School Autonomy Fails to Increase Student Achievement and Undermines Collaboration between Schools

This is a slightly abridged version of a submission by Save Our Schools to the Senate Education Committee Inquiry on Teaching and Learning. References are available in the submission.

Save Our Schools believes that the claims made about positive effects of greater school autonomy on student achievement are greatly exaggerated and ignore the weight of evidence from research studies that it has little to no effect on student results and can lead to greater inequality and social segregation. Continue reading “School Autonomy Fails to Increase Student Achievement and Undermines Collaboration between Schools”

Parent Engagement Improves Student Achievement

A  new report shows that parent engagement in learning improves student achievement, attitudes to school and wellbeing. It says that resourcing and developing parent engagement initiatives is essential to education reform and the future of Australia. Continue reading “Parent Engagement Improves Student Achievement”

The Federal Govt. Should End the Secrecy on its School Funding Model

Monday December 3, 2012

The Federal Government should end the secrecy on its preferred school funding model and release the details for public comment. There is a very real danger that the needs of government schools and disadvantaged students are being discounted in secret negotiations with state governments and private schools. Ending the secrecy would allow government school organisations to participate in the discussions.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting on Friday provides the opportunity to end the secrecy. Further delay is inexcusable and unacceptable. It is now a full year since David Gonski handed his report to the PM. It then took her until August to agree to the broad recommendations about a new funding model. Last week, the Prime Minister presented draft legislation to the national parliament which amounted only to a policy statement.

The public has not been given any details on the amount of funding and how it will be allocated. All this is being negotiated behind closed doors with state and territory governments and Catholic and Independent schools. Government school organisations are excluded from the formal negotiations.

No one can seriously believe that the five Liberal state/territory governments are going to give priority to government schools and disadvantaged students. As Tony Abbott has said, supporting the funding of Independent and Catholic schools is “in our DNA”.

It is outrageous that government school organisations are not included in the negotiations. Government schools are entitled to have as much, if not more, say in the formulation of the new funding model as private schools. They enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students for whom the Gonski recommendation for additional funding is intended.

The Government should immediately release its proposed model and engage with government school organisations over the details just as it is with private school groups.

Unless details of the new model are released this week there will be little opportunity for any genuine public scrutiny, debate and input on the model. The Government says that the details will not be released to the public until March or April next year. This is much too late. If left to then, the new funding arrangements will be a fait accompli to be rushed through the parliament before the Federal election.

There are many outstanding issues still to be considered thoroughly by government school organisations and the public.

One is the funding loadings to be applied to low socio-economic status (SES), Indigenous, remote area, disability and non-English speaking students. The funding loadings have received little public discussion, but they are critical to the model and will determine the total funding to be allocated to these students.

There is strong evidence to suggest that the Gonski report got it wrong on the funding loadings to be applied to low SES students. It proposed loadings ranging from an extra 10% of the school resource standard for each low SES student in schools with under 10% of students in the lowest SES quarter to 50% for each low SES student in schools with more than 75% of students in the lowest SES quarter. Thus, at best a low SES student in a very high SES school would be allocated and extra $5,000 if the national resource standard is determined at $10,000 per student.

This appears much too low to ensure that low SES students achieve a benchmark standard, which is only the minimum equity goal. Research studies show that educationally disadvantaged students should receive large additional funding to meet education standards. For example, several education cost studies show that the additional expenditure required for low income students is double or more the cost of educating an average student. This would require an additional $10,000 per student if the national resources standard is $10,000 per student.

If the loadings for low SES students are too low, then the total funding to be allocated to all disadvantaged students to achieve national minimum standards will also be too low. Thus, the extra $6.5 billion being discussed for disadvantaged students is unlikely to be enough.

Similarly, there should be more debate about the loadings for disability students. The Gonski report did not provide an indicative estimate of these loadings and the Government has failed to release any estimates for comment and discussion. This is a critical issue for government schools. They enrol nearly 80% of all disability students.

Another major issue that has not been discussed openly is how the Federal Government plans to ensure that all private schools are funded on a consistent basis without reducing the funding of “funding maintained” (FM) schools. FM schools are funded at higher rates than other schools on the same SES score.

The Government has committed to increasing funding for all private schools in real terms and that all students, regardless of school, will be funded on a consistent basis. This means that all schools on the same SES score will be funded at the same rate. It was a key recommendation of the Gonski report to counter the incoherence of the current SES funding model whereby schools on the same SES score may be funded at very different rates. It also means that FM schools will have their funding increased, not reduced.

