As an Australian educator and researcher, I am regularly taken aback by what seems to be a residual cultural cringe when we turn to other countries for insight and inspiration about education. I believe all the insight and inspiration Australian politicians and policy makers need is right here!
Australia has a long history of rich and insightful educational research that is highly instructive and highly regarded within the Australian education community and indeed the global education community. But it is often dismissed or drowned out in the current social climate where the lust for solutions, for ‘hard evidence’ of what works, has us running to experts in other countries to borrow their policies and ideas.
Australia has been particularly enamored over the years with English education policy and practice and this is currently being played out with our hosting of the English Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb.
One of the purposes of Gibb’s visit is to outline England’s recent education reforms with the view to informing education policy here in Australia.
This blog post is my reaction to the ideas outlined in Gibb’s recent speech in Sydney especially those relating to school ‘autonomy’ reform in England.
I believe the rosy picture Gibb presents about this reform glosses over ideologies that promote a particular narrow vision of education. I take serious issue with these ideologies.
But first, let me explain my interest in English education.
My interest in English education
My interest in school reform in England and, in particular, the ‘academies’ reform movement, came about several years ago during some cross-cultural research I was conducting that examined matters of social justice, cultural diversity and schooling in Australia and the UK. One of the English secondary schools in this study had recently converted to academy (school ‘autonomy’) status. The deputy head teacher described the process of conversion as ‘liberating’ for ‘schools like us’. For this large, well-resourced and ‘outstanding’ school, the freedoms of becoming an academy in terms of staffing and curricular flexibility were welcomed and seen as leading to school improvement.
One of the other schools in the project was a traditional ‘local authority’ primary school of around 300 students. At this school, the leadership team expressed highly negative views of this reform. The head teacher described the process of opening up the education system to a ‘disparate group’ of stakeholders as ‘undemocratic’, ‘a nonsense’ and ‘a mess’. In several other schools in this project, the head teachers expressed indifference to academies reform – seeing it as largely a change to their management structure. While in others, the change of management incurred under the process of academisation was so profound that it led to a complete renewal of staff to align with the new academy ethos (i.e. the old staff walked out!).
The need for caution in following the UK
School ‘autonomy’ (i.e. generating conditions for schools to self-manage) has been ‘adopted around the world with remarkable speed and consistency’. Indeed, it is presented by proponents as not only positive but inevitable – a necessary condition to enable education systems to compete on the world stage.
Of course, Australian education has already experienced a long history of school ‘autonomy’ reform. It was promoted over forty years ago in the Karmel Report (Australian Schools Commission, 1973) and has had many and various iterations. In the 1990s, for example, driven by a conservative government in Victoria, the public education system experienced radical reform with the introduction of self-managing-schools. Creating a more autonomous system under the Schools for the Future policy as it was driven by a combination of economic rationalism and external accountability, resulted in the closure of over 350 ‘under-performing’ schools. The most recent iteration of school autonomy reform in Australia is the Independent Public Schools (IPS) initiative introduced in the states of Western Australia (in 2010) and Queensland (in 2013). Early accounts of the impacts of these initiatives, unlike the situation 20 years ago in Victoria, seem to be positive.
The point to be made here is that there is great variance across and within nations in terms of how this reform is being approached and enacted because, as Professor Bob Lingard from the University of Queensland points out, school autonomy as with all education reform is ‘grounded in a particular politics at a particular time’. Thus, we need to tread with caution when thinking about how the current reform agenda within English education might inform our education system.
Many would agree with the idea that responsibility for schools should be devolved as much as possible to the people involved in the task of schooling – as argued in the Karmel Report – that greater independence, flexibility and freedom for schools to manage their affairs will lead to school improvement.
This idea was certainly evident in much of Gibb’s account of school autonomy in England in his recent speech and reflects how this reform tends to be promoted by politicians. Here ‘autonomy’ is aligned with ‘freedom’ and ‘innovation’ and with placing education decisions with, as Gibb stated, ‘those best placed to implement improvements to education’. On the surface, this idea is difficult to argue with. However, when coupled with words like ‘common-sense’ and ‘evidence-based’ improvement, a different picture of ‘autonomy’ and ‘innovation’ comes to light – one that is really not about providing head teachers or teachers with more autonomy but rather more about driving them towards a particular vision of schooling.
