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How to fix education: cut tests, defund private schools

In the final part in our series of what the next government should do to save Australian education, Jill Blackmore, Amanda Keddie and Katrina MacDonald ask: What is the problem of schooling in Australia and how can we fix it?

Education has been politicised over the last three decades, yet it has not been a key feature of the current election campaign. To be sure, we have heard public statements from Federal Education Minister (acting) Stuart Robert about ‘dud’ teachers in our public education system as well as his approval of increasing student demand for private sector schooling. Amid both parties’ support for parental choice in education and concerns about Australia’s under-performance on standardised international and national tests such as PISA and NAPLAN, the focus in this election campaign has largely been on how teacher quality might be improved through attracting and retaining better teachers. While quality teaching is important, this focus misrecognises the ‘problems’ of Australian education in a number of ways.

First, the yardstick of a successful education cannot be measured by student performance on standardised tests. These are highly narrow indicators of school success but continue to be put forth as evidence that our teachers and schools are effective/ineffective. For decades, education policy and practice has mandated the multiple purposes of education (academic and social). It is more important than ever before as we witness the social and economic costs of rising global and local conflict and the continued degradation of our environment that schools develop students’ critical, social and relational capacities as future active citizens to change a world on the brink of destruction. Although, it is promising to see the inclusion of sexual consent education in the Australian Curriculum as well as efforts to better recognise and integrate Indigenous perspectives and learning, it seems that politicians remain focused on narrow academic outcomes as the indicator of school success. Decades of research has told us that the testing culture in schools continues to degrade quality teaching and learning. Standardised testing of literacy, numeracy and science is not the problem. The problem is the way it has been weaponised to blame schools, teachers and students within a marketized and competitive education systems where under-performance on these tests is equated with bad teachers and schools (Smyth, 2011). How might this be different? Some have suggested that testing a randomised sample of schools to represent the diversity of schools in Australia might be a good way of gauging school performance on these markers.  Many countries reject standardised assessment, and have adopted this practice, such as New Zealand did in 2018.

Second, the emphasis on teacher quality in current political arguments tends to focus on teachers as individuals rather than as part of a feminised and (now) marketised profession that continues to be maligned publicly including by our elected representatives in government (Barnes, 2021). Raising the status of the teaching profession is a laudable goal amongst Labor’s education policy promises. Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions. They are overworked, confronted with increasing violence from students and parents, and they are operating in marketized systems where they must prioritise improvements on the measures that count (i.e., narrow academic outputs) lest their school becomes labelled as failing. In this pressurised environment, teachers are exhausted by increasingly untenable amounts of administration, accountability checklists and external demands (Heffernan, Bright, Kim, Longmuir, & Magyar, 2022). Teaching is therefore no longer attractive to many and even those who become teachers are disenchanted and exit because of the conditions of work and lack of professional autonomy. Both major parties have a commitment to attract high academic performing students into the profession through various programs and incentives. These initiatives may raise the status of teaching to some extent for some schools but they will do little to change the devaluing of the profession as feminised or the marketized system that has de-professionalised teachers.

Third, improving Initial Teacher Education is another policy focus for both major parties. Again, as it is situated within a competitive marketized system, Initial Teacher Education has been damaged as a consequence of JobReady policies. Federal funding to Education faculties has declined at the same time as they are expected to teach more students. This has led to a degrading of teacher education courses. Competitive market and education policy pressures have led to a burgeoning of shorter courses provided by multiple providers and intensified measures of accountability. Teaching is a complex profession that will not be mastered through short university courses. Teacher quality that leads to creating active, informed and critical citizens who can change the world for the better requires degree courses that foster deep, critical and broad learning about this complex job.

Fourth, both parties are silent on the gross funding inequality within and between our education system. In 2020, the total gross income available (including state and federal recurrent funding, equity loadings, fees and charges) per student was $16,020 for public schools, $17,057 for Catholic schools and $22,081 for independent schools (Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority). The reality is that public schools are chronically underfunded according to the minimum Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) (less than 1% of public schools will receive the minimum funding by 2023). In addition, the Catholic Education Office and ‘Independent’ schools have fewer accountability requirements. These schools are, of course, selective in who they accept (on the basis of ability to pay but also other factors such as religion and gender) which segregates children and fortifies inequality. Public schools, on the other hand, are left to support the most disadvantaged students with less resources. 

Fifth, both major parties support the right for parents to shop around and select the ‘best’ school for their children. What politicians don’t divulge is how this practice has been highly damaging for school equality. School choice policies over decades have encouraged competition, stratification and residualisation within and between education sectors assisted by the public availability of standardised testing data (MySchool) where schools are ranked on their performance. This has increased inequality between schools, students, communities, families and teachers – the ‘good’ schools get more students and more funds while ’bad’ schools get less students and less funds. What politicians don’t say is how school choice privileges already privileged parents and students who have the capacity and resources to select schools (including moving house to be close to ‘better’ schools). 

State governments are ostensibly responsible for public schooling in Australia, however federal governments can do a lot to improve education. If political parties are serious in this endeavour, the following (at least) needs to occur:

  • Remove standardised testing of narrow academic performance of all schools to testing of a random representative sample of schools
  • Improve the work conditions of teachers and school principals through greater pay, less intensive workloads, greater access to specialist support, greater time for professional development and planning, and greater security of employment (e.g. reducing casualisation)
  • Stop blaming teachers especially those in the public sector for problems that the system and society have created (schools cannot cure the ills of neoliberal, capitalist societies)
  • Implement the Gonski funding recommendations fully and immediately as they intended. This means equitable and fair redistribution of resources on the basis of need. This will mean recalibrating federal and state funding models to reduce or remove funding to ‘independent’ schools that do not need this funding.