These commitments imply that private schools currently funded at their SES score rate will have their funding increased to match that of FM schools. It will require a completely new set of funding rates that incorporates the highest FM rates at each SES score.

This would mean a massive funding boost for many elite private schools. For example, the Minister for Education’s old school, Barker College, could receive a huge increase of the order of $8 million a year, based on 2009 figures. Barker College is funded at the rate applying to its SES score of 127 which was $1,467 per primary student and $1,864 per secondary student in 2009. However, there are schools on the same SES score as Barker College but which are funded at much higher rates because they are FM schools. For example, the funding rates for St. Aloysius’ College at Milson’s Point were $2,682 per primary student and $3,801 per secondary student. The highest FM rates for schools on an SES score of 127 in 2009 were $4,710 and $5,984 for primary and secondary students respectively.

The Government’s commitments mean that Barker College and other schools funded at their SES rate will receive windfall increases in Federal Government funding. Many other elite schools would receive very large increases of over $4 million a year, based on 2009 figures.

In NSW, they include SCEGGS Redlands ($5.5 million), Abbotsleigh ($5.4 million), Newington College ($5.3 million), Cranbrook ($5 million) and The King’s School ($4.7 million). In Victoria, they include Caulfield Grammar ($9.6 million), Wesley College ($9.4 million), Carey Grammar ($7.9 million), Methodist Ladies College ($7.8 million), Scotch College ($7.1 million) and Melbourne Grammar ($6.8 million). In Queensland, they include Anglican Church Grammar ($5.4 million) and Brisbane Boys College ($5.7 million).

Similarly, Canberra Boys Grammar would gain $5.6 million and Canberra Girls Grammar $5.3 million. In Adelaide, the Pembroke School would get an increase of $5 million and Scotch College in Perth would gain $4.8 million.

Save Our Schools has estimated that the total windfall gain to private schools from the Government’s commitments at about $1.9 billion, but it could be more or less depending on the rate schedule adopted. This would put a huge hole in the Gonski funding bucket. The entire proposed 30% Federal Government contribution envisaged by the Gonski report would go to medium to high SES private schools and leave increased funding for disadvantaged students to the vagaries of negotiation with state and territory governments.

Such a windfall gain for well-off private schools would be an outrage and a calamity. It would be far better used to meet the educational needs of low income, Indigenous, disability and remote area students in government and private schools. It is these students who the Gonski report says should be given priority for future funding increases, not students from higher SES families.

The Government should come clean on the funding implications of its commitments to private schools. It should clarify whether it intends to deliver huge funding increases to higher SES private schools. Government secrecy is stopping public scrutiny.

While the Government’s commitment to implementing the Gonski funding model is a far reaching and welcome initiative, it has delayed releasing the details of its preferred funding model for far too long. It should immediately release them to allow public scrutiny and comment, especially by government school organisations which have been excluded from the process thus far.

Trevor Cobbold

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East Asian Education Problems Ignored

Thursday November 29, 2012

In a recent article in The Australian (November 23), Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute in Melbourne has stressed the undoubted successes of East Asian education, but has ignored all its problems.

The price paid by children in East Asia for this educational success is that they do far more homework than Australian children – for example, Chinese children start serious homework in the first year of primary school, for as much as 2 hours per day, increasing to reach as much as 6-8 hours per day in the final years of high school.

East Asian children also engage in coaching classes from the primary school level on. PISA data show that around 20% of Korean children aged 15 spend over 4 hours per week on coaching in the areas of language, mathematics and other subjects. The comparable figures for Australia are less than 5%.

Therefore, it is simply not clear that what East Asian schools do accounts for the undoubted high achievements. Rather, the extra load carried by children out of school may be a major contributor.

These trends are criticised by many East Asian voices (not just critics in Australia), who argue that the obsession with educational success effectively robs children of their childhood.

In addition to all of this, there are strong arguments to suggest that the rapid emergence of an epidemic of short-sightedness in East Asia has been caused by this educational pressure. This not a minor matter, since in countries such as China, South Korea and Singapore, recent data suggest that over 80% of children need glasses by the time they finish school, and around 20% have such severe myopia that they are at much increased risk of the emergence of sight-threatening pathologies later in life.

In contrast, Australia achieves top 10 PISA performance levels, without imposing such high loads on students, and without an epidemic of myopia. We may have things to learn from East Asia, but East Asia has arguably at least as much to learn from the successes of Australian schools.

