It is not of particular surprise to me that Australia is not doing as well as many other countries in international education rankings.
The tests that are currently causing panic among those for whom it is ideologically and/or politically useful to finger-wag about our ‘failing’ schools were conducted in 2014. That was the first year that the Gonski funding began flowing into schools – and only to some schools in some states, at that.
Prior to 2014 (since 2000, in fact), Australia’s school funding systems absurdly favoured already advantaged schools (most of which were private) and the already advantaged students they mostly teach. Most of the public money that flowed into those schools, frankly, was pissed up against their sandstone walls.
When you pour public money into schools that are already well-resourced (to the point of luxury in some cases), that already teach the kids we know are more likely to do well at school (kids from higher socio-economic backgrounds do better at school the world over) then that money just buys more of what the school already has – especially if, as so many of them do, they also charge high school fees.
These new resources – glamorous marketing tools though they may be – add nothing to the academic achievement of the kids.
That’s why many modestly resourced schools in high socio-economic areas achieve just as good academic outcomes for their students as the schools dripping with multimedia centres, Olympic swimming pools and multiple playing fields, up the road.
Had we been distributing the money we put into education over that decade-and-a-half in a more fiscally responsible way, we might have seen some closing of the gap between our best-performing students and our (very) long tail of underachievers.
Instead, we spent that money in ways that widened the gap and, as they say, after sowing the wind we are reaping the whirlwind. In 2014, Gonski – which does distribute public money according to need – had yet to take real effect.
However, if (fingers crossed) we continue to give the kids who can really benefit from it, more resources, extra programs and more teachers, it will be interesting to see what changes in the next round of four yearly comparisons.
But it is not just funding that is the problem. We have crowded the curriculum. Every time there is concern in society about just about anything you can name – childhood obesity, road safety, social media, financial literacy, sex education, water safety, violence against women etc – pundits declare that ‘it should be taught in schools’. Well, often it is and that means fragmentation of teaching hours and teacher focus.
The other stupid thing we have done is ramped up admin and accountability for teachers. We haven’t just crowded the curriculum for students – we’ve crowded teacher’s lives.
Teachers are under the pump as extra-curricular demands continue to rise. Photo: Getty
Teachers must now spend so much time filling in forms, creating portfolios, describing classroom activities, undertaking risk assessments, justifying their existence and worrying about reporting their ‘outcomes’ that they have little time and energy for doing what actually helps kids to learn – and that is making learning creative, unexpected and fun.
We have also made both students’ and teachers’ lives more of a misery with constant rounds of standardised testing. As Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg says, real learning only takes place in a fear-free environment. Constant testing makes both kids and teachers nervous.
Any time we create a process that makes a teacher decide not to do something new and interesting because of how onerous it will be to report on it, or because it won’t be specifically tested and measured, we damage student learning.
My advice on how to improve our results? Put public money into the schools that teach the kids who will actually benefit from added help and resources and remove it from those where it just adds bright shiny objects. Stop stuffing the curriculum full of this week’s moral panic and trust teachers to do their jobs.
There is an old saying I have always liked; the best thing a man can do for his children is love their mother. Well, the best thing a society can do for its students is trust its teachers.
Jane Caro is a social commentator, writer and lecturer and has published five books, including The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education.