From left to right: Jill Blackmore AM Ph D FASSA is Alfred Deakin Professor in Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia and Vice-President  of the Australian Association of University Professors.  She researches from a feminist perspective education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; leadership, and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; and teachers’ and academics’ work. Recent projects have focused on school autonomy reform and international students’ mobility, identity, belonging and connectedness. Her latest publication is Disrupting Leadership in the Entrepreneurial University: Disengagement and Diversity (2022, Bloomsbury). Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. Her research examines the processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in education settings. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts. Follow her on @amandamkeddie. Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Deakin University’s Strategic Research Centre in Education, Research for Educational Impact (REDI). Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, spatiality, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina’s qualitative research has focused on principal’s social justice understandings and practices, and the impact of school reform policies on the provision of just public schooling. She tweets at @drfeersumenjin

My urgent wish list for Australian education

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: Caroline Mansfield, Dean, School of Education, Fremantle Campus, University of Notre Dame in Western Australia

Tuesday, linked here: Jim Watterston, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Monday, linked here: Susan Ledger, Dean of Education, University of Newcastle.

Wish 1: Strategic investment to build a better regional, rural and remote (RRR) workforce

The issue of attraction and retention of teachers working in RRR contexts is not new, yet preparing teachers to work in these contexts is challenging. Investment is needed to support a range of strategies to build a better RRR workforce in Education and to encourage pre-service teachers have at least one placement in a RRR context. Successful models of how this might be achieved can be found in other disciplines. For example, the Majarlin Kimberley Centre for Remote Health which is a collaboration between 5 universities, aims to contribute to increased recruitment and retention of the health workforce in the Kimberley through placements, skills and knowledge for working in remote locations, cultural safety and innovative models of care. A model like this multi-university training hub would make a significant difference to the education workforce in RRR contexts, and could potentially improve outcomes for students living in non-metropolitan areas. 

Wish 2: Supported collaboration between ITE providers and employers 

Collaboration and meaningful partnerships between employers and ITE providers are critical for supporting teacher quality, transition to the profession, ongoing professional learning and research. The recent QITE report advocates such collaboration specifically to support the early years of teaching, a welcome move. Funding schemes to support collaboration on areas of strategic priority, and research to provide the evidence base for successful interventions will be essential as we move forward.

Wish 3: An evidence informed, career-span approach to teacher quality

The issue of teacher quality in Australia is also not new, and reforms to improve teacher quality have largely focused on Initial Teacher Education (ITE), with little evidence provided to support the view that ITE providers are not graduating high quality teachers. Although a further swathe of reforms is due, there is significant lag time for these reforms to impact the profession – 2025 at the earliest. What happens between now and then? 

Focusing the quality teacher debate on ITE and prospective teachers neglects some broader professional issues of current teachers such as heavy workloads, stress, mental ill-health, increased external regulation and accountability, along with the declining status of teachers in Australian society. While these challenges are also well known, investment in school-based support to ease teacher workload (such as educational assistants, psychologists, allied health, administrative support) has not kept pace with demand. Investment is needed to improve working conditions for teachers, which in turn will increase attractiveness of the profession to potential teachers. 

Caroline Mansfield is Professor and Executive Dean, Faculty of Education, Philosophy and Theology. In 2016, she became an Australian Teaching and Learning Fellow, having won a National Teaching Fellowship to continue her work regarding resilience in higher education (www.stayingbrite.edu.au).

If only we really wanted to solve the problems

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.

How to support our proud and essential profession

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: Susan Ledger, Dean of Education, University of Newcastle

Education has been noticeably absent in this election agenda. What should policy makers in the next government do to support and respect students, teachers, leaders and educational researchers? Reform efforts must recognise the complexity, diversity and interrelatedness of all parts of the education system – students and families, early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational, higher education, and initial teacher education.

Teacher education would benefit from seven key actions. 

First, we must strengthen trust, understanding and support for the whole of profession – preservice, in-service and training. A combined approach within the profession will develop, induct and support great teachers who will inspire their students to learn (see Quality Teaching Model and  NSW Great Teaching Inspired Learning)

Second, we need to replace career bureaucrats with teachers and teacher educators in key policy-making positions in the same way other professions are represented.

Third, we must recognise and adapt for diversity. Much can be learnt from our Australian Teacher Workforce Data information. It highlights the need for more culturally and linguistically diverse teachers to align with the changing student population.

Fourth, teacher education would benefit from prioritising the three dimensions of the Australian Curriculum, the general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities rather than subject only. With the UN Sustainable Development Goals used as a backdrop.

Fifth, we need to prioritise ‘intelligent’ conceptualisations of what constitutes good evidence of teaching work (Mockler & Stacey, 2021). Collaborative research endeavours that draw from multiple perspectives, not singular silver bullet approaches would benefit all. Involving teachers as researchers in Research Invested Schools is helping to re-professionalise teaching and reinvigorate teachers as experts (Twining, 2022).

Sixth, we must focus on the learning journey of a student and strengthen links across the education lifecycle from early childhood to primary, secondary, vocational and higher education. We know, for example, that the return on investment in early childhood education exceeds all other phases, yet early childhood teachers and childhood workers earn significantly less than other educators.