Ian Morgan

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Many Schools Have High Withdrawal Rates from NAPLAN

Monday November 26, 2012

While there have been large increases since 2008 in the percentage of students withdrawn from the NAPLAN tests, the average withdrawn remains low in all states and for Australia. However, these low averages disguise some very high withdrawal rates in many schools.

The average withdrawal rates across Australia in 2011 and 2012 were one to two per cent for the different Year levels tested. In contrast, 276 schools had withdrawal rates of 10% or more in 2011 according to the My School website (see table below). Seventy-eight schools had over 25% withdrawn and 32 schools had withdrawal rates of between 75 and 100%, most of the latter being Rudolf Steiner schools.

Victoria had the most schools with high withdrawal rates – 106 schools had withdrawal rates of 10% or more and 11 schools had between 75 and 100% of students withdrawn. Fifty-three schools in Queensland and 51 in South Australia had withdrawal rates of 10% or more.

Victorian schools accounted for 38% of all schools in Australia with high withdrawal rates, yet it accounts for only 24% of the total number of schools in Australia. In contrast, NSW has 33% of all schools in Australia yet has only 14% of schools with high withdrawal rates.

Schools with high withdrawal rates include both government and private schools. In 2011, 183 government schools and 93 private schools had high withdrawal rates. Private schools accounted for a slightly higher proportion than their share of total schools in Australia. They had 33% of schools with high withdrawal rates compared to 29% of the total of all schools.

Private schools accounted for the large proportion of schools with very high withdrawal rates. Seventy-three per cent of all schools that had 25% or more of their students withdrawn from NAPLAN were private schools.

Trevor Cobbold

Number of Schools and Withdrawal Rates from NAPLAN.pdf

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O’Farrell Refuses to Budge on School Funding Cuts

Saturday November 24, 2012

The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, has refused to give any ground on his plan to slash $1.7 billion from the education budget over the next four years. He has rebuffed a call by a coalition of government and private school organisations for the cuts to be reversed. The coalition put the Premier on notice that he faces a major political backlash up to the next NSW election.

An unprecedented coalition of education groups representing parents, teachers and principals from all school systems in NSW met with the Premier and the Education Minister Mr Adrian Piccoli last Thursday. They warned that the cuts would seriously affect the education of all children in the state.

The representatives, who collectively form the NSW Education Alliance, left the meeting astounded that the Premier would continue trying to justify the biggest cuts to education in a generation when faced by the combined opposition of virtually every person involved in the NSW education system.

“We refuse to accept these cuts and today we told the Premier that we won’t back down. School communities across NSW will fight this decision until it is over-turned,” said Lila Mularczyk, the President of the NSW Secondary Principals Council.

“A budget is always about choices and priorities. It was absolutely astonishing that the Premier of NSW is willingly putting NSW education in jeopardy.”

Mr Stephen Grieve, the President of the NSW Parents Council, which represents parents of children at independent schools, warned the cuts would put the Government’s future at risk, despite its large majority.

“The Greiner Government had a significant majority but, after Dr Terry Metherell tried to behave in a similar fashion, they were reduced to a minority government,’’ Mr Grieve said.

“This coalition of very large groups, both professional associations and parents groups, from all sectors is simply unprecedented. It shows the resolute and implacable opposition to these cuts.”

“The cuts are outrageous and it is clear the Government has completely misunderstood the significance of education to the community. This is going to be a very rough period for the Government.”’

Dr John Collier, the chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia in NSW, said it was absurd that as the Federal Government was planning to give money with one hand through the Gonski process while the State Government was busy taking with the other.

“We can’t achieve the Government’s goal of improving educational performance when it is cutting funds for schools. It’s just not acceptable,” Dr Collier said.

“We’ve got everybody here in absolute agreement. We are determined to stand with our colleagues against any cuts to education.”

Independent schools will have to make cuts inside the school gate, Dr Collier said. “There is no bureaucracy where cuts can be made so this has to affect frontline services.”

Ms Danielle Cronin, the Executive Director of the Council of Catholic School Parents in NSW, said any reduction in funding will affect the quality of the Catholic schools and how many parents could afford to choose them.

“I think it is a tragedy that education across the board would have the guts ripped out of it by a Government which has said that education is a State priority,” Ms Cronin said.

“We measure the quality of our community by the quality of the education we provide our young people and that will be grossly undermined in NSW.”

A week earlier, the Alliance sent an open letter to the Premier vehemently opposing the funding cuts. The letter said that there is a vast gap between the Government’s rhetoric on school funding and its practice.

