New National Education Goals Are Contradictory

The new school year opens this week with new national education goals to follow. Unfortunately, education ministers have set two incompatible goals. They commit to reporting school results and improving equity in education. Inevitably, inequity increases under school reporting.

The new national goals (called the Melbourne Declaration) promulgated last December replace the previous Adelaide Declaration. They comprise two major goals and a commitment to action in eight areas. The two goals are to promote equity and excellence and that all young Australians become successful learners, confident creative individuals, and active informed citizens.

The commitment to action includes several worthwhile aims, including developing stronger partnerships; supporting quality teaching and school leadership; and strengthening early childhood education. It also aims to improve educational outcomes for Indigenous youth and disadvantaged young Australians.

A major new commitment is to report individual school results. This is a key change of direction.

Reporting individual school results makes league tables inevitable. It will entrench choice and competition between schools as the fundamental organising feature of school systems in Australia.

The international evidence shows that equity in education is diminished where choice and competition rule. It increases social segregation between schools as better-off parents use league tables to ‘vote with their feet’, as the PM says the system is designed to do.

Popular schools enhance their results by ‘creaming-off’ high achieving students from other schools and restricting the entry of low achieving students who generally come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Social segregation increases the concentration of students from disadvantaged families in some schools, reducing overall average results. These schools face high student learning needs but have inadequate funding and teaching resources to meet them. They experience a spiral of decline as more parents choose to leave because of the low league table ranking.

The contradiction between goals is compounded by a weaker commitment to social equity in education in the Melbourne Declaration compared to the Adelaide Declaration.

First, it switches the emphasis from equity in educational outcomes to equity in access to education – two very different concepts. Equity in access to education is a much weaker commitment than social equity in school outcomes.

Equity in access to education generally means providing the opportunities to learn without reference to the outcomes. In practice, it permits dismissal of students’ lack of success as being due to their lack of talent or motivation, not to inadequate government funding or teaching.

Equity in access does not require any minimum level of achievement for all students or the elimination of achievement gaps between students from different social backgrounds. It is consistent with wide inequalities in outcomes. It removes the need for special programs to reduce achievement gaps. As such, it is a recipe for continuing inequity.

Second, it drops the key goal of the Adelaide Declaration that schooling should be socially just. This is a major retreat on improving equity in education. Having social justice in schooling as a key national education goal was a powerful policy priority, even though governments failed to implement it.

Third, the Adelaide Declaration stated that the learning outcomes of all educationally disadvantaged students should match those of other students. It meant that average outcomes and the range of outcomes should be similar for students from different social groups, but not that all individuals should have identical outcomes.

The Melbourne Declaration retains the praiseworthy commitment to eliminating the achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. However, it does not offer the same commitment to other disadvantaged groups.

The commitment to socially-disadvantaged students is weakened. The commitment to other disadvantaged students, such as those of some ethnic backgrounds and students from remote areas, is only to reduce the effect of disadvantage instead of requiring that their results improve to match those of other students.

By reporting school results, education ministers, led by the Rudd Government, have chosen to follow the example of the UK and the US. These school systems generally perform worse than Australia.

The highest achieving countries such as Finland and Korea don’t publish comparisons of school results. Yet, they have been much more successful than other countries in reducing the impact of socio-economic background on student results because they resource and manage their schools to succeed. They have the lowest achievement gaps between rich and poor students in the world.

The Rudd Government is completing the agenda of the Howard Government to introduce a quasi-market in education. It has achieved what former Howard Government Education Minister, David Kemp, could only aspire to. Labor’s supposed revolution in education is one conceived by Dr. Kemp.

Trevor Cobbold

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