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My School website won’t lift outcomes for all schools

This article written by Peter Goss – School Education Program Director at Grattan Institute – and Jordana Hunter – Fellow, School Education Program at Grattan Institute – was originally published on The Conversation


Recently the federal government released a review of the My School website, which was launched in 2010. My School provides information about every school in Australia, including its financial resources, the background of its student cohort and NAPLAN results since 2008.

In his response to the review, Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced a number of proposed improvements to the My School website. The proposed changes are designed to make the site easier to use, with more options to compare schools, new data on school outcomes and, importantly, an increased focus on student progress.

Minister Pyne’s proposals are sound, but they are unlikely to make much difference to the quality of Australian schools.

Parents have a right to accurate information about schools. More transparency is good, provided the information is meaningful and takes into account non-school factors such as family background that we know influence student outcomes.

But if we look at achievement data, we may learn more about what students knew when they entered the school than what their school has taught them. A focus on student progress – how much an individual student has learnt over a given period – is a better indication of a school’s performance.

It’s heartening that reporting of the 2014 NAPLAN results focused more on schools with strong student gains than simply on schools with top marks. The review of My School has argued for strengthening this focus on student progress.

But the philosophy underpinning My School extends well beyond the desire to put accurate information in parents’ hands. The government, as its response to the review noted,

believes that transparency and accountability are essential to support parents and community participation in schools and to drive improved school and student outcomes.

How could information on My School improve outcomes?

Parents armed with data about school performance will in theory choose the best school for their children. Faced with competitive pressure on enrolments, schools will find ways to improve learning. The invisible hand of the market, mediated through parental choice, will lift outcomes across the education system. This approach has informed much of the government’s school education policy over the last decade.

Unfortunately, choice and competition are in practice much less effective at improving schools than we might wish. As the Grattan Institute’s report The myth of markets in school education shows, most schools face limited competition, and more information about them does little to increase it. For many reasons, most parents either can’t or won’t move their children from schools that perform poorly on NAPLAN to schools that perform well.

Most parents don’t shop around schools based on NAPLAN results
Most parents don’t shop around schools based on NAPLAN results

Recent research from the OECD supports these findings. Across countries and economies, educational performance is unrelated to whether or not schools have to compete for students.

This is not to say that information is not essential to school improvement. It is, provided it is put in the right hands.

Teachers need more information on their students’ progress

A wealth of evidence shows that teaching is more powerful when teachers have accurate, precise and timely information about what their students know, understand and can do. Good information guides teachers about what each student is ready to learn next and how to teach it.

These obvious statements are surprisingly hard to achieve in practice. Most schools in Australia fall short. Most systems provide too little support to schools and teachers to collect and harness deep knowledge about student learning.

It is hard to develop accurate student assessments that give teachers the reliable, diagnostic information they need. It is hard to develop materials and methods that tailor teaching to what each student is ready to learn next.

NAPLAN, designed to provide consistent and comparable national information, is not suitable for these highly targeted purposes. The Australian curriculum provides high-level guidance, but it is not enough either. It is hard to know whether each student is learning enough each year. And it is hard to identify and kick-start learning for those students whose progress has stalled.

Classroom teachers must do most of this hard work. But they should be equipped with better skills and better tools.

Governments should invest in teaching teachers how to gather and use accurate information on student learning. The recent Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report made a good start. It recommended higher education providers equip pre-service teachers with data collection and analysis skills to assess the learning needs of all students.

Governments should also invest more in high-quality materials and tools designed to help teachers in the classroom. Most schools, irrespective of their degree of autonomy or level of resources, lack the capacity to develop rigorous teaching materials and assessment tools.

Enhancing My School is valuable, but we should not kid ourselves that additional information on a website will significantly improve school outcomes. Instead, we should focus our energy on finding ways to provide teachers with better knowledge about their students’ learning and how to use it.

Do religion and belief systems have a place in the school curriculum?


The place of religions and belief systems, especially Christianity, in the school curriculum is a sensitive issue provoking much discussion and debate in Australia.

