SOS Submission on the Govt’s Education Bill

This is a summary of a submission by Save Our Schools to the Senate Education Committee Inquiry on the Australian Education Bill 2012.

The submission addresses two issues relating to the Australian Education Bill 2012 – equity in education and collaboration between schools. It proposes clarification of what is defined as equity in education and recommends that the definition adopted by the Gonski report on school funding be included as a key principle and object. It also recommends that collaboration between schools be included as a component of the reform directions for the national plan for improving the performance of schools and students.

Equity in education
Save Our Schools supports inclusion of the Gonski report’s definition of equity in education as a principle in the Preamble to the Education Act and as part of the Objects of the Act. The report defined equity in education as follows:

The panel has defined equity in education as ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. [p. 105]

It elaborated on this definition as follows:

Equity in this sense does not mean that all students are the same or will achieve the same outcomes. Rather, it means that all students must have access to an acceptable international standard of education, regardless of where they live or the school they attend.

Furthermore, it said:

Central to the panel’s definition of equity is the belief that the underlying talents and abilities of students that enable them to succeed in schooling are not distributed differently among children from different socioeconomic status, ethnic or language backgrounds, or according to where they live or go to school.

Save Our Schools supports further elaboration of the definition to include both an individual and a social component. It proposes that equity in education should comprise a dual objective:
• All children should receive an adequate education; and
• Different social groups of children should achieve similar average results.

From an individual perspective, equity in education outcomes should mean that all children receive an adequate education for modern times, or, as the Gonksi report states, achieve an acceptable international standard of education. All children should receive a threshold level of education which enables them to make their own way as adults in society and to contribute to that society. This can be viewed as a democratic minimum or threshold in education.

In today’s society, an adequate education should mean successful completion of Year 12 or its equivalent. Those who do not complete Year 12 are to a large extent cut off from further education and training and have limited future employment prospects. All students should complete Year 12 to gain the knowledge and skills they require to enter the workforce or to go on to further education in TAFE or university.

From a social perspective, equity in education should mean that children from different social groups achieve similar results. This follows from the belief of the Gonski panel that the underlying talents and abilities of students that enable them to succeed in schooling are not distributed differently among children from different backgrounds. Again, as the Gonksi report emphasizes, this does not mean that all children should be expected to achieve the same results as individuals – only that the results are similar overall for different social groups.

The distribution of education outcomes between different social groups has a key bearing on access to occupations, income, wealth and positions of power in society. Even if all young people achieve the basic threshold level of education, large inequalities in outcomes above the threshold can still occur between social groups. Such differences affect the life chances of individuals according to their membership of social groups even though their talents and abilities are not distributed differently according to social background.

Equity in education therefore should also mean that students from different social groups achieve similar average results as well as the minimum threshold level of attainment expected for all students. As the central belief statement put forward by the Gonski panel implies, there is no reason in principle to consider that the innate intelligence and talents of low SES, Indigenous, ethnic and remote area students are somehow less than those of high SES students. No social, racial or geographic group of students is innately more intelligent or talented than others.

Collaboration between schools
One of the reform directions for improving the performance of schools and students specified in the Australian Education Bill 2012 is “empowered school leadership”. Increasing school autonomy is a major policy priority of all Australian governments. Recent policy initiatives have focused on increased power for principals in the recruitment of staff and in budgetary decisions about centrally provided funding.

As outlined in an earlier submission to the Senate Education Committee on Teaching and Learning, Save Our Schools considers 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.

A particular concern about greater school autonomy is that, together with other factors such as the publication of school results and school league tables, it undermines collaboration between schools and the spread of best practice in teaching and learning. School autonomy encourages schools to see themselves as isolated silos rather than as part of a system working together to achieve particular education goals. This is the strong conclusion of recent analyses of the experience with school autonomy in New Zealand and England.

New Zealand has long had one of the most decentralized school systems in the world under the Tomorrow’s Schools program introduced in 1989. It reduced the NZ Education Department to a much smaller ministry, abolished regional education boards and made schools responsible for their own decision-making.