External accountability, competition and their ‘perverse’ effects
‘Autonomy’ for schools under the policy of academisation is strictly regulated within highly prescriptive assessment frameworks. In England, as in Australia, student performance on standardised tests is audited and converted to a public ranking of schools with school ‘effectiveness’ additionally policed and regulated through various departmental audits and inspections. These external forms of accountability have become increasingly ‘high stakes’ given that a school’s reputation and effectiveness are based on its performance on these measures. The increasing emphasis on global measures of school effectiveness such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) has worked to validate these forms of accountability in England as they have in Australia.
A key problem here is that these measures have escalated a climate of competition where schools must compete with each other for their student share. This climate has produced many perverse effects. It has narrowed curriculum and degraded pedagogy to a teach-to-the-test mentality, it has intensified ‘gaming’ practices (for example, engaging in selective and exclusionary enrolment practices) and it has reinforced the hierarchical tiering of schools already pronounced within education systems in places such as England and Australia (Glatter 2012; Smyth, 2011). In this climate, those schools that do well on these external performance measures (generally those in privileged areas, serving privileged students) tend to thrive, while those that don’t do well (generally those in under-privileged areas, serving disadvantaged students) struggle.
Prescriptive curriculum, the English Baccalaureate and phonics testing in the UK
In England, autonomy is also highly regulated through prescriptive curricular frameworks. While the Education Reform Act of 1988 heralded in a national curriculum, and there have been various iterations since, the recent conservative shifts within this curriculum are a concern to many. Gibb applauds in his speech these shifts – stating that they are a move towards more ‘rigorous’ standards. He notes here the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBAC) and the phonics test.
Of course, rigorous academic standards and high expectations are key to an excellent education. However, many have argued against the narrowness, conservatism and elitism of the EBAC (e.g. this curriculum does not include social and creative subjects like The Arts or Citizenship Education) and the problematics of the phonics program.
I do not want to delve into the contentious debates between phonics and whole language that have been raging for decades. Suffice to say, it is clear that it is insufficient, if not damaging, to take a singular approach to the teaching of reading and that phonics instruction may be one of many approaches in a robust and productive reading program.
Certainly, the English phonics test might be leading to improving pupil standards in relation to reciting phonics. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that these pupils are necessarily on ‘track to be fluent readers’ as Gibb claims. I have met many teachers in English primary schools who are devotees of the phonics system but who also recognise its limitations and the imperative of augmenting this approach with many others.
A narrow vision of schooling
For many, the vision of schooling along the lines currently being promoted in England (as, of course, it is elsewhere) is excessively and increasingly narrow. It privileges the private goals of schooling which are about social efficiency and social mobility (i.e. preparing a credentialed and productive work force) and pays little heed to the public goals of schooling which are about democratic quality and active citizenship (i.e. towards the betterment of the social world).
For Gibb, such a narrow view of schooling around private goals is clear in his equation of social justice with social mobility. Yes, social mobility is, as Gibb states, a ‘defining challenge’ for education systems’ that will be focused on ‘levelling up opportunity and making sure all pupils get every chance to go as far as their talents will take them’. However, if education systems are only focusing on social mobility through credentialing, we may be producing learned people but they may be learned monsters. Given the heightened social polarisation and hostilities of the present era and the racism and xenophobia driving new forms of inequity, violence and suffering across the world, the urgency of education systems to think beyond these narrow purposes has been no more pronounced.
Does school autonomy lead to school improvement?
It is concerning that Gibb indicates that there is a definitive link between school autonomy (under academies reform) and school improvement. The research literature tells us that this reform has, in general, had highly varied but minimal impacts on raising educational standards in England. From studies into the efficacy of ‘self-managed’ schools within Australia to research into the impact of charter schools in the US, there is little evidence to conclusively indicate a relationship between school autonomy and school improvement.
Indeed, comparative research between schooling in NSW (a very centralised system) and Victoria (a highly autonomised or devolved system) finds no significant difference in student performance on standardised international and national measures such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and NAPLAN (National Assessment Plan Literacy and Numeracy).
What this tells us is that school autonomy is not a magic bullet for school improvement, as it is often presented in political and public discourse. Simply instating the structural changes to bring about greater autonomy for schools within public education systems will not necessarily lead to an improvement in academic outcomes.
