VIC ROWLANDS. Education, which way forward.

Gonski’s “Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools” is timely but one would hope it will be supplemented by a closer look at the needs of lower achieving students for whom prospects in the next age, with the gap between rich and poor, becomes even more pronounced, are not encouraging. Gonski says:”The basics must be in place by the time you’re eight”, but there is more to this than a change of methodology.

Whether the report gets to do what is recommended is as much a political as an educational question. The negative early responses from the conservative commentators are as to be expected, and are also a confirmation of the battle to come that will likely decide its future. It will have to negotiate highly disputed philosophical ground with a minefield of special interest groups and lobbies.   

We have a divided education system. Schools from the government sector represent about sixty percent of all students and, with the exception of a few selective schools, they accept anyone who walks in the door from their area. Success is relative, not comparative. Comparisons with non-government schools, which can control their enrolments, is now part of education marketing and choice. Statistics and tables are often used superficially to reflect poorly and unfairly on government schools, so any change has to be able to demonstrate that it will not exacerbate this situation, or be able to be used to do so. 

The last twenty years have been marked by a growth to the point of obsession of standardised tests measuring student performance and the worship of ATAR scores. It seems everything to do with educational achievement has to be able to be measured and graphed. If it can’t be reduced to statistics, it doesn’t exist. Every new standardised test or student performance measuring initiative in the age of “Stats and Graphs” is routinely promoted by ministers with soothing guarantees that schools will not be subjected to league table comparisons, there will be no interference to the curriculum, teachers will not have an additional burden and it will not stress the kids and parents. In fact, most of them do all four. The “unique student identifier” proposed to track children outcomes in test “from birth to death”, even though a version is in place now in some states, will be very sceptically viewed.

NAPLAN rolls on a decade after introduction with no cost-benefit analysis and showing Australia slipping in some categories of the international rankings. It is regarded disdainfully by many teachers and principals, felt to be detrimental to the school and system, and increasingly losing support from parents worried about its effects on their kids, particularly younger children. When Education minister Simon Birmingham flagged the introduction of a Year one test he assured everyone it will be, “a light-touch skills check.” Why is nobody comforted by that? No matter what the intent every new league table becomes a tool for school marketing.

Testing has always been a part of teaching. It’s most valuable purpose has always been as a diagnostic tool. True it was always the cornerstone of prizes, awards and reports but its prime justification is that it can be used to help the kids learn. Tests are not bad in themselves it’s the assumed certainty of the results and what uses are made of them that does the harm.

International comparison of student performance between countries when significant variables are not factored in, limits the value of the rankings. The NAPLAN league table of nations is not the instrument which should drive changes to education policy.

Chief Scientist, the Alan Finkel believes it is time to review ATAR because students are ‘gaming’ the system to achieve a higher ATAR score and avoiding STEM subjects, particularly the more difficult Maths. When university course places are decided by a cutoff score going to one decimal point, as a number of the more prestigious ones are, it is totally predictable that students will choose subjects that will maximise their ATAR. 

Because of the low student numbers in the senior years, STEM subjects are being heavily promoted to young people, but no one seems to understand that if students are to be encouraged to do science and maths subjects at senior level they will need a better explanation of the reasons for this, and not simply slogan like generalisations relating to the certainty of future jobs for them. Too many students have grown up with technology which automatically provides what previously had to be mentally calculated, it seems like they actually need maths less. 

One way to build STEM would be to look for ways to integrate math and science across the curriculum in addition to being a stand-alone subject. There is plenty of scope to do this and it would make the acceptance of maths less threatening and, for the non-believers, more interesting. Many students think maths is the most important subject they do and the subject they like least – a certain recipe for disaster.

Individual Learning Plans are not new to teaching, though developments in technology expand their possibilities immeasurably. They will have to built around teachers and students working co-operatively, which will mean they will be very teacher intensive in their interaction and expensive to fund. As pressure builds on the delivery of ILP’s the temptation will be to develop computer-generated templates to help their preparation. Computer generated reports followed a similar path and many believe they have become too often impersonally robotic and disengaging.

Education is first and foremost about people. The needs and value of the broader curriculum that accompanies these changes also has to be recognised. It also has to move to suit the needs of the times when the solution of the world’s problems in the next 50 years will spring as much from an understanding of human rights and ethical behaviour as formal education.

That would also represent educational excellence.

To paraphrase MARK 8:36, “For what shall it profit a country if it shall gain top place in the world NAPLAN table and has lost its soul.”  

Vic Rowlands former teacher and secondary principal.

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I see no reason to privilege STEM subjects.