the CIS, and from Masters and Grattan. They look at the workings of the system as a whole rather than those of individual schools. They start not with an agenda but an analysis of the problem, and look at the specifics of the Australian system rather than at reform efforts elsewhere. And, unsurprisingly, they reach different conclusions about what is to be done. In this they are in debt to a report prepared for the Gonski review by a Nous consortium and that, in turn, was informed by the work of a handful of mostly Melbourne-based researchers. What follows is a free translation of this substantial body of work.

Any school in any school system anywhere (the argument goes) will reflect the demographics of its location, but Australia’s set-up compounds unavoidable differences in the social composition of schools. Its most distinctive feature is the sector system: three types of school, all receiving funding from two levels of government but in three different mixes and in three different ways. Two of the three, the non-government sectors, charge fees and are mostly religion-based. The third is nominally free, and secular.

It is often thought that these arrangements permit non-government schools to select on financial and/or religious and/or academic grounds while the government schools do not. In fact, some non-government schools behave for most practical purposes as mainstream public schools and, more to the point, some government schools select all of their students on academic and therefore social grounds, and many select some of their students, both overtly and covertly.

These structural arrangements mean that an unusually high proportion of Australian parents have an unusually great capacity to choose from an unusually wide range of schools. They typically choose schools where their children will find others just like themselves. And the more parents who do that, the more other parents will conclude that they’d better do likewise. In the doing, they make a choice for those who can’t choose, for reasons of income and/or location, or because their child doesn’t have what the choosy schools are looking for. Thus the non-choosers, like the choosers, find themselves increasingly among their own kind.

To point this out is not to blame parents who can and do choose, either for choosing or for the choices they make. It is to criticise a system of pressures and opportunities to which parents respond as best they can and which, in the upshot, gives Australia an exceptionally high and rising “stratification” of schooling by class and culture, now approaching the stage at which it should probably be called “segregation,” or segmentation at the very least.

More than a third of government school students are from the lowest quarter of students according to socioeconomic status, or SES, almost three times the proportion in the independent sector, and these ratios are more or less reversed for the top quartile. There are much higher concentrations in particular schools at either end of the spectrum. The concentration of disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools is, Nous reports, “substantially higher than for any comparable OECD country,” while the proportion of all students in mixed or average SES schools is well below the OECD average. Research conducted since Nous and Gonski reported suggests that the concentration of low SES students in government schools continues.

Cultural divisions are, in at least some parts of the country, even more pronounced. Taking the cases of Sydney and New South Wales, researcher Christina Ho found sectoral differences in LBOTE (language background other than English) and non-LBOTE enrolments similar to SES differences, but with staggering concentrations in top-end schools. There, LBOTE families have opted for the government schools that select and exclude on academic grounds, while non-LBOTEs have headed for the independents that select and exclude mainly on financial grounds. Thus only one of the top ten NSW government selective schools (by HSC rank) has less than 80 per cent LBOTE enrolments, but Ho can list sixteen high-fee schools with less than 20 per cent LBOTE. In between these extremes Ho finds a less dramatic but still pronounced segmentation going on.

The sifting and sorting of students and families into particular schools feeds a sifting and sorting of the schools themselves, a process often referred to as “residualisation.” The term was popularised by public school advocates to describe a vicious circle. Schools with high proportions of kids from poor families find it increasingly difficult to attract and keep experienced and capable teachers, principals and other key educational resources, which makes them less attractive to those who can choose to go elsewhere, which increases the proportion of “disadvantaged” students, which makes the school less attractive, and so on, and on, around and around the circle.

There is also a flip side, not so often noted, a process of aggrandisement that produces schools of almost preposterous grandeur, with five-star resort buildings and grounds, parents paying in fees twice what is spent on the common ruck of students (and that’s before various endowments, public subsidies, accounting lurks and tax breaks), and executive salary packages three times those offered elsewhere. In the course of his review, David Gonski, who came from the world of Sydney Grammar, visited some of the schools at the other end of the spectrum, and was shocked. Australia has constructed a system not just of sectors but of gated communities and educational slums.

This process is often seen – and objected to – as the product of “marketisation.” It is true that schools parade their wares, and parents shop around. Indeed, more of both sides do the market-like thing in Australia than in any comparable country. But to think that Australian schooling is a marketplace and to argue that the problem lies therein is to make a fundamental mistake. The problem is in the way the market interacts with the funding and regulatory regime to produce massive distortions in what is offered and to whom it is available.

Thus we have both free and publicly subsidised fee-charging schools; religious and secular schools; schools lavishly funded and schools relatively impoverished; schools permitted to select on grounds of capacity to pay and/or religious affiliation and/or academic performance and schools prohibited from doing any of those things; parents who are required to pay when often they can’t afford it and parents who aren’t and can; and parents who are offered the full menu and others who must take whatever is put on their plate.

The most obvious educational consequence of all this, or obvious in the psychometrics relied on by all of the authors discussed here anyway, is “inequality” of “outcomes.”

The argument is that a student’s attainment is determined less by his or her school’s educational program than by the school’s student body. Thus a low SES student going to a high SES school, for example, will do better than his or her peers because of the company he or she keeps. The complex redistribution of students across schools, Connors and McMorrow argue, has therefore also been a redistribution of educational achievement. It has led to a gap between Australia’s highest and lowest performing students (as Gonski observed) “far greater” than in many other OECD countries. And it means that Australia was the only OECD country to see an increase in the performance gap between high and low SES schools between 2000 and 2009.