Academy reform in the UK: some worrying trends
Indeed, there is much to worry about in relation to how school autonomy reform has changed the landscape of English education as it has to a lesser extent in states such as Victoria. This reform, since the Academies Act of 2010 (which set out the national government’s aspiration for all schools to convert to academy status), has shifted responsibility for school governance from a state to a non-state matter. This has decimated the system of local authority governance traditionally responsible for schools and generated a new style of governance that involves a proliferation of new players or stakeholders who are now funded by the state to take responsibility for schools and schooling from government agencies and businesses to charities and faith groups.
The increased role of private bodies in the delivery of school-based education is normalising the private provision of education in England.
The new administrative structure of English education is described as a disarticulated system that reflects a ‘heterarchical’ structure of relations that is increasingly complex in its overlap, multiplicity and asymmetric power dynamics. There are concerns that transparent and democratic governance is impossible given this disarticulation. There are also concerns that the dismantling of the local authority (a democratically elected public body) through the academies movement is profoundly undemocratic and inequitable in drawing public money away from the public sector. Such shifts are seen as antithetical to ideologies of schooling as a public good – especially given that the new education providers in this space do not necessarily hold public sector values and sensibilities but, rather, the ideologies of business and enterprise. In relation to this latter point, the infiltration of the philanthropic sector in the governance of education has attracted particular criticism. At issue here are the ways in which philanthropic (i.e. social enterprise and business) rather than educative (i.e. learning and teaching) principles are now driving the management of many academies in England.
Look to exemplary Australian research for education reform ideas
We must tread with caution when thinking about how the current reform agenda within English education might inform our education system. Indeed, rather than looking abroad, we can look to, and learn from, the long history of exemplary and insightful research, policy and practice in the area of autonomy, accountability and school improvement in Australia. Our most recent version of school autonomy in the states of WA and Qld seems to be working pretty well.
Unlike in England, the Australian state education system is less devolved and less subject to the unfettered enterprise and market logic of the non-state sector. This is a good thing. The more centralised and regulated system in Australia would seem far more amenable than the English system to pursuing a common social justice vision that reflects both the private and public goals of schooling.
Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. She leads the program: Children, Young People and their Communities within the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre. Her research interests and publications are in the broad field of social justice and schooling. She began her career as a primary school teacher in 1998 while studying for her PhD in Education at Deakin University. After being awarded her doctorate in 2002, she worked in various lecturing roles in the Faculty of Education at the University of Southern Queensland before taking up a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Queensland in 2005. Since 2005, she has pursued a research-intensive trajectory with Research Fellowships at Roehampton University (London), Griffith University (Brisbane) and The University of Queensland (Brisbane). She has recently completed an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, which involved a cross-cultural analysis of socially just schooling in Australia and the UK.
37 thoughts on “Why Australia should not follow (English politician) Nick Gibb’s advice on how to run our schools”
Amanda, thanks for calling out Nick Gibb and the let’s be generous and call them misconceptions in his speech. There are many in England who have been saying the same things and I can only urge you from the wrong side of the fence to keep away from these reforms.
You have not even touched on the complete mess that he has made of teacher recruitment (including removing the need for teachers to have academic qualifications and trying te remove HEIs from the teacher education process) and the huge problems these policies have caused with retention.
I have (and still do) work with excellent Australian colleagues and regularly access research from academics. Keep up your good work.
Hi Paul, thanks for your response. Yes, absolutely, there is much opposition in England from teachers and scholars on this issue as there has been for some time. I am a big admirer of the teachers and scholars who are attempting to make sense of and work through this very difficult environment in ways that try to maintain the integrity of public education. There are many tensions for them! Yes, you are right, I didn’t touch on the matter of teacher education and recruitment in my blog – again, the idea here is one of enterprise and market logic driving the agenda (provision and governance of education) rather than education and the public good. It is a scary terrain. Amanda
It’s my belief as a parent that England is a really good place to look to for innovation and evidence. It may be true that Free schools & academies wont turn out to be “the magic bullet” that we might hope. However, it wont be long before we start to sort the wheat from the chaff as it becomes clearer which schools are achieving according to which particular pedagogical approach/emphasis ie inquiry/explicit instruction & skills/knowledge. Already we are seeing some results of this experiment in the US. A study found that inquiry-based learning schools was a predictor of poor performance.
