Alan Reid

Serious flaws in how PISA measured student behaviour and how Australian media reported the results

International student performance test results can spark media frenzy around the world. Results and rankings published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are scrutinized with forensic intensity and any ranking that is not an improvement is usually labelled a ‘problem’ by the politicians and media of the country involved. Much time, energy and media space is spent trying to find solutions to such problems.

It is a circus that visits Australia regularly.

We saw it all last December when the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were published. We were treated to headlines such as ‘Pisa results: Australian students’ science, maths and reading in long-term decline’ from the Australian edition of the Guardian.

In March a follow-up report was published by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) highlighting key aspects of the test results from an Australian perspective.

Australian mainstream media immediately zeroed in on one small part of the latter report dealing with classroom ‘disciplinary climate’. The headlines once again damned Australian schools, for example, Education: Up to half of students in Australian classrooms unable to learn because of ‘noise and disorder’ from The Daily Telegraph and Australian students among worst behaved in the developed world from The Australian.

This is pretty dramatic stuff. Not only do the test results apparently tell us the standard of Australian education is on the decline, but they also show that Australian classrooms are in chaos.

As these OECD test results inform our policy makers and contribute to the growing belief in our community that our education system is in crisis, I believe the methods used to derive the information should be scrutinised carefully. I am also very interested in how the media reports OECD findings.

Over the past few years, many researchers have raised questions about whether the PISA tests really do tell us much about education standards. In this blog I want to focus on the efficacy of some of the research connected to the PISA tests, specifically that relating to classroom discipline, and examine the way our media handled the information that was released.

To start we need to look closely at what the PISA tests measure, how the testing is done and how classroom discipline was included in the latest results.

What is PISA and how was classroom discipline included?

PISA is an OECD administered test of the performance of students aged 15 years in Mathematical Literacy, Science Literacy and Reading Literacy. It has been conducted every three years since 2000, with the most recent tests being undertaken in 2015 and the results published in December 2016. In 2015, 72 countries participated in the tests which are two hours in length. They are taken by a stratified sample of students in each country. In Australia in 2015 about 750 schools and 14,500 students were involved in the PISA tests.

How ‘classroom disciplinary climate’ was involved in PISA testing

During the PISA testing process, other data are gathered for the purpose of fleshing out a full picture of some of the contextual and resource factors influencing student learning. Thus in 2015, Principals were asked to respond to questions about school management, school climate, school resources, etc; and student perspectives were gleaned from a range of questions and responses relating to Science which was major domain in 2015. These questions focused on such matters as classroom environment, truancy, classroom disciplinary climate, motivation and interest in Science, and so on.

All these data are used to produce ‘key findings’ in relation to school learning environment, equity, and student attitudes to Science. Such findings emerge after multiple cross correlations are made between PISA scores, student and schools’ socio-economic status, and the data drawn from responses to questionnaires. They are written up in volumes of OECD reports, replete with charts, scatter plots and tables.

In 2015 students were asked to respond to statements related to classroom discipline. They were asked: ‘How often do these things happen in your science classes?

  • Students don’t listen to what the teacher says
  • There is noise and disorder
  • The teacher has to wait a long time for the students to quieten down
  • Students cannot work well
  • Students don’t start working for a long time after the lesson begins.

Then, for each of the five statements, students had to tick one of the boxes on a four point scale from (a) never or hardly ever; (b) in some lessons; (c) in most lessons; and (d) in all lessons.

Problems with the PISA process and interpretation of data

Even before we look at what is done with the results of the questions posed in PISA about classroom discipline, alarm bells would be ringing for many educators reading this blog.

No rationale for what is a good classroom environment

For a start, the five statements listed above are based on some unexplained pedagogical assumptions. They imply that a ‘disciplined’ classroom environment is one that is quiet and teacher directed, but there is no rationale provided for why such a view has been adopted. Nor is it explained why the five features of such an environment have been selected above other possible features. They are simply named as the arbiters of ‘disciplinary climate’ in schools.

Problem of possible interpretation

However, let’s accept for the moment that the five statements represent a contemporary view of classroom disciplinary climate. The next problem is one of interpretation. Is it not possible that students from across 72 countries might understand some of these statements differently? Might it not be that the diversity of languages and cultures of so many countries produces some varying interpretations of what is meant by the statements, for example that:

  • for some students, ‘don’t listen to what the teacher says’, might mean ‘I don’t listen’ or for others ‘they don’t listen’; or that students have completely different interpretations of ‘not listening’;
  • what constitutes ‘noise and disorder’ in one context/culture might differ from another;
  • for different students, a teacher ‘waiting a long time’ for quiet might vary from 10 seconds to 10 minutes;
  • ‘students cannot work well’ might be interpreted by some as ‘I cannot work well’ and by others as ‘they cannot work well’; or that some interpret ‘work well’ to refer to the quality of work rather than the capacity to undertake that work; and so on.