Finally, the profession would benefit enormously by prioritising and actioning the recent Quality Initial Teacher Education Review recommendations, particularly:

·       Recommendation #1: Raise the status of Teaching

·       Recommendation #3: Reduce Teacher’s workloads

·       Recommendation #9: Support families and carers to engage with teachers

·       Recommendation #14: Establish a Centre for Excellence to teach, research and evaluate best teaching practice.

More than $550Million was spent on policy reform between 2009-2013 driven by the National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality Program (NTPQ). Emphasising quality, standards, accountability and evidence-based practices,this reform transformed the education sector and led to the creation of:

·       The Teaching Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG);

·       Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), the National Teacher Professional Standards and National Principal Standard, national accreditation for initial teacher education, nationally consistent registration for all teachers, and certification of highly accomplished and lead teachers;

·       a national curriculum, introduced through the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA);

·       Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) and National Quality Standard.

·       And adjustments to the Australian Quality Framework for Higher Education (AQF).

Teachers, schools and ITE providers responded to the calls for change and accommodated and adjusted their practices. 

A decade later we are witnessing intended and unintended outcomes of this national policy reform. It has been successful in achieving its intended outcome – to develop a national standardised approach to our schooling system. Yet, we are also witnessing the unintended outcomes of the policy reform on our schooling sector.

Enactment of the NPTQ has resulted in uneven and potentially inequitable outcomes, resourcing, privileging and market-like rationalities. Media and politicians lament stagnating student results against benchmarks like NAPLAN and PISA. Teacher and teaching quality is under continual scrutiny. Teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers and it is increasingly more difficult to attract teachers into the workforce. Teacher shortages are already impacting students. Ideological debates between pedagogical choices in literacy, numeracy and teaching methods have arisen and promote competition over collaboration in teaching, learning and research forums. Burdened by unrealistic and often relentless administration many teachers, leaders and initial teacher education providers have been reduced to compliant technicians rather than inspiring practitioners. The workforce is undervalued and overburdened which has reduced the agency, confidence, and even the passion of the profession. 

A focus on quality and accountability is positive and encouraged, but not when it is narrowly focused and comes at the expense of the teachers, students and families within our education ecosystem. Our measures of quality and accountability that judge the health of our sector must include individual and collective wellbeing, evidence of passion for teaching and learning, and confidence in emerging pedagogically informed technologies.

From my 30 years of teaching in rural, remote and metropolitan hard to staff schools, both in Australia and overseas, coupled with my more recent experience preparing teachers for schools’ changing population, environmental impacts and pandemics, I believe we must focus on the development of the whole child, teacher, leader and system, not simply component parts.

Professor Susan Ledger is Head of School and Dean of Education at University of Newcastle and in that role is responsible for transforming teacher education, advocating for the profession and developing partnerships between schools, universities and educational sectors

The insidious way the new curriculum undermines democracy

The public’s mind is focused upon politics in the final week of a bruising election campaign. The language of politics is drilled into for nuance and gaffes. But there are some keywords and concepts that are not mentioned in the main body of the Civics and Citizenship curriculum issued by ACARA this week and signed off by Federal and State education ministers. 

This formal document conveys the official view of how young people are to be prepared by schools and teachers for participation as Australian citizens and the following words are all missing:  social justice, human rights, care, empathy, truth, political literacy, discrimination, racism, mutual understanding, social change, climate change and advocacy. 

The words ‘compassion’ and ‘civility’ are in the current curriculum but are now excised.  

Year 9 students will no longer explore ‘How citizens’ political choices are shaped at election time, including the influence of the media (ACHCK076)’. 

This will surely limit young people’s understanding of democratic debate? When reviewing a curriculum we  need to look not only for sins of omission but also for sins of commission. But here there are plenty of examples of sins of commission too.

Citizenship education globally has been criticised for being more likely to focus unhealthily upon national contexts, but Australia as a nation has a proud history of demonstrating outward-looking and generous global involvement. Now, the Civics and Citizenship curriculum rationale states that ‘the curriculum strongly focuses on the Australian context’. It follows through on this statement by effectively omitting global education from primary schools. The Year 6 statement that students explore “The obligations citizens may consider they have beyond their own national borders as active and informed global citizens (ACHASSK148)”, which was also an important element of that age group’s achievement standard, is excised. Also removed from the Year 6 curriculum is the invitation to find out more about ‘The world’s cultural diversity, including that of its indigenous peoples (ACHASSK140)’. 

Also missing? The Year 9 content descriptor ‘How ideas about and experiences of Australian identity are influenced by global connectedness and mobility (ACHCK081)’. True citizenship education can contribute to building bridges between different groups of people around the world and create educational spaces to develop young people’s capacity to contribute to positive global social change . 

The revisions to the Australian Curriculum signal that this is no longer a priority.

The new curriculum valorises knowledge over skills, values and dispositions. For example, the curriculum rationale states that ‘a deep understanding of Australia’s federal system of government and the liberal democratic values that underpin it is essential’; ‘Emphasis is placed on the federal system of government, derived from the Westminster and Washington systems’. The curriculum aims to foster ‘responsible participation in Australia’s democracy’. The curriculum language leans towards viewing young people as passive recipients of knowledge more than active learners. In a self-congratulatory spirit, students are to imbibe how ‘the system safeguards democracy’ and ‘how laws and the legal system protect people’s rights’. Student responsibilities are referenced three times in the curriculum rationale.  Ten year olds are potentially stuffed with knowledge that they will not be putting into practice for another eight years including within elaborations which reference the secret ballot, compulsory voting, preferential voting and the role of the Australian Electoral Commission as key features of Australia’s democracy.