Link to Greg Ashman’s blog
I think Nick Gibbs speech is excellent and I agree with much that he has to say regarding education despite leaning to the Left politically. It is because I am on the Left that I believe in a traditional, knowledge rich education and dislike the way Australian schools are run and the Australian curriculum. If we believe in social justice then we must choose to teach our children facts/knowledge.
Personally, I have found that the educational community in Australia is far to wedded to Progressive ideology to move quickly enough in this matter so I would advocate for academies. I would like the choice to send my children to a school where the teachers are expected to teach and where it is understood that knowledge acquisition leads to the very skills we are hoping to cultivate. I have found Aust. schools to be very poor and I only hope that Aust. teachers will start up a grass roots movement as they have in England and challenge the current orthodoxy which has hobbled our students for so many decades.
Hi Tempe, thanks for your comments. I also believe that in many ways England is a good place to look to for innovation. I have showcased a lot of great practice in the English schools that I have been privileged to have conducted research in. These are both academies and local authority schools and are places where there is high quality curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and learning. I also, on the surface, agree with the sentiment of some of Nick Gibb’s remarks about school autonomy and rigorous standards and yes, social justice is about equipping children with the knowledge/facts/skills for them to eventually be productive members of the workforce. This is central to an excellent education. But, as is mandated in our national goals, schools are and should be about much more than this – social justice is also about school’s efforts to produce decent citizens who value diversity and care about each other. We don’t have to see these (private/academic and public/social) goals as separate or at odds with each other – indeed, in good schools they are pursued equally and together – i.e. in supportive, inclusive schools where diversity is recognised and students feel cared for and safe, we are more likely to find engaged learners who do better academically and will stay at school longer. I note that you say you would like to send your children to a school ‘where the teachers are expected to teach and where it is understood that knowledge acquisition leads to the very skills we are hoping to cultivate’ – may I suggest that this is a matter of good schooling/pedagogy and not a matter of academisation/school autonomy. I think it is true to say that there are good schools and bad schools everywhere but I do think there are some real problems with the academies movement (which is not to say that there aren’t some fabulous academies because there are many) – as I said in my blog, I am more concerned about the ideologies framing the movement which encourage schools to focus on social enterprise and business imperatives rather than educative and learning imperatives. I do thank you for your engagement in this issue!
I’m interested in the concept of Progressive ideology here, what do you mean by this? Australia has a pluralistic tradition, so I’d suggest a prevailing ideology is hard to pin down. What structures would you like see changed? What are you prevented from doing in the classroom?
Thanks Amanda for a well-written post arguing for nuance in this debate around educational reform.
I am writing this comment to take up the thread and argue for a high level of debate around this issue. To my mind there are three levels at which debate tends to occur when it comes to ideas of school privatisation:
1. Ideology: People who talk passionately about educational systems tend to hold one of two ideals. If liberty is your ideal then anything to do with “competition”, “autonomy”, and “choice” is a good thing. If equality is your ideal then anything to do with “social justice”, “opportunity”, and “social mobility” is a good thing. At this level, the debate can go nowhere and cannot attempt to find common ground. (For the record: I favour equality but I recognise that this is simply not as important as liberty for many people in society).
An example of commentary at the level of ideology: “I believe that choice is also a major piece in the puzzle of providing the best education to young Australians” – Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
2. Empirical: Sometimes the debate rises to the point that people start throwing around the conclusions of one or other study from the literature. At its worst there is cherrypicking of whichever study best supports ideology. Often there is simply a lack of recognition that education is highly contextual. Something that works in one country with its own culture and educational history may have entirely different outcomes in another country. At its best there is nuanced weighing up of empirical evidence from both sides and attempts to find trends and contradictions.
3. Theoretical: We need debate that attempts to understand why studies produce the outcomes that they do. Debate that leaves ideology at the door and perhaps even moves beyond prior examples to imagining what could be possible. This would involve firstly having a discussion around the objectives for what we want the outcomes for a school system to be. For example: Do we want better international PISA scores (often assumed to be a goal) or do we care more about a reduced disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged (one of many other possible aims)? Is it possible to achieve both without significantly more funding? What do we choose if it must be one or the other?