These possible difficulties appear not to trouble the designers. From this point on, certainty enters the equation.

Statisticians standardise the questionable data gathered

The five questionnaire items are inverted and standardised with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1, to define the index of disciplinary climate in science classes. Students’ views on how conducive classrooms are to learning are then combined to develop a composite index – a measurement of the disciplinary climate in their schools. Positive values on this index indicate more positive levels of disciplinary climate in science classes.

Once combined, the next step is to construct a table purporting to show the disciplinary climate in the science classes of 15 year olds in each country. The table comprises an alphabetical list of countries, with the mean index score listed alongside each country, so allowing for easy comparison. This is followed by a series of tables containing overall disciplinary climate scores broken down by each of the disciplinary ‘problems’, correlated with such factors as performance in the PISA Science test, schools and students socio-economic profile, type of school (eg public or private), location (urban or rural) and so on.

ACER reports the results ‘from an Australian perspective’

The ACER report summarises these research findings from an Australian perspective. First, it compares Australia’s ‘mean disciplinary climate index score’ to selected comparison cities/countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Finland. It reports that:

Students in Japan had the highest levels of positive disciplinary climate in science classes with a mean index score of 0.83, followed by students in Hong Kong (China) (mean index score: 0.35). Students in Australia and New Zealand reported the lowest levels of positive disciplinary climate in their science classes with mean index scores of – 0.19 and – 0.15 respectively, which were significantly lower than the OECD average of 0.00 (Thomson, Bortoli and Underwood, 2017, p. 277).

Then the ACER report compares scores within Australia by State and Territory; by ‘disciplinary problem’; and by socio-economic background. The report concludes that:

Even in the more advantaged schools, almost one third of students reported that in most or every lesson, students don’t listen to what the teacher says. One third of students in more advantaged schools and one half of the students in lower socioeconomic schools also reported that there is noise and disorder in the classroom (Thomson et al, 2017, p. 280).

What can we make of this research?

You will note from the description above, that there would need to be a number of caveats placed on the research outcomes. First, the data relate to a quite specific student cohort who are 15 years old of age, and are based only on science classes. That is, the research findings cannot be used to generalise about other subjects in the same year level, let alone about primary and/or secondary schooling.

Second, there are some questions about the classroom disciplinary data that call into question the certainty with which the numbers are calculated and compared. These relate to student motivation in answering the questions, and to the differing interpretations by people from many different cultures about the meaning of the same words and phrases.

Third, there are well-documented problems related to the data with which the questionnaire responses are cross-correlated, such as the validity of the PISA test scores.

In short, it may well be that discipline is a problem in Australian schools, but this research cannot provide us with that information. Surely the most one can say is that the results might point to the need for more extended research. But far from a measured response, the media fed the findings into the continuing narrative about falling standards in Australian education.

The media plays a pivotal role

When ACER released its report, the headlines and associated commentary once again damned Australian schools. Here is the daily paper from my hometown of Adelaide.

Disorder the order of the day for Aussie schools (Advertiser, 15/3/2017)

Australian school students are significantly rowdier and less disciplined than those overseas, research has found. An ACER report, released today, says half the students in disadvantaged schools nationally, and a third of students in advantaged schools, reported ‘noise and disorder’ in most or all of their classes…. In December, the Advertiser reported the (PISA) test results showed the academic abilities of Australian students were in ‘absolute decline’. Now the school discipline results show Australian schools performed considerably worse than the average across OECD nations…. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the testing showed that there was ‘essentially no relationship between spending per student and outcomes. This research demonstrates that more money spent within a school doesn’t automatically buy you better discipline, engagement or ambition’, he said (Williams, Advertiser 15/3/17).

Mainstream newspapers all over the country repeated the same messages. Once again, media commentators and politicians had fodder for a fresh round of teacher bashing.

Let’s look at what is happening here:

  • The mainstream press have broadened the research findings to encompass not just 15 year old students in science classrooms, but ALL students (primary and secondary) across ALL subject areas;
  • The research report findings have been picked up without any mention of some of the difficulties associated with conducting such research across so many cultures and countries. The numbers are treated with reverence, and the findings as the immutable ‘truth’;
  • The mainstream press have cherry picked negative results to get a headline, ignoring such findings in the same ACER report that, for example, Australia is well above the OECD average in terms of the interest that students have in their learning in Science, and the level of teacher support they receive;
  • Key politicians begin to use the research findings as a justification for not having to spend more money on education, and to blame schools and students for the ‘classroom chaos’.


These errors and omissions reinforce the narrative being promulgated in mainstream media and by politicians and current policy makers that standards in Australian education are in serious decline. If such judgments are being made on the basis of flawed data reported in a flawed way by the media, they contribute to a misdiagnosis of the causes of identified problems, and to the wrong policy directions being set.

