When they update the history of Australian school education the name Gonski, and the names of those he has worked with, deserve to be up there in lights. He’s done it again: an exhaustive investigation into what we need to do to improve school education. Will it all come to pass this time around? What can we expect?
The opening sentences sum up what is different in this report:
In a world where education defines opportunity, schooling must support every one of Australia’s 3.8 million school students to realise their full learning potential and achieve educational excellence. Australian students should receive a world-class school education, tailored to individual learning needs…Schooling should enrich students’ lives, leaving them inspired to pursue new ideas and set ambitious goals throughout life.
The whole report is indeed about “every one” of our students and “individual learning needs”. Words like “enrich” and “inspired” come like a breath of fresh air to an education system straitjacketed by NAPLAN, made mediocre by markets with children graded – and often degraded – for their whole school lives. Thorough work by the panel and their supporting team, endless consultations and nearly 300 submissions have finally brought home the big message: we need to do school differently.
The report doesn’t pull any punches. The declines in measureable student achievement are well known. Gonski says they are equivalent to a generation of Australian school children falling short of their full learning potential. Our model of education is dated. It doesn’t reach all students, nor does it stretch them, in the words of the report, to ensure they achieve maximum learning growth every year – nor does it incentivise schools to innovate and continuously improve.
Yes, schools are deficient but Gonski also notes that schools’ attempts to address the issue are hampered by curriculum delivery, assessment, work practices and the structural environments in which they operate. The constraints on schools also include reporting and assessment regimes, and tools focussed on periodic judgements of performance, rather than continuous diagnosis of a student’s learning needs and progress.
Accordingly, the report recommends far more individualized learning and a shift to measurement of student growth, something that will be supported by the creation of formative assessment tools to map this growth, plan the next learning steps and track student progress. Each student should emerge from schooling, the report says, as a creative, connected, and engaged learner with a growth mindset that can help to improve their educational achievement over time. The greater the number of students who realise their full learning potential, the greater the cumulative lift will be in our overall national performance.
Personal observations? In submitting to the review I stressed that the critical need is for student engagement to be front and centre in any effort to improve learning in schools. Without that engagement not much else will happen. Reaching out to and engaging all students is also a serious equity challenge, equal to the ongoing need for resource equity highlighted by the first Gonski review six years ago. On that score the review findings and recommendations deserves a big tick.
Anyone who read my recent article Has Gonski stepped outside the square? will know that I’m just one of many raising the issues addressed by the review. At various times over 40 years in and around schools I’ve been both part of the problem and part of the solution – and currently involved with Big Picture schools, which are certainly part of the solution. The review panel has done remarkable work: apart from anything else, schools which are really innovative will find themselves a focus of attention rather than being consigned to the fringe. While the review wisely avoided pointing to any approved model, such schools will be able to make an acknowledged and significant contribution to an unfolding debate.
And the debate has certainly begun. First out of the blocks are the usual suspects who haunt places like News Limited and the Centre for Independent Studies. It’s quite amazing how they can read, understand, criticise and reject a 140 page report in just a few hours after its release. Oh, to have such a talent. Early signs are that, this time around, David Gonski will respond to the more thoughtful critics. Hopefully the latter might include some who actually have read the report.
And now to the implementation, and there are so many hurdles. How far can even the most evidence-driven school-level innovation progress before options are closed off? Will the states and school systems roll out the level of trust and support needed by schools? Will governments be held to the standards of evidence that they insist should be binding on schools? That would be nice. Will there be sufficient consensus on both sides of politics? Early signs aren’t encouraging. Will the Turnbull government continue to walk away from the continuing inequity in school funding? That mission hasn’t been accomplished by a long shot.
Some time ago the federal education minister exhorted people to step outside the square in responding to the review’s terms of reference. Once again, a Gonski panel has done just that. But don’t forget what happened to Gonski 1.0 back in 2012. It was greeted with almost unanimous applause, then variously undermined, appropriated or just ignored. Maybe it’s a good thing we have been there before: David Gonski has already made a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ comment to the media which speaks volumes. The changes, he reportedly said, should be seen as a package deal, not for picking and choosing by politicians.
This Gonski report deserves to be a springboard for authentic and sustainable school improvement. Let’s just do it.
Chris Bonnor is a previous president of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council.