From a considered understanding of desired outcomes, we can then learn from many the nuanced examples in the literature. The literature around these issues is far more broad than many recognise, spanning many decades and multiple paradigms: applied economics, education, sociology, history, etc. We need to learn from all of it if we want to get arrive at good policy that fits with our own context in Australia.
For example, this is a quote from Dolton (2003, The Economic Journal 113(485)) trying to find the nuance in the debate around “school choice”:
“The central questions in the school choice debate remain: what exactly is meant by school choice; who chooses to select private schools and how do they choose; what do families really know about schools; what are the reasons and rationale for choices; in reality how much choice is there for most families; what happens to the children left behind in the public schools in districts which introduce voucher schemes; how much diversity is there after a voucher scheme is introduced; are parents more satisfied by the market alternative; are parents making rational choices and are market forces leading to improvements in standards?”
Thank you Amanda for your scholarly, and well-articulated blog post. You raise substantial issues regarding the recent Nick Gibb visit that are of grave concern to many school leaders, teachers and teacher educators in Australia.
I taught in schools in London in the mid 80’s – my friends/colleagues who have stayed on in teaching/leading schools have done so because of few other ‘stage of life’ career options. They describe low teacher morale, little innovation, few real gains in student learning outcomes in a declining education system that revolves around Ofsted and the false preparation for ‘inspections’. In recent years four pre-service teachers I have taught have sought employment in the UK – all, and I repeat all, of them have returned to Australia citing “punitive criticism”, “poor supervision” and a “mismatch between what they understood were quality learning practices and the reality of UK school classrooms”. See this recent media in a quick search on the internet.
This is anecdotal experience – I realise that – but it highlights what many Australian education researchers deeply understand. Further steps along a ‘gibb path’ with a focus on enterprise, and market logic, driving the education agenda are not positive moves.
Hi Jane, thanks for your comments. Yes, I know what you mean about matters of morale and Ofsted etc. – I think being a good teacher in the current climate of audit and accountability wherever you are is so challenging! Many teachers I have interviewed in England and Australia seem to experience in varying degrees what Stephen Ball describes as the ‘terrors or performativity’. And yes, it does seem that such terrors will not be ameliorated by reforms that are underpinned by enterprise and market logic, indeed they will probably be escalated under this logic. Thanks again, Amanda
Thank you Amanda. I enjoyed your analysis and agree with your commentary. As a literacy researcher I was particularly interested in your comments re the phonics test. Well done.
Hi Noella, thanks for your positive comments – I really appreciate your engagement in this issue, Amanda
Thanks Amanda for your comprehensive viewpoint. I’m continually amazed that Australia keeps adopting education policy and practice from the UK. Haven’t we seen enough of this ‘lift and shift’ approach go awry over many decades?
Hi Susi, ‘lift and shift’ – what a great analogy! Its cosmetic undertones are very apt! Thanks for your comments and engagement, much appreciated, Amanda
Hi Nick, thanks so much for your thoughtful and considered response. I agree with you! I do think as you suggest that there are distinct ideological positions on this issue that tend to be polarised but that in reality are much more messy. I think also the current political and social climate (where there is a lust for quick and easy answers/solutions) doesn’t really allow for recognition of this messiness and as you say the nuances of context that are so important in how any political/education/social reform might be taken up. It also doesn’t allow space for deep consideration about the important questions of schooling purpose and choice you raise, thanks for your engagement. Amanda
Thank you Amanda for an articulate explanation of the issues. We are still paying slavish attention to the overseas ‘expert’, even as they continue to use the standard buzz terms such as “empowering teachers” and “increased autonomy” while throwing in “intelligent accountability” and “evidence-informed teaching practice” – all designed to press our buttons. The London Review of Books (May 2015) ran two articles on schooling in England. One on Free schools by Dawn Foster and the other by Jenny Turner, titled ‘Barely Under Control’ reveal some of the serious problems we don’t hear from our overseas visitors.