The information that is garnered from the PISA process every three years may have the potential to contribute to policy making. But if PISA is to be used as a key arbiter of educational quality, then we need to ensure that its methodology is subjected to critical scrutiny. And politicians and policy makers alike need to look beyond the simplistic and often downright wrong media reporting of PISA results.


Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. Professor Reid’s research interests include educational policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, citizenship education and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. These include a number of named Lectures and Orations, including the Radford Lecture (AARE); the Fritz Duras Memorial Lecture (ACHPER); the Selby-Smith Oration (ACE); the Hedley Beare Oration (ACE -NT); the Phillip Hughes Oration (ACE – ACT); the Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture (ACSA); and the national conference of the AEU.

Proud to be public: claiming back the essence of public schooling in Australia

A large achievement gap between rich and poor blights Australian education – and the gap appears to be widening. Australia is near the bottom of OECD countries in terms of equity in education.

A major cause of the gap is that successive governments have diminished the strength of public education and, in so doing, increased the social stratification of Australian schools.

This trend has major social and economic consequences for all of us. If these are to be addressed, governments need to properly fund public schools. However, adequate funding is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to strengthen public schools. Accompanying the decline in funding to public schools has been a trend to privatise them, which is diluting some of the important features of public education.

I will argue that both the decline in funding and the trend to privatise public schools need to be tackled simultaneously by basing strategies on agreed understandings about the essence of being public.

The neglect of public schooling

The policy neglect of public schools can be traced back to the introduction of systematic federal funding to private schools in the 1970s.

If the public funding of private schools had been organised around a needs-based model as was originally intended by the Whitlam government, it could have ended very differently. But it wasn’t. Starting with the Fraser government, funding policies began to neglect the concept of need and foreground the principle of entitlement.

The entitlement principle resulted in increasing amounts of public money going to private schools, with a consequent expansion of that sector at the expense of public education.

Over time, the total amount of funding from Commonwealth, State and Territory governments closed the gap between the per capita funding of students in the public and private sectors. The most recent MySchool data shows that when like schools are compared in these sectors many private schools are receiving amounts close to that of public schools. Add in the income from fees, and the average per capita income that many private schools have to spend on teaching, resources and facilities exceeds that of public schools, sometimes by a considerable amount.

Increased funding has enabled private schools to enhance their market appeal through such means as improving facilities and creating smaller classes – which in turn attract aspirational parents. It has led to a steady drift of students from the public system almost entirely comprising those from higher SES backgrounds.

The public education system now carries over 80% of all students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Of course this pattern is uneven across the public system which is itself becoming increasingly fragmented with differences between schools in terms of resources and student backgrounds.

The consequences for Australian education 

Such developments have a number of serious consequences for Australian education, including that they widen resource disparities between schools, reduce educational outcomes particularly for students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, and diminish the social and cultural mix of schools and thus the capacity of schools to promote social and intercultural understanding.

There is an urgent need to change the current inequitable approach to funding schools so that there is a fairer distribution of funds based on need. In particular, additional public money must be directed to the most disadvantaged schools, most (but not all) of which are in the public system.

Funding is not the only issue for public schools

But funding is not the only issue. Increased funding to private schools has occurred in a policy environment which promotes choice in an education market. In this environment public education has come to be seen by policy makers as a safety net provision for those who cannot afford private education, rather than as a public good.

This is compounded by the call for public schools to win back ‘custom’ by taking on the trappings of private schools. The problem is that those schools which do so, inevitably have to jettison some of the characteristics that are so central to public education.

So, while a fairer funding model is needed to reverse the drift to private schools, it is not enough on its own. A new funding model may reduce disparities in resources between schools and sectors as a whole, but it will do nothing about the creeping privatisation of public education. A strategy is needed to address both these issues simultaneously.

We need to talk about the essence of public schooling

The problem is that public discussion about education is being conducted in the absence of agreed understandings about what constitutes the essence of public education. Without such understandings education policy and practice can actually work to dilute those features of public education which make it such an important part of Australian democracy.

So, an important precursor to changing current policy directions is to refresh the foundation principles upon which our great system of public education has been built. By offering a common language for public discussion, an agreed framework for public education would achieve a number of outcomes.

Why an agreed framework is essential 

First, it would emphasise the individual and public benefits which derive from public education. In so doing it would promote the idea that public education is the schooling system of first choice, rather than a safety net for those who can’t afford private education.

Second, it should provide a powerful public justification for the importance of a well-resourced public education system for Australian society; and would demonstrate the damaging effects of policies which produce large resource disparities between schools.

Third, it would identify those characteristics of public education about which our society can be most proud, and which must not be lost. These could constitute public benchmarks against which to judge many aspects of policy and practice, including what is expected of private schools for receiving public money.

