Improving our schools: there is no magic bullet

3 Apr 2014

Improving school education in Australia has been a topic of public discussion for some time. In the period 1982-2012 there was roughly one state or national inquiry every year into the teaching profession in Australia.[1] These discussion continue today. In New South Wales requirements (to come into effect next year) require aspiring teachers to score a minimum of Band 5, or 80 per cent, in at least three of their High School Certificate (HSC) subjects, including English.[2] The theory is that restricting enrolment to those with higher ATARs will ensure that only the best and brightest will be able to become teachers. Therefore better teachers will be the end product.  

Then we had the Gonski Report. It was meant to address the ‘rampant inequity and inequality’ that had come to characterise how we funded our school education.[3] It promised that each child, no matter their circumstances would receive the same base level of funding. From there, additional loadings would be awarded to schools according to the demographics of their student population. Additional financial resources would be provided to schools catering for low SES students, students with learning disabilities and those from non-English backgrounds. It was acknowledged that such students may need additional resources to ensure their success in the classroom.

In Queensland the change of government saw a change with how public schools utilise their resources. Starting in 2013, and set to grow each year after, certain public schools became Independent Public Schools (IPS). Unlike other public schools, IPS would have greater autonomy in decision making. Each IPS has its own governing council which decides upon the school strategy. Additionally the school is provided a one line budget from Education Queensland. This means it is up to the school to decide how it spends its money.[4]

Most recently the Federal Government that it has commissioned a review of the national curriculum. The reasons for which the national review was commissioned have been mixed. It has been said that the Minister for Education for one wanted the curriculum to have a greater focus upon western civilization. [5] The Australian Primary Principals Association, welcoming the review, sees it as an opportunity to ensure that a greater focus is placed upon basic literacy and numeracy.[6]

Each of these approaches to improving our schools has merit. Each approach most probably draws inspiration from those school systems that have recently been successful in the international benchmarking exercises (PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS). For example one only has to look at the latest report from Ben Jensen at the Grattan Institute to see that most of these approaches characterise what he sees as the best performing school systems in the world. [7] However the problem in Australia is that we have taken the ‘magic bullet’ approach. We adopt one approach, in isolation and promise and expect that it will be in and of itself the answer to all that ills our schools.

Our approach to improving our schools is not only problematic because it suffers from the ‘magic bullet’ syndrome. It is also problematic because it seeks to divorce institutional settings from the cultural space in which they were created. We cannot expect that simply adopting the approach that has proven successful in one place will ipso facto be successful when implemented here. It is also requires us to change the way we, as a community, approach education. This involves everyone, from parents to teachers to policy makers and bureaucrats.

In Australia we have failed to wholeheartedly recognise that home life is one of (but not the only) cultural factor that will have an impact upon school achievement. There is only so much teachers and schools can do to improve the academic achievement of students.

A recent report commissioned by UK based social mobility charity, Sutton Trust found that poor parenting in the first three years of life can hold back children at school. [8] It is obvious that no matter how much money is allocated are allocated, autonomy is given to the school, the curriculum is changed or the teacher trained that it is still going to be difficult to make up for this home life deficit in the classroom. 

Unfortunately this is not an entirely new finding. There has long existed what is known as a ‘language deficit’. Students from low SES backgrounds perform comparatively lower on language tests compared to their middle and higher SES classmates.[9] The gap is explained as a ‘deficit’ or ‘gap’. It is thought that this gap is attributed to the lack of exposure children from low SES families have to activities that develop their language skills (such as storytelling or conversations with adults).

Another factor that cannot be controlled by teachers or schools (for the most) is family expectations. There has long existed a body of research that has shown that realistic, high parent expectations often correlate with academic achievement. [10]

It is important to make clear that simply having parents talk and read to their young children more often, or having them place higher expectations on their children is not the magic bullet that will improve school outcomes either. Instead we must draw on internationally recognised best practice and harnesses both cultural and institutional change in the way we go about school education. To do otherwise will leave us firing blank magic bullets. 

Raffaele Piccolo is a graduate from the University of Adelaide in law and international studies. He has a keen interest in public policy and currently serves as a national board member for the Australian Fabians.

Image: sliver bullet sign, Andy Dean Photography / shutterstock

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