Hi Don, yes, I agree, those buzz words are replete in political and media discourse and very appealing on the surface but, of course, as you note, they paper over all sorts of nasties. Intelligent accountability is an interesting one that is being used a lot in the current education reform space but the ‘intelligent’ bit is often not explained and is of course steeped in ideology… thanks for your post, Amanda
Wonderful post Amanda, I really think, Australia has a proud tradition in education, an excellent tradition of innovation and addressing issues of assessment and system management. As your blog suggests, the Karmel report, but I also remember, the Blackburn Report, the Finn and Mayer reviews, all these detailed pieces of work has informed where are today. Even Australia’s leadership in educational assessment (although I’m a bit a odds with this). There is no need to import blindly from the UK, but of course we should keep our attitudes open to them. But Australia is not in a deficit state. Our system has huge capabilities. It’s also good that our Asian neighbours are showing the way on education on assessments like PISA and TIMSS. So we wont have to fly so far, and we can save on airfares.
Hi Marten, thanks so much for your comments. Yes, we do have a proud tradition and huge capabilities that we can continue to learn from and build on but yes, we must keep our attitudes open to others… Thanks for your engagement, Amanda
Thank you for sharing these insights drawn from your many years of research into this area. I really appreciate your emphasis on focusing on some of the excellent practices already happening here in Australia. I recall work from Gorur and Wu that suggested something similar in relation to breaking down our PISA & NAPLAN results and considering what was happening in our high-performing states rather than looking overseas first.
The Independent Public Schools initiatives in WA & QLD are certainly providing spaces for explorations of school autonomy while working within a wider system of structure and governance. I look forward to seeing more research in this area!
Thanks again for your post,
Hi Amanda, thanks for your comments. Yes, PISA results are often not disaggregated by states in popular media and political reporting which paints a skewed picture of the ‘quality’ of our schooling in Australia and what we might do to remedy ‘underperformance’. Some states are excelling and it would be good to learn from them (although, of course, we need to think of quality schooling beyond just tests). Radhika Gorur has done some great work in this area. The IPS will be an initiative of much interest in years to come I think! Thanks again for your engagement and of course your research in this area, Amanda
Why would Australia want to adopt policy initiatives from a failed education system (England or USA). Enough Cultural Cringe already.
Thanks for your comments David, I would not want to call England’s system failed though – while scholarship in Australia and the UK has been particularly critical of aspects of England’s recent education reform agenda, there are ways in which some of these reforms have worked really well. Some philanthropic academy chains and school networks run by the co-op movement, for example, have working in some contexts to ‘turn around’ ‘failing’ schools (and opened up enormous opportunities for disadvantaged students), the pupil premium and Free School Meal agenda has supported many students, Religious Education and Citizenship Education (both compulsory secondary subjects) are used in many schools in highly creative ways to, for example, counter Islamophobia and homophobia, and there have been many other initiatives that have supported students to ‘earn or learn’ – I don’t have enough space to list the many positive politics initiatives in England that have led to improved academic and social outcomes but I have been lucky enough to have seen them in action in the exemplary English schools in my research. To be sure, we have similar initiatives in Australia of course! Thanks for your engagement, Amanda
Without checking the statistical data on any advances or changes in British students’ attainment, I nevertheless can see no reason why a phonics approach to reading would not be beneficial. All the recent neuroscience research has shown that phonics works to help readers with and without learning disabilities. That is not to say the other reading approaches should be excluded, however, phonics instruction is essential. If British schools are using a phonics test to screen children in order to provide additional support I can only say this a perfectly reasonable strategy.
Another point that Nick Gibb makes about behaviour management in these more autonomous schools is also really worth noting and exploring further. Teachers face tremendous difficulties teaching unmanageable children and adolescents. They often spend all their time trying to shape behaviour instead of teaching. This is not what teachers sign up for. If a systemic approach to behaviour is implemented by schools, one that is clear, firm, consistently applied and communicated to parents from the outset actual teaching can take place. Too often teachers are made to carry all the blame for poor student results when in fact the vast majority of teachers have the welfare and success of students uppermost in their minds.
The strongest predictors of student academic achievement are home background variables. Conversely, the strongest predictors of student failure are also home background variables, which can manifest in the poor behaviour that impedes the learning of whole classroom children. Behaviour management that is successful gives time to teachers to design a tailored approach to pedagogy for individual students. This is essential since each child has unique learning needs and whether direct instruction or some other approach is used will be determined by the child’s needs.