 Some fundamental skills and concepts fall by the wayside. 

  • From year 3: 

‘The importance of making decisions democratically (ACHASSK070)’.  Why? – seven and eight year olds can start to understand why fairness matters. 

  • From year 4:  the descriptor ‘Interact with others with respect to share points of view (ACHASSI059) – a fundamental attribute to value and nurture in nine year olds in developing their empathy and broader emotional literacy
  • From years Year 9 and 10:  Students are no longer required to ‘Recognise and consider multiple perspectives and ambiguities and use strategies to negotiate and resolve contentious issues (ACHCS086) (ACHCS099)’ or to ‘Reflect on their role as a citizen in Australian, regional and global contexts (ACHCS089) (ACHCS102)’.
  • The curriculum language supporting active citizenship – already cautious (Hoepper, 2014) – is further diluted. 
  • Year 6 students will no longer  “Work in groups to generate responses to issues and challenges (ACHASS130)”. 
  • The requirement that both Year 7 and Year 8 students ‘Use democratic processes to reach consensus on a course of action relating to a civics or citizenship issue and plan for that action (ACHCS058) (ACHCS072)’ is removed. 
  • The Year 8 statement that students appreciate ‘How citizens can participate in Australia’s democracy, including use of the electoral system, contact with their elected representatives, use of lobby groups, and direct action (ACHCK062)’ has become vaguer and more passive ‘how Australians are informed about and participate in democracy (AC9HC8K01)’. 
  • A curriculum aim for the early years of secondary education that currently enjoins students to explore “The freedoms that enable active participation in Australia’s democracy within the bounds of law, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, religion and movement (ACHCK061) is altered to the more anodyne ‘the characteristics of Australia’s democracy, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, religion and movement (AC9HC7K02). 

The political influence in this area is stark. 

Scott Morrison observed in parliament of students attending Strike4ClimateChange rallies in Australia that, ‘We do not support our schools being turned into parliaments…..What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools’ (AAP, 2018). 

And  acting federal Education Minister Stuart Robert insisted on the omission of a brief reference in an optional curriculum elaboration to the youth environmentalist Greta Thunberg (Baker & Carey, 2022). 

The progressive notion of educating young people for active and informed citizenship is qualified – rather schools and teachers are ‘building their capacity to be active and informed citizens’. The message to young people is clear – you are citizens in waiting not citizens yet. We expect you to be compliant and to keep your opinions to yourself,

It may be possible for committed and confident teachers to re-form policy through active interpretation as opposed to narrowly conforming to the letter of curriculum content descriptors (Jerome, 2018; Sim, 2008). The rationale for the Year 7-10 Civics and Citizenship curriculum still includes the claim that through:

 ‘The study of Civics and Citizenship, students develop inquiry skills, values and dispositions that enable them to be active and informed citizens who question, understand and contribute to the world they live in. The curriculum offers opportunities for students to develop a wide range of skills by investigating contemporary civics and citizenship issues and fostering civic participation and engagement.’

Unfortunately, revised content descriptors (which will be what most teachers look to first in their curriculum design) do not generally align with this vision. Values, skills and dispositions tend to go missing. Moreover, previously highlighted links (via the use of icons) to General Capabilities such as ‘Personal and Social competence’, ‘Intercultural understanding’ and ‘Ethical understanding’ also no longer exist. 

ACARA’s interpretation of what was represented as a decluttering administrative exercise might be seen as another person’s neutering and application of an ideological lens. It just became a whole lot harder for teachers to nurture a fuller achievement of democratic citizenship and human rights nationally and globally and more difficult not to promote a conservative political interpretation of civics and citizenship education in what is already a ‘Cinderella’ learning area lacking presence and status in many schools.

Peter Brett is an experienced History and Civics and Citizenship teacher educator and was involved in a variety of ways with the launch of citizenship education in England from 2002. He is a recent President of the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia [SCEAA] and a co-editor of Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences (Cengage, 2020). He is a senior lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania.

Image of Greta Thunberg in header: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP

Ditch the widgets. Start investing in their amazing futures

The cost of teaching a student from a low SES background is significantly higher than for more advantaged students. The reasons for these costs include the ‘obvious’ assumptions, such as bursaries, but are likely driven more substantially by infrastructure investment by a number of universities specifically supporting campuses in areas and regions as part of their mission to provide a university pathway as an option to a diverse range of our population.

We believe this investment (a better way of thinking about it than ‘cost’) could be better recognised in funding agreements by switching the focus from ‘activity-based’ funding (i.e. “count your widgets, take your dollars”), to ‘mission-directed’ funding (i.e. recognition of the social impact and additional resources that these contributions require and perhaps redirecting funding from the low cost ‘low hanging fruit’ approaches of some).

Who are we and how did we discover this? A team of researchers spanning multiple universities (Victoria Uni, ANU, Curtin RMIT) and ACER published an article exploring the costs associated with supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in university. Our study has a ridiculously complex methodology – using econometric modelling to explore the economies of scale in relation to the costs of educating students in Australian universities, with ten years of financial, enrolment and employment data from 37 universities, and then exploring the outcomes with people who run universities across a range of states – but when you pare it all back, a relatively simple set of findings:

Here’s an overview.