“It initially stood out in its forthright support for implementation of the Gonski recommendations. It has now demonstrated that this support will not be backed up by the funding needed. It has been determined to pass more responsibility and the associated workload to schools – it has now demonstrated that this will not be properly funded.”

“The recent announcement of a State Budget surplus undermines any credibility of the need for cuts to the education portfolio. This short-sighted approach also places at risk the access by NSW students and schools to the critically-needed Commonwealth funding recommended by the Gonski report.”

Since the open letter was distributed a number of other professional associations and unions have made contact with the group to participate in a campaign to reverse the NSW Government funding cuts to education.

They are being supported by many parents across the state. Warren Ross, a Katoomba government school parent, angrily wrote to his local MP:

“I have just come back from Sydney to protest against your cuts to public education where I met many people who will be affected by your actions. Before you were elected you didn’t tell us of these plans. Why not?….You are supposed to fight for your community not cower behind party dissembling… You either find money within your budget or join us in calling for a better deal from the Federal Government but this game of hiding behind each other must stop.”

Bungendore government school parent, Sharon Baxter-Judge, told a community public education forum in Queanbeyan earlier in the month that:

“I could not believe it when the O’Farrell Government announced a $1.7billion cut to education. This was after my local MP’s office told me a few months prior that they would be no funding cuts to education. Cuts to education are not necessary. They should never have been considered.”

The NSW Teachers’ Federation has vowed to fight the cuts. President, Maurie Mulheron, told the Queanbeyan meeting that “the huge cuts heralded one of the most dangerous times in the history of public education…the changes will be dramatic and far-reaching”.

As Lila Mularczyk of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council says:

“It is beyond comprehension that our state government that has carriage and responsibility for ensuring quality education for all students would prioritise subsidising casinos at the expense of our students’ future.”

It looks like the battle will continue into the next school year and on to the next NSW state election.

Trevor Cobbold

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Big Increase in Students Withdrawn from NAPLAN Tests

Thursday November 22, 2012

An increasing number of parents are withdrawing their children from the NAPLAN tests. There has been a four- to five-fold increase across Australia since 2008 in the percentage of children withdrawn from the numeracy tests. Withdrawals have increased in all Year levels tested and across all states and territories, with the largest increases in the ACT, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.

It is not clear whether the increase is due to increasing parent concerns about NAPLAN, increasing rorting of school results or a combination of factors. Certainly, more and more parents are becoming aware that NAPLAN is not compulsory despite the efforts of education authorities to suggest they are mandatory. Certainly, schools are under tremendous pressure to improve their results and there is anecdotal evidence of schools encouraging parents of lower achieving students to withdraw them from the tests or keep them home on test days.

Although the percentages of students withdrawn are still small, the rapid growth poses a threat to the reliability of NAPLAN results for inter-school comparisons, inter-jurisdictional comparisons and trends in indicators of student achievement. This threat has been highlighted by the COAG Reform Council.

In the ACT, the percentage of Year 3 students withdrawn from the numeracy tests increased from 0.8% in 2008 to 4% in 2012 [Chart 1]. In South Australia, the percentage withdrawn increased from 0.6% to 3.3%; in Queensland it increased from 0.3% to 2.4% and in Victoria from 0.1% to 2.4%. For Australia, it has increased from 0.5% to 1.9% – a four-fold increase. The smallest increase was in NSW where the percentage withdrawn increased from 0.8% to 1%.

There was also a big increase in Year 9 students withdrawn. The percentage withdrawn from the Year 9 numeracy test across Australia increased from 0.3% to 1.4% – a five-fold increase [Chart 2]. In the ACT, it increased from 0.3% to 2.1%; in South Australia from 0.2% to 2.8%; in Queensland from 0.5% to 2.8%; and in Victoria from 0.1% to 1.3%. The increase in NSW was negligible – from 0.4% to 0.5%.

There are significant differences between the states and territories in the percentage of Year 3 students withdrawn from NAPLAN, ranging from 4% in the ACT to 1% in NSW. The ACT and South Australia (3.3%) had the highest percentages of students withdrawn from the Year 3 numeracy tests in 2012 while NSW, Tasmania (1.3%) and Western Australia (1.3%) had the lowest percentages withdrawn.

State/territory differences at the Year 9 level are smaller than in Year 3. Queensland and South Australia had the highest percentages of Year 9 students withdrawn – 2.8% and 2.3% respectively. NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia had only a very small percentage withdrawn – 0.5% to 0.7%.

