It’s a watershed report but it’s hidden behind headlines

By Rachel Wilson

What the Productivity Commission’s National School Reform Agreement report really says. 

Monday’s ROGS report from the Productivity Commission is the fourth in a row making important insights on where Australian education has gone wrong. 

The data for the Report on Government Services (ROGS) made it clear that Australian school funding is iniquitous. While this fact could have been called out on any day in the nearly 11 years since the Gonski report was released, the data establishes it authoritatively. Previous low key reports by the National School Resourcing Board and National Audit Office  have highlighted the lack of transparency and accountability evident in funding arrangements. 

Earlier, the PCs interim report for the quinquennial productivity review in October last year put education issues front and centre of economic concerns, and provided a warning bell for their interim report on the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA).  Both clearly assert ‘Canberra, we have a[n education] problem’

These three identify the threat that arises from our current educational woes, and make it clear that there are system structural and transparency faults contributing to our difficulties.  But it is the PCs report on the National School Reform Agreement that provides a fuller analysis of our education system. Importantly identifying deeply entrenched system level faults.  

Headlines on the NSRA report squealed “Call for focus on teaching as academic results slide despite $300b school funding deal“ and  “Still lessons to be learned to improve student outcomes“ suggesting the problems resided with teachers, in classrooms . Social media comments were along the lines of  “please save us from another report telling us how bad Australian education is”, and from teachers… “the start of school year whinge about teachers” 

However, the 350 page NSRA report is not just another highlighting the long litany of stagnation and declines in Australian education. I would encourage all education researchers to read it, but for fans of Blinklist, I provide a synopsis and explain why.

Teachers are not to blame. Calling out Government and bureaucratic failures

Let’s start at the beginning. The report was designed to examine and evaluate “the effectiveness and appropriateness” in the national school reforms; and “the appropriateness of the National Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia”. 

On the reforms a report card is provided in the main report, see below, but not the summary report (perhaps this is why the headlines went awry?).

This report card rather optimistically claims that four out of seven initiatives have been achieved. Reflecting on this, I can’t help but wonder what a 3/7 scorecard for a school principal would lead to? 

In this case, despite investing $319 billion, key initiatives remain virtually untouched. 

The tick against the national teacher workforce strategy seems overly positive, particularly as the National Teacher Workforce Data set is currently incomplete, with only approximately 10% of Australia’s teachers included. 

So too the report of “partial” outcome assessment in improving national data quality. As the report goes on to show, the NMFSA data is far from ideal, not aligned to national education goals, and poorly reported on.

If you’re not a fan of educational data please don’t turn away now. You may have been put off by the data we currently have, and the focus on how schools will work with it, but data is fundamental to system monitoring – and here is where the core of the problem lies. 

The report goes on to conclude: 

  • “The Agreement’s outcomes and targets were incomplete
  • Reform activity has at times lacked focus and flexibility
  • Reporting and transparency arrangements have not had bite “

There may be some bureaucratic euphemism here. On my reading of the situation there were no specific targets, many reforms were not achieved, and reporting and transparency was virtually non-existent. 

Still, there are some lessons to be learnt for future reform agreements, namely

  1. “Parties should focus the next school reform agreement on directly lifting student outcomes … 
  2. … and adapt accountability mechanisms to reflect a greater role for state-specific actions “

In other words, if there is to be any hope of improving the situation, we need to focus on clear goals for students – and make the system/s accountable. 

I have to agree. After all, teachers have been facing accountability pressures for some time and often face the brunt of blame for poor educational outcomes. From my own research perspective, listening to teachers, I can see much current frustration in Australian education  boiling down to the old expression “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” . 

Frequent calls for teachers to lift teaching quality, be more evidence based in their practice, must be matched by evidence based policy.  We need more data, transparent reporting and critical system analysis to identify the structural problem at the heart of our current woes. We need an education system designed for purpose that can pursue the educational goals we have agreed to. And we need upward as well as downward accountability in order to serve students, citizens and society. 

Nicole Mockler’s analysis of media suggests the dominant refrain is “we have a teacher problem” but much relies on system architecture, like the NMFSA, where we evidently have some challenges.Furthermore there is little evidence to support the assertion that teacher/teaching quality is a problem. Our system data is simply inadequate to support that assertion. We don’t have adequate data on who and where our teachers are in order to address teacher shortages, nevermind data telling us what they do and how effective they are. 

