In the past decade, federal government agencies and their state regulators have packaged most things in education in Australia. Big education decisions, like what to teach and what should be tested, are largely made in capital cities. These moves have all been made in the name of improving standards, but they’ve come at the cost of local independence.
We introduced anti-discrimination legislation across Australia between the 1970s and 1990s, but then we centralised curriculum and assessment between 2008 and 2010. One move opened up more opportunities for equity, while the other restricted the ability of teachers to make autonomous decisions in response to their local needs and values.
Belief systems – whether religious, philosophical, political, ideological or a combination – are one of the most understated influences in education. These systems are based on communities’ collective values and beliefs about what matters. Because we have diverse beliefs in Australia, we also have a diversity of schools.
We need to empower and trust local people to take responsibility and collaborate to develop programs for local people. National programs have not yielded improved achievement rates, so why do we persist with the idea of centrally packaging the curriculum?
“Them and us” attitudes make rural students disengage
Although we have about 9,500 schools across Australia, there are two central education powerhouses: The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in Sydney, and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) in Melbourne. Urban bureaucratic perspectives are foregrounded and local and regional perspectives are marginalised. It’s a long way from Melbourne to Broome or Bamaga.
All over the country, schools spend hours reporting their activities to government departments, and bureaucrats spend hours checking and publishing school outcomes. It’s a big compliance game.
ACARA administers and reports on NAPLAN. Curriculum is developed by ACARA and interpreted by state agencies in capital cities. AITSL sets standards for teachers and principals, and state governments use these to set awards and develop career paths for them.
Because school data is published on the internet, efforts by local teachers and principals to provide high quality education are hijacked by comparative assessment and reporting agendas. If there wasn’t a national comparison game, local educators could give more time to creating meaningful learning experiences for their students.
Meanwhile, non-attendance is a major concern in the regions, but we fail to recognise the significance of the “them and us” attitudes that prevail between schools and parents in regional communities.
A review into regional, remote and rural education found there is a genuine concern in regional communities that students are “learning for leaving”. This means the main focus of education is seen to be to get educated school-leavers out of the country into the city.
Many non-urban students choose to disengage because they think school is irrelevant. A mismatch of beliefs about what’s important in education can lead to disengagement and poorer schooling outcomes for regional students.
In regional Indigenous communities, socio-cultural divisions are too often reinforced by teachers who are ill-equipped to meet the learning needs of Indigenous students. We have included Indigenous histories and cultures in the Australian Curriculum, but at the same time we’ve compromised Indigenous teaching strategies as local teachers are asked to implement pre-packaged curriculum or foreign instruction techniques.
The personal touch
We falter in democracy when we impose programs developed by centralised bureaucracies as band-aids for local problems. Programs alone don’t solve social issues. The catalyst for change is often the teacher, coach, mentor, friend, or colleague. A local person.
We can bureaucratise, standardise and normalise education all we like, but education will always be personal and emotional for local communities because they have their own beliefs, which might not match the beliefs in big cities.
So what do we do about it?
Community consultation is not enough. OECD reports show teachers who are able to contribute to decision-making also report education is valued in their community, and have higher job satisfaction.
Local schools and teachers should be able to develop their own programs that are tailor-made to meet the needs of local communities so learning is meaningful. This way, local beliefs will not be compromised by government agendas, and teachers will feel empowered to meet the needs of their students rather than just getting through the material.
The power of local autonomy has already been proven in Finland, a country that is known for its high educational outcomes.
On a practical level, local schools should be able to choose what they teach and how to test it so learning and assessment is meaningful. We need local autonomy so education can meet the needs of local students.