The issue came to head in Britain last year with what has been titled the “Trojan Horse affair”. A small number of Islamic schools were investigated about the types of values being taught. The investigations led to Prime Minister David Cameron arguing that all schools must teach what it means to be British.

Cameron has argued that Britain is essentially a Christian nation, and students should be taught values such as “freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions”.

As a result of the review of the Australian national curriculum I took part in last year, the place of religions and beliefs systems, especially Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage and traditions, also became a topic of discussion and debate.

Education researcher Tony Taylor criticised the review as an example of what he termed the “culture wars” and implied that the review’s recommendations would unfairly privilege a Judeo-Christian version of religion.

In its submission to the curriculum review, the Australian Education Union warned about the danger of including the Bible in the curriculum on the basis that the establishment of state education in the late 19th century was premised on “freedom from religion in teaching programs”.

This article was originally published online in The Conversation.

Read the original article in full here.

Calls mount for primary school teacher STEM focus


There has been wide support throughout the education sector for future primary school teachers to have a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and languages to strengthen teaching in those curriculum areas.

While there are still concerns on the growing demands placed on primary schools teachers across Australia and the lack of resources available, the move to recommend a specialisation for primary school teachers has garnered support.

The Federal Government’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers released last month has been hailed a blueprint for “critical and lasting reform” of teacher education. Led by Professor Greg Craven, the Advisory Group was asked to make practical recommendations on improving teacher education programs to better prepare teachers with the skills they need for the classroom, with one of the main recommendations being a specialisation for primary school teachers with a focus on STEM and languages.

Stephen Dinham, National President of the Australian College of Educators and Chair of Teacher Education and Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Melbourne, told Education Matters that there are two main reasons why the demands on the average primary school teacher had become untenable.

“One is the fact that the social demands on schools have become more and more and more and every time there’s a social problem, it gets given to schools to solve,” he said. “Also, there’s been great pressure on schools to list their results in the light of things like NAPLAN and so forth.

“Now, for primary teachers in particular, trying to be an expert in every area of the curriculum is quite problematic and we know, for example, two areas that people struggle with are maths and science, in some cases.

“At the moment, there are some teachers who go into primary teaching, and they haven’t done the higher levels of maths and science in high school,” he added. “They admit themselves they lack confidence and in some cases competence in teaching maths and science, so those are two areas where I think we can certainly do a degree of specialisation.”

Dinham also highlighted languages as another key area of specialisation for primary teachers that’s worth investing in, but stressed extra resources will be needed to make it a reality.

“Everybody talks about the need for students to learn another language but the trouble with this is we haven’t got a sufficient supply of language teachers,” he said.

“That’s another area where you can’t expect the average primary teacher to suddenly pick up another language and there’s some other areas too where we need some specialist support in schools.

“If there is a whole range of these social expectations that are being placed on schools, which gives you an overcrowded curriculum as a result, then we need paraprofessionals in there to work alongside teachers – we need more psychologists, we need more social workers, and we need more health experts – because you can’t expect teachers to do all of that.”

Glenn Finger, Professor of Education and Dean (Learning and Teaching) of the Arts, Education and Law Group at Queensland’s Griffith University echoed similar thoughts.

“In my view, the requirement for primary teachers to have a specialisation in mathematics, science and languages is a much needed approach,” he said. “This will certainly strengthen teaching in those curriculum areas and has been welcomed.

“I can see that these can be designed into four-year undergraduate primary teacher education programs, but will be challenging for two-year equivalent postgraduate initial teacher education programs, where there is less volume of learning available to develop both the breadth of curriculum and the depth. For example, some postgraduate students might not have completed undergraduate programs in mathematics, science or languages, so this will be challenging.”

Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe said it’s important for teachers to have access to broad curriculum expertise, which is very important for a child’s development as a whole, but you can’t implement provisions around having specialist teachers in place without looking at the resources that will need to be in place to support that.


New AEU President weighs in on education sector


The Australian Education Union’s new federal president, Correna Haythorpe, speaks exclusively with Education Matters magazine.

What plans does the Australian Education Union (AEU) have to educate wider public on Gonski reforms and the benefit of their implementation in lead up to the 2016 election?

