What now for Australian schools?

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The recent “Gonski 2.0” review of Australian education makes pretty depressing reading. If this is the big idea for Australian education then I am concerned. I am particularly worried that it has been backed uncritically by politicians. Apart from a few dissenting conservative voices, we are faced with a programme of reform supported by the incumbent government and, seemingly, the official opposition. Rather than critiquing the vagueness of, and lack of evidence for, the Gonski panel’s plans, Labor appear to be saying that these plans are nothing new and that they thought of them first.

The prize of a knowledge-rich curriculum seems farther away than ever.

If we cannot achieve meaningful reform at a system level, as sadly seems the case, then perhaps the solution is freedom for individual schools or groups of schools to innovate. The charter school movement began in the U.S. in the late 1990s and the academy/free school programme took hold in England in the 2000s. This has allowed enough time to explore some of the effects.

It is a mistake to assume that simply changing the regulation of schools will fix the system. In fact, it is a misunderstanding of the intention of such reforms. The logic of creating multiple school types is that some will be less effective and some will be more effective, allowing the system as a whole to learn from the relative successes. Schools like Michaela Community School and School 21 in London are building models of education that are significantly different to each other and to most schools in the English school system. Michaela champions strong discipline and the explicit teaching of a knowledge-rich curriculum whereas School 21 prizes oracy and project-based learning. Both provide models of practices for other schools to consider, select from or reject.

The KIPP charter school programme in the U.S. may provide even more substantial evidence for us to draw upon. KIPP schools are often oversubscribed and take students on a lottery basis. This allows researchers to run genuine randomised controlled trials comparing students who are accepted into KIPP with those who are not; students who should not systematically vary in terms of any other trait. This evidence suggests that KIPP schools have a positive effect although, by the very nature of the research, we can only really say this about those KIPP schools that are oversubscribed.

I would not necessarily wish to replicate every aspect of the KIPP programme in every school – I am doubtful about character education, for instance – but that is hardly the point. The policy allowing for the formation of charter schools also allows for the generation of this kind of evidence. Over time, it could and should make the whole system smarter. I am sure many of us think we know what the best schools would look like but this is a way of actually testing out those ideas.

You might argue that we shouldn’t be experimenting on children. This is a valid point to raise and, in the past, I have argued that we need to focus on system level reform based upon the available evidence. But we are simply not doing that and we seem further away from it than ever. Some innovative schools may indeed fail their students – we have seen this with studio schools in England – but I suspect there would be a net positive effect of such a policy. Although very different, I don’t think that anyone would describe either Michaela or School 21 as a disaster, such is the power of being given the freedom to build something that you believe in.

Yet here we are in Australia. Charter schools in the U.S. have received a lot of support from moderate Democrats. The academy programme in England was introduced by a centre-left Labour government. Despite a few faltering steps towards greater autonomy, nobody in Australian politics, left or right, seems to be actively pursuing a serious charter school / free school policy here. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to learn from these other school systems, at some point, down the track, in the future, once we have messed about with personalised learning for a few years.


20 thoughts on “What now for Australian schools?

  1. There’s a simple reason why there’s no particular push for charter/academy schools in Australia, and that is the breadth of the independent school sector (much broader and, I would think, more affordable than in the UK). If there were a critical mass of parents dissatisfied with the standard of education (particularly at secondary level) who had “nowhere else to go”, I’m sure there’d be more pressure for a move towards such a system.

    It’s heartening to see schools like Michaela succeed with a traditional knowledge-based curriculum, but in the end I think the only thing that will change the system for the better in the long term is a culture shift at tertiary level. But all the Thinkiballs-style nonsense seems more embedded than ever among Ed academics, and policymakers are speaking the same language. It’s going to take a long time.

  2. I support a push for charter/academies as I feel the situation is hopeless in Aust. and unlikely to change due to entrenched ideological commitment. My children go to an independent private Catholic school and I’m afraid it is pretty much fully enamoured with “progressive” theory, bar some individual teachers who seem somewhat resistant. But what happens it the Gonski reforms are embraced and implemented? My children’s school will head even further down the path of failure ( it’s bad enough as it is) rather then be guided by solid research. I support Jennifer Buckingham in her attempts to bring about these changes. Parents and teachers will have a choice, rather than being hamstrung by the current orthodoxy.

