After overseeing the introduction of various national education reforms at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) over the past 10 years, Robert Randall’s time as CEO comes to a close. As he bids farewell, he reflects on how far the organisation has come, and the impact it has had on teachers and students.
It is bittersweet for me to be writing a piece in The Last Word, as these will be some of the last words I write as the CEO of ACARA.
When I started my journey with ACARA, at the organisation’s founding, our major focus was to develop a national curriculum in English, mathematics, science and history. Fast forward almost 10 years, and we have far surpassed that goal. Our final product – the Australian Curriculum – is a truly national curriculum, available to all students no matter where they live in Australia.
We now have nine learning areas complemented with general capabilities such as Critical and Creative Thinking; Personal and Social Capability; ICT Literacy; as well as cross-curriculum priorities such as Sustainability.
Setting national expectations for education and working as a nation to improve learning opportunities for all young Australians is no easy feat. In developing a national curriculum, we worked with educators, experts and advisers to receive and review over 7000 responses to shaping papers and draft the curriculum over an 18-month period. We received 12,500 responses during consultation. More than 2100 teachers trialled the curriculum in classrooms around the country.
ACARA assumed responsibility for the National Assessment Program, including NAPLAN, which was initially introduced by Australia’s education ministers as a replacement of state/territory assessments. It remains the only national literacy and numeracy test that students participate in across several years of schooling.
It has not been without controversy. Like the growth of students’ results we have seen over time, we have also seen NAPLAN itself grow and change – from a paper-and-pencil based assessment, to being linked with the Australian Curriculum, and to the online adaptive test that took place last year for the first time. There is no doubt NAPLAN is a much better assessment now than when it first began.
Public reporting of NAPLAN results on the My School website also generates debate, however ACARA’s focus has always been on celebrating student gain and promoting school improvement. We encourage principals who have seen progress in NAPLAN results year-on-year to share strategies and programs with the wider education community, so all schools can benefit from their knowledge.
We know parents value the transparency My School affords – they can see attendance rates, NAPLAN achievement, student and staff numbers, and school financial data in one location. They can use this to start conversations with current or prospective schools, and it assists them to make informed decisions about their child’s schooling.
It has been my privilege to oversee these major national education initiatives and lead ACARA’s exceptional team of passionate educators and colleagues. I leave just shy of a decade at ACARA and I cannot help but wonder what the next 10 years will look like for Australia’s education system. I have no doubt our Curriculum team will continue developing comprehensive resources to support teachers in implementing the Australian Curriculum. We have already established a presence in 160 disadvantaged schools to help local teachers implement the Digital Technologies curriculum, and recently released information to support teachers in implementing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures cross-curriculum priority into the Australian Curriculum: Science. I imagine the observations from recent comparative studies of the British Columbia, Singapore, Finland and New Zealand curricula will provide some insight into the next iteration of the Australian Curriculum.
I hope the commentary around NAPLAN and NAPLAN Online begins to shift. NAPLAN is a simple snapshot in time. It is a clear, nationally comparable indicator of students’ literacy and numeracy achievements. Because we have NAPLAN data, we know where we are doing well and where we can do better. Rather than not have the information (as those who argue for removing the test appear to seek), we need a more mature discussion about what the data are telling us and about better ways we use these data. We know that the great majority of schools and school communities use NAPLAN data constructively, alongside other school-based tests and information, to ensure students have fundamental skills to succeed far beyond school.
I look forward to all students across the country reaping the benefits of NAPLAN Online. We have done a tremendous amount of planning and testing to ensure there is as minimal impact on students as possible. I am always pleased to hear that students have found the online test format easier and more engaging. Additionally, the more precise information about a student’s literacy and numeracy skills is a big plus for many parents and teachers.
If the last 10 years are anything to go by, the future of Australia’s education system is bright and full of opportunities for innovation and change. I look forward to seeing ACARA’s work continue to contribute to improving the education outcomes for millions of young Australians.