The report goes on to examine some of the dynamics between poor monitoring of educational equity, rising issues with student wellbeing and problems,work demands on teachers and teacher shortages. It makes for sobering reading. 

The National Measurement Framework – unfit for purpose? 

In its evaluation of the NMFSA the report concludes: 

“The Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia (MFSA)’s Key Performance Measure (KPM) dataset has reporting gaps against the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) performance reporting framework, particularly on outcomes for students from priority equity cohorts. “ 

In fact, as the submission from the Centre for Educational Measurement and Assessment makes clear, very little of the data is aligned to national educational goals. Furthermore, there is inadequate monitoring and reporting on the data available – resulting in poor transparency on how our system is performing, and where trends are heading. This is particularly the case with educational equity, which is declining, but is not effectively monitored by government reporting. The outcomes for some equity cohorts, like students with disability for example, are completely ignored in the National Report on Australian Schooling. 

The PC NSRA report agrees and concludes: 

“The NSRA has an accountability deficit. In addition to the MFSA not being wholly relevant and complete as a tool to measure progress against the Agreement sub outcomes, visibility of governments’ progress is diminished by the absence of standalone reporting.”

Recommendations: Focus on equity, increase system transparency, support teachers and student wellbeing

These seem like sensible recommendations. Equity, in tandem with excellence is, after all, our number one education goal. It seems logical we should focus on it, monitor and report on it. Only then can we hope to target money and resources accurately and efficiently to minimise inequity.

The key to building equity naturally requires a focus on students, not only what they learn but how they feel. Broadening educational goals, and data, to value and monitor student wellbeing is a no-brainer. 

And no progress can be made without supporting teachers. Addressing structural and system accountability problems, including poor data, inadequate monitoring for reasonable targeting of funding and resources, poor professional workforce management, will make teachers’ working lives in schools much easier and productive. 

This is a watershed realisation in a government report, an acknowledgement that it is the system, not teachers, that is failing. That is a good start. 

Rachel Wilson is associate professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

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

One thought on “It’s a watershed report but it’s hidden behind headlines

  1. Peter Robinson says:

    The bold red message stamp at the top of this post SYSTEM FAILURE, says it all for me. No matter how much money we pour into Australia’s education system, no matter whatever metrics we seek to refine to measure and evaluate its accomplishments, or lack thereof, we are literally pissing in to the wind. The system itself is broken and a new model of learning, fit for coming decades, needs to be developed now.
    In data that I have been hand collating on student achievement in Western Australian senior secondary schools and colleges for the 2020, 2021 and 2022 school years, the results on pathways into post-secondary education and for Year 9 NAPLAN are so sobering that they border on sickening. Federal Education Minister Jason Clare opined that he didn’t want to have an Australian child’s future determined by socio-economic status, parent or colour. Sadly, Jason, what we deliver is the exact opposite of what you want.
    Our public education system is truly a relic of the industrial age, yet we continue to pump obscene levels of money into a model of learning that is in such a state of disrepair for so many young Australians that all we do is compound the harm done to them. A form of cruel optimism about everything being all right in the end.
    Given that the most ‘successful’ schools and colleges, from primary through into secondary education are privately run with financial resources in abundance, no public education system can ever afford the luxury of offering enriched academic programs with the best teachers, valuable extra-curricula activities and superb infrastructure. Moreover, if such a public education system were financially sustainable, the bigger societal problems that lie beyond the school campus still remain unsolved.
    As one who believed that education would provide a meaningful and effective way for providing opportunities for all Australians to develop their talents and realise their aspirations, I now know it is mere empty rhetoric.
    As recent global events dramatically show, living is now a far more complex and difficult task, with our very survival, as communities and a nation, being threatened by increasingly unpredictable, competitive and fraught socio-economic and natural environments. Our ongoing reliance on ‘Taylorised’ models of organisational arrangements and processes, such as in our industrial-age schools and universities, continues to fail us, since, on a day-to-day basis, we don’t seek to mobilise every bit of intelligence available to us. The data I have collected on student achievement in Western Australia is damning. It is as if we have, like the Taliban in Afghanistan have denied the nation’s girls and women access to education, decided that our young Australians in the public schooling system are not worth ‘investing’ in.

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