Quantifying costs and differences in costs

First we compiled a large dataset spanning all Australian universities across 10 years. The dataset contained operating expenditure, student enrolments, level of enrolment, field of education and background characteristics of students, teaching costs, research grants, location of university and type of university. This was analysed using an econometric model to identify the average costs for each student, and to explore if there are economies of scale in enrolling some groups of students – in other words, does the average cost decline the more of a group of students you enrol? 

The stark finding (that we checked and re-checked) was that when all other elements are controlled for, the average annual cost for a student from a low SES background at undergraduate level was about 6 times higher than for a student from a medium or high SES background. The difference was slightly lower for postgraduate level students, but nonetheless, it was still a notable difference.

However, the other aspect of the analysis did show that there are economies of scale in enrolling students from low SES backgrounds at undergraduate level – that is, the higher the number of students of this background, the lower the average costs per student become. We also found the opposite (i.e. a diseconomy of scale) for medium and high SES student enrolments.

Explaining the differences

We took our data findings ‘on the road’, visiting four diverse universities in Australia to talk with academic, finance and student support leaders. We wanted to test whether the outcomes from the analysis made sense on the ground and found that while views differed, some key explanations were clear:

  • The kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.
  • The support factors that contribute to the additional costs include investment in the items listed above plus the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities. Further, it was found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.
  • Additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. Low SES students are not a homogeneous group. Depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage.

In the universities consulted, there were different costs and different approaches to supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

Future considerations on funding

We hope that what this research does is help to highlight the difference in investment required depending on the backgrounds of students enrolled in a university. The emphasis in shifting language from ‘cost’ to ‘investment’ is intended as a means of changing views and perceptions – much the way in which some universities in Australia embed in their mission an aim to open up opportunities by investing in areas or communities where previously a university pathway was not a consideration.

A radical, yet seemingly logical, proposition coming from this research is that if some student groups need a greater investment than others, then perhaps the funding pie should be cut in a way that recognises the variable investments required. From our work, we feel that consideration of ideas to recognise the various missions of universities and the different students they serve in following their mission could be captured in funding allocations. Ideas we have suggested for further consideration include a redistribution of funding based on need; shifting emphasis from activity-based to mission-directed costing; applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’; and conceptualising funding support for students from low SES backgrounds as a transformational investment that can improve outcomes for individuals, communities and society, rather than as a cost.

Dr Daniel Edwards is the Director of the Tertiary Education Research Program at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and an Honorary Senior Fellow with the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Daniel Edwards (ACER) wrote this post on behalf of the project team: Marcia Devlin (VU), Liang-Cheng Zhang (ACER), Glen Withers (ANU), Julie McMillan (ACER) and Lyn Vernon (Edith Cowan University)

A vital message for teachers everywhere: how to help traumatised students

We are constantly exposed to life-threatening events that result in trauma. Natural disasters such as seasonal bushfires and floods have affected millions of Australians. The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought about loss of life, extended isolation, and exposure to increased domestic violence— for some youth, all these events can be traumatic.  

Likewise, human-induced traumatic events (e.g. violence, neglect, abuse, and household dysfunction) leave indelible marks on emotional and physiological wellbeing of Australian children and youth. For refugees from war-torn regions of the world, the trauma of violence, forced displacement, and resettlement stressors can be debilitating. Young people who grew up in foster care, experience extreme poverty, or identify themselves as LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or questioning) are also likely to experience trauma that can interfere with their learning and social interactions. 

But What is Trauma?

Trauma is the emotional, psychological, and physiological damage resulting from adverse events that overwhelm our ordinary coping abilities. Trauma can be caused by a single event (e.g. a car wreck), a series of events (e.g. sexual abuse), or collective historical wounding (e.g. forced removal of Indigenous children).

The impact of trauma can be multifaceted. Dr Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading trauma experts, describes trauma as a profound shock with lasting effects on one’s psychic, brain, and body. Trauma-impacted children and adolescents experience intrusive negative thoughts, anxiety, irritability, and feelings of numbness. 

Why do teachers need professional learning on trauma-responsive education? Because, we argue, trauma affects student performance and teacher wellbeing. Traumatic stress associated with emotional and psychological wounding interferes with people’s ability to manage ordinary daily activities, including learning. 

The Epidemic of Trauma in Schools

Trauma is a pervasive problem. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that in a classroom of 20 students, at least three are likely to have had traumatic experiences. 

In the US,  the National Council of State Education Associations called for a policy action to address ‘the epidemic of trauma in schools. In Australia, the damaging effects of the ‘hidden epidemic of early trauma’ are yet to gain increased public attention. The prevalence of the problem notwithstanding, there is still a lack of awareness about trauma and its impact. A secondary school principal in Melbourne told us: 

People think that there are only certain areas that are affected by trauma. No matter where you are, children will be impacted by adverse childhood experiences, sometimes up to 40% of students within a class. There are many forms of trauma. [But] people aren’t recognising or appreciating that there is trauma. 

In a recent survey of close to 900 young people (16-25-year-olds), 42% of the participants reported that the pandemic worsened their mental health condition. Although not all individuals with mental health conditions have a trauma history, those exposed to traumatic events are more likely to suffer from mental health issues. 

