This has been the year of consultation but little reform. In the lead up to the general election in July, rumours spread about big changes being made to school and higher education. Alas, for higher education at least, we were told to wait another year before any policy changes would be made.
Higher education – chatting about reform
Instead, the sector was given a shopping list of possible reform ideas by the government for higher education. The sector has spent the past year discussing these ideas, which include:
Whether we should deregulate fees for some university courses (most unis are against this idea).
If the ATAR is a useful admissions tool. (Research shows that few students – around one third – are recruited into a university course with an ATAR alone. The government’s recent decision to make the admissions process more transparent is a step in the right direction, but it won’t improve equity.)
Reducing the repayment threshold for students loans from A$54,126 to $40,000-$45,000.
VET – a new loan system
There has also been discussions around Vocational Education and Training (VET) reform – and the government has finally taken some long-awaited action in this area.
From January 1, 2017, there will be a new VET student loan program. This will replace the current flawed VET FEE-HELP scheme, and according to the government, will help to “restore credibility” and rebuild trust in the sector.
The program will place tight caps on students loans and issue tougher entry requirements for providers.
But some aren’t so sure that it will be so easy to weed out dodgy private providers who have, in the past, “proved very adept at finding creative ways around regulation”.
Schools – less funding and slipping standards
As for schools, the government announced that it would abandon the last two years of Gonski funding – a needs-based funding model aimed at supporting children from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds, including those with limited English, Indigenous children and those attending small, rural or remote schools.
This is despite figures showing that these students continue to fall further behind their peers from high SES backgrounds by nearly three years of schooling.
The government has repeatedly argued that the continued slippage in school standards demonstrates that more money does not lead to better educational outcomes.
But it seems that messy politics got in the way of the Gonski model being implemented effectively. So instead of a needs-based model, we got an “inconsistent patchwork of approaches across the nation that protected the vested interests of non-government schools”.
There is, however, plenty of research to show that money does make a difference when it is targeted at areas most in need of support.
The debate then moved on to whether certain schools are “overfunded”, as suggested by education minister Simon Birmingham.
This led to fraught debates around inequality of funding between government and non-government schools. Private schools in Australia can receive public funding while also be allowed to charge school fees. However, research shows that while most high-fee private schools are overfunded, many low-fee private schools are underfunded.
States and territories won’t find out till next year how funding will be distributed from 2018 onwards. In the meantime, there have been a few suggestions around how to reform the school funding system, including this one by the Grattan Institute.
Teacher quality is another issue that kept coming up this year. This followed concerns that universities were recruiting students onto teacher training courses with lower than advertised ATARs.
All initial teacher education students now have to pass a literacy and numeracy test before graduating to help improve standards.
We ran a series of articles looking at how to improve teacher education and raise standards. So what’s the answer?
Australia needs more specialist teachers, and it needs to raise the status of the teaching profession by lifting pay. It needs to change how schools and teachers are evaluated, and ditch the idea that students are hard-wired to learn in different ways.
With two international tests and one national test revealing that Australia – on average – continues to slide in maths, science and literacy, you would think that we don’t know how to improve student learning in schools. But we do.
Education experts like John Hattie have been talking about how to do this for years. This issue is a combination of the government paying little attention to what the evidence actually says, and schools taking a long time to implement some of these ideas. There is also the issue of a lack of education data made publicly available.
So what makes a difference to the quality of education? Interaction with teachers, clinical teaching, constantly measuring each student’s knowledge and responding to their individual needs.
What doesn’t? Smaller class sizes, private schooling, and homework.
Early years education – about changing a mindset
In early years education, little progress has been made. This is despite research showing that early years education is key to closing achievement gaps in the longer term.
The issue is to do with changing a mindset. Rather than looking at the funding of early years education as something that helps get mums back to work, the government needs to look at it as setting children up for learning before they start school.
The good news is that we have almost all four year olds enrolled in preschool. The less positive news is that early years education still faces many problems around low retention of teachers, and staff feeling underpaid and having to rely on families to prop up their income.
Other areas we’ve covered
Throughout the year we’ve discussed a range of much-debated issues – based on new research. These include:
Disability discrimination: we looked at the concerning ways schools try to avoid enrolling students with disabilities; around misdiagnosing students as a way to obtain school funding; and about your rights as a parent if your child with a disability is denied a school place.
How to revive Indigenous languages - which is no mean feat.
We talked about how a tough approach to bad behaviour in schools – such as writing names on the board, taking away a student’s lunch time, or handing out detention – are actually ineffective in the long term and can exacerbate student disengagement and alienation. Individual punishment – such as expulsions – used as a deterrent also rarely works.
And although genes are never the full story, research shows that they can have up to 80% influence on students’ academic performance.
Despite little progress in policy reform, it has been a superb year of debate and discussion around some pressing issues facing education.
To top it off, we were humbled to have received a media award by the Australian Council for Educational Leaders for our “excellent coverage” of education issues.
I’d like to say a big thanks to all our authors who’ve contributed this year – and we hope many more will join us next year.