Public debate on schools and schooling is a prominent part of Australian politics. Recent years have seen a series of controversies about what is taught in Australian schools, alongside criticisms of the quality of teaching and resulting learning outcomes. Recent headlines have pointed to a perceived declining quality of teachers and teacher education, alongside increasing concerns over poor student discipline and behaviour. The relatively low standing of Australian schools, in terms of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, has led to continued headlines of “Students’ falling test scores costing the nation $120b in lost GDP” (ABC News, 3 April 2018) and “Australia faces a slide into national illiteracy” (The Age, 21 March 2018).
Elsewhere, controversy over initiatives such as the Safe Schools program continues to prompt conservative criticisms along the lines of “Progressive fads promote cultural illiteracy in schools” (The Australian, 18 Jan 2019) and “Focus on soft skills will lead us astray” (The Australian, 26 Nov 2018). Conversely, progressive critics bemoan schools as being out-of-touch and out-of-date. As an example: “Australian schools ‘not preparing students for real life’” (9News, 29 July 2018) and “Antiquated school day is failing everyone” (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 2018). All told, the public can be forgiven for presuming Australian schools to be in need of considerable improvement.
So what does the Australian public make of the nation’s schools? Amidst ongoing media and political discussions of failing schools, crises in teacher quality and classroom behaviour, it is surprisingly rare to canvas public opinion on schools in detail. We believe that this sort of information should be an important element of the national education debate. For example, one of the few regular surveys of public opinion on education is the US-based ‘Phi Delta Kappa’ ‘PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools’. Starting in 1969, the PDK poll has provided annual insights into public opinion about relevant issues in K-12 education. The 2018 PDK poll canvased over 1000 US adults on their views about teacher pay, teacher strikes, school spending, college tuition, and expectations for all children. Data of this sort provides a rich picture of how opinions on US schools are patterned, and has become a key part of informing the national debate on US education.
Against this background, there is definite value in canvassing public opinion on education in Australia. As such, this report presents an initial snapshot account of public opinion in Australia regarding schools and schooling. Based on a nationally-representative survey of 2052 adults, the report addresses the following questions:
- How do people rate the current performance of Australian public schools in terms of learning outcomes?
- How do people think Australian public schools will be performing in 10 years’ time?
- What characteristics and qualities do people think are most important in relation to children’s education?
- Which areas of the current school curriculum should be given more emphasis and time within Australian public schools over the next few years?
- What new learning areas do people think should be taught in public schools?
Our key aim in asking these questions is to explore where notable differences exist in public opinion on the state of Australian schools. This includes looking for differences between voters of the main political parties, between parents and non-parents, people living in different areas, and those with different educational backgrounds. We are particularly interested in identifying the key demographic patterning of public opinion. This might include differences between different socio economic groups, ages, gender, levels of household income and cultural and linguistic diversity.