  3. And my kids went to the local State school so I know that both are pretty much the same, except for the religious component.

  4. However, perhaps Presbyterian Ladies College in Sydney sounded like they had a sensible principal who understood the importance of knowledge. I don’t think many parents have fully explored their reasons for feeling dissatisfied, but many are, as they complain a lot to each other. They just have a vague sense that things aren’t as they should be but I don’t think they even know that many schools use progressive methods over explicit instruction and that our curriculum is lacking in knowledge. About the only time they face the inadequacies face on is when their child fails to read or when they haven’t memorised their times tables. It doesn’t usually go any further than that.

      1. Perhaps it would be fruitful for anyone who hears about some schools that embrace knowledge could share those names.

      2. Wow! I’m very impressed by this principal and school. Sounds fantastic. Thanks Felicity, I’ll have to longingly dream about it…

  5. The more I see of the NSW approach to education in my kids the more I despair…our primary school was great: the principal explicity required explicit teaching, although I’d have stressed more primary level knowledge to be inculcated. The (selective) HS we use is highly variable on the back of a dreadful curriculum. Some teachers clearly academics, having PhDs, others, by their speeches, are duds!

  6. A key difference between Australian state schools and UK ones is the bizarre nature of employment as a state school teacher and the difficulties of staffing regional and remote schools. A knowledge based curriculum would, one hopes, put paid to the practice of expecting teachers to take any class that needs a teacher – and requiring a knowledgeable teaching workforce requires being able to choose your staff. Choosing your staff based on their ability to do the job, rather than having completed three or four years of country service would cause massive disruption. In Queensland, anyway…

    1. Staffing of remote schools is a problem… perhaps different/better incentives, like much better pay (not just some measly extra allowance) or offering fully funded teaching scholarships in return for two or three years of teaching in remote areas might help? We can dream…

  7. Just a thought, but I would stay away from research/data from the US. Our charter situation is complicated by some very American problems–race, school funding schemes (most of our public schools are funded via local property taxes), corporate interests, and political ideology. Charter school teachers are almost always non-unionized, and as almost all unions support the Democratic Party, charters are introduced to undermine those unions.

    As for KIPP, they’re problematic, as many charters play games with their data—often by pushing out students who struggle. See https://garyrubinstein.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/does-kipp-deserve-to-expand-in-philly/ for a Philadelphia-specific case.

  8. Mm, nah, don’t look to charters for the answer.

    Last year, the federal General Accountability Office issued a report chastising charters for avoiding students with disabilities, and the ACLU is suing charters in New Orleans for that reason. Because they are loosely regulated, charter schools are often neither accountable nor transparent. In 2013, the founders of an L.A. charter with 1,200 students were convicted of misappropriating more than $200,000 in public funds. In Oakland, an audit at the highest-performing charter schools in the state found that $3.8 million may have been misused when the founder hired his other businesses to do work for his charters.

    And besides that, they have done nothing to improve educational standards in the US since they started in 1990.


  9. This is probably where I disagree most with you Greg. If we think we waste a lot of money in education now – wait until there are charters in there with their hand out for government money as well.
    Looking at a very tiny amount of high profile UK free schools does not negate the masses of free schools that are just isolated ‘normal’ schools (without the benefits that come with the system) or kooky progressive ones.

    1. For me, schools like Michaela and, perhaps more significantly, the King Solomon Academy and Inspiration Trust chains, provide an important demonstration of how explicit teaching and a knowledge-rich curriculum can work together. This provides benefits above and beyond the benefits for the students in those schools because other schools begin to adopt some of their more effective practices. How could such schools be opened in Australia?

  10. For me, schools like Michaela … provide an important demonstration of how explicit teaching and a knowledge-rich curriculum can work together.

    Michaela’s only been open since 2014. Is it not too early to be making judgements about its effectiveness?

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