As for Amanda Keddie’s note that private bodies are normalizing the private provision of education in England, this might be the case however they have a long way to go before they catch up with Australia. Private schools in Australia educate approximately 35% of all students whereas in the UK only about 7% of all school age children were educated in private (Independent) schools in 2015. Maybe we would see a dramatic change in student attainment in Australia if all those who support private schools were to put their faith in local state schools. That could change the classroom climate of state schools and redirect Government funding from private schools to state schools where it is needed.
Hi Helen, thanks for your comments. I agree with you.
1), yes, phonics instruction for many students is important in supporting them to learn to read and indeed a phonics test is a good way of assessing if such learning has occurred (and there is research evidence to indicate a link between phonics learning and achievement on phonics tests) – my point is that it should not be the only approach and should be augmented with many others as you mention (as most literacy/language teachers do of course) in a good reading program because, for example, reciting words does not equate to reading comprehension.
2) behaviour management is a crucial issue in schools and needs a clear, firm, consistently applied approach and we should not blame teachers for poor student results etc. – yes absolutely agree! My blog was about school autonomy and I do think that ‘good’ behaviour in schools would seem to have little to do with school autonomy reform – it also seems, as I said in my blog, that there is little conclusive evidence to indicate a link between school autonomy and improved student outcomes. Thus productive approaches to supporting positive behaviour and raising academic outcomes should be evident in all schools whether they are ‘academies’/self-managed or not.
Thanks for raising the issue around privatisation. The concern in England is that removing the local authority (a democratically elected state body) in governing schools and allowing a proliferation of non-state players to govern them will create a privatising of what is supposed to be a ‘public’ good/service. I’m not sure I see this version of privatisation along the same lines as (or as having the same effects on) the elite and exclusive Independent sector in England with its long and stable traditions. The state sector educates the overwhelming majority of students (as you rightly point out) and its disarticulation has created great uncertainty and instability. There are, however, positive moves in how new networks are being supported through various policies in England to generate greater stability (too complex to explain here though…) Your final point, about greater funding support and faith in the local state system in Australia, I wholeheartedly agree with!! Thanks again for your engagement, Amanda
This is the strangest reason to argue against the phonics screening test ie because reading is more than just decoding. Who has ever argued that decoding is all there is to reading? I don’t think anyone in this debate has, not even Nick Gibbs. So why do we repeatedly hear that phonics is a good approach however it doesn’t teach comprehension? What does this mean, exactly.? Do you support phonics to learn to decode or not?
Everyone understands that comprehension is something else all together and is the purpose rather than the mechanics of reading but without decoding you will never comprehend well because you will be forever stopping to attempt to “read” a word.
In relation to comprehension I agree with ED Hirsch and Dan Willingham that if you want students to comprehend well then you need to teach them lots of knowledge and this is what is missing in our schools where dull skilling is giving emphasis on knowledge facts. Reading comprehension is really just a test of the amount of knowledge a student has.
Hi Tempe, thanks for your response. I am not arguing against the phonics test by the way, just pointing out its limitations that we all are well aware of and a bit fatigued by as you suggest. Research in the area of literacy and reading is not my research field/expertise but as a former primary teacher and researcher in the area of social justice and schooling, yes, I do support phonics as one excellent approach to teaching reading and imperative in terms of decoding. I have seen it taught in vibrant, engaging and highly productive ways in English classrooms btw. Thanks for your comments on comprehension – yes, agreed. Amanda
Hi Amanda – I’m interested to know the other programs you support to teach decoding.. Which would they be, exactly?
Hi again Tempe, Sorry, as I said, research in the area of literacy and reading is not my field – my point was that a phonics approach (whatever program you might use and I know there are quite a few different programs, taught in different ways) is imperative to teaching decoding – can I refer you to a previous AARE blog by Eileen Honan for more information – thanks for your post, Amanda
phonics should not be taught as the ONLY strategy as English is morphophonemic system – it is OK for initial sounds but it fails quickly. A test is not necessary. Test are more about politicians being seen to be doing something
Thank you for your response. In the interim I emailed an colleague of mine who has been teaching at a prestigious UK university for over 20 years. I think you might find his response amusing:
“Gibbs’ speech looks very much like the usual political patter. Conversion of schools to academies has been a very unpopular move. It has been achieved through coercion. Of the schools that have converted to academies most headteachers haven’t wanted to change but have been driven by funding constraints to do so. My son’s school is a case in point: they have resisted so far but they are under constant pressure to give in to ‘academisation’.
