If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be?

By Pasi Sahlberg and Sharon Goldfeld

The cold fact is that despite continuous reforms and growing investments over the past two decades, educational performance – and especially equitable performance – of Australia’s schools isn’t improving. Indeed, in many ways it is getting worse.

Consider these statistics. Since 2000 Australia’s PISA scores have dropped 33 – 24 points in maths, reading, and science. Students’ performance in literacy and numeracy since 2008 when National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) was inaugurated has been stagnant or declining (ACARA database). During the same time total education spending per student has gone up by 46 per cent adjusted to 22 per cent increase in the number of students (Rice, Edwards, & McMillan, 2019).

Additionally, there are large achievement gaps between different equity groups, such as rural and urban students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and socio-educationally disadvantaged and other students (Australian Government, 2023).

Together with these inconvenient trends, we are seeing alarming signs in declining student health and wellbeing. Anxiety, depression, and conduct disorders are leading mental health concerns among our youth. For example, one in seven 4-17-year-olds was found to have a mental disorder. One in six adolescents reports problematic levels of loneliness (Lim, Eres, & Peck, 2019).

Leaders and professionals in the Australian health and education sectors have been striving to provide best possible care and learning for every child. While there has been progress made for some, these efforts are not matching realities as well as they could despite increased spendings on both health and education. Doing more of what we have done before is clearly not the best way to make school a better place to improve student learning and wellbeing.  

In our Discussion Paper titled “Reinventing Australian schools for the better wellbeing, health, and learning of every child” (Sahlberg et al., 2023) we outline a new vision for uplifting student learning, wellbeing, and health in our schools. We argue that the core purpose of schooling needs to shift from primarily focusing on narrow academic intelligence to equal value learning, wellbeing and health outcomes for balanced whole-child development and growth. 

What might this look like in practice? Rather than trying to simply jump to the solution, we instead suggest adopting a whole-child and whole-school approach as a leading principle for change. A whole-child approach requires schools to fully emphasise the complete scope of a child’s needs and being, including cognitive, social, emotional, physical, ethical, and psychological, rather than concentrating dominantly on only part of a child. A whole-school approach means the responsibility for developing and meeting the needs of the whole child are shared in a coherent way, equally by all at the school and potentially beyond. 

We believe a whole-child and whole-school approach optimises the opportunities for all children to grow up as the individuals they want to become.

Generally speaking, in Australia, public policies to improve education outcomes for all have overlooked the interconnection between health, wellbeing, and learning. Although well intended, health and wellbeing initiatives in Australian schools are often separate projects, courses, or reaction opportunities to those who are at risk or already have health and wellbeing issues. We suggest that health should be viewed as an essential future skill that all children should learn also in school. 

If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be? Together with the whole-child and whole-school approach our Discussion Paper offers four other principles to support uplifting learning, wellbeing, and health of all children in Australian schools.

1. Co-designed, evidence-based, and flexible learning and wellbeing approaches

All children should be supported to achieve health, wellbeing and learning goals in school that matter to them in ways that work for them; keeping them engaged and motivated to live, learn and be well.

2. Health and wellbeing as essential 21st century skills

Health and wellbeing should be seen as outcomes of school education of equal importance to literacy, numeracy and other academic domains. This includes learning skills in digital, mental, socio-emotional, nutritional, and physical wellbeing for all children as early as possible, in developmentally appropriate ways. 

 3. Building an engaging culture of health, wellbeing and learning in school

A safe, inclusive, positive, engaging and healthy school culture throughout the whole school matters to support the development of the whole child. 

4. Partnerships between services, families, and schools 

Schools should not be isolated silos. They are important community assets. In our vision, they are community centres or hubs, effectively and collaboratively meeting local children’s needs through relationships and partnerships between community members, one of which is the school.

The key to transforming Australian education to be fairer and better for all is more inclusive and informed grassroot conversations. The vision of more holistic and equitable Australian school is not just a dream, it is mission possible. A whole-child and whole-school approach to improve children’s health, wellbeing, and learning has a solid foundation in research and practice around the world. 

