Expert Review of ACT Education System is Urgently Needed

An expert public inquiry into the state of ACT education is urgently needed. We need to better understand the trends in education outcomes and inequities in outcomes in the ACT and we need to find out what are the factors behind these trends. Save Our Schools has been calling for this for the past eight years. It is backed up by a string of recent expert and official reports, the latest being a report by the Grattan Institute.

For far too long, the ACT Government and a succession of education ministers have had their heads in the sand about the state of our education system. The current Minister for Education, Yvette Berry, attempted to discredit the Grattan Institute analysis by saying the data was two years old. Instead of acknowledging long-standing problems, ACT education ministers regularly engage in a self-indulgent orgy of self-congratulation over annual NAPLAN results and then criticise researchers who analyse NAPLAN results in more depth and find that the ACT performs poorly in some respects.

While SOS and many others have highlighted the relatively poor results in NAPLAN, the declining PISA results and the large achievement gaps between rich and poor, we need to examine these results in the context of other measures of school outcomes – namely for Year 12. The reason is that NAPLAN and PISA are lower stakes tests than the Year 12 assessments which affect future careers and lives. There are very few consequences attached to NAPLAN and PISA for students (although NAPLAN is extremely stressful for some) and there is extensive evidence that teenagers do not try as hard on low stakes compared to high stakes assessments. We need to find out more about student attitudes to taking NAPLAN and the PISA tests before we rely on them as the main indicator of the state of education systems.

There are mixed results from Year 12 in the ACT. The retention rate from Year 7 to Year 12 of 95% in 2017 is very high by national standards [ABS, Schools Australia 2018, Table 90a]. It is much higher than the national average of 85% and is the equal highest with South Australia. It has improved over the past decade but no more than in other states. There is also not much room for more improvement, given the current rate of 95%.

The Year 12 completion rate of 79% in 2016, however, was only slightly above the Australian average of 76% [Report on Government Services 2018, Table A4.55]. It is similar to Victoria and Western Australia and below that of South Australia. The ACT rate has declined slightly in recent years from 82% in 2012. There are also large differences between students of different SES backgrounds:
• The rate for high SES students of 82% is similar to the Australian average of 80% and to that of Victoria and Western Australia, but below South Australia;
• The rate for medium SES students of 81% is well above the Australian average of 75%, similar to Victoria and Western Australia, but below South Australia;
• The low SES student rate of 65% is well below the Australian average of 73% and is the lowest in Australia except for Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

The gap in completion rates between high and low SES students in the ACT is 17 percentage points. This is much higher than the average for Australia of seven points and much higher than any other state except Tasmania and the Northern Territory and should be a matter of great concern.

ATAR results in the ACT are very good by national standards. In 2015 (latest available), 62% of the ACT Year 12 population achieved an ATAR score of 50 or more [Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2016, Table 4A.6.11]. This was up from 44% in 2007. It is way above the Australian average of 42% and way above every other state.

The story from Year 12 outcomes is that while the ACT is doing very well on some indicators, it is not doing so well on others. Its ATAR rate is very high compared to other states but its completion rate, while high, is no better than a few other states. The retention and ATAR rates have improved but the completion rate has declined. What is notable, however, is the very poor completion rate for low SES students and the large gap between it and the rates for medium and high SES students.

The much lower levels of achievement for low SES students compared to high SES students is one area of consistency between the Year 12 outcomes and the PISA and NAPLAN results. The PISA and NAPLAN results show a strong association between SES background and student achievement. The 2015 PISA results show that the impact of socio-economic background on student results in the ACT is stronger than in any other state or territory. It shows an increase of 58 points in science for a one unit increase in the SES index used by PISA compared to the average of 44 points in Australia. The ACT has one of the largest achievement gaps between high and low SES students in Australia. On average, low SES 15-year-old students in the ACT are over three years in learning behind high SES students.

NAPLAN results for low SES students are also well below those of high SES students but have shown high volatility in recent years. Consequently, there were large variations in achievement gaps between low and high SES students. The gaps have ranged from about two to four years of learning. The reason for the volatility in the results of low SES students itself requires further investigation and explanation.

As SOS and many others have shown, the ACT is not serving disadvantaged students at all well and the achievement gaps have been ignored for far too long. For example, the national PISA 2009 report concluded that “…low socioeconomic students in the Australian Capital Territory are not particularly well served by their education system” [p. 281]. It seems nothing has changed for the better since then despite all the Government rhetoric.

