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Tuesday, 1 October 2019
The UK’s Labour Party recently voted in a policy to effectively abolish private schools and integrate them into the state system.
This is a courageous move designed to redress social inequity – many of those working in the top levels of the UK government were educated in private schools. Two of Britain’s three most recent prime ministers went to the prestigious Eton College, which charges annual fees of more than £40,000.
The UK opposition party’s plan will likely warm the hearts of similarly minded Australians. Many of the same arguments about educational inequality have been floated in Australia. Many individuals and organisations have also, for years, been calling for the government to stop funding non-government schools.
But implementing a policy in Australia like that proposed in the UK would prove very difficult. For one thing, it’s a matter of numbers. Only 5% of the United Kingdom’s students go to a private school. The challenges are magnified in Australia where nearly 15% of students are enrolled in independent schools and nearly 20% in Catholic parish schools.
But beyond that, Australia’s complex set of school governance structures would make such a move very unlikely to succeed.
Eight education systems
Under UK Labour’s proposal, if it took office, private schools would lose their charitable status and any other public subsidies or tax breaks. Their endowments, investments and properties would be “redistributed democratically and fairly across the country’s educational institutions”.
For Australia to do the same, at the outset, it would be a constitutional issue. The Australian Constitution empowers states and territories to provide school education, thus creating eight different education systems. For Australia to abolish private schools like that proposed in the UK, a choice from three possible processes would need to occur to get around this issue.
First, Australia could change the Constitution. Second, all states and territories could voluntarily cede their powers for schooling back to the Commonwealth. Or third, each state and territory government could agree to enact the policy in its own jurisdiction.
Only eight of the proposed 44 changes to the Australian Constitutionhave been agreed to since Federation. And given the political territorialism that exists between states and territories, it is hard to imagine any of these solutions being implemented.
Assuming one of the above could be enacted, taking over existing non-government schools would be further complicated by the diverse nature of school governance structures. Australia’s different school governance structures would make it almost impossible to cede all private education to the Commonwealth. from shutterstock.com
In addition to being registered with their relevant state or territory government authority, more than 1,000 non-government primary and secondary schools are registered with the Australian Not-for-profit Charities Commission.
This means there are no “owners” who financially gain from operating the school. Financial surpluses are not distributed to shareholders but must be reinvested in the school.
For a government to take over a not-for-profit charity in such a way would cause extreme anxiety to the thousands of community organisations which also exist under this legal structure.
Another group of non-government schools are governed by church authorities. A school such as William Clarke College in Sydney’s north-west, for instance, is governed by an ordinance of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney whose own authority is derived from state legislation. A smaller number of schools, such as Newington College in NSW or the eight Queensland Grammar Schools, are governed directly through acts of parliament.
To absorb these schools into one government system would require a change to a range of legislation covering charitable and religious organisations. Given various state and territory governments can’t even agree on the age students should start school, achieving consistency in the legislative realm seems remote.
We should keep working to reduce inequality
Advocates of private schooling in the UK have hit back at Labour’s proposal, indicating lengthy, and costly, legal challenges. These could range from parents’ rights to make choices for their childrens’ development (enshrined in Article 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) through to property and charitable trust laws.
Resistance to the proposed policy change from the UK Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (that describes itself as an association of heads of “some of the world’s leading independent schools”) is already fierce and suggests the same would likely be the case in Australia.
One consequence of inaction is growing inequity. Successful education systems prioritise equity and quality. Analysis of social disadvantage by the OECD found more than 52% of Australian disadvantaged students are enrolled in disadvantaged schools. This is compared to the OECD average of 48% and 45% in the UK (world leaders are Nordic countries at an average of 43%).
Australian analysis also highlights a growing concentration of advantaged students are already in educationally advantaged schools.
Creating a socially and politically just education system is a worthy objective. But it’s not just a public-private issue.
Segmented schooling also exists in some Australian government schooling jurisdictions. For example, NSW has a highly stratified government education system which includes single-sex schools and various selective schools (academic, performing arts, sports and technology schools).
This creates enrolment interest from families living outside local communities, exacerbating infrastructure pressures in government schools. And some of NSW’s selective schools have concentrations of students who are far wealthier than in some private schools.
The debate over what our society wants from schooling is about equitable opportunities for everyone. The policy outlined by the UK’s Labour Party raises fundamental questions about the role and process of education in society. There seems value to ask the same for Australia.
The fact is Australia has one of the most socially segregated education systems in the world, & despite knowing exactly which schools need additional resources, the Federal Government has entrenched a schools funding regime that shifts billions to advantaged children.
