CHRIS BONNOR & BERNIE SHEPHERD. Australia’s test scores: what lies beneath?

The big lesson for Australia in education is that we can ‘reform’ schools to the hilt, hammer the maths and science – but nothing will change unless we address structural and equity problems as well. 

This is the time of the year when end-of-school exam results are posted up for all to see. The names of the top 100 schools are paraded and we marvel at the schools that seem to do so well.

But it is easy to rain on this parade. You can come up with a list of the top 100 schools in order of the level of socio-educational advantage of the enrolled students and it is much the same list. Routinely, around two thirds of the schools in the 100 by results are in the second list. Not only that, as we have shown, if you compare schools enrolling similar students it is also very evident that the results don’t significantly vary between school sectors.

But if all that is rain on a parade the recent release of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results amounts to a deluge. At the end of November we woke up to discover that in TIMSS we had even fallen behind Kazakhstan. Then a week later we were told that PISA results show our science, maths and reading results are in long term decline.

Notwithstanding the problems in such global testing and on the way various countries react to their results it isn’t a good look. And all this comes just days before the education ministers around Australia gather again for another round of posturing and blame shifting.

As usual, our reported responses to TIMSS and PISA say much more about the various players in education than they do about the problem. It doesn’t change: depending on the players it’s all about the need to furiously reform schools, focus on maths and science or whatever, spend more money, spend less money, make schools more accountable and/or independent, more support for the needy or the occasional new idea like putting put more iodine in the diet of the ankle-biters.

Any scan of media can show that Australia is not the only country experiencing post-PISA pains – and looking once again at what high achieving countries are doing. As Amanda Ripley recently reported in the New York Times:

the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

We are working on some of those things but side-stepping others. And there is no shortage of other suggestions about why we are falling behind. One journalist gathered together some common ones in a piece in Fairfax media last weekend, pointing to the influence of parents, ill-disciplined students, over-use of digital media, poor teachers, poorly directed resources and inequality.

There is an equal diversity of suggested solutions, including from the experts. The recent Grattan report revived the idea of master teachers and instructional leaders as an investment in better teaching. John Hattie talks about the need for a reboot in our education system. Another interesting idea was advanced by the Productivity Commission: to gather together the evidence of what works and make it readily available.

In broad terms you can divide suggested solutions, and many of the players, into two categories. The first category has been the main driver for over a decade. This is the belief that the problems and solutions lie almost entirely within schools and school systems. The ‘within-school’ reformers are often quite distant from schools and include governments, some academics, commentators and corporate donors. They variously propose, mandate, research and/or fund a range of interventions. Their ideas fully range from the sensible to the useless.

The second category includes those who believe that the key to improving schools lies in the ways in which we provide and resource them. They also point to the context in which schools operate: their establishment, obligations and operation, location and sector, funding, the SES profile of their students and parents. Players in this category tend to include teacher unions, academics and those on the progressive side of politics.

We’re in the second group, not because the within-school reforms are less important but simply because they won’t succeed if we continue to ignore the problems which are external to the school.


Let us demonstrate it this way. There are many proposals to improve teachers and to parachute the best into the really struggling schools. But the remaining student role models, leaders and achievers in those schools go out the back door to attend schools further up the socio-educational ladder. Due to a combination of known factors which plague residualised schools, the task faced by that ‘gun’ teacher becomes much harder.

Despite all the conversations about teacher quality it is certainly our experience, gained in some of the most disadvantaged schools in NSW, that disadvantaged schools can be counted among the engine-drivers of quality teaching. We illustrate what is happening to these schools across Australia and why they don’t seem to be delivering. The Gonski panel ably demonstrated how our structure of schooling compounds problems in some schools and advantage in others.

And the schools which are gathering more of the advantaged aren’t lifting our levels of achievement. In John Hattie’s words they are just cruising.

Recent years have seen more mainstream academics and even politicians focus on what is happening outside the school, in the process creating a better balance in the search for solutions. The Grattan Institute illustrates how solutions need to address problems on both sides of the school fence. John Hattie’s solutions are also revealing. He talks about the need to focus on reading and maths, and the need to have a highly accomplished teacher in every school. But he also sees the key as the need to build confidence in the public school system and, like others, is very concerned about inequity.

Hattie also says schools need to demonstrate that they are inviting places to come and learn – and they need to have multiple ways to be excellent in upper high school. In this way he hints at an underlying problem that usually escapes attention. For decades schools have been locked in a marketplace completion which has not created improved quality but has instead ensured that each caters for the mainstream students who best respond to the way we ‘do school’. Just as in politics, competing schools lean towards the centre.

It isn’t a problem unique to Australia. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, schools have become:

….impersonal and standardized….typically force feeding students a dried diet of received information. Schools are rooted to the industrial culture of mass production – the fixed lesson periods of ringing bells, the division of students into age groups and the curriculum into separate subjects, and the rigid barriers between school and the world outside.

Students are disengaging from a school system which pushes them through externally imposed hoops and measures their achievement in limited ways. Our schools might suit around a third of our students, but another third just learn how to play the game and cruise along.

We have all but lost the final third. For them, schools are certainly not “inviting places to come and learn”. We know about these kids; they are prominent on our streets and in the statistics. Mitchel Institute research shows that 26% of students fail to finish school or a vocational equivalent.

Alas, Hattie’s “multiple ways to be excellent” don’t get much of a look-in. The focus of most school reforms seems to be on doing mainstream school harder, better and longer. Not surprising: it resonates with commentators, tabloid media and with governments. But the crisis also calls for schooling to re-engage young people in learning for life. Harder-better-longer is not enough. The schools which dare to innovate are few and far between and don’t suit the mainstream narrative about what schools should be and do.

Amidst all our (justified) concerns about equity perhaps our failure to meet the needs of these young people is the greatest inequity of all.

One thing is certain. If current trends continue we can confidently expect that our structural, equity and achievement deficits will continue to mount. Based on the trends which have been identified by readily available data about schools:

  • Inequity will continue to rise
  • Enrolments will continue to shift to advantaged schools
  • Disadvantage will concentrate further
  • The school hierarchies will deepen
  • Funding imbalances will exacerbate
  • Our investment may remain poorly targeted
  • Student achievement will further decline and diverge
  • The costs of failing to tackle inequity/disadvantage will mount

Our enduring problem is that the essential solutions to our school achievement problem are also the hardest to implement. Governments turn avoidance of these into an art form. The big lesson for Australia is that we can ‘reform’ schools to the hilt, hammer the maths and science – but nothing will change unless we address structural and equity problems as well. Separating our strivers and strugglers into different schools, as we do both within and across sectors, creates schools that end up just coasting at one end or declining at the other. We are now paying the price.

Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd are joint authors of Uneven Playing Field – the state of Australia’s schools, produced by the Centre for Policy Development.


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