The long neglect of ACT disadvantaged students demands a radical change from the usual self-serving government statements. An independent public inquiry should be established to examine factors influencing school outcomes in the ACT and recommend a concrete plan to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students. It should examine factors such as:

  • School funding;
  • Teacher quantity, quality and accountability requirements;
  • Student absenteeism and attitudes to school;
  • Learning support for disadvantaged students.

Funding is a key factor for public schools. Funding for ACT public schools has been cut in real terms (after adjusting for rising costs) while funding for private schools has increased. Total government (Commonwealth and ACT) funding for public schools was cut by $154 per student between 2009 and 2016, while funding for Catholic schools increased by $1,335 per student and by $480 per student in Independent schools.

The cut for public schools was due to large cuts by the ACT Government. Its funding fell by $410 per student since 2009. After increasing a little between 2009 and 2013, it fell by $660 per student since 2013. Cuts to funding mean that there are no additional resources available to better support the learning of disadvantaged students. Around 80% of disadvantaged students in the ACT are in public schools. Many studies show that funding matters in education, especially for disadvantaged students. The ACT Government must lift its funding for disadvantaged students and schools to provide the teaching and other resources needed to improve results.

Teaching resources are obviously a highly important factor in school outcomes. Differences in teacher qualifications, experience, shortages and turnover between advantaged and disadvantaged schools are all linked to achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students as shown in a recent OECD report.

The report showed that disadvantaged schools in Australia have more students per teacher, more teacher shortages, more teacher absenteeism, more poorly qualified teachers, more teachers teaching out-of-field, more inexperienced teachers, more teacher turnover, more novice teachers, and more teachers on short-term contracts than advantaged schools. The gaps rank amongst the largest in the OECD.

However, there is little information available on the state of teaching resources in advantaged and disadvantaged schools in the ACT. The report on Australia’s results in PISA 2015 shows that teacher absenteeism is very high in the ACT compared to other states. An expert inquiry should examine the state of teaching resources in disadvantaged schools. It should look at how to provide more high quality teachers for disadvantaged schools and how to encourage them to remain in these schools.

Another issue is that teachers everywhere are drowning in a sea of paperwork as Gabbie Stroud has so eloquently revealed. Teachers are spending their time off-line and after-hours doing paperwork instead of preparing for classes, supporting students and working with parents. We urgently need to review the reporting demands placed on teachers, free up their time to work as educators and start to trust them more as professionals.

Student absenteeism including not attending school and skipping classes also affect school outcomes. The results from PISA 2015 show that education systems with higher percentages of students who skip school, skip classes and arrive late for school tend to have lower test scores. It shows that student absenteeism is lower in the ACT than other states and well below the Australian average.

However, we need to look more deeply at the absenteeism data for differences between students of different backgrounds. Australia-wide figures show that they are much higher amongst low SES students. For example, 59% of disadvantaged students are in schools where the principal reported that truancy was affecting learning compared to only 3% of students in advantaged schools. A public inquiry should examine the ACT data in more depth and the reasons students skip school and classes.

The ACT Government has ignored the poor results of disadvantaged students for far too long. The new Future of Education strategy released by the Minister in August is little different from the waffle of numerous strategies published by the Labor Government in the past 17 years which have had little effect on the outcomes of low SES students. For example, how many times in the past have we heard about putting students at the centre of education? The new strategy doesn’t even set a goal of reducing the achievement gaps between rich and poor. Yet, this is the most fundamental challenge facing the ACT education system.

It is incongruous that a discussion paper on equity in education published for the Future of Education public consultation last year highlighted the poor results for disadvantaged students, yet the Minister’s strategy statement completely fails to directly address the issue. There is no commitment to reversing past funding cuts and increasing funding for disadvantaged students and schools. There is no commitment to additional teaching and other resources to better support disadvantaged students in their learning. There is no commitment to attracting and retaining high quality teachers in disadvantaged schools. There is no commitment to reducing the administrative load of teachers and freeing them up to better prepare for classes and support students.

Until we get these commitments there is little prospect of improving results of disadvantaged students in the ACT. Disadvantaged students need more than waffle from yet another education minister. What is desperately needed is an expert review of the evidence about school results, especially for disadvantaged students, and a concrete plan based around real increases in funding and resources to improve these results.

Trevor Cobbold

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