The principles and call to action we have outlined would not require discarding everything we currently do, nor simply ask more of educators in the current context. But it would encourage us to stop doing anything that does not support a whole-child and whole-school approach in schools to address particular child, school and community needs. Most of all, it requires bold new ways of thinking about children, their schooling and what it takes to secure healthier and happier futures for all of them.

Generally, we argue, educators and policymakers should see themselves as having a wider responsibility for all children and young people, not just narrow academic learning of those at their own schools. This is the time to restore meaning to school as a place of shaping well-educated, healthy, and conscious generations, and – most of all – happy children. 

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Melbourne where he leads research on learning through play, growing up digital, and equity in education. His other fields of expertise are whole-system change, teacher education and development, cooperative learning, and teaching mathematics.

Professor Sharon Goldfeld is a paediatrician and director, Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) the Royal Children’s Hospital and Theme Director, Population Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Her research program focuses on investigating, testing and translating sustainable policy relevant solutions that eliminate inequities for Australia’s children.

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

6 thoughts on “If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be?

  1. Dr. Rosie Thrupp says:

    In working in the central office of a major education system some years ago, I was informed that the clients for my work as a teacher are the administrators of the education system, for example, the Minister, Director- General. This saddened me terribly. In all my teaching and learning life, I believed that children in he form of the whole child, were my clients. I prided myself as a teacher and Deputy Principal in knowing the children as individuals with all uniqueness and differences a source of what I needed to know to teach them.

    Sadly, in the state where I live, the Australian curriculum turned the attention of those in the higher levels of education/schooling toward curriculum, not the meeting of a child with learning with curriculum. Attention turned to paperwork for children, needing to complete lengthy assessment tasks which required filling in lengthy booklets to ensure evidence of learning. This evidence of learning across all curriculum areas is then stored away, rather than used to inform future learning strategies.

    I am interested that your writing here addresses the learning ideas of Early Childhood in the 1970s and early 1980s.

  2. Roslyn Happ says:

    Improving education is not complicated, nor is reducing the cost per child.
    As a music specialist, I worked with a lot of classroom teachers during the 80’s and 90’s and ran my own programme called Voice Body and Mind Gymnastics in 2008 to 2010. I began this programme out of frustration with the DOTT system which takes normal, everyday activities like music, sport and art out of the domain of the classroom teacher in primary school. Both teachers and students need to be routinely involved with these activities for their mental health as well as the efficiency of teaching and learning in these areas. Hence, the programme I trialed was designed to work in cooperation with classroom teachers who would integrate the work I was doing into their daily routine. It was very successful until Naplan pressures made teachers feel under pressure and therefore find it hard to do this integration.

    I always noticed that the best classrooms with the least discipline issues were always those that began the day with musical activities, practiced every day so that the children were confident and moved into other learning with a song in their hearts and minds. Two other features that I noticed were … the teachers valued activity and sport which they did frequently during the day. They also valued craft, with on-going projects like knitting for hospitals … children often doing this in their spare time as well. One teacher did her preparation for the next week on Friday afternoons while the kids played ‘games’ such as chess and cards. The classroom was always happy, calm and quiet. The children were teaching each other and learning a great many simple social skills and quality games that they could use outside of school as well.

    The best classrooms came from that calm balance of activities, which encouraged quality concentration when it was needed on maths or reading etc. Primary teachers do not need DOTT outside of their classrooms. ‘Duties Other Than Teaching’ could also be taken as ‘learning from the leadership of a specialist’, so that practice of skills is efficient. If a school is lucky enough to have a ‘music specialist’ or an ‘art specialist’, then it should be seen as an opportunity for the classroom teacher to observe and learn. This is, in fact, a duty other than teaching anyway.

    Primary classrooms with well balanced ‘routines’ ensure that enough practice is done to develop competency. There is no time wasted in explaining and organising.

    I end this with one example of a grade five teacher I worked with so well that her whole class entered an eisteddfod as a choir and won their section.
    The teacher would allow the children into the classroom before school, not to do spelling, but to ‘get ready’ … that is, recorders on the desk and recorder books ready, pencils sharpened and ready, room tidied, plants watered, board clean … then on the bell the children would line up outside the demountable classroom. She would call out a particular folk dance, the children fell into practiced formations and she would clap as they ‘kind of sang’ the music … good enough anyway and with vigour. Inside, they would sing a couple of songs, mostly to a backing tape which I had made for the classroom, pick up recorders and play several old songs … then a new one. Recorders away, then sing/say their tables and into their maths.

