The Government has called for submissions into the “Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools” – aka the “second Gonski review”. Gonski was about money and equity, this review is about what schools should do.
Along with a few Korean missiles and the marriage equality campaign, last week saw the public launch of the second Gonski review. Most will have missed the call for submissions but it is worth a second look. Gonski 1.0 was about money and equity, this time around it is about what schools should do.
It sounds like a no-brainer. We all know what schools should do, we’ve all been in one. But the Review wants more than anecdotal stories: they have asked for submissions, due in just a few weeks, to respond to a number of questions. This is a good approach – and it could, if properly done, be a game changer.
Two months ago Education Minister Simon Birmingham set the scene by exhorting people to think outside the square. He is right: a breakthrough, especially for disengaged and low achieving kids, won’t happen unless we think differently – and allow schools to do the same.
But he has just announced a brand new test, this time for the littlies in Year 1. Is this outside the square ̶ or is it just more of the same? Teachers assess and know the needs of their Year 1 students, can’t they be trusted? In these circumstances how much will the new Gonski Review excite people to think differently?
Despite their best intentions, schools exist inside a square, a box, if you like. A range of people and institutions, including governments, keep them there. Many people and commentators have a dated view of schools: right or wrong, tradition appeals. System and statutory authorities have a stranglehold via curriculum and testing. Governments recycle useless ideas for schools to implement. It all means that authentic reform becomes a tough gig.
They need to back off. Thinking outside the square won’t deliver unless we also reform, neuter or bypass all those people, institutions and forces that get in the way. Schools should truly engage children (and young adults) in learning for personal achievement, for a sustainable livelihood and an enduring contribution to society. All those words – engage, learning, achievement, sustainable and contribution – are critical and even sequential. Engagement is the key: without it, not much else happens.
As well as asking what schools should do, the new Gonski Review asks how their success can be measured. We can be as erudite as we like in answering the first question, but unless we measure the wider purposes of schools then all bets are off. For decades we have summed up the worth of young people in a few numbers and the value of their school in test scores. That is what drives what schools actually do: the testing tail wags the dog. Nice if it creates a sustainable lift in achievement, but if that was happening we wouldn’t be having this review.
None of this lets schools off the hook and the review asks good questions. How can we support school improvement over time? What practice is best and where is the evidence? How can we improve the learning of all students? How can we share this and how should we effectively monitor schools?
Schools should be placed under all these spotlights. Far too many are not in the business of supporting all students because they are structured in a way to avoid all students. We spirit away students with special needs, literally into a class of their own. We have selective schools and streams for the gifted and talented regardless of the impact on others. Our cookie-cutter design of schooling disenfranchises the large number of kids who learn in different ways. Amidst all the justified concerns about inequity, this is probably the greatest inequity of all.
And then we throw up a website, featuring each school, full of words, marks, graphs and inevitable comparisons and pretend that this makes schools accountable and improve. My School doesn’t do anything of the sort – it just send parents off in pursuit of the schools with the better numbers. Schools should be accountable but this is done best when each school is reviewed, supported, criticised if needed and improved. Some countries do this quite well. We don’t. Why not? Because it costs.
The due date for submissions is Friday the 13th of October – hopefully that’s not an omen. We can be confident that, just like last time, this Gonski Review will deliver. But unlike last time, we need to make sure that governments listen … and act.
And it would be nice if between now and next March they don’t conjure up any more new tests.
Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.