Recent education reform in Australia has been slow, at times painful, and an unfortunate litany of missed opportunities.
In 2011, the first Gonski review highlighted that Australian educational outcomes were declining, with a growing gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. The following year, the Federal Government released a roadmap to turn this around, announcing schools would be funded more equitably. Despite considerable effort, the reform fell short of achieving its stated ambition. It could be said that sound evidence-based policy missed out.
In 2017, we had Gonski 2.0, and billions more were poured into levelling the playing field between public, private, and independent schools. But in 2019, a government review of needs-based funding showed schools in low socio-economic areas still weren’t getting their fair share of funding.
Fast forward to 2023, and the latest NAPLAN results indicate the system is failing students experiencing disadvantage, despite the best efforts of teachers and school leaders. According to the results, around a quarter of school students from low socio-economic backgrounds needed additional support to meet minimum literacy and numeracy standards. First Nations students and students from regional and remote areas also fared poorly.
Now we have another chance to make a difference, with an Expert Panel making recommendations about what should be in the next five-year National School Reform Agreement. It is what Education Minister Jason Clare describes as ‘our best, last chance to get it right’.
A key focus is to achieve greater equity in our school system. With more than 80% of disadvantaged students attending government schools, these schools need to be equipped to achieve their purpose: ensuring all students achieve, especially in basics like literacy and numeracy and, in today’s connected world, gain essential digital skills.
The Expert Panel reported to federal and state Education Ministers recently, with a view to guiding national policy initiatives that all governments agree to over the next five years.
A student starting high school in 2025, when the new National School Reform Agreement kicks in, will have reached Year 12 by the time the next agreement is re-negotiated in 2030. This is a milestone worth caring about because finishing Year 12 is a big deal. Evidence shows young people who do this have better futures – for themselves, their families, and the wider community as they directly contribute to our nation’s economy.
So, there is a lot resting on the shoulders of our policymakers. Here’s what we see as crucial:
The new school agreement needs to set clear achievement targets for students, including those experiencing disadvantage. Progress needs to be tracked and publicly reported on annually. This will allow for correction if desired outcomes aren’t being achieved.
While out of the scope of the Expert Panel, funding is a critical element. Minister Clare has committed to working with State and Territory Governments to get every school to 100 percent of its fair funding level. This will ensure that schools in need are able to access additional targeted resources, including teachers, to turn poorer achievement outcomes around.
We must also act smarter, by collecting and using data to better serve students. Having the evidence to know what’s needed, where, and for whom, will unlock attainment. Data can help teachers identify early on which students aren’t turning up to school, or who needs additional support in reading, writing, numeracy, and digital skills. This support can be provided in the classroom or with tailored tutoring through in-home catch-up learning programs.
It is vital that student data is shared across jurisdictions. So when, for example during this cost-of-living crisis, a family is forced to relocate interstate for a more affordable home, their children’s education data transfers too, helping their new teachers to be attuned to their needs from the time the family enrols at their new school.
A long-awaited Unique Student Identifier would be able to track educational outcomes, including attendance and Year 12 completion, across state and territory borders regardless of a student’s mobility. Agreements should also be entered into for data sharing across government and non-government agencies, to achieve better outcomes for children facing disadvantage.
And there should be public accountability mechanisms that require proof that additional funds allocated on the basis of need, are being spent on students with those additional needs.
Once the Expert Panel delivers its report, Education Ministers will consider how they might implement its recommendations. This will be a chance to make decisions that drive real and measurable improvements for all students, particularly those most at risk of falling behind.
The decisions taken will be the difference between a world of opportunities facing a school graduate, and a future fraught with uncertainty. This is especially true for disadvantaged students who face barriers at every turn. But with equity at the heart of the new National School Reform Agreement, we have our best hope of fixing education policy for generational change. Doing so, is in everyone’s interest.
Doug Taylor is CEO of the children’s education charity The Smith Family and a member of a taskforce advising Education Ministers on how to make education more equitable.