The increase in students withdrawn accounts for a small, but significant declining trend in the percentage of students sitting the NAPLAN tests since 2008. The percentage present for the Year 3 numeracy tests across Australia fell from 94.6% in 2008 to 93.1% in 2012 and from 91.8% to 89.8% in Year 9 [Charts 3 &4].

In contrast to the trend in students withdrawn from NAPLAN there has been little change in the percentage of students absent on test days and exempt students since 2008.

The percentage of students exempt from the tests shows little change. In Year 3 numeracy, it increased from 1.7% to 1.9% for Australia and from 1.1% to 1.6% in Year 9 [Charts 5 & 6]. The biggest increases were in NSW where the percentage of Year 3 exempt students increased from 0.9% to 1.7% and from 0.5% to 1.3% in Year 9.

There was also little change in the percentage of students absent on test day. In Year 3 numeracy, the percentage absent for Australia declined slightly from 3.3% in 2008 to 3.1% in 2012 while it increased slightly in Year 9 from 6.8% to 7.2% [Charts 7 & 8]. Absent students comprise the large proportion of students not sitting the NAPLAN tests. For example, 7.2% of Year 9 students in Australia were absent from the numeracy test in 2012 while 1.4% were withdrawn and 1.6% were exempt.

In 2012, 9% of Year 9 students in Australia were either withdrawn or absent, with a range from 7% in NSW to 11% in Tasmania and 17% in the NT. Five per cent of Year 3 students in Australia were either withdrawn or absent, ranging from 3% in NSW to 7% in the ACT and South Australia and 14% in the NT.

There is concern in official circles about decreasing participation in NAPLAN. Last year, the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs commissioned work on participation rates by a strategic policy working group with the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). The report of this group should be completed by the end of 2012.

The reason officials are becoming concerned about the trend is that increasing numbers of students being withdrawn or absent from NAPLAN will affect the reliability of the results (exempt students are included in the NAPLAN results by being deemed to be below minimum national standards). Changes in participation rates could affect the results of individual schools, sub-groups of students such as Indigenous and low socio-economic status students and state/territory results as well as trends over time.

In its report on education performance in 2010, the COAG Reform Council emphasised the importance of high participation in NAPLAN for the reliability of results. It said:

In order to accurately report literacy and numeracy achievement, it is important that as many students as possible sit the NAPLAN tests. Small differences in participation may affect literacy and numeracy achievement because the ability of students who do not participate is likely to differ from students who do. [p. 22]

The impact on individual school results will depend on the background of the students who are withdrawn or absent. The withdrawal of lower achieving students will increase a school’s average result. As more students are withdrawn over time a school’s results will be artificially boosted.

Research recently published by the COAG Reform Council shows that non-participants in NAPLAN tend to be lower scoring students. ACARA uses statistical imputation techniques to estimate test scores for absent and withdrawn students to reduce bias in state-wide comparisons of results. The COAG Reform Council research drew on this data to show that students who sat for NAPLAN have higher mean test scores than those of withdrawn and absent students. In NSW, the difference between Present and Absent student means in numeracy in 2011 was 20 points in Year 3 and 39 points for Year 9. In Victoria, the differences were 13 points for Year 3 and 24 points for Year 9. The Year 9 differences are significant, being equivalent to nearly two years of learning in NSW and one year in Victoria. The differences between Present and Withdrawn students were much smaller with negligible differences in Year 3 and 15 points in Year 9 in both NSW and Victoria, the latter difference is equivalent to about six months of learning.

As participation declines, the reliability of the average scores of individual schools will also decrease particularly in small schools where the statistical uncertainty or error band around the average score is relatively large because of the small numbers of students sitting the tests. This increases the unreliability of school rankings and league tables as a guide to school quality.

There are also implications for state-wide comparisons and trends. Lower participation rates mean that more and more test scores are imputed by ACARA and this is not as accurate as having students participate in the tests. If a state or territory has a low level of participation then more scores in that jurisdiction will be imputed and this could bias inter-jurisdictional comparisons and trends.

The research commissioned by the COAG Reform Council recommended that further work should be done on examining the impact of non-participation in NAPLAN on trends in achievement and the comparability of results across jurisdictions. It found that variability in participation rates may have “a substantially important impact” on jurisdictional comparisons of NAPLAN results and that their impact on achievement trends is “potentially of concern” [p. 15]. It also said that examination of the method of imputing test scores is warranted because it is statistically complex and the impact that it may or may not have on the indicators is not immediately clear.