The first step in addressing the drift away from public schools and the associated stratification of the Australian schooling system, lies not in the current trend of making public schools more private, but rather in (re)emphasising their public characteristics. What are the dimensions of public education that must be protected and enhanced?

Three fundamental dimensions of a framework for Australian public education 

In a recent paper for the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA), I argue that there are at least three fundamental dimensions of a framework for public education which must work together – to neglect one of them is to weaken the whole. They are:

    • Public education as a public good. This dimension emphasises public schools as free public resources to which everyone has rights of access and which cannot exclude anyone. The famous principles which have always informed this dimension are free, compulsory and secular – although over time these have been honoured more in the breach than in the observance. These principles are particularly under threat today, and must be protected and promoted if every student is to realise his/her individual potential.


    • Public education for the common good. This dimension involves public schools nurturing the skills, dispositions and understandings of children and young people, not only to develop them as individuals, but also to benefit the wider society. Aspects of education such as teaching and learning, culture, organisation, funding, and governance should be consistent with the aim of promoting the common good in and through education. These aspects look very different when seen through a ‘privatising’ lens.


    • Well-resourced public schools in every community. This dimension assumes that properly resourced public schools are a sine qua non of a democratic society if education is to be available to all on equal terms. Currently Australia has an approach to education funding which tolerates and promotes huge disparities in education resources. It privileges choice for some, at the expense of quality and equity for all. The Gonski review provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to return to the principle of needs-based funding. The fact that the government has effectively rejected the major intent of the review does not mean it was wasted. Future governments may reconsider, and if so would do well to adopt a version of the Gonski model which retains its strengths, and removes weaknesses such as the ‘no losers’ policy which was imposed on the review by the previous government.

Each of these three dimensions needs to be fleshed out through public discussion, resulting in a rich description of what is valued in public education which can then be used as the benchmark against which policies and practices are developed, enacted, and evaluated.

Every community in Australia deserves a high quality public school

Importantly, the framework demonstrates the folly of under-resourcing public education, and treating it as a safety net. It underlines the need for a different starting assumption for public policy: that every local community in Australia must contain well-resourced, socially-mixed, secular public schools which belong to a public system, provide a quality education, and are free and open to all.


AlanReid copy


Professor Alan Reid is a Research Professor in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. He recently completed a major paper on the future of public education for the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA) which can be accessed HERE


Reid responds to Donnelly’s “inaccuracies and obfuscations”

My blog of 3/8/2014 was an edited version of the opening statement I made in a debate with Dr Kevin Donnelly about independent public schools (IPS). Dr Donnelly’s opening contribution to that debate was posted on this site on 7/8/2014, to which he added the basis of the rebuttal he made to my arguments. Given the number of inaccuracies and obfuscations in that response, I felt I needed to make my rebuttal public through this blog. Thus the comments in this post need to be read in conjunction with the two earlier blog posts(Find links to these at the end of this post.)

I will deal with Dr Donnelly’s points under three broad questions relating to IPS.

What is school autonomy?

Dr Donnelly insists that he does not support ‘privatising government schools and running schools as profit/loss commercial enterprises’. This is puzzling given the evidence that he uses to support the case for IPS, and it reveals some real conceptual confusions.

The first and most obvious problem is that Dr Donnelly refuses to pin down what he understands school autonomy to mean. His statement ranges across community schools of the 1970s, to private schools overseas, to non-government schools in Australia, to privately managed schools in the United States, India and New Zealand, to Free Schools in England. This extraordinary confusion of structures, approaches, and styles are lumped together and treated as though they all represent a common version of school autonomy. Little wonder that Donnelly does not understand that he is promoting for-profit schools as well as not-for-profit privately managed schools – that is, privatised public education.

There are many Charter schools in the US which are now for-profit schools, the James Tooley schools in India and Africa are for-profit private schools, and in England, Minister Gove is favourably disposed to the presence of for-profit Free schools (interestingly, the Times Education Supplement recently reported that the first for-profit Free school in England has admitted it is offering sub-standard education).  Given that he uses these examples to show that Australia is ‘not alone in giving government schools increased autonomy’ – as though the existence of these models is enough to demonstrate that they work – it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that Dr Donnelly is supporting the privatisation of public schools.

English education researchers Stephen Ball and Deborah Youdell (2007) draw a useful distinction between the different ways in which public schools are being subjected to privatisation tendencies. For them, privatisation can be understood in two ways:

Endogenous privatisation which involves importing ideas, techniques and practices from the private sector in order to make the public sector more business-like and ‘independent’ of systems. This seems to be the direction of IPS in Australia, where Minister Pyne has often talked about his desire to make public schools more like private schools.

Exogenous privatisation which involves opening up public schools to be run by private individuals, corporate companies or organisations for-profit, or not-for-profit. This approach is represented in most of the overseas examples cited by Dr Donnelly.