Trauma Inhibits Learning 

Exposure to adverse childhood experiences is positively correlated with poor school performance. Traumatic stress during the early stages of life impairs brain development and affects memory. 

Trauma also results in prolonged activation of the body’s stress-response system. Students cannot focus on the present and effectively engage with learning experiences when the stress-response system is activated for an extended time. Traumatic reactions such as anxiety and hyperarousal affect how students feel, think, and act on schoolwork. Trauma also diminishes memory

Trauma Drives Disruptive Behaviour

For traumatised students, the slightest hint of danger triggers anxiety. Overwhelmed by feelings of fear and helplessness, trauma-impacted students may display emotional outbursts and act out in the classroom. Such disruptive behaviours are not wilful; traumatised youth have limited capacity for emotional self-regulation. 

Seen through a trauma lens, disruptive behaviour can also be a language of communication. Traumatised children often adapt disruptive behaviours as a survival mechanism. Trauma turns their learning brain into a ‘surviving brain’. For instance, children who have experienced chronic neglect tend to use disruptive behaviours to communicate their desire for attention and attachment.

In schools where trauma is not recognised as a serious factor that affects engagement and learning, survivor students are less likely to get the necessary support. In fact, as Baldwin and Korn (2021) noted, “When traumatised children are restless and aggressive, they often get labelled as ‘bad,’ and their suffering gets missed.” 

At a societal level, trauma is costly too. It is estimated that annually unresolved childhood trauma costs Australian taxpayers as much as $24 billion

Student Trauma Increases Teacher Stress 

Student trauma can produce a negative ripple effect on teacher wellbeing. According to the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey, one of the primary causes of teacher stress is student behavioural problems. Working with trauma-impacted students can expose teachers to excessive fatigue and draining stress. In other words, dealing with recurrent disruptive student behaviours and hearing trauma stories can result in secondary traumatic stress that generates emotional duress and makes teachers feel overwhelmed. Extreme stress may force teachers to leave school. 

In 2019, a nationwide study showed that many teachers were concerned about their wellbeing,  saw student behaviour as a serious challenge, and indicated an intention to leave the profession. Increased teacher attrition in state schools, in turn, widens the educational divide along the line of socioeconomic status of schools and communities. 

In a recent Australian study that surveyed 749 teachers, over half of the respondents reported being stressed due to environmental factors, including disruptive student behaviour. The study also revealed that the stressed teachers ‘were considering leaving the profession’.

What Can be Done?

Teacher trauma awareness matters. One in three young people who participated in the 2019 Mission Australia survey reported that they “would turn to a teacher as a source of help with important issues”. Further, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that students who establish positive relationships with their teachers display a greater sense of belonging at school. 

But without timely and relevant professional learning, teachers may find it challenging to help traumatised students learn. 

Teachers need to be trauma-responsive, but this does not mean that they should be trained to treat trauma. Instead, it means that teachers should use a trauma lens to understand student learning and behaviour. Trauma-responsive teachers are non-judgemental. They ask trauma-affected students: “what happened to you?” rather than “what is wrong with you?”

Schools should promote trauma-responsive practices. Professional learning opportunities on trauma-responsive education are instrumental in equipping teachers with valuable  knowledge and skills for supporting trauma-impacted students. Without the necessary awareness about trauma and its impact on student behaviour and learning, teachers may find it taxing to cater to the learning needs of their students. 

In closing

Teachers equipped with current knowledge and skills on the causes and consequences of trauma are well-positioned to promote learning for all. They are also likely to avoid misdiagnosing student behavioural problems as a marker of innate mischievousness. They take time to understand the message of disruptive behaviour and re-engage students in learning. 

Trauma-responsive teachers create positive learning environments that provide a protective buffer against triggers and additional stressors and nurture resilience. Widening access to professional learning opportunities on trauma-responsive practices is critical in preparing teachers for the task.

Tebeje Molla is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. His research areas include student equity, teacher professional learning, and policy analysis. His work is informed by critical sociology and the capability approach to social justice and human development.

Damian Blake is a professor and Head of School for Deakin University’s School of Education and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Damian’s research and teaching experience focuses on applied learning and teacher education aiming to improve young people’s educational outcomes and well-being.

Why the markets can never teach us how to care for the aged

In the lead up to the Federal election, aged care has emerged as a major point of difference between the two major parties

This focus on aged care is long overdue but behind the headlines lies another serious policy failure. Aged care workers are prepared for their jobs by vocational education and training courses. Described as the neglected middle child of education, the vocational education and training sector has endured waves of market-based reforms that have weakened public training institutions and hollowed out qualifications. The quality of education is important in all industry areas but in sectors such as aged care, the stakes are so much higher. 

The urgent need to improve aged care is core to Labor’s election campaign. In his budget reply speech, Anthony Albanese promised to implement the findings of the Royal Commission, including mandating the 24/7 presence of a registered nurse in residential aged care facilities, improving food, and increasing accountability for aged care providers. Labor also advocates a wage increase for aged care workers, and promises to fund any increase resulting from the work value case before the Fair Work Commission 

Aged Care is not comfortable territory for the Coalition Government. The performance Richard Colbeck, The Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care has been roundly criticised. The Royal Commission was scathing about the inadequate monitoring and preparation for the pandemic.  A study presented to the Royal Commission, found poor quality care to be concentrated in the for-profit sector.