The issue of school funding is an issue that parents and the community understand, particularly with respect to making sure that their schools have the resources that they need in place. Because we’ve been campaigning now for some years to get Gonski school funding reform in place, we have developed a very broad network of people and have over 130,000 who are a part of our subscriber community and are supporters of our campaign. So in the lead up to the next federal election we plan to engage those people to engage their networks, friends, and family to make sure we can re-ignite the awareness around the importance of needs-based funding being in place to make sure that all children across Australia have the resource that they need to achieve a high educational outcome.

New South Wales and South Australia in particular have made a full implementation of Gonski. We have five states that signed up to the National Education Reform agreement and just after the previous federal election the Abbot Government made a deal with the other states which really was a deal that meant that those states did not have the same level of accountability and transparency around the funding. So it really is very different in terms of what happening around Australia with the Gonski implementation.

In states that have put the money into schools and state governments that have made that full commitment in terms of the funding, we’re seeing the very real benefit now of programs put in place in those schools. Support programs or support staff that have been employed, and children receiving that one-on-one help that they need to make sure they can achieve the best education outcomes possible. So parents in some schools communities are seeing the benefit and they can tell the story in the lead up to the election about what’s possible when we have needs-based funding in place in our schools – and it’s going to be a very positive story. Our big challenge of course is getting those states that have not yet implemented the full Gonski principles to actually commit to doing so and that the Abbott Government commits to making sure that they fund Years 5 and 6.

Looking at the Federal Government’s recent focus on improving graduate teachers, how important do you think this focus is? Is it the right direction for improving student outcomes?

We stand for quality in terms of initial teacher education and we believe it’s vitally important that students have access to high-quality teaching courses and that those courses provide them with the particular expertise they need to be classroom ready at the end of that study. Reforms of the sector are vitally important, however, the recent Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report didn’t go far enough.

The report identified that there were many teaching courses that were not meeting the national standard and that for us is a huge concern because if students are participating in those courses how can they be reassured that they are going to be classroom ready at the end of that process? The report made a recommendation that there should be a national regulator in place to ensure that these courses meet national standards but that was rejected by [Federal Education] Minister Pyne and we think that’s very disappointing because we do believe there is cause for a national regulator to lift the quality of those courses. It’s also very, very important for people to have ongoing support whilst they’re studying and I know there was a headline issue around literacy and numeracy tests for student teachers at the end of their course. We think it’s very important not to focus on a single test but that students actually have access to ongoing support during their course and ongoing assessment. They need to have access to that so they can work out what changes they need to put in place and what skills and expertise they need to develop to become classroom ready.

How do you feel about one of the main recommendations being a specialisation for primary school teachers with a focus on STEM and languages?

The reality is in many primary schools across the country there are already specialist teaching programs in place. We think it’s important for teachers to have access to broad curriculum expertise, that’s very important for a child’s development as a whole, but you can’t implement provisions around having specialist teachers in place without looking at the resources that will need to be in place to support that.

One of the things that we would like to see is a two-year post-graduate degree and we think that that will provide additional time for student teachers to take up a specialist teaching course, but also it would provide time to make sure that student teachers spend a greater amount of time in classrooms.

It’s not about an education degree being purely post-graduate but we think there needs to be a compensation right across the nation with the education sector about post-graduate study. If you have a look in South Australia the government there has announced that new teachers there will do a Master’s degree by 2020. Now that’s one way forward and there may be other avenues for universities to consider and be very open to be a part of the conversation about what post-graduate study can look like.

The Federal Government has also put support for school principals back to the agenda recently. What way do you think is best to add greater support to principals in schools conducting their daily work?

We have many principals that are members of our union and we work very closely with them particularly around issues of workload and education leadership. Principals want to be educational leaders in their schools, they want to be driving curriculum change and supporting their teachers, their support staff and their school communities to achieve the best outcomes possible. There is no doubt, and there are many studies that have been run recently, which have demonstrated that the workload of principals is escalating. We support high-standards for leadership but we think there needs to be some recognition of the additional resources that principals need, the ongoing professional development that they need and also the mentoring and support that they need to be fantastic educational leaders.