A new book published last November by Dr. Cathy Wylie of the New Zealand Council of Educational Research (NZCER), titled Vital Connections, reviews the history of the program. It concludes that the model is flawed and cannot meet the demands now being placed on the education system. It says that New Zealand needs more than self-managing schools; schools need more central support.

Dr. Wylie says that the past 23 years have demonstrated the limitations of making each school a separate island. Tomorrow’s Schools created a system of fragmented schools which emphasised the “self” part of self-management, of putting one’s own school first and not being part of an overall national system.

She says that Tomorrow’s Schools has been wasteful, with too much reinventing of the wheel and few channels for sharing good ideas and practice between schools. Collaboration between schools in the same district to support each other to improve decreased under self-management.

Dr. Wylie recommends fundamental changes to the system. She says that stronger connections and better support across the system are vital, not only to make gains in student achievement for all but to get much better value for the education dollar. This means more support at the local level, more connections to share and build knowledge and more coherence between the different layers of the schooling system.

She recommends a return to more central and regional support for schools. Her proposals include a national network of 20 education authorities throughout the country, with responsibility for schools in their region and charged with ensuring schools and teachers are supported and challenged and can learn from each other.

Academy schools are another form of school autonomy. They are independent, state-funded schools in England which have much more freedom than traditional public schools.

A report on the experience with academies was recently published by the UK Academies Commission which was set up by the Royal Society for the Arts and the Pearson Think Tank to examine the implications of the ‘mass academisation’ of state schools and the impact this might have on educational outcomes.

The report covers a wide range of issues, one of which is the impact of the expansion of independent academies on collaboration between schools. It expresses concern at the isolation of academies from other schools and the system and calls for more collaboration between schools. The Commission says that much more needs to be done to capture the power of collaboration for system improvement. It says that school autonomy is not enough for school improvement.

The report states that collaboration between schools, together with excellent teaching, “is the route to improve learning and raise achievement for all pupils, no matter what their background”. It says that more academies should recognise the value of establishing a collaborative culture, both within and across schools, and that a more systematic approach is needed. It says there would be real benefits from the government linking greater collaboration between schools with the academy program.

Clearly, collaboration between schools to spread best practice in teaching and learning is a very important aspect of school improvement. This is well recognised by high level education leaders. For example, at the launch of the Academies Commission report, Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General, said that collaboration is vital for system improvement and pointed out that there is a much stronger correlation between collaborative culture and system success than that associated with autonomous school systems.

The experience in New Zealand and England provides substantial evidence that there is a very real danger that school autonomy and school self-management in Australia will undermine and restrict collaboration. While the Federal Government is committed to supporting greater school autonomy it should acknowledge these dangers and act to counter the incentives created by school autonomy for schools to see themselves, and operate, in isolation from other schools.

To this end, Save Our Schools believes that the Government should make collaboration between schools part of its national plan for education. Support for collaboration between schools to spread best practice in teaching and learning should be included as one of the reform directions set out in Section 7 of the Education Act.

The Federal Government should introduce programs that support greater collaboration and build networks between schools. It should negotiate a new partnership agreement with state and territory governments to provide funding to support greater collaboration. The National Partnership on Empowering Local Schools should be complemented by a National Partnership on Supporting Collaboration between Schools.

Save Our Schools recommends that:

1. Equity in education should be defined in the Preamble and Objects of the Education Act as ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.

2. Equity in education outcomes should be specified in the Definitions of the Education Act as follows:
a. Completion of Year 12 or its equivalent by all students (the adequate education objective); and
b. The achievement of similar average outcomes by students from all social groups including high SES, low SES, Indigenous and remote area students (the social equity objective).

3. The Government should incorporate collaboration between schools in its national plan for education. Support for collaboration between schools to spread best practice in teaching and learning should be included as one of the reform directions set out in Section 7 of the Education Act.

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