Education in Australia needs to change direction NOW, before it’s too late

By John Fischetti and Scott Imig

We believe the next five years are vital to the future of education in Australia. As we see it, our choices are stark; we can base what we do on successful models from Australia and around the world or we can embrace practices whose deleterious results have already been demonstrated elsewhere. The choices we make can set our nation on a path towards competitiveness and innovation or irrelevancy in the global economy.

What difference will the change of Prime Minister and Education Minister make?

The recent change of Prime Minister and Education Minister might see some changes in direction. New education minister, Stephen Birmingham, has flagged an interest in vocational education and stated he is “not wedded” to university fee deregulation. It is likely he will redirect higher education reform to strong incentives for improving student persistence and graduation from university.

As we see it, vocational education reform is more than a federal/state issue, it is about skillsets needed to be successful in the innovation age economy. And University reform based on graduation requirements has promise, however is wrought with potential flaws as we can see from the experience of other countries.

Australia will need a lot more than fiddling at the edges of education policy if we are to have a successful future as a nation.

What makes us think education in Australia is at a crossroad?

A series of educational reports have been released recently that appear to raise concern about the health of our educational systems. In a climate where policymakers are pushing for educational reforms, we can see these reports being used as levers for change.

First, in July, the Grattan Institute released a report Targeted teaching: How to get the best from our schoolchildren which revealed the gap in student performance, particularly in year eight maths, across Australia. The report highlights teaching quality as the foremost issue we must address to meet broad student needs.

In August, NAPLAN scores were reported as flat. The report said, “in the seven years since the tests were introduced in primary and high schools, most measurements show no major improvement.”

Later in August, in NSW figures released indicated that teacher mental health leave and compensation claims were up 40%. The New South Wales Education Department said insurers received nearly 690 claims for “psychological injury” from school staff in the last financial year, compared to 490 the year before.

In addition, it appears there are limited opportunities for University graduates in the marketplace. Also the most disadvantaged are even worse off than in the past. The Australian Council for Educational Research highlighted the impact of disadvantage on completion rates for university, with “low SES, non-metropolitan and Indigenous students less likely to complete their programs than their peers.”

These converging narratives appear to be leading us to the policies of the US and UK.

Faced with similar educational indicators in the early 2000s, both nations pinned their hopes on competition and privatization schemes. These were grounded in the idea that competition among schools and between teachers actually improves student learning.

Private is good, public is bad

How was this idea allowed to take hold? American scholar Michael Apple notes,

“We live in a world where we have been told through highly funded and widely publicized media that what is public is bad and what is private is necessarily good.”

Many would contend Apple’s worldview is now alive in Australia as evidenced by recent moves to turn public services such as rail and electricity networks over to private companies.

The future with a US or UK focus

If the US experience is illustrative, following this same ‘private is good, public is bad’ formula in education will lead to an increase in testing regimens and test-focused curricula as schools increasingly compete.

Enormous corporations will run mediocre charter schools across the nation, which will be part of a widespread but failing school choice program. There will be a devaluing of the public sector for education and further socio economic-based segregation of schooling and society.

Our hope is that we also avoid the onerous inspectorate model of England.

An alternative, evidence-based, better future

There are many impressive innovations occurring in Australia and around the world that we could be using more widely. These reform-based models are offering meaningful education experiences for students, often with little fanfare.

For example:

  • The Big Picture School model is revolutionizing schooling for many young people who are “leaving school to learn.” The work-integrated-learning approach coupled with a new form of transdisciplinary pedagogy is gaining traction all around the country.
  • Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) models are emerging for students “in the middle,” who have unrealized potential and need structure, mentoring, study techniques and peer support.
  • Schools such as Broadmeadow Primary near Melbourne are using neuroscience to guide a whole-child approach to teaching and learning with fantastic results.
  • Project-based learning is increasing across the K-12 spectrum leading to exciting new frontiers for the future of schooling.
  • International Baccalaureate program emphasizes a world-calibrated curriculum, problem-solving and globally marked high-level written assessment tasks.
  • In the US, the Early College model is changing the scope and sequence of the entire curriculum for students who are placed at risk in traditional school settings. The Early College model could work here.

These innovations involve a series of integrated skills that fit the innovation approach to teaching and learning that other countries are advancing. The skills are not currently assessed by NAPLAN or the HSC. They include a high level of knowledge and skills in:

  • Applied literacy and numeracy
  • Presentation
  • Technology savvy
  • Collaboration
  • Global awareness
  • Work-integrated learning
  • Market-ready and university-ready skills combined.

We believe Australia is at a cusp of exciting change. We hope foresight can help push back the anti-public school rhetoric and anti-progressive policies that confront us. Yes some valid concerns have been raised but we have, right in front of us, some really positive examples of what works.

Hopefully we can use them to guide us to a future where Australia plays a relevant role on the world stage as knowledge leaders. Let’s not look back on a generational opportunity that we had and let slip away.


John-Fischetti (1) copyJohn Fischetti is Professor and Head of School/Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle. John’s research focuses on reframing teacher education, school reform and learner-focussed teaching. John can be reached at or on twitter @fischettij



Imig Photo copy

Scott Imig is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. Scott’s research is in instructional leadership, school reform and mentoring. Scott can be reached at

4 thoughts on “Education in Australia needs to change direction NOW, before it’s too late

  1. Ruth Adams says:

    Great work. Now need the politicians to get on board.

  2. Tony Shaw says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Going down the U.S. and UK path ( even more than we are already doing ) would be disasterous. Keep Pearson away from our assessment schedules.

  3. Des Griffin says:

    Good article!

    How long does it take for people with responsibility and influence to realise that their policies are wrong, that is fail to achieve the goals that they themselves set.? The policies pursued by Pyne, which continued those championed by PM Howard, and unfortunately in a few respects continued by Rudd and Gillard in their support of failed US policies, have driven achievement levels down, enhanced disadvantage and, through support of independent schools, cost the taxpayer far more than would have been the case had public schools been properly supported.

    Worse, the emphasis on standardised testing through NAPLAN has driven parents’ concern about choice, many spending vast sums of money to relocate their homes to be near schools whose students supposedly do better. Teachers are more stressed, resources are no greater and possibly worst of all, the issues of regional and remote schools are not being addressed and the absolutely wrong policies are being pursued in some places, especially the Northern Territory.

    In the US there is considerable push back against Common Core standards which does no more than support testing which itself is being increasingly objected to.

    The new Minister needs to abide by the assertions that decisions will be evidence-based. It will be a new step for the Coalition government. But then Victoria and NSW are supporting .Gonski, why not other states? Pyne’s decisions on funding, bringing NAPLAN on line and supporting the WA model of independent schooling have absolutely stalled education reform.

    The reforms of the National Plan for School Improvement intended to implement Gonski’s recommendations must be fully funded, private providers must be removed from the VET domain and the importance of early childhood recognised and properly supported with emphasis on less advantaged.

    Then there is early childhood, which is the key to it all. Now Minister Birmingham is continuing with the silly notion that the primary reason for support of early childhood is so women will join the workforce. It is not: it is so less advantaged children will be better prepared for school and life!

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