Both forms of privatisation, founded as they are on the values of choice and competition within an education free-market, change the ways in which public schools are organised and operated. As I argued in my earlier contribution, such changes are inconsistent with the key characteristics, indeed the spirit and essence, of public education. I made it clear that I supported greater flexibility for schools at the local level in the areas of curriculum and school support, within a set of values which are consistent with a public system which fosters the common good. Flexibility in this approach is used by each school to maximise educational quality in the school, but also to collaborate across schools to make better schools and a better system for all. That is not the sort of flexibility being promoted by Dr Donnelly.

If Dr Donnelly does not support privatised public education, he needs to explain why he cites for-profit schools as evidence that school autonomy works.

What are the purposes of IPS?

It is not surprising that having a confused understanding about the meaning of school autonomy results in a confused understanding about its purposes. One would imagine from Dr Donnelly’s response that the purpose of the IPS policy is to give schools greater curriculum freedom since that purpose is the main thrust of all the ‘evidence’ he cites. For example he quotes from PISA that: ‘In countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better’ (OECD, 2011).

He even points to his own feelings of ‘excitement, motivation and sense of collegiality’ that developed when the first group of teachers at St Helena Secondary College were ‘freed from external constraints’. I can concur with that, having been a teacher at the new open-space Banksia Park High School in South Australia in the 1970s where we tasted the same curriculum freedom.

The trouble is that is not what IPS is about. The federal government cannot give, and has no intention of supporting, curriculum freedom for schools. As a member of the two person team recommending what to change about the national curriculum ( a top-down model of curriculum change in its own right!), Dr Donnelly more than most should know that there is no intention that independent public schools will be granted exemption from implementing the national curriculum.

No, the federal government is not talking about curriculum freedom. Its IPS focus is on giving Principals greater freedom to manage budgets, resources, infrastructure and staffing. And guess what? In the same PISA research from which Dr Donnelly extracts the quote above is the sentence: ‘… there is no clear relationship between autonomy in resource allocation and performance at the country level’ (OECD, 2011). That’s right, a key finding from the very research Dr Donnelly uses, is that giving school autonomy over budgets and resources – the major thrust of IPS – does not automatically result in improved student learning.  Why would Dr Donnelly not mention that finding?

In my original statement, I raised a number of concerns about giving public schools ‘autonomy’ in public systems, in the absence of:

(a) safeguards to ensure that schools serving large populations of educationally disadvantaged students do not fall behind in resource provision; and

(b) assurances that the additional workload on principals is covered by additional resources; and

(c) strategies developed to ensure that public schools continue to collaborate to build a quality system for all, not compete in an education market where some schools are advantaged and many fall by the wayside.

In short, we need to discuss the limits of giving additional flexibility for schools to manage resources to suit local needs; and, even though it is off the government’s agenda, I would include in that discussion consideration about the level of curriculum freedom needed to enhance educational standards. The key question is how such flexibility can be managed so that it builds, not damages, the public education system as a whole. This requires renewed understandings about the characteristics of public education that as a society we want to protect and foster.

That is, this is not an argument about private schools. It is Dr Donnelly who keeps drawing invidious comparisons between public and private schools. My point is that unlike Minister Pyne, I do not want public schools to be more like private schools. I want public schools to retain the essence of what it means to be a public school. In the diverse system of education we enjoy in Australia, it is important that we differentiate the mission of school systems. I would have thought that advocates of school choice such as Dr Donnelly would celebrate that difference, not seek to create uniformity!

What is the evidence for IPS?

In my contribution to the debate, I developed some philosophical arguments against IPS and then produced empirical evidence to cast doubt on the claims that giving schools greater autonomy over budgets, resources and hiring and firing of staff, will raise the quality of education. In the main I focused on the examples of ‘school autonomy’ cited by Dr Donnelly, the majority of which come from the extreme end of the privatising public education continuum.

I showed that there was a lot of research demonstrating that Charter schools have not improved student learning outcomes, but mentioned that some studies argued that there has been improvement. My conclusion was that it was pointless to simply trade research studies, or just google and quote. Instead, it is important to examine the rigour of the research.

I also pointed to the narrowness of most of the research studies quoted by Dr Donnelly which purport to evaluate the educational outcomes of ‘autonomous’ schools. In the main they only use the results of national or international standardised tests as the gold standard of educational quality. Clearly such outcomes are too narrow. They tell us nothing about key aspects of education quality such as the nature of relationships, school environment or community engagement. Importantly, they do not reveal the damaging effects of Charter schools on the diversity of traditional public schools, their involvement with local communities, and their capacity to collaborate.

