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Election 2013 Issues: The way we learn

What’s working in Australia’s education system and what’s not? Learning image from

Welcome to the **The Conversation Election 2013 State of the Nation* essays. These articles by leading experts in their field provide an in-depth look at the key policy challenges affecting Australia as the nation heads to the polls. Today, we examine the issue of education, all the way from early childhood to tertiary level.*

Most of us have a stake in education policy, for one reason or another: your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews might be currently in school; you might be planning to start a family; or, at the very least, you once were a school student yourself.

So it is quite right that education receive the attention it deserves from the media and from our politicians in this upcoming election.

However, if you have been paying attention to education coverage in recent weeks and months, you would be forgiven for thinking the Australian education system is on a verge of a major crisis. It is not. But there are some matters that need attention.

To bring it back to basics, Australia has a good education system and we perform well on international measures. However, there are some matters that need to be addressed.

  • Levels of participation in early childhood education are too low, and too many students start school below the expected level of capability.
  • We have low levels of equity compared to other developed nations; the gap between our highest and lowest performing students is among the highest in the OECD.
  • While our international performance is strong, it is slipping and our most able students are slipping the most.
  • Our new teachers, on the whole, are not receiving the preparation they need to be as effective as possible in the classroom.
  • The profession of teaching is generally held in low esteem, when it should be one of our most respected.

Essentially, the answer to all these challenges comes back to one basic principle: teaching is key. Research has shown time and again that teaching is by far the most crucial adjustable driver of student outcomes. With this in mind, I’d like to explore some of these challenges and potential solutions in a bit more detail.

Early childhood education

Education is a vital part of young children’s well-being and development, yet many of the young children who really need access to a high quality learning environment are not receiving it. Indeed, Australia’s levels of participation in early childhood education is well below the OECD average.

The children who suffer the most from this are those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who do not receive the support they need at an early age. They then start school behind their peers and it becomes difficult for them to catch up.

Quality is another issue in early childhood education – it is highly variable, to say the least. And yet, we know from research that quality early educational intervention makes significant long-term differences to IQ, social, educational and employment outcomes.

The Labor government under both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard has made significant steps towards addressing both the participation and quality issues in Australian early childhood education, and this should be commended. However, there is still much to be done. In particular, clinically trained early childhood education experts should be deployed through the system, to work with local networks of early educators and families to provide specific guidance and coaching on infant and toddler education.

Meeting the needs of every learner

A major study led by Patrick Griffin from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education has found that improvement in student achievement is concentrated among less able students, with the performance of more able students almost flat-lining. Professor Griffin also found that teachers do not have the strategies to develop higher order skills in numeracy or literacy among their students. It is likely that this is a result of the recent focus on disadvantaged students.

These findings are consistent with Australia’s performance in the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which show that our top 30 – 40% of students are underperforming. They point to a worrying trend – if Australia does not realise the potential of its brightest learners, we will not be able to compete internationally, particularly as our Asian neighbours continue to flourish.

It is vital every student in our system – regardless of their ability – receives a year of learning growth in return for a year of input. Our obsession with meeting “minimum standards” may be contributing to the lack of attention our most able students are receiving. To put it simply, a student may meet or exceed the minimum standards set by, for example, National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), but their learning may not have grown sufficiently over the past year.

We need a shift in focus from meeting set standards to demonstrating growth.

We also need to focus more on the learners’ needs and identify when they understand a concept on the surface or at a deeper level.

Greater attention needs to be given to using data and evidence to meet the needs of individual learners. Teachers can then determine what each student is ready to learn; have the capabilities to support learning; and are able to evaluate the impact they have on the learner. Teacher education courses and professional development for existing teachers needs to prepare teachers with these vital skills.

Teacher education

There has been a lot of debate this year about perceived falling entry standards into teacher education courses. While university entrance scores or ATARs are an imperfect measure of student ability, and high numbers of teacher education students enter at the graduate level (where ATAR scores are no longer relevant), the fact remains that, since 2009, the proportion of teacher education offers to school-leavers with an ATAR below 70 has increased to 52% last year from 45%.

At the same time, Australia has been increasing its over-supply of teaching graduates (particularly in primary and secondary humanities). This is being exacerbated by the demand driven system - a policy which saw the removal of the government cap on undergraduate places.

This higher education policy is contributing to the steady decline in the average ATARs of undergraduate teaching students nationally, in turn lowering the esteem in which society holds the profession and deterring high performing students from studying teaching.

As Ed Byrne, Vice Chancellor of Monash University, recently wrote, we would not accept low entry standards into other important professions, like medicine. What makes teaching an exception? I would argue that we cannot fix some of the major challenges facing our education system, including the low esteem in which teachers are held, until we fix this fundamental issue with teacher education.

We should also consider allocating commonwealth supported places in teacher education according to national supply and demand data, as currently happens in other professions. This will address issues of over-supply, and help target priority areas including special education, mathematics, science and foreign languages.

A note on funding

School funding has dominated the Australian education debate this year. The reforms proposed by businessman David Gonski and his panel are commendable; they offer a practical solution to address Australia’s overly-complicated and vastly inequitable system of school funding.

While the watered-down version currently under debate is far from perfect, it still represents a potentially large injection of additional funds into government schools, which is certainly called for. With the majority of states and territories now on board and newly announced bipartisan support, it looks as though the changes to school funding are here to stay.

However, it is important to bear in mind that additional funding, while necessary, is not a magic bullet in itself. How that money is spent is just as important, and I would argue this should be on measures that support teachers and teaching.


Governments have got some things right in education policy over recent years – notably the increased focus on quality early childhood education and ongoing reforms to Australia’s school funding system. However, there is still much to be done to ensure Australia continues to enjoy a high performing education system, and to make sure the needs of all our learners – no matter their background or their ability – are met.

In addressing these challenges, we need to remember that it all comes back to teaching; and in doing so, we need to give the profession the respect it deserves.

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