The education policy announced by the ALP this week is an admission of Government failure in education over the past 7 years. The Government has suddenly discovered the huge achievement gap in the ACT, despite criticising Save Our Schools for raising this in the past.
The Government is clearly running scared about education as an election issue. It is desperately trying to gloss over its legacy of failure in school education.
Since 2001 it has failed to:
- reduce the long-standing achievement gap between rich and poor students;
- reduce the proportion of students at the lowest levels of achievement in secondary schools;
- improve retention and completion rates to Year 12;
- increase average student outcomes and there have even been declines in some areas.
The ACT school system has been treading water for the past 7 years. We still have the same high quality/low equity school system as we did in 2001.
We still have a significant proportion of students not achieving expected levels. Nearly 3000 secondary school students in the ACT are at the lowest levels of achievement in reading, mathematics and science on international assessments. About 20-30% drop-out before completing Year 12. This is largely unchanged from 2001.
We still have the largest achievement gap between students from high and low income families in Australia, apart from the Northern Territory. It is equivalent to 2½ years of schooling. There has been no reduction in the gap since 2001.
This is a dismal record, even though average student outcomes in the ACT remain amongst the highest in the world. The Stanhope Government has merely confirmed our status as a high quality, low equity school system.
SOS welcomes the belated recognition that the achievement gap between rich and disadvantaged students is the key challenge facing the ACT education system. Only a few months ago the Minister for Education was criticising Save Our Schools for raising the issue of the large achievement gap. Indeed, it commissioned a report from the Australian Council for Educational Research to rebut the SOS criticisms, but the report vindicated the SOS analysis. The Government’s backflip is a vindication of the SOS criticisms of government education policy.
The new policy contains several welcome initiatives, such as specialist support for literacy and numeracy learning for students who are not keeping up, improved pay for teachers who remain in the classroom and the measures designed to improve teaching quality.
However, the class size reduction program is too indiscriminate and it is not cost effective. Funding for across the board class size reductions would be better targeted at schools where there is a high proportion of students from disadvantaged and Indigenous families.
It does not make sense to have across-the-board class size reductions when we have amongst the highest average outcomes in the world and many schools have few students performing below international and national standards.
There is virtually no sound research evidence that shows that across-the-board class size reductions in the upper primary and high school years increase student achievement. However, there is sound research that shows reducing class sizes in schools where there are high learning needs is effective.
A major gap in the Government’s program is the failure to provide support for home/school partnerships to improve student achievement. Research shows that parent participation in children’s learning at home is fundamental for improving attendance and student achievement.
The Government should be providing funding to introduce programs to help parents support their children’s learning at home, both for primary and secondary students.
It should also look to appointing home/school liaison officers to assist low income and Indigenous families to access services, provide information on services and to help in maintaining contact and communication with schools about their children’s development.