Going back to late last year and looking at the Federal Government’ Review of the Australian Curriculum and its key recommendations – how confident are you of its implementation?

Let’s not forget that the Review of the Australian Curriculum was implemented at a time when full curriculum rollout had not been completed. In the first instance we had significant concerns about reviewing a curriculum that had yet to be fully implemented, and around the country in many states and territories there was a timeline in terms of curriculum implementation, and in particular the secondary sector had some curriculum areas that were being implemented this year and in 2016. So that in itself was an issue, reviewing something that’s not been fully-established.

There were a number of recommendations of the review. I think the one that is interesting refers to the over-crowding of the curriculum. Whilst particularly in the primary sector many educators would say that there is an issue with respect to over-crowding of the curriculum, we would be concerned about some of the discussion around removing things such as sustainability and climate change and environmental issues from the curriculum. We believe very strongly in educating the whole child. Numeracy and literacy skills are vitally important but we also want school students to be active participants in society and have a broad understand of issues such as climate change and other things that could affect their life after school.

The states are already well on their way in terms of implementing the Australian Curriculum, so that is happening. There has already been an intense process between the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and education professionals working in the field to road test the curriculum and to get things in place. Our concern is that reviewing something that had not been fully implemented has not actually allowed people to have the capacity to participate in a review in a reflective way because really you’ve got to see how the curriculum is implemented, what sort of issues might arise at a classroom level, and if it’s not implemented then I would question how you can do that.

How do you feel about the recommended restructure of ACARA so it is “at arm’s length” from education ministers and the education department?

I think ACARA has had a key role to play in terms of not only the curriculum development but the implementation of that and it is an organisations that is respected in the field and we think there is still a strong future for ACARA to lead the work around curriculum development.

Latest figures from the Productivity Commission confirm that at least 100,000 students with disability are not getting support in schools. Are we likely to see an increase in this support from the Federal Government?

The issue around students with a disability is absolutely critical. We’ve been through a national disability data collection process to work out how many additional students actually require funding. That was a commitment that was made by the Federal Government through the implementation of Gonski school funding reform. What the Abbott Government has done has put that funding on hold and said the disability loading will not be implemented until 2016. So we know that we’ve got an additional 100,000 children in the sector who are currently not receiving the resources that they need in our schools. We are very concerned about this and we believe it’s a vital issue that must be addressed in the May budget by the Abbott Government because we want to see the commitment to the disability loading in place so that those children and their families can be reassured that the resources are in place for them in school.

Govt focus on teacher education a step in the right direction


Two leading academics have hailed the Federal Government’s response to teacher education reform as a step in the right direction.

A Federal Government report into teacher education in Australia has called for an overhaul of the system amid concerns some teaching graduates are not ‘classroom ready’ and have poor literacy and numeracy skills.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne released the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers earlier this month as a blueprint for “critical and lasting reform” of teacher education. Led by Professor Greg Craven, the Advisory Group was asked to make practical recommendations on improving teacher education programs to better prepare teachers with the skills they need for the classroom.

Glenn Finger, Professor of Education and Dean (Learning and Teaching) of the Arts, Education and Law Group at Queensland’s Griffith University said the report highlights the need for an evidence-informed approach which focuses on teacher education students learning and demonstrating approaches which improve student learning.

“To enable improvements in both public confidence of teaching graduates and the quality of initial teacher education programs, the report has adopted a commendable approach by focusing on more rigour which ensures that all programs meet high expectations,” Finger said.

The report recommends improvement in both the content and delivery of programmes by universities through stronger partnerships with education systems and schools, and the government has accepted most of the recommendations in the report, instructing the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) to act immediately.

Key recommendations of the report include:
• A test to assess the literacy and numeracy skills of all teaching graduates;
• A requirement for universities to demonstrate that their graduates are classroom ready before gaining full course accreditation;
• An overhaul of the in class practical element of teaching degrees;
• A specialisation for primary school teachers with a focus on STEM and languages; and,
• Universities publish all information about how they select students into teacher education programs.

Stephen Dinham, National President of the Australian College of Educators and Chair of Teacher Education and Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Melbourne, said to improve student outcomes you’ve got to start with teacher education.