To summarise, data on participation rates in NAPLAN clearly shows that parents are increasingly exercising their right to withdraw children from the tests and a significant proportion of students are absent on test day, especially secondary students. While the absolute percentages of students withdrawn or absent are small, the likelihood is that it will continue to increase as more and more parents become aware of their rights. Declining participation will affect the reliability of published school results, inter-school comparisons and league tables; trends in national and state/territory achievement; and inter-jurisdictional comparisons of results. There is evidence of growing official concern about the reliability of NAPLAN results.

Trevor Cobbold

Charts on the Withdrawal of Students from NAPLAN Tests.pdf

Big Increase in Students Withdrawn from NAPLAN Tests.pdf

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Mapping School Autonomy in Australia: Part 3

This article is the third in a series on mapping the extent and differences in school autonomy across jurisdictions and school sectors in Australia. The aim is to provide an up to date information base for further discussion of issues around school autonomy.

The information provided below and in forthcoming articles is a first go at developing a comprehensive overview of school autonomy in Australia. Comment is invited with a view to correcting mistakes and omissions.

The “Contact Us” facility on this website can be used to directly provide comments and information or to contact SOS for another address to send information. Continue reading “Mapping School Autonomy in Australia: Part 3”

Finnish Lessons

Monday March 5, 2012

Viewers of the ABC’s Lateline last week had a special treat – an evidence-based discussion of education policy. Finland’s director of education, Pasi Sahlberg, was interviewed on the success of his country in international student assessments. He said its success was due to a focus on equity in education:

….one of the keys of our good performance is that we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done…. equity is the one that is also bringing excellence – just like this, not only Finland, but also Canada and Korea, for example, are the same. So I think the systematic way of addressing those who are in special need and need more help is the key.

He contrasted the priority given to equity in Finland with other approaches which focus on parent choice as the way to improve overall student results. He said that education policy in Finland has always been to focus more on equity and equality in education rather than choice.

Trying to make sure that every single school is a good school in Finland, and all the schools have good teachers, so that this would minimise the need for parents to choose the school, and we are exactly in this situation today.

Sahlberg said that improving equity starts from equitable funding of schools. He said that Finland had been doing for 20 years what the Gonski report has just recommended for Australia.

Our schools are funded very close to what this report is recommending you to do. So we give schools a kind of a basic funding equally based on the number of students they have, and then we adjust the school budget based on the school’s need. For example, if there are more immigrant children or pupils coming from the single parent families, the schools normally receive more funding so that they can deal with these issues easily. So there are many similarities in what we are doing now to those recommendations in the Gonski Report.

Sahlberg also contrasted other aspects of Finland’s education policy with those given precedence in Australia and other countries. For example, Finland’s approach to school autonomy emphasises trusting teachers and providing scope to design their own curriculum and teaching to meet the needs of students rather than financial management.

I think the most important thing in this school autonomy in Finland is that all the schools are both responsible and also free to design their own curriculum as they wish, based on the quite loose national curriculum framework. So financing and managing the school is one thing, but I think the… using teachers’ knowledge and skills that we have in our system to design how they want teaching and learning to take place is the most important thing.

Sahlberg also criticised the publication of test data to hold schools and teachers accountable:

Anywhere where these types of things had put in place, teachers have started to focus more on teaching to the test, and curriculum has narrowed. If the test data is only collected through two or three subjects – like is often done measuring literacy and mathematics – this means that these subjects will become the most important things in a school. And the other thing is that these knowledge tests often measure only the things that can be measured and not, for example, problem solving or creativity to the extent that they should be, and this leads teachers and schools to focus on these things more than they could do otherwise.

He said that Finland has concentrated on building trust and responsibility rather than accountability to ensure a quality education for all. He pointed to co-operation and sharing as the important things in making sure that everybody will be able to improve and do things better.

He contrasted Finland’s approach with that of other countries such as the UK, the US and Australia which he said have been infected by the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM, based on ideas of competition, choice, accountability, and testing. He said that “….these GERM elements are actually opposite to what Finland has been doing”.

The GERM virus has badly infected education policy in Australia under the Howard and Rudd/Gillard Governments. They have put their faith in competition and choice in education against all evidence that it fails to improve student achievement. Rather, it has led to greater inequity and segregation in schooling. Sahlberg has provided a much needed antidote to this virus in his book on Finland’s education system called Finnish Lessons. Read it!

Trevor Cobbold

See more at Pasi Sahlberg’s website and blog.

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