Gibb refers to accountability, which has been the zeitgeist for the last 2 or 3 governments. Within the education profession accountability is a lead weight – teachers are spending excessive time being ‘accountable’ instead of being creative.
The ‘free schools’ that he refers to have in many cases been embarrassments to the government. They’ve allowed zealots of all shades to set up institutions that have turned out to be racist and or sexist in ethos and often highly ineffective at educating kids. You can check them out through Ofsted reports.
The latest pet idea from Gibb and co., including the prime minister, is to re-establish grammar schools. This is in the face of the recommendations of Ofsted and of the parliamentary sub-committee on education, chaired by a senior member of Gibb’s own party. There is abundant research evidence that a grammar/secondary modern system doesn’t work for the population as a whole, but that is ignored by Gibb and co.
You ask about raising attainment – and that is often what the government is interested in. So teachers find themselves under increasing pressure to ‘teach to the test’. That is the achievement that Gibb celebrates.
I can’t comment on phonics teaching as it’s not an area I know anything about. I would say, though, that if he went down well in Australia perhaps you can find a way to invite him to stay there!”
I am even more interested in seeing some statistical data in support of the academisation of British schools. Far too much in education is based on political agendas instead of empirical evidence to the detriment of our students.
Thanks for initiating the discussion Amanda,
Thanks for sharing a perspective from England – the sentiment of his/her concerns strongly resonate with much of the English-based research I have been engaging with and the tenor of the blog. Worrying times! Amanda
Thanks Amanda for a thought provoking and highly informed post. The cynic in me sniffs yet another instance of reductionist point scoring rhetoric by pollies keen on distracting us from the real debates to be had around educational issues in this country. The tragedy is that, instead of using our energy to genuinely engage in rigorous debates about improving broad educational outcomes for all Australian students, Gibbs hijacks the educational agenda to keep our tyres spinning in the air of structural reform. Keep the good fight going Amanda.
Hi Sherilyn, thanks so much for your comments and engagement, much appreciated, Amanda
Thank you Amanda for a thoughtful and well researched commentary on many of the problems inherent in Nick Gibbs’ so-called ‘advice’ for Australian education. Like others who have responded to your blog, I’m very concerned that Australian politicians and policymakers continue to look to other countries seeking quick-fix answers that gloss over the deep-seated educational dilemmas here.
Hi Robyn, thanks for your comments and engagement, much appreciated. Yes, the policy-borrowing/policy-on-the-run remains a real worry, as you note (and as scholarship in this area has been telling us for some time), thanks again, Amanda
Thanks Amanda, this is very important critique you are offering and it’s great to see it on a platform like this. Something that I’d like to add, as an activist educator, parent and researcher, is in relation to your comment about ‘removing the local authority (a democratically elected state body) in governing schools and allowing a proliferation of non-state players to govern them’. The dozen or so state schools which my three children have attended have all welcomed a variety of dubious ‘experts’ and program providers, and permitted religious evangelism by RI instructors and Chaplains – both failing to be informed by research and the latter clearly flouting departmental policy. My complaints at all levels have been dismissed with the advice that it’s up to the principal and the ‘school community’ to make these decisions. Although it seems that an educated and progressive community would likely demonstrate excellence, I fear the increasing influence of poorly informed and conservative interest groups and individuals, particularly in terms of social justice outcomes.
Hi Maria, thanks for your comments and engagement. What is perhaps most worrying is that your experience of dubious ‘experts’ and program providers working in schools to teach religious evangelism (and other learning/content areas) is far from new and uncommon. I think the whole area of SRI (special religious instruction) in Australian state schools is an area of concern and contention – in Victoria, there have been urgent calls for greater accountability, responsibility, and transparency in this area – including increased levels of state regulation of religious groups and activities (Anna Halafoff’s work highlights this issue). I do think that greater autonomy in relation to allowing or outsourcing education provision more and more to non-state and private providers may exacerbate the dubious practices to which you refer. I guess, on the flip side, such autonomy and outsourcing might work in ‘progressive’ (i.e. socially just) ways. Leadership in this environment (as you have highlighted) becomes even more important in shaping how schools are managing their ‘autonomy’. Thanks again, Amanda
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