School reform: shift the deck chairs, forget about the ship

Feb 12, 2023
A girl wearing school uniform, white shirt, maroon backpack and maroon hat Back to school.

The school year has started with the usual flurry of excitement about new policies and reforms, but flaws in the structure of Australia’s school system still aren’t on any agenda.

Students and teachers are now back at school, accompanied by the usual ‘start of school’ media onslaught. It seems worse this year. Phone bans for kids are on the horizon. There is a call for small group tutoring, even though teachers are still in short supply. It looks like ChatGPT is a looming threat. We are apparently agonising about what books kids are reading … though not a problem at Opus Dei schools as they black out the bad bits. Meanwhile, Noel Pearson says that crime problems in Alice Springs can be sheeted home to progressive teachers. Finally, NSW Labor has promised to end the war on teachers.

Amidst all this it is rare to get a wider perspective. With both a memory of the past and an eye on the future, Lyndsay Connors recently illustrated what is still missing in our approach to school policy.

It’s a perspective usually missing from even serious policy suggestions, including a new Grattan report which advocates for high quality small group tutoring in schools. It has a lot to recommend it. As author Julie Sonnemann explains, it would involve educators working in schools with small numbers of strugglers for three sessions each week. The evidence cited by Grattan indicates it works at a number of levels, including through the closer relationships developed between tutors and learners.

There is certainly such a need. Grattan reveals what we largely know: the learning gap in numeracy between advantaged and disadvantaged students doubles from Year 3 to Year 9. Unsurprising, given that the enrolment in government schools is even more disadvantaged in secondary than in primary years. Such tutoring will help the disadvantaged catch up, if only because the small groups will be away from their otherwise distracting peers. But what happens next? The students will need to progress and succeed in the mainstream, and the reality for the disadvantaged is that they are increasingly in classrooms dominated by their struggling peers.

That’s a big part of the problem, and it is one that is worsening. This reality needs to be front and centre for the school reformers. My School shows that the most disadvantaged students make up around 16% of enrolments in Catholic schools, around 10-12% in independent schools, but over 35% in government schools. They form an increasing proportion of enrolments in city schools, but a much bigger proportion in regional, especially outer regional, schools. The gaps between the sectors and between geolocations are widening.

The big question that the reformers rarely consider is to what extent does the composition of a student’s peer group impact on individual achievement. Given its known impact, what long term difference will interventions such as small group tutoring really make if nothing is done to reduce the concentration of strugglers in the most disadvantaged schools?

Given enrolment shifts we can only anticipate that peer effects on student achievement won’t go away. Even the final report of the recent Productivity Commission review of the National School Reform Agreement made several references to peer effects and the impact of concentrated disadvantage on student achievement. Yet in common with the reformers, the Commission didn’t join all the dots, instead issuing the lame statement that “Students from priority equity cohorts can lack access to an inclusive learning setting that supports their learning needs and wellbeing”. They sure can, and increasingly do.

There is considerable irony at play here. Parents and teachers have not been slow to recognise the problem. That’s why parents with the resources to choose, seek out schools higher up the SES ladder. Teachers know how student engagement and behaviour (and misbehaviour) impact on classroom management, time-on-task and the attention that can be given to individual students.

And there are wider contextual effects. A child’s peer group affects their identity, their post-school aspirations and their motivation to learn. It can also have a powerful effect on the curriculum, both in terms of subjects offered by a school and how lessons are pitched. It becomes harder to engender a shared sense of the value of education. Such a scenario is hardly improved when resources, including teachers, are in short supply.

It’s hardly surprising that this impacts on overall student achievement. The advantaged kids in their chosen schools don’t seem to do better, while the disadvantaged kids and their schools are falling behind. And all that translates into very ordinary average student outcomes across Australia. International evidence (e.g. PISA) suggests these are falling, national evidence (NAPLAN) suggests at best a flatlining. The changing distribution of high achievers should help any remaining disbelievers work out the problem.

What is always puzzling is the way the various debates about student achievement, as well as reform proposals, continue to target schools as if they alone can solve endemic problems besetting Australia’s whole framework of schools. The ship is lower in the water, but we are still shuffling the deck chairs. Based on how this year has started, 2023 won’t see much change.


Chris Bonnor is co-author, with Tom Greenwell, of Waiting for Gonski: How Australia failed its schools, published by UNSW Press.

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