Fixing Our Schools

Schools and how to improve them is a subject of growing concern around Australia. Politicians and governments of all stripes seem unable to break the inertia. Promises abound, but very little changes as Australian schools slide down the international rankings.

[The graph at the top of this page shows Australia’s slide in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results in reading, maths and science from 2000 to 2018.]

The reason for the inertia in fixing our schools is clear – we have a political stand-off between Left and Right. The Left thinks spending more money on state schools will improve their quality, while all the evidence shows that this doesn’t happen. The Right continually talks about declining standards and outcomes in state schools, but has no idea how to turn this around. What’s more, the Right is not motivated to turn it around because it has a preference for private schools anyway.

The battle between these two positions results in a 0-0 draw. Nothing happens to enable major reform in the way our schools are run. Teachers are rarely able to teach as they would like. Principals tend to drown in micro-management. Parents search far and wide for schools that may be more suited to their child, and increasingly choose to pay fees which stretch family budgets to breaking point.

The split between private and state schooling has been entrenched for over a century. It’s a split that has been very socially divisive in Australia, and is still an obstacle to social cohesion as well as school effectiveness.

Western Australia has pioneered the way forward since 2009 by introducing ‘independent public schools’. This began as an opt-in scheme within the state’s Department of Education whereby individual state schools could choose to become an ‘independent public school’. This means the school has more governance and operational autonomy than conventional state schools – it is run by a school board instead of the Department, with more flexibility to run the school in ways that suits each community. After 10 years, there are now 575 independent public schools in WA covering 80% of students. There are no student fees, curriculum remains within the national framework, and while independent public schools can hire staff directly without having to use the central departmental pool, employment conditions cannot vary from those in the state system.

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A similar but more adventurous reform process has been underway in England over the same period. State schools are now permitted to opt-in to become ‘Academy’ schools, which have more autonomy than Local Authority schools, including freedom to adopt their own curriculum and employ teachers from various professional backgrounds, and not necessarily with teaching qualifications. ‘Free Schools’ are new public schools in England established by parents, teachers, communities or NGOs, usually in areas of disadvantage or poor performing Local Authority schools. There are now 507 Free Schools in operation, with another 226 in the pipeline. Sixty-five per cent of secondary schools in England are now Academies, along with 25% of primary schools.

As Australia slides in the PISA school rankings, England has seen significant rises from 2015: from 22nd to 14th in reading, from 15th to 14th in science, and from 27th to 18th in maths. Significantly, Scotland and Wales have not introduced Academies and Free Schools, and PISA rankings for Scottish and Welsh schools have declined over this same period.

There is now a major crisis of confidence in Australia on the part of parents and teachers in our school systems and education departments. Bold and innovative changes are needed on both demand and supply sides of the educational equation to stem the decline and rebuild confidence on the part of parents and teachers.

Policy Agenda

1. Every student and their family in Australian schools is entitled to clear information about generally accepted year and stage-specific knowledge requirements in each curriculum area as each student progresses through their years of public education. This should be readily available in the form of a portable, online Student Learning Plan that is accepted by schools and teachers as a foundational plan against which every student’s learning plan and progress can be measured, with resources made publicly available for each student’s learning. It’s purpose is to assist parents in working with teachers as co-educators of their children, outlining year and stage-specific core knowledge requirements, teaching methods and learning tools. It would be renewed annually.

2. Every teacher is entitled to a portable, online Core Curriculum Teaching Plan that specifies year and stage-specific core knowledge requirements, teaching methodologies, and teaching resources. Teachers should not be expected to have to devise teaching plans for every student and every subject, in isolation from institutional and peer supports or parental expectations. It’s purpose is to assist teachers to do their job effectively.

3. All state schools in Australian states and territories should be permitted to become Independent Public Schools on the Western Australian model established in 2009. This is an opt-in scheme where public schools can exercise more governance and operational autonomy, run by a school board, with greater flexibility in organisation and teaching methods, and additional flexibility in hiring teachers and other staff, while remaining non-fee paying schools. After eight years as an Independent Public School, schools would be permitted to exercise a second stage in autonomy and flexibility, varying their curriculum outside the Core Curriculum requirements, and employing teachers from various professional backgrounds as they see fit.

4. Parents, teachers, communities and NGOs should be encouraged to establish new public schools, based on the English Free School model established in 2010. All institutional impediments to the formation of new schools should be removed, and a supportive regulatory framework established, based on the governance and operational requirements for Independent Public Schools.

5. All state schools should have the right to expel disruptive or poorly behaving students. States and territories have an obligation to accommodate disruptive and poorly behaving students in intensive support settings until they are able to resume participation in mainstream schools.

6. All state schools should have the right to remove teachers who they deem to be ‘not suited to teaching’. Individuals in this category should be supported by education departments in exiting the teaching profession without industrial relations agendas inhibiting their rapid movement out of the profession.

7. School funding should be re-allocated from schools to parents. Parents should be able to take the their child’s funding to a school of their choice and should be encouraged to use their funding as leverage in negotiating an educational program that suits each child. This is essential for students with learning difficulties, disabilities or behavioural challenges who face constant battles in finding schooling options that suit their needs.

A parent-directed, portable school funding entitlement would encourage parents to co-operate with other parents in establishing new schools with their preferred culture and educational philosophy.

8. All state and non-state schools (private and public) would be required to meet a minimum benchmark of inclusion of students with learning or developmental disadvantages in order to be eligible to receive public funds.

9. A ceiling of $20,000 in annual fees for fee-paying schools would be introduced for schools that wish to receive public funding. Public funds should not be permitted to reinforce social exclusion through inaccessible school fees. Fee-paying schools may choose to set their fees beneath this ceiling and receive public funding, or exceed the ceiling and forfeit public funds.

10. Ideally, public schools should comprise students from a broad range of social, cultural and educational backgrounds. But increasingly this is difficult to achieve as our cities segment by class and ethnicity. We support financial incentives for Socially Inclusive Schools where schools that draw students from diverse economic and social backgrounds receive additional financial resources. By ‘diverse economic and social backgrounds’ we mean, specifically, a mix of families with tertiary education and families with sub-year 10 educational attainments, and a mix of families with anglo-celtic heritage and families from other cultural backgrounds.

These additional incentive payments should be sufficiently large in size to encourage schools to tailor their enrolments accordingly.