In his rebuttal, Dr Donnelly makes a revealing point. He accuses me of referring to Tomorrow’s Schools in New Zealand instead of the ‘school autonomy initiative’ of Partnership schools. I did so quite deliberately because Partnership schools have only just got under way in New Zealand and, as with Independent Public Schools in Western Australia, there is no empirical evidence to show outcomes either way.

I therefore chose as my New Zealand example the self-managing school initiative – Tomorrow’s Schools – which has operated for 25 years, and about which there is a lot of research evidence. In particular I referred to the recent book by Dr Cathy Wylie, the Head of Research at NZCER. In it she describes the many deleterious effects of Tomorrow’s Schools, and argues that New Zealand needs to totally rethink the school autonomy approach and return to more central and regional support for schools.

No wonder Dr Donnelly did not want to refer to that example of school autonomy, but rather mention an experiment about which there is no evidence! As someone who claims to oppose profit/loss school enterprises, he might also be interested to know that the Partnership school experiment in New Zealand involves companies, groups and individuals operating like Charter schools in the US, for-profit as well as not-for profit.

My main message to Dr Donnelly is that if he is going to promote IPS he needs to publicly clarify (a) what he means by ‘school autonomy’; (b) what are the purposes of school autonomy; and (c) what all the research evidence really demonstrates about his version of ‘school autonomy’.

My first blog post on IPS can be found HERE        Kevin Donnelly’s reply can he found HERE

alanreid-1 copyProfessor Alan Reid

Professor Alan Reid AM is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. Alan presented the Radford Lecture at the AARE annual conference in December 2012.



Kevin Donnelly replies:the Liberal Government’s policy of independent public schools will raise education standards in Australia

(Note: What follows is an edited and expanded version of Dr Kevin Donnelly’s presentation at the recent ACSA sponsored debate titled “That the Liberal Government’s policy of independent public schools will raise education standards in Australia”.  Dr Donnelly argued in the affirmative.)

While the title of this debate describes Independent Public Schools as a Liberal Government initiative it is important to acknowledge that the desire to give government schools increased autonomy and flexibility has the support of both major political parties.

Julia Gillard, when Prime Minister, championed the then ALP Commonwealth Government’s Empowering Local Schools Reform and in a 2010 speech she argued:

“A key element of this reform is empowering local school communities to make decisions about what is best for their schools and their students rather than a centralised system run by State bureaucracies dictating staffing mix and resource allocations.”

The then PM went on to argue that the purpose of the reform was “to ensure the core decisions that make the most difference to student outcomes are devolved to schools”.

Secondly, while recent initiatives like the Western Australian Government’s Independent Public Schools (IPS) are in the news, it is also important to understand that school autonomy has a relatively long history in Australia.

In the 60s and 70s many government schools in and around Melbourne chose their own staff, developed their own curriculum and were free from centralised management and control.

Such schools were supported by the left-of-centre teacher union, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA), and were considered at the ‘leading edge’ of educational reform.  Often described as community schools, they included: Sydney Road, Moreland Annexe and Swinburne Annexe.

Innovations included: alternative year 12 pathways and school-based certificates, general studies, non-competitive assessment and a curriculum based on local needs.  The pedagogical and curriculum approaches, at a time when the traditional, competitive, academic curriculum reigned supreme, drew on radical educators like Neil Postman, Paulo Freire and the de-schooling movement.

The Victorian Government’s decision, during the mid-80s, to open a new style of government secondary school blending the technical and the high school traditions provides a second example of school autonomy predating Independent Public Schools.

These government post-primary schools, such as St Helena Secondary College, were given the power to appoint their own staff, design their own buildings and determine their own curriculum.  As one of the first group of teachers appointed to the St Helena I can attest to the excitement, motivation and sense of collegiality that developed as we were freed from external constraints.

I should also like to point out that Australia is not alone in giving government schools increased autonomy and around the world other examples include:

  • Charter schools in 42 US states including Florida, Milwaukee and Washington State
  • City Academies and Free Schools in England – supported by both the Tony Blair Labour Government and the current Conservative Government led by Prime Minister David Cameron
  • Privately managed schools in disadvantaged slum areas in Indian cities like Calcutta and Bombay (see James Tooley’s book The Beautiful Tree: a personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves).


Before addressing the question of whether giving government schools increased autonomy will raise standards, I’d like to make a number of observations.

Firstly, and as noted by a report by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission, titled Making the Grade: Autonomy and Accountability in Victorian Schools, autonomy has a range of benefits in addition to whether standards, as measured by tests such as NAPLAN, improve or not.

Possible benefits include: strengthening the ability of principals and school leaders to better manage their schools, thus, improving teacher quality and effectiveness; promoting increased transparency and innovation and using resources more efficiently.

Secondly, giving schools and their communities greater control and reducing the power of governments and their bureaucracies based on the concept of subsidiarity, according to Catholic social theory, is an inherent good.

