May.18.2022

If only we really wanted to solve the problems

By Jim Watterston

Each day this week, EduResearch Matters will publish the views of educational leaders on the state of education in Australia on the eve of the federal election. Today: Jim Watterston, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Yesterday: Susan LedgerDean of Education, University of Newcastle.

As we head towards a federal election, commitments in the school education arena from the mainstream political parties seem to be both inadequate and misguided.

In my view, both the Government and the Opposition have taken a very limited policy focus from a school education perspective that does not effectively address the ‘so called’ problem. Put bluntly, the underlying rationale from both parties for proposed change is that the quality of students currently entering Universities to become teachers are not of sufficient standard. It seems that universities don’t really know how to adequately prepare the next generation of super-teachers who can turn around our academic fortunes! Simplistically, the rhetoric from both political camps goes along the lines of “if only we could attract the best students who have achieved an ATAR in Year twelve in the top thirty percent of the population, then we would be able to regain our once esteemed international PISA test results ranking and also improve the performance of all students in NAPLAN reading and mathematics testing”.

The recently released Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) Review commissioned by Minister (at the time) Alan Tudge, proposes seventeen curious and seemingly disconnected recommendations to improve the quality of new teachers graduating out of universities and transitioning into the profession. The Government report is the basis for reforms to lift school performance standards. More recently Shadow Minister, Tanya Plibersek has released a Labor policy commitment, should they be returned to government, that aims to ‘out-Tudge’ the government in the ITE problem solving domain.

The major problem is, however, that Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is not the easy answer to why national and international testing of student performance in Australia is in comparative decline. In addition to currently being a Dean of Education, I have previously headed up school systems in three Australian States and Territories and have been a principal of a number of small and large, rural, remote and metro schools. I know that while ITE could always be improved, there have been significant and highly positive national ITE reforms put in place over the past eight years which are making a difference but there is still no change to PISA and NAPLAN results. Why? Because ITE is not the fundamental problem or the direct solution to improving test scores!

Unfortunately, a quick survey of schools and particularly school leaders in Government and Catholic schools would reveal school performance standards are directly reflective of each school’s postcode.

In other words, the overall Socio-Economic Status (SES) of aggregated school families is, for the most-part, the determinant of overall school performance. Schools in poor communities generally get lower results than schools in high income locations. The real question should be that if we know this, then why aren’t we doing anything meaningful about it?

To address the stagnation and decline of student performance in Australia will require a brave and well-informed national government to first of all speak to and listen to those in all schools to find out that the problems of current practice stem from the inability to adequately fund challenged communities in order to provide equitable opportunity of achievement and life chances. As we reflect on the ten-year anniversary of Gonski funding which brought significantly increased funding to all schools, we should be asking the major parties to explain why the additional billions of dollars have not changed the achievement dial across all schools. We should ask them to invest more of the Gonski rivers of gold into paying high performing current and prospective teachers more attractive salaries to work in hard-to-staff communities and to use additional funding to provide better amenities such as quality housing, safety and increased capacity for travel in these locations so teachers can get the same access to services that metropolitan schools receive. What are these services you ask? Regular teacher professional development from experts at their school, access to professional support services within the school (psychologists, speech pathologists, nurses, access to quality relief teachers, student counsellors….and the list goes on), student engagement and disability support, and programs that build community connection and involvement.

The fact is, the further you move away from the metropolitan area the harder it is to attract the best teachers to move to under-resourced, understaffed, and unsupported schools. The most challenged schools in our country get the worst deal. Throwing a few dollars at students during their time in university will not ensure that ITE graduates go to the most difficult schools. My observation is that in our university, the highest performing students are quickly snapped up by the best and most inordinately resourced schools. I haven’t just read about this problem or have simply spoken to teachers and school leaders on Zoom calls or on the phone; I have visited thousands of Australian schools and have observed and listened to those in the field often describe the third world problems that exist in various locations. 

So, it is well beyond time to stop producing micro-election commitments that don’t make a difference. It is well beyond time to actually commit to really focussing on equity for all and doing whatever it takes. Pay teachers what they are worth and hold them to account once they have the optimal resourcing that is required, and change will occur.

Instead of political auctions every three years for things we don’t want, we need a bipartisan ten-year education plan that is not the source of political squabbling but becomes long-term agreement on what really needs to be done so that we can all stay the course and make it work.

I’ve always been a dreamer!

Jim Watterson is the Enterprise Professor and Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. He served for six years as the National President for the Australian Council for Education LeadersHe was the Deputy Secretary of the Victorian Education Department, and Director General of both the ACT and, most recently, Queensland Departments of Education and Training.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “If only we really wanted to solve the problems

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.