Aged care was covered in Josh Frydenberg’s pre-election budget speech but not as a core theme. Frydenberg recommitted the Government to the five year aged care plan announced outlined last year, supplemented with the some additional new funding. 

The Morrison Government is more circumspect when it comes to wage increases. While it has indicated that it will support the Fair Work Commission’s ruling it has made no commitment to providing the required additional funding. 

A sector in crisis 

The Royal Commission has documented in forensic detail the crisis in the aged care. This includes the appalling level of care and horrific abuse suffered by many residents of aged care facilities. It has also highlighted the difficulty of gaining access to the home-based services that could allow people to remain independent for as long as possible.  

The Royal Commission also focused on the aged care workforce. It linked the conditions of care to inadequate staffing level, poor quality training, and conditions of employment of aged care workers, which is characterised by precarity. 

Identifying this connection is vital. There has been a tendency to pit recipient and providers of care against each other. Championing the rights of workers can be seen to undermine the rights of the people in their care (and vice versa).   

The intersection between the interests of recipients and providers of aged care was brought into stark relief by the pandemic. Without secure employment, aged care workers were moving between residential facilities. Without sick leave, workers were compelled to work even if they were unwell. Pandemic pay and restrictions were introduced as temporary measures to reduce the risk, but the model of insecure employment remains intact. 

To address the abuse, the neglect, the injustice experienced by elderly people there must be consideration of the capacity and conditions of employment of the aged care workforce. This requires examining the foundational ideas underpinning aged care. 

Undervalued work

As a first step, we must confront a manifestly inadequate social settlement around care work, both paid and unpaid. Powerful fantasies of autonomy lie at the heart of the liberal political ideas that underpin our institutions. This obscures reality that we all rely on the care and support of others throughout our lives. 

Care is devalued and care work is gendered, classed, racialised and internationalised. The increasingly transnational nature of care work has been disrupted but not eradicated by the pandemic. Under these conditions, the provision of care work involves multiple levels of oppression. One clear manifestation of the way care work is undervalued is the way it is dismissed as unskilled and poorly paid

Marketisation of care and education 

The serious failures in aged care are forged at the intersection of market-based reforms in human services and education. 

Marketisation has been presented as the only way to achieve high quality, responsive and efficient services. This is not the result of inevitable evolution in service delivery but the consequence of a deliberate policy choice. The narratives supporting marketisation deflects attention from the foundational ideas informing these reforms and from alternative approaches

Over the past two decades, person-centred approaches have been introduced in aged care. Placing the goals and aspirations of older people at the centre of the design and provision of services is an urgent matter of justice. How it has been achieved, however, is the subject of debate.  

In Australia, and elsewhere, the goal of person-centred care has been realised through forms of marketisation. Independence, autonomy and dignity have been reframed as individual consumer choice

At the same time, marketisation has transformed the vocational education and training sector, which provides qualifications (mostly at Certificate III level) for aged care workers. The reform of Australian vocational education has resulted in the introduction of a narrow form of competency based training, demand-driven funding, and the allocation of government funding to for-profit training providers. 

The quality of the courses preparing aged care workers have been found to be extremely variable.  To be valued, qualifications need to be trusted. As a bare minimum, we need confidence that graduates have developed the knowledge, skills and attributes specified for their qualification. 

The promise of marketisation was that competition and choice would produce more efficient and innovative training that responded to the needs of employers and students. Instead, a ‘tick and flick’ approach to training emerged, one that is incompatible with the development of the knowledge and attributes that lie at the heart of effective practice. 

There have also been extraordinary opportunities for rent-seeking

Markets are not neutral. The introduction of elements of marketisation has a profound impact, reshaping our institutions and the services they provide.  A process of commodification transforms care and education from relational to transactional exchanges. This is reinforced by Human Capital Theory, which continues to influence education in Australia and internationally. The result is a narrow understanding of education in terms of an investment to increase an individual’s value in the labour market

The transformation of the Australian vocational education and training sector has been described as one of the clearest failures of neoliberal public policy. The work to repair the damage continues  with a clear need for systemic reform. 

The development of transactional qualifications to prepare workers for poorly designed transactional jobs has a terrible human cost. One of the challenges is the marketisation and commodification encourage approaches that set interests of providers and recipients of aged care in competition. 

Beyond the marketplace 

 A society is not just if people are not able to receive the care they need. Justice cannot be achieved if the people providing that care experience considerable hardship because of a failure to recognise and value their work. 

If we are to address the tragic conditions in aged care we must, as a nation, provide adequate funding but we need to go further and address the structural conditions and flawed underpinning assumptions. 

The complexity of the relationship between the provider and recipients of care and support needs to be better understood. Transactional approaches have not transformed the conditions documented by the Royal Commission. They have introduced new forms of oppression and an exploitative social settlement around care. The flawed assumptions underpinning Australian training markets create a much riskier environment for the most disadvantaged and produce poor quality education. In the area of aged care, the consequences of inadequate qualifications are particularly damaging.   

We need a ways of understanding care that can accommodate the needs and wishes of people requiring care without sacrificing aged care workers’ conditions of employment. We need a form of vocational education and training can prepare people for work, for changes in jobs and industries, and for social citizenship. 

This blog post draws on the article: Leahy, M. (2022). Person-centred qualifications: vocational education and training for the aged care and disability services sectors in Australia. Journal of Education and Work, 35(2), 181-194. https://doi.org/10.1080/13639080.2021.2018409 

Mary Leahy us a researcher at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. She has an extensive background in research and policy development, focussing on access to education and employment. Her research examines educational and employment pathways, vocational education, trade union education, gender and the philosophical underpinnings of social and economic policy. Mary is the Lead Chief Investigator on an ARC Linkage project examining the history of the Trade Union Training Authority.