The principle that ‘decisions are far as practicable are made by those most affected’ is empowering as it acknowledges that teachers, students, school leaders and parents, generally speaking, have a far more realistic and credible understanding on what it is that makes their school unique.

Providing greater flexibility and control at the local level is also more efficient.  Illustrated by the roll out of the Building the Education Revolution (BER) program non-government schools, because of their autonomy and because they were not controlled by head office, achieved better outcomes for students and school communities when compared to government schools.

And, thirdly, based on the example of Catholic and independent schools, that are able to achieve stronger educational outcomes compared to many government schools even after adjusting for students’ socioeconomic background, it is possible to argue that autonomy is beneficial.

Non-government schools, by their very nature, are able to select staff, manage their own budgets and set their own curriculum focus – within general guidelines.

While not all agree that autonomy will lead to stronger outcomes there is increasing evidence, if done properly and recognising that not all schools or schools systems both here and overseas have the same potential to benefit, that autonomy raises standards.

In a 2010 paper titled, How much do educational outcomes matter in OECD countries? E Hanushek and L Woessmann conclude, “In particular, evidence from both within and across countries points to the positive impact of competition among schools, of accountability and student testing, and of local school autonomy in decision making”.

The OCED’s PISA In Focus No 9, dated October 2011, states, “In countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better”.

A research paper titled Does school autonomy make sense everywhere? Panel estimates from PISA by E Hanushek, S Link and L Woessmann, in relation to developed countries, is also optimistic when it states,

“Our central findings are consistent with the interpretation that autonomy reforms improve student achievement…” and “…in high-income countries, increased autonomy over academic content, personal, and budgets exerts positive effects on student achievement”.

Research by Caroline Hoxby in the US and Patrick Wolfe’s evaluation of the Milwaukee and Washington DC school voucher programs (of which school autonomy is an important element) also suggest that school autonomy is beneficial.

The fact that school autonomy, when implemented in a considered and balanced way and sensitive to the ability of schools to take up the challenge, is worthwhile is recognized by the Making the Grade report referred to earlier.

It concludes, “…notwithstanding the evidential uncertainties  (chapter 3), the debate is not in fact about whether their should be devolved decision making.  Rather it is about how it should extend, through what means it should be given effect, and what accountabilities are required”.

And now, to return to the topic of today’s debate: “That the Liberal Government’s policy of independent public schools will raise education standards in Australia”.  Based on the example of the Western Australia’s Independent Public Schools, it is too early to tell.

As noted by the evaluation carried out by the Centre for Program Evaluation at the University of Melbourne, “In this early phase of the IPS development there is little evidence of changes to student outcomes”.

The evaluation does note, though, that principals and teachers involved in the IPS program are positive and optimistic.  IPS teachers, in particular, feel more professional, accountable and in control of their careers – leading to an increased sense of self-worth.

At a time when many teachers feel devalued and beginning teachers, in particular, express concerns about teaching as a career anything that can be done, such as increasing school autonomy, that is considered positively should be welcomed.


Some rebuttals related to arguments put by Professor Alan Reid – in no particular order.

  • Contrary to what Reid argues I do not support privatising government schools and running schools as profit/loss commercial enterprises.
  • Government schools are not open to all – selective schools enrol only those students who pass the entrance test and not all parents are wealthy enough to buy expensive homes in the enrolment zones of much sought after government schools.
  • Catholic and independent schools, and not just government schools, contribute to the common good.  In fact, research both here and overseas suggests that Catholic schools, in particular, are effective at strengthening social capital and students from such schools experience less racism and are more likely to volunteer.
  • I have previously acknowledged that autonomy is not a universal panacea – in a newspaper comment piece in the Fairfax Press, dated August 2, 2013, I state, “Of course, to argue for autonomy, diversity and choice doesn’t mean all schools and their communities are ready to take on the challenge”.
  • In my ACSA speech I referred to the very recently implemented New Zealand school autonomy initiative involving Partnership Schools.  Professor Reid, when criticizing me, confuses this new initiative with the older Tomorrow’s Schools initiative.
  • In answer to the argument that school autonomy leads to greater inequity and disadvantage the report School Accountability, Autonomy, Choice, and the Equity of Student Achievement: International Evidence from PISA 2003 suggests the opposite is the case.  It states, “The main empirical result is that rather than harming disadvantaged students, accountability, autonomy, and school choice appear to be a tides that lift all boats”.
  • Finally, and contrary to Reid’s argument that advocates of schools autonomy are mainly economists, as published in the Courier Mail the day before the ACSA debate, a survey of 804 Australian principals concluded that there is “an appetite” for more autonomy.


KD Kevin Donnelly

Dr Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and Director of the Education Standards Institute.  Kevin taught for 18 years in government and non-government schools.

The Abbott Government’s policy of ‘independent public schools’ will lower standards and widen inequalities in Australian schools.

