New review makes groundbreaking call for transformation of Australia’s school system

Dec 17, 2023
Education concept with books, school accessories and apple.

The results from the OECD’s PISA tests released last week showed that in Australia demography is destiny, revealing that by the time young people reach Year 9 a staggering five years of learning separates students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. This week, a major report advanced a compelling explanation for our educational woes – and pointed to the way to immediate and long-term solutions.

Commissioned by Commonwealth education minister, Jason Clare, the ‘Improving outcomes for all’ report was released ahead of negotiations for the next National School Reform Agreement, the four year school funding deal between states and the Commonwealth. The expert panel that produced the report included the world-renowned Finnish author and researcher, Pasi Sahlberg, and the head of education at the Grattan Institute, Jordana Hunter, and it was chaired by Lisa O’Brien, former CEO of the Smith family and head of the Australian Education Research Organisation.

The first problem the O’Brien report highlights, and the one that has understandably received most of the attention, is money. Australian governments long ago defined the basic level of resourcing required for most students (not all) to achieve minimum standards (not excellence), and have now failed, for more than a decade, to deliver even that. It is a case of public policy negligence in the first degree. The message from the expert panel was clear: 98% of public schools are not funded at the basic resource standard and that needs to be rectified – urgently.

But the O’Brien report identifies another major cause of inequity and underachievement, arguing that increasing the socio-economic diversity of our schools is essential to lifting outcomes. It points out that Australia’s school system is unusually socially segregated and the problem is getting worse, with around half a million students attending a school where there are high concentrations of social disadvantage.

The report presents stark evidence that this arrangement of students is fundamentally undermining all that schools aspire to achieve. For example, it describes how “78 per cent of low‑SES students in high‑SES schools performed at or above NAPLAN’s National Minimum Standards in 2017; that proportion fell to 38 per cent for low‑SES students in low‑SES schools.” Meanwhile, “students experiencing disadvantage who attend advantaged schools score 86 points higher in PISA 2015 science testing, the equivalent of three years of school, than their peers experiencing disadvantage who attend disadvantaged schools.”

When you think about it, the negative impact of concentrating socially disadvantaged students in the same schools is not surprising. The expert panel spoke with teachers who described increased classroom disruption, increased teacher workloads, and reduced opportunities for one-on-one teaching time with the students who need the most individual attention. The challenges posed in these contexts inevitably impact teacher morale which in turn affects retention and recruitment. Thus, the report records, “34 per cent of students enrolled in a disadvantaged Australian school attend a school whose principal reported that instruction is hindered by a lack of teaching staff, compared to 3 per cent of students in an advantaged school.”

As important as the O’Brien report’s insights into the problems facing our schools are, they are not new. The finding that “the SES profile of the school may be a stronger predictor of academic achievement than the student’s individual family socio‑economic status” can be found, almost verbatim, in the Gonski report.

But the way the O’Brien report responds to the problem is new – groundbreaking in fact. In essence, it offers a declaration that we must revisit the basic assumptions underpinning our dual system of publicly funded schools, in which public schools are free and comprehensive while ‘private’ schools can pick and choose which students they enrol, and charge fees as high as the market will bear.

In questioning existing arrangements, the report contemplates the possibility that public funding of non-government schools is only provided “on the condition that they cannot charge fees.”

The report seriously countenances proposals that non-government schools in receipt of public funding are required to implement inclusive enrolment practices. After noting submissions that endorsed such an approach, the report observes, “In New Zealand, the UK and Canada, for example, governments regulate non‑government school enrolment policies to increase the diversity of the students. Applying inclusive enrolment policies in Australia is one way in which non‑government schools can increase enrolments of students from diverse backgrounds and reduce concentrations of disadvantage.”

Cataloguing a series of international approaches to reducing social segregation, the O’Brien report points to examples of legislated quotas which “stipulate the minimum number or percentage of students from vulnerable cohorts that high‑demand schools must accept.”

The report doesn’t formally endorse any specific policy lever, let alone recommend its immediate application, observing only that “the interventions outlined… have successfully resulted in desegregation in a range of countries.” But perspective is needed – such measures have hitherto been unthinkable in an Australian context. It is a huge deal that they are being raised at all. The O’Brien Report has almost single-handedly made the unthinkable thinkable.

While this seminal development has been missed in most of the media commentary this week, one important reader of the report has received its message loud and clear: education minister Jason Clare. “This report tells us that we have one of the most segregated school systems in the OECD, not by the colour of your skin, but by the size of your parents’ pay packet,” Clare said on ABC News Breakfast this week. Critically, the minister not only indicated that he has registered the problem, but he also acknowledged that the expert panel has canvassed a series of possible solutions. “This report says there are a number of things that we need to do to help to tackle that and turn that around,” he said.

The O’Brien report recommends two immediate, concrete steps to get to a policy solution. Firstly, it calls for annual measurement and public reporting on the socio‐economic diversity of schools and systems by the end of 2025. In itself, this would be a huge step forward, annually placing a big bright spotlight on how social segregation bedevils Australian education, and forcing policy-makers to answer hard questions about their responsibility to create the conditions of success for schools and students.

Regular measurement of the problem, at an official level, will also support the second step recommended by O’Brien: a new review into the right combination of interventions required to increase socio-economic diversity in the Australian context, to be completed by the end of 2027.

It would be easy to dismiss this recommendation as just kicking the can down the road. But that would be to fundamentally underestimate the scale of transformation that the review is calling for – in both discourse and policy.

The expert panel has been and will be criticised for being too cautious, but it is right to say that to successfully increase socio‑educational diversity in schools governments and systems will need to carefully consider “which policies are most effective overseas and which might be most effectively transferred to the Australian context.” Even more complex and challenging than the policy journey that has yet to be travelled, is the task of building a workable consensus around new arrangements for resourcing and regulating Australian schools. The review is talking about a fundamental departure from the way we’ve done things for the last half century or more. Given this, it is wise to hasten slowly.

A review like this effects change by putting certain issues on the agenda and shaping how we think about them. O’Brien has put the possibility of radical change on the table. It has presented tangible, urgently important recommendations that put significant pressure on governments to act. And it’s all underpinned by discussion that sets out some basic truths about the fatal flaws in existing arrangements – which, if read with any diligence, should shape all subsequent conversation.

Above all, O’Brien makes clear that the unusually high degree of segregation in our school system is driven by differences between the school sectors. “Some non‐government schools charge high fees, which naturally limits access to students from low‐income and middle‐income families,” the report states, accompanied by compelling evidence of the extent of concentrated disadvantage in the government sector, and concentrated advantage in Independent schools (and, to a lesser extent, in Catholic schools). “Enrolment and fees policies in non-government schools affect socio-economic diversity,” the report finds. The fact that these observations are obvious only makes it more important that they are finally being said out loud. These are the forces that are driving the critical peer effects that have such a negative effect on learning outcomes.

The O’Brien report has made it abundantly clear that the basic structures of Australian schooling, in which public funding does not always come with commensurate public obligations, are fundamentally failing us. It has made it equally clear that it doesn’t have to be like this: comparable countries offer a whole range of alternatives to consider. In doing so, it has laid the groundwork for a new conversation about arrangements that optimally serve all our young people. Now it’s up to us.

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