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

8 thoughts on “How to fix education: cut tests, defund private schools

  1. Bill Blaikie says:

    A great article. Also think about who devises the curriculum. School based and student based curriculum design would help ensure that students are engaging learning relevant to themselves and give teachers the autonomy to draw on their expertise and interests. Parachuted in curricula serve the needs of their designers and their masters rather than the teachers, their students and their communities and reduce autonomy and democratic practices. All of which reduces teachers to servants of the state that largely seeks, in Illich’s words, ‘humble, obedient and efficient servants.’ This is unacceptable in a dynamic democracy.

  2. Jill Blackmore says:

    Yes– curriculum frameworks should be we agree less directive and more about facilitating teachers to use their professional judgement to develop curriculum and pedagogy that best addresses their student’ needs. But good curriculum development requires time dedicated to teacher planning and professional development and exchange — which they would have with less testing and more funding

  3. Great article,

    We have the wrong drivers behind education for sure.

    PISA (brainchild of UNESCO) was set up to see where jurisdictions in the world were teaching well – judged obviously, by student performance, but only in three aspects of human capacity. The unanimous leader, without wanting to be competitive, was Finland. Did we learn from them? I don’t think so.
    As I have predicted, Finland is now falling behind in the PISA results because many jurisdictions (yes Shanghai or other major regions can sit the test to win!) are teaching to the three test areas, so they can be top. A nation or city’s’ ego comes in to play. Big international kudos! They will likely be making billions from international students and Australia’s overseas students may likely dwindle.

    Education will continue with its challenges unless true educators take back the schools.
    It’s the political party educational advisors who need to surface more and debate with educators. Most educational ministers I know have never been in the classroom. They rely on the advisors. And who or what advises them? I’m confident it wasn’t lived classroom experience where pedagogies are tried and tested. The true pedagogical conferences need to happen in school and between experienced educators, not in a political office.

    Political intervention in so many areas of life are turning us into a cold hard data driven downward spiral. Early childhood is one of the biggest casualties. The health of those little souls, the health of teachers, the health of the system needs to be … yes, healthy!

    Rudolf Steiner predicted all this down turn over 100 years ago. Maybe if we had followed Finland (which I suspect was influenced by Steiner philosophy, especially in the early years and primary), things would be much better.
    But taking our lead from Finland wasn’t politic.
    We’re told our greatest allies are America and Britain.
    So we follow some of their very suspect educational methods. Thanks for NAPLAN Mr America!

    Your idea to defund private schools would need a revolution like Finland.
    Not going to happen (at least in the foreseeable future) in our bipolar party politics.
    Finland’s minor parties had to sit round a table and collaborate! Now there’s a novel idea! 🙂

  4. Jill Blackmore says:

    I agree– but Australian public education went through a revolution back in the 1970s where teacher professionals became more agentic– but this was prior to the Howard government changing funding to favour ‘private’ schools without accountability (misuse of taxpayer funds) and initiating the culture wars against inclusive curriculum that recognised Indigenous histories, feminism, multiculturalism and the environmental movements. Howard’s legacy hopefully remains and the damage has been done with NAPLAN, PISA etc exacerbating educational inequality by diverting attention away from core work of teaching and learning

  5. I suspect the 70s was an evolution in Australian education. Finland’s was definitely a revolution in comparison with all private schools shut down unless they operated under the same principles as all other schools.
    That would have been unthinkable in Australia. 🙂

  6. Ed says:

    How can it even be suggested to defund private schools when the parents of private school children pay their taxes too, and therefore are entitled to have funding for their children in the same way as everyone else?

  7. Jill Blackmore says:

    The issue is whether each individual has the right to access a good local school funded by taxpayers (which is the role of government) or whether individuals have a right to be funded to choose any school with funding following I funded by individual??). I would argue you should pay for choice as used to be the case. But Howards interventions in an equity and needs based funding formula of all schools has meant the focus has shifted onto individual rights to choose not individual right to have equally well funded education. Furthermore, inequality has increased because of overfunding of nongovernment schools who now receive 100% of the Gonski formula and government schools only 85%. This has. consequence for a democratic nation that claims to be fair. A start towards defunding would be to at least fund based on need and not choice in a democratic society.

  8. Yes Ed, I agree. Not going to happen here with the powerful lobbies, ad as you say, paying twice, once via taxes and then through fees.
    I’d love to visit Finland to see how a Steiner school operates there for instance. They still have sway of pedagogy, but their funding has to be the same as any other school.

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