How schools across the country are helping themselves

It is possible for schools to drag themselves out of low participation, low academic results and high attrition rates. AAP

I’m over it. The endless binary debates that fuel the great education wars. Public vs private, phonics vs whole language, autonomy vs command and control. So yesterday as my young friends would say.

It can be different. The good news is that plenty of Australian schools are ignoring what Professor John Hattie (Visible Learning) calls “the politics of distraction” and getting on with their very own, dare I say it, education revolution.

It’s not yet evident in international data, which in recent years has been producing some understandable anguish. A gap between our highest and lowest achievers that is greater than the OECD average, along with a worrying downward trend among our top students, means that Australia has lost bragging rights in being able to claim status among the high-performing education systems. But there’s reason for optimism. There are class acts all across the country, and in some unlikely places.

Schools, many of them low SES, are taking note of the mountain of research that exists around whole school improvement. Schools that are transforming typically follow the broad outline of what Harvard Professor Richard Elmore cites as the key elements of change – improving the knowledge and skills of teachers, increasing the intellectual rigour of content for students, and getting students to the stage where they are more responsible for their own learning.

How “class act” schools are self-improving

Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time in schools and observed some remarkable changes. Places that in the past have tolerated mediocrity are now commanding attention as lively institutions where student engagement and learning has lifted, and where effective teaching practice is a matter for regular collegial discussion and review.

At Charles la Trobe, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, teachers are addressing one of the big divides in Australian education – the way that subject choice, or the lack of it, is a barrier to a rich set of life choices. The school has moved away from what it calls “the dumbed-down electives” and adopted a challenging academic curriculum. Philosophy has been introduced for Year 9s and students fire on all cylinders as they wrestle with the finer points of Socratic dialogue.

Principal Maria Karvouni says the school has come a long way from the dispirited place it was when she started there - a place where the kids spent more time in PE than in English classes. When Karvouni challenged this priority she was told “it suits the kids”. It didn’t suit Karvouni, especially when she looked at the data, which showed huge literacy deficits among both primary and secondary students.

It’s a work in progress but a central focus on language, with help from skilled linguists, and a ferocity about students developing good homework patterns is helping to lift performance. As Karvouni says:

It’s about sustained effort, and that’s what many of our kids lack because it has never been reinforced. So much of learning is habit. You do it and the bar lifts.

In a very different jurisdiction, that of NSW, which is slowly moving away from a highly centralised approach, change has been embraced by Toronto High. Six years ago the regional high school just south of Newcastle had a dismal record. Not one of its students made the transition to post-secondary education. It wasn’t something that new principal Mark McConville thought was remotely tolerable. But where to start?

Attendance was poor, family and community engagement non-existent and student behaviour was such that the local police were among the school’s most regular visitors. It’s this cocktail of problems that can overwhelm many school leaders in tough suburbs.

McConville is a bloke with an easy manner and a natural authority. It was a big help that his expertise on the footy field helped him in otherwise difficult conversations with some of the local families, many of whom had developed a deep level of distrust with a school that was so obviously failing their children.

But the key to Toronto’s turnaround (where close to 50% of students now participate in either university or TAFE) has been in the systematic and professional way that McConville has approached the task. Students aren’t told how to behave. They act it out. Everything. From how to line up and order lunch at the canteen, to how to have a conversation that is free of profanities. This kind of basic work allowed for the next stage. As McConville says:

you have to have an orderly learning environment in order for learning to occur. You have to draw the line and hold the line.

Perhaps the biggest change has been in teaching practice, something of an idee fixe for McConville. Drawing on the ideas of Canadian scholar Michael Fullan, McConville introduced the “4Cs” model of co-planning, co-teaching, co-debriefing and co-reflexion. As a result the right questions were asked. Were the students engaged by the lesson? What was absorbed? What was missed? What’s the impact?

It’s working a treat. At Toronto they now talk about a “buzz around learning” and staffroom stories are more likely to be about good pedagogy than who nicked the basketball.

How do we replicate these success stories?

While we can point to numerous class act stories, our biggest national challenge remains how we learn from the best and replicate success across a fragmented system. Our poorest schools can’t do that without extra help and David Gonski’s Review of School Funding sets out a compelling case for the adoption of needs-based funding.

It’s within our grasp to make a different set of choices. Right now there is nothing to stop the states copying what NSW is already doing – applying the Gonski formula and directing resources to areas of greatest need.

Encouragingly Australians place a high priority on investment in education with post-budget polling giving a big thumbs down to Canberra’s attempts to shift to a more user-pays approach and to require the states to do more.

Top-performing countries arrive at a policy position on what constitutes an equitable, quality education system and work like crazy to get the implementation right. Something similar in Australia is no guarantee of a class act for all. But the happiness and academic confidence of a whole generation demand that we at least try.


Maxine McKew’s new book Class Act will be available soon through Melbourne University Publishing.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.