“It’s most important for a whole range of reasons, including the individual students and society as a whole, that we get teacher education right, so that every young person has got the opportunity to have a quality education,” he said.

Dinham also highlighted the need to improve the accreditation of teacher education courses.

“In my view, the standard is too low, it’s a very low bar, and we need to do more,” he said. “The report emphasises this, we need to do more to ensure that these courses are of the right quality, that they are informed by evidence, that the right people are teaching them, that the in school experience is appropriate, and that at the end of the day, these courses can demonstrate that they are having a positive impact on teaching and learning.”

While Finger agreed that the expectations of national standards needed to be lifted, he expressed some concern over how this could be achieved through Australia’s system of federalism.

“Minister Pyne’s approach is to leave this to the existing State and Territory bodies charged with [delivering better quality assurance], but they need to improve the national accreditation standard,” he said. “There’s a mixed message here, particularly for those providers – such as Professor Craven’s ACU, which has programs in various jurisdictions – that is, agreement that we need national standards and higher expectations, but there might be more than marginal differences between expectations of those different accrediting authorities.

“There are currently some significant differences already and it will be interesting to see if this diverge or converge. My preference is that of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group – a reconstituted role of AITSL to enable a national, integrated approach with cooperative federalism guiding collaboration between Commonwealth and State governments.”

AEU to bring Gonski funding to forefront of 2016 election


Newly-appointed Federal President of the Australian Education Union (AEU) Correna Haythorpe addressed its annual conference over the weekend highlighting her commitment to make The Gonski Review and needs-based funding one of the key issues in the 2016 election.

Haythorpe wants to ensure Australian children receive an education that values their potential and individuality, and that makes sure their needs are met.

“Well-resourced public schools, and the staff that make them work, are a resource that benefits the community,” she said. “Our public schools are unique because they are the only ones which are required to educate every child that arrives at the front gate – regardless of who that child is or where they come from.

“Real ‘choice’ in schooling must include a decent, well-funded public school in every community in Australia that can meet the needs of every student.”

Marking three years since the review into school funding was released Haythorpe said that needs-based funding for schools is the most important issue in the education sector and the Gonski reforms are the best chance it has had in a generation of getting real change and equity.

Haythorpe highlighted how schools in New South Wales and South Australia that have seen Gonski funding flow through to their budgets have had great results.

“Cowandilla Primary School in Adelaide received just $10,500 in its first year of Gonski funding – and yet was able to deliver a numeracy intervention program for Years 1-3,” she said. “This program delivered improvement to every single child that was involved, and will be expanded in 2015 with the second round of Gonski funding.

“Needs-based funding for schools touches on every difficulty that teachers face – whether it is class sizes, lack of support staff, or the need for literacy and numeracy programs, Gonski is our chance – we can’t have a successful society if one in seven kids are leaving school without basic skills that they need to participate in the community.

“We cannot be a successful society if children are effectively denied a quality education due to their postcode.”

Haythorpe launched a scathing attack on the Federal Government’s attitude towards public education and pointed it out as the biggest barrier Australia faces to being able to implement the full recommendations of The Gonski Review.

“This is a Government that has used the idea of a ‘budget emergency’ to abandon agreements with the States for the fifth and sixth years of the Gonski agreements,” she said. “In effect they have walked away from equity.

“They have also done nothing to ensure that State Governments actually deliver Gonski funding to schools, rather than divert it into other programs.”

The AEU has called on members for their support to ensure the continued success of its I Give a Gonski campaign while revealing its plan to bring it to the 2016 Federal Election.

“We’ve had a few wins and a few losses in the last three years, but the final result is still in play and colleagues, we will campaign for the full six years of Gonski funding and if we work hard enough we will win,” Haythorpe said.

“That’s why we’ve set up a campaign team, involving leaders from all of your branches, and are developing a marginal seat strategy. We will put people on the ground in marginal seats across the country dedicated to doing one thing: campaigning for the full six years of Gonski funding our kids deserve.

“Politicians from all parties need to hear that funding matters: to us, to parents and to students. They need to hear this as loudly and as often as possible.”