Most striking is an increase in “between-school variance,” a measure of the extent to which schools differ from each other. An Australian Council for Educational Research study of results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment found an increase in variance from 18 to 24 per cent between 2000 and 2009. Over the same period variance in Finland’s schools rose from 8 to 9 per cent. As noted above, recent research suggests that the overall trend in both social redistribution and the redistribution of attainment rolls on.

But do standardised tests, which these various comparisons rely on, focus on too narrow a subset of the learning that goes on in three areas of the formal curriculum (literacy, science, maths)? This is an important objection, but there is another, at least as important. Standardised tests say nothing at all about what is learned in school via the so-called “informal” curriculum.

Christina Ho points to the moral as it applies to “multicultural” learning. “Scholars of ‘everyday multiculturalism’ argue that the success of Australian multiculturalism has much to do with ordinary encounters between people of different cultural background that happen every day, in neighbourhoods, workplaces, parks – and schools,” she says. “Monocultural schools, regardless of the brilliance of their teaching programs, cannot socialise students for the realities of a cosmopolitan Australian society and a globalised world.” The same can be said of learning about social difference. The general point is that students who do not learn about others do not learn about themselves either. They are being miseducated.

Then there are the social consequences. Australian schools are increasingly active in constituting an elite that knows only itself, and an underclass that is being dudded and knows it. More diffuse but no less material is the erosion of “equal opportunity” through schooling as both a fact and as an important source of legitimation for the social order as a whole.

A first conclusion: to say that we’re not getting anywhere is not quite right. Nor is it quite right to say that the problem with schooling is a problem of agendas. A big part of the problem is that we have the wrong system, and that most agenda-setters are looking elsewhere. We could go further and surmise that all that effort in reforming practice and schools is working, not particularly well or widely, but well enough to stop us going backwards as a result of the workings of the system. The schools, in this perspective, are galley slaves, badly trained and fed, not very well coordinated, but stuck with rowing against a systemic tide.

A second conclusion: are “outcomes” the thing to focus on, or the only one? All sides of the battle accept that lifting outcomes is the main game. But shouldn’t segregation itself be front and centre, by reason of its role in generating unequal attainments as well as other educational and social consequences? Why shouldn’t any school or school system that wants to select some or all of its students be held just as responsible for the resulting social mix as it is for “outcomes”? Segregation should be seen not just as an explanation of the problem, but also as a big, direct, closely reported and well-documented target of policy.

A third conclusion: the tools of thinking about reform are not fit for purpose.

The reform debate is dominated by the “effectiveness” paradigm, and that is a very mixed blessing. Thanks to its origins in psychology and psychometrics it is much better at understanding teaching and learning and, at a stretch, how a school works, than at understanding how school systems work. It is much more interested in what makes an effective teacher or school than in what makes an effective system. It has encouraged the assumption that “reform” consists of the viral spread of “good practice” and the accumulation of micro-gains.

It has another problem, noted a moment ago. The effectiveness paradigm can see only the learning that goes on in the formal curriculum. It has blurred the vision of those who do see a segmentation problem, including Masters, Connors and McMorrow (and Nous and Gonski), but then relegate it to the status of an explanatory variable. The effectiveness approach makes them less than alert to learning in the so-called “informal curriculum,” the learning that comes from spending five or six hours, day after day, in a segregated school. They pass too quickly over the fact that high and rising segregation in schools is incompatible with a multicultural society, and with a democratic one.

The language and interests of “effectiveness” have pushed out of view the system itself, and much of what goes on in schools. And it has pushed history, politics, sociology, philosophy and economics to the margins of thinking about reform. The exception, as employed and elaborated by Connors and McMorrow, illustrates the rule.

A final thought: what is it about the system that does the damage? To one way of thinking, the problem is in regulation, and the solution is “deregulation.” In other minds, including those of the Nous researchers, the problem stems from (as Nous puts it) a “robust” and “highly competitive” market. In fact, this is less a problem of too much regulation than a matter of bad regulation. The market is not robust, but wildly distorted. Maldistributed liberty has eroded equality and discounted fraternity. The problem is not the market or regulation but their currently dysfunctional combination.

And so, inevitably, to Gonski, the proposal for systemic reform, the great offset on the Gillard balance sheet, and the hope of the side. If Gonski is lost then so is any chance of arresting and reversing the segregationist logic of the system. If Gonski survives, then it must be remembered that he was sent into the fight with one arm tied behind his back. He was permitted to examine only one aspect of funding (the fee/free distinction, for example, was off limits), and the regulatory regime, including selection and exclusion, not at all.

Connors and McMorrow argue that Gonski plus some regulatory tightening in a “hybrid” system is the best that can be hoped for. That is certainly the outer limit of what government can achieve at the moment. But is it the limit of thought, argument, proposal?

My own view is that if Gonski does survive then it should be regarded not as the systemic reform job done, but as a crucial step on a long road. At the end of that road, as the CIS inadvertently suggests, is a level playing field. Between here and there is a lot of hard thinking about policy and politics, compromise and principle, which could be approached in good faith from left, right or centre. The objective is not to restore the status quo of 1960, or to defend this sector against that, or to keep adding more choice to a hopelessly rigged market, but to combine funding and regulation so that no school gets too far behind or too far ahead in the conditions needed to attract a diverse clientele and to offer an educationally engaging program. Schools are, after all, for kids. They are meant to be a bridge to the wider world, not a mere reflection of the circumstances into which a child happens to have been born.