    I have read elsewhere that ‘calling a class to order’ can often waste the first six minutes of the day. Compare that with the positive start given by the above routine. In those days, no parents were allowed to come to the classroom, unless helping in something in particular. If they had an issue, they spoke to the Principle who conveyed the message if necessary or sorted it out. There were no emails to deal with either. The teacher could relax, talk to the children before school and then on the bell … straight into it.

    In those days, every child would have to read to the Principle, once or twice a year. From that experience, the Principle would deal with those who had difficulties, organising extra help etc. They would visit classrooms, helping young teachers where necessary. Their main aim was the education of the children. Financial management of the school was relatively simple in those days; schools were less competitive; everyone knew what they were there for. Every teacher did a ‘test’ oh Fridays in the test exercise book which went home to parents to sign. Principles could easily evaluate a student’s progress by collecting the class test books. in this way, they can pick up weaknesses in classroom teaching and give help where required. Then of course, there were inspectors who always listened to a song, a poem and inspected those test books too.

    When inspectors were being faded out, not long after music specialists had become the norm, one of them said to me, it is embarrassing to ask a class to sing a song these days! What does that say? Had the music specialist improved music education? The big problem was that seeing the children once a week does not allow for sufficient practice and the insistence on DOTT meant that the classroom teacher lost touch with singing altogether.

    Get rid of DOTT and start educating as a cooperative team, with healthy routines and less administrative demands. They are simply not necessary. Principles are there to ‘help’ teachers and children … simple as that. Then teachers can enjoy their work and their lives. They will be healthy and do a much better job in the process. Do not allow parents to email teachers directly. Go back to setting up face to face meetings with the principle or deputy. That would lessen the number of issues and allow teachers to ‘just do their work’ with joy.

  3. Professor Carol Reid says:

    Well said! I saw the same impact of music in many schools in the 1980s. Creative arts are virtually non-existent in teacher education now, sidelined for an over emphasis on literacy and numeracy. In addition to these ideas we need to stop the over zealous sorting and sifting of children.

  4. Roslyn Happ says:

    Thank you Professor Carol Reid, for your reply. Why can’t ‘they’, that is ‘those who educate our teachers’ see that it is the arts that improve numeracy and literacy. The arts make it fun at the same time as stimulate creativity … not to mention improvement in mental health for both students and teachers.

    Have the universities become dominated by ‘intellectuals’ who have themselves been trained without ‘the arts’ but managed to gain doctorates in some minor aspect of education instead of understanding the full breadth of how to educate a whole person?

    I just can’t understand how ‘we’ have let this happen? We know better and our children and teachers are suffering. They are being put under such pressure with none of the fun and joy which the arts bring when interspersed throughout the day of the classroom teacher. Get real. Remove DOTT. Start cooperating again … properly … in all subjects in the primary sphere. Learn from each other. We all learn through consistency, cooperation and concentration. What is the point of having specialists if there is no follow up and no practice.

  5. L says:

    ”1. Co-designed, evidence-based, and flexible learning and wellbeing approaches

    All children should be supported to achieve health, wellbeing and learning goals in school that matter to them in ways that work for them; keeping them engaged and motivated to live, learn and be well.”

    In an ideal world….maybe….however this gives students a completely unrealistic view of the world. Life is not going to be set up to make them happy and comfortable 100% of the time. What happens when they have to turn up to a job they don’t particularly enjoy? Numerous reports have shown mental health is much better in developing countries and I don’t think the reason is that we are tryinig to motivate them to be happy and well.

    The problem in schools is that too many parents and students are getting the message that it is all about them….we are enabling selfish behaviour. I am a teacher and experiencing this first hand. The curriculum and kids is the easy part…the demands of the DET and parents (often with paperwork that produces no real benefits to student learning) is what is going to drive people away from the job.

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