From the Independent
Friday, 27 September 2019
Thursday, 26 September 2019
Education Minister Simon Birmingham released a report today recommending that all Year 1 students in Australia complete a phonics test.
The panel responsible for the report has recommended that Australia adopt the Year 1 phonics screening check that has been used in England since 2011.
But what is it? And will it help children learn to read and write?
What is phonics?
Phonics is the process of matching sounds to letters. It is an important skill when learning to read and write in English.
There are two main approaches to teaching children phonics — synthetic phonics and analytic phonics.
Analytic phonics starts with taking a word that children know the meaning of, and then analysing it to see how the sounds in the word match the letters we see within the word.
So five-year-old Emma will learn that her name starts with the sound "e" which is represented by the capital letter E, followed by the sound "m" which is represented by the two letters "mm", and ends with the sound "u", which is represented by the letter a.
Synthetic phonics starts with letters which the children learn to match with sounds. The meaning of the words are irrelevant, and indeed, inconsequential.
The theory is that the children should master letter/sound matches first before trying to attend to meaning.
Which phonics method is better?
There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction.
But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.
All inquiries have concluded that whatever phonic instruction method is chosen, it should be one part of a suite of skills children should have when learning to read.
What is the phonics test?
The phonics test is based on synthetic phonics. The children are given 40 words on a computer screen, with no context. The words are not put in a sentence, or given any meaning.
This is deliberate, and an important feature of a synthetic phonics approach, as the children must show they are not relying on meaning or prior experience with the word in order to successfully decode it.
To this end, 20 of the words the children are given are nonsense words, like "thrand", "poth" and "froom", to ensure they are not using meaning to decode the words.
Why are we introducing it?
Senator Birmingham is concerned about the numbers of students in Australia who are struggling with literacy.
The decline in literacy standards of Year 9 students is very concerning, and he is right to be looking for solutions. But the solution will not be found in this phonics test for six-year-olds.
As the test has been has already been in use for six years in England we are fortunate to be able to learn from their experience.
A major evaluation of the test conducted by the Department for Education in England found that the test is not delivering improvements in literacy capabilities, and in fact, is delivering some unwanted side effects, like class time being spent learning to read nonsense words rather than real words.
Numerous other recent studies of the implementation of the phonics test in England provide valuable information that allow us to test the claims for the test against research evidence.
What does the research say?
Claim: The phonics test has improved reading results in England since its introduction.
Evidence: Year 1 children in England are certainly getting better at passing the phonics test. Over the past six years, pass rates have increased by 23 per cent. This means around 90 per cent of Year 1 children in England can now successfully read nonsense words like "yune" and "thrand".
However research has found that the ability to read nonsense words is an unreliable predictor of later reading success.
And so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.
As the test only tests single syllable words with regular phonic patterns, it is not possible to know how many English children can read words like "one", "was", "two", "love", "what", "who", or "because", as such words are not included in the test.
This is unfortunate because these are amongst the 100 most common words in the English language, which in turn make up 50 per cent of the words we read everyday — whether in a novel, a newspaper article or a government form.
"Yune", "thrand" and "poth", on the other hand, make 0 per cent of the words we read.
Claim: The phonics test will pick up children who are having reading difficulties. Senator Birmingham has stated "the idea behind these checks is to ensure students don't slip through the cracks".
Evidence: Research in England has found that the test was no more accurate than the teacher's judgement in identifying children with reading difficulties. Teachers already know which children struggle. As researchers, teachers and principals have all said — teachers need more support in knowing how to support those struggling children.
Claim: The phonics test will provide detailed diagnostics to support teachers to make effective interventions. The chair of the panel recommending the test says that the phonics test will drill into the detail of phonics to establish what children know.
Evidence: A thorough analysis of the test's components found it fails to test some of the most common sound/letter matches in English, and indeed screens for a very limited number of the hundreds of sound/letter matches in English. They found that children can achieve the pass grade of 32 from 40 with only limited phonic knowledge.
Other research found the test fails to give any information about what the specific phonic struggles of a child might be , or whether the struggles are indeed with phonics.
These limitations mean the check has negligible diagnostic or instructional use for classroom teachers.
Australia is in the fortunate position of being able to learn from the research that has been conducted since the implementation of the phonics test and mandatory synthetic phonics teaching in England. The lesson is clear. The test is unable to deliver what was hoped. Australia should look elsewhere for answers to its literacy challenges.
Already state education ministers have begun to let Senator Birmingham know that they will not be taking up the offer of the national phonics test.
This may be an issue where Australia is able to overcome its intellectual cringe, and act on the research evidence rather than old colonial ties.