Why we must urgently rescue arts education now

Australian governments have taken a limited view of the Arts, artists and the imperative of quality arts education for our children and young people for decades. They have neglected or ignored the research that education in, about and through the Arts, especially when authentically integrated across the curriculum, is a strong predictor of long term student success, In fact an arts-rich education is a far more accurate predictor of success than results in particular test scores (Schleicher, 2019).There is an urgent need for us to exercise our democratic responsibility to change this story for current and future generations. We need to demand that appropriate funding, resources and support are provided for the Arts and quality Arts education.

The Arts are part of our heritage and core to what makes us human. They are central to our development as compassionate and responsive individuals because they help us make meaning of ourselves, others and our worlds. Engagement in the Arts also contributes to our ongoing health and social and emotional wellbeing  (World Health Organisation, 2019; Workman, 2017)Recent global and national trauma has also underlined how arts-rich experiences can aid recovery and renew hope for young and old alike (see for example, Teritotoi and The Banksia Initiative).

In Australia now, a neoliberal approach to education is increasingly at odds with the need to ensure every learner has access to meaningful arts experiences and processes throughout their schooling and higher education. Federal and state education Ministers frequently call for a return to ‘the basics’. The continued emphasis on high-stakes testing privileges technical approaches to literacy and numeracy and constrains teachers to teach to these tests ignoring their own professional expertise and artistry. Teachers frequently assert that they do not feel empowered to focus on the imaginative or creative when planning learning experiences.

Such a siloed and overcrowded formal curriculum measured so narrowly reinforces a one-size-fits-all formulaic pedagogy and inevitably leads to a reductive or narrowed curriculum that ignores the inter-connectivity of minds, bodies and souls. Despite the rhetoric about 21st century skills including the importance of critical and creative thinking, well developed communication and collaboration skills (NEA, 2013; Jefferson and Anderson, 2017) a competitive academic curriculum prevails.That leads to learner anxiety, disengagement and fatigue multiplies (Whitlam Institute, 2012).

A highly significant and increasing body of research, scholarship and professional practice demonstrates unequivocally that embedding arts-rich or quality arts processes and experiences across the curriculum makes an important contribution to the way we engage in learning and how we learn (for example, Catterall, Dumais & Hampden-Thompson, 2012 Deasy 2002; Winner, Goldstein & Vincent-Lancrin, 2013). Engaging in quality arts processes and experiences enhances our academic and non-academic success (see for example, A New Approach; Martin et al, 2013 ) and nurtures our imagination and creativity (Gibson & Ewing, 2020 .  Every child therefore deserves an arts-rich curriculum to enable them to experience multiple ways of knowing, thinking, doing, interpreting and being (Gadsden, 2008). This kind of learning becomes even more critical given the ‘post-normal times’ described by Sardar (2010) . Times in which old orthodoxies are disappearing in lives characterised by uncertainties, contradictions and chaos. Sardar insists that: ‘The most important ingredients for coping with post-normal times … are imagination and creativity’ (Sardar, p. 48). He suggests that we all need to listen to a broad spectrum of human imaginations.

Each art form is a discrete discipline with distinctive knowledges, skills and understandings. Each embodies different kinds of literacies, different ways of making and representing meaning (More than words can say). At the same time, each art form involves processes that include play, design, experimentation, exploration, communication, provocation, use of metaphor, expression or representation, and the artistic or aesthetic shaping of the body or other media (Ewing, 2011). Different art forms thus enable us to develop a better understanding of ourselves, others and the world because the Arts activate our thinking and challenge our traditional systems and ways of being. Students themselves discuss how  arts and cultural learning fosters their imaginations and creative intuitions as well as their self-efficacy in ways that other learning does not (for example, Saunders, 2019Thomson, Hall, Earl & Geppert, 2018). The Arts disciplines therefore can and should play an important role in fostering our imaginations, creativities and gaining deep understanding of and competence in the multiple and ever-increasing literacies needed today.


The CREATE Centre, University of Sydney, is co-hosting an event Arts in Crisis, with the Australian Theatre for Young People on Monday 2 May at 5pm in ATYP’s Rebel Theatre, in Pier 2/3, Suite 2, 13A Hickson Rd, Dawes Point, Sydney. The panellists will consider the current crises in the Arts and Arts Education from their own experience  and perspective. The panel and audience will collaboratively imagine, with an impending election, what changes can enable an arts-rich education for all children and young people together with arts-led healing for our communities. To register: https://events.humanitix.com/arts-and-arts-education-in-crisis-public-forum?mc_cid=a10d6998e6&mc_eid=c632f58eb7

The event will also be recorded and made publicly available afterwards. If you are unable to attend in person, please select the ticket option to have the video link sent to you. 

Robyn Ewing AM is Professor Emerita, Teacher Education and the Arts and Co-Director of the Creativity in Research, Engaging the Arts, Transforming Education, Health and Wellbeing (CREATE) Centre. Her teaching areas include primary curriculum, especially English, literature, drama and early literacy development. Robyn is passionate about the arts and education and the role quality arts experiences and processes can and should play in creative pedagogy and transforming the curriculum at all levels of education.