CHRIS BONNOR. A rare opportunity to fix schools

A little news item can tell a big story. This week the Guardian reported on a survey that revealed that Australian parents want schools to teach more social skills. It raises many questions: whose job it is anyway, what will fall off the curriculum to make space, how will we know if it works? But in one sense it is certainly timely: right now the Gonski 2.0 Review is giving us a once-in-a-decade opportunity to have our say about what schools should and shouldn’t do.

Submissions are due to the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools (Gonski 2.0) in just three weeks. Expressing your opinions on schools seems like a daunting task but it can all be done online and the review panel is seeking responses to a series of questions. Yes, you should read the Terms of Reference and the Issues Paper….but the questions are most important.

And what interesting questions! The first basically asks what students should learn at school and how their achievement can be measured. We can and do come up with a shopping list of things for schools to teach, including social skills – but when we measure success we ignore most things on the list and focus on the things easiest to measure.

Sorry parents, NAPLAN trumps social skills every time. We measure what we can, and we value what we measure; until this changes our broad views about what schools should do will amount to very little. My own take on this is that student engagement is the key to success and we urgently need to measure and value this. Narrow measures of student worth and achievement constantly undermine the purpose of schooling.

The Review wants your opinion on what we can do to improve – and how we might support ongoing improvement over time. The background to this, and the Turnbull Government’s rationale for the Review, is the need to use funding more effectively and efficiently. Frankly, our funding of schools lacks both, but the problems only partly relate to how Ms Waterhouse teaches simultaneous equations to Year 8. As Bernie Shepherd and I revealed, we waste mega-dollars on some schools where students don’t achieve any better than similar students elsewhere.

The first Gonski review had an equity focus, as does this one with its emphasis on learning outcomes for all students. Clearly our schools fall well short of this at the moment: they serve mainstream students in mainstream places quite well – in fact they compete with each other to get these students. But an increasing number of students don’t respond well to production-line schooling. Our incapacity to serve these students has created an equity crisis equal to that surrounding the issue of funding.

But meet the needs of all students we really have to think differently about how we ‘do school’. Despite all the conversations about school choice, marketization of school education has meant that schools are actually very similar – only the brave stray beyond the expected look and feel of schooling. Education Minister Birmingham has implored the Review panel to think outside the square. Unless this is done in ways that reach those who are disengaged from school, little else will happen.

So this means getting serious about new modes of delivery, as explained by Tom Greenwell in his closer look at online selective schools. It means providing greater recognition and support for schools which do think outside the square, commonly with outstanding results. It means rethinking the role of what the Review panel calls “system enablers”, the bodies which oversee targets and standards, qualifications and accreditation, regulation and registration, quality assurance measures and transparency and accountably provisions.

The Review wants to know about new or emerging areas for action that need further development or testing – as well as barriers which get in the way of improvement. But such questions need to be continually asked, not just by a one-off review – especially one arguably established by a government looking for some Gonski legitimacy. Any recommendations arising out of this review will require ongoing oversight, reporting and updating.

Let’s face it, Gonski 1.0 fell well short because its implementation became a plaything of politicians. We can’t allow this to happen a second time around. This Review should recommend that a task force – at arm’s length from governments – be established to revisit the issues raised and monitor progress being made against the recommendations of both Gonski Reviews, and report publically at regular intervals.

Given the investment in such reviews and the high stakes involved we can’t afford to fail twice.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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