[NOTE:This is an edited version of the negative case against the Abbott Govt’s Independent Public Schools policy made by Alan Reid in his debate with Kevin Donnelly held at the Australian Curriculum Studies Association Symposium in Canberra on Friday August 1, 2014. Find a link to the full text  below.]

We enjoy a high quality public education system in Australia, however we should constantly be trying to raise education standards. There is always room for improvement, and we have a particular need to address educational disadvantage across our nation.

Importantly any educational policies we implement should benefit all, not some, Australian children and certainly should not take us backwards.

I believe the Abbott Government’s policy of  Independent Public Schools  (IPS)  is a flawed policy that will do exactly that. It is important to recognise that the concept of ‘independent public schools’ is not synonomous with the current model in Western Australia which carries the same name. Rather it is a broad concept which embodies the philosophy of choice and competition in an education free-market. There are various versions of IPS.

The central attribute of independent public schools is autonomy. From the case put by Kevin Donnelly (co-chair of Christopher Pyne’s  National Curriculum Review ) and from the literature on IPS, it is clear that autonomy can range from approaches which seek to fully privatise public schools, turning them into for-profit institutions run by companies, community bodies or individuals (Kevin Donnelly appears to be a great supporter of this notion of autonomy); to those which seek to maximise the ‘autonomy’ of the principal and the School Board to manage finances, allocate resources, appoint staff and maintain buildings and facilities, while remaining within a public system (this is Minister Pyne’s version).

What is common to both versions are the values of choice and competition. Parents and students are understood to be consumers making educational choices in a free-market. Principals and School Boards are charged with the task of maintaining and increasing market share. It is claimed that this fosters competition between schools as they vie for custom, so promoting educational quality.

I will argue that no matter which version is adopted, it will advantage some Australian children at the expense of others and will take us backwards in our quest to address educational disadvantage. Worse, I believe it will actually lower educational standards in Australia.


The idea of public schools being ‘independent’ is philosophically at odds with what lies at the core of public education.

Public schools are the cornerstone of our education system. They exist in every community in Australia and take all-comers. They are state-owned and funded from the taxes we pay, so they belong to all of us, helping to develop our young as individuals, community members, workers and citizens. Public schools are microcosms of the community at large, with students coming from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds. In this melting pot students are able to learn from and with one another about diversity and difference, and learn tolerance and empathy. In short, public schools promote the common good. Not to recognise this dimension of public schools is to miss the essence of public education.


The Independent Public Schools policy will cause real damage to our system of public education, and lower educational standards for the following reasons:-

1. It establishes public schools as businesses. The purpose is to compete to advance the interests of the school regardless of the impact on other schools. The fact is that public schools are not businesses. They are community goods serving public purposes. When they operate as full or quasi-businesses, the most successful are rewarded, and the least successful – invariably those with the least cultural and financial resources – go to the wall. In this way, an IPS agenda confirms and exacerbates inequalities between schools.

A lot of time and money is spent on publicity and marketing at the expense of educational outcomes. This sets up principals as employers, marketers and business managers, rather than as educational leaders.

2. It allows governments to escape their responsibilities by placing greater burdens on schools, often reducing resources while setting performance targets, and then blaming schools if they are not achieved. It also exponentially raises workload as things previously done centrally or by regions are done by Principals and teachers.

3. It destroys the sense of local community engagement with each school, not just the parent community but also where the school uses the community as a learning resource and for community activities. When parents choose schools far away from the local community in which they reside the link between public schools and their local communities is weakened. It encourages parents to simply leave a school when there are perceived issues, rather than stay, work through the issues, and help to build the school.

4. It promotes schools as stand-alone entities rather than as belonging to a system. True public schools aren’t independent, they are networked; and they cooperate to build a quality public system overall, not compete to create a system where there are shining beacons of success sitting alongside schools which are struggling or failing. True public schools are fuelled by a sense of mutual obligation, not self-interest.


Not all autonomy is bad.

I support autonomy where it means providing greater flexibility for schools (eg., greater curriculum freedom), but within a set of values which are consistent with a public system which fosters the common good. Flexibility can be used by each school to maximise educational quality in the school, but also to collaborate across schools to make better schools and a better system for all.


So where is the evidence that Independent Public Schools will improve standards?

IPS is a policy in search of evidence. To start there are significant issues associated with the research methodology used by those promoting IPS.  It is not sufficient to google a few studies which appear to support a pre-determined position, without evaluating the rigour of that research and the ways in which it is used.

Problems with the research methodology

I make the following points about the evidence that Kevin Donnelly has proffered:

Kevin doesn’t bother to differentiate between different forms of autonomy. He simply draws from and generalises across the autonomy continuum, randomly using examples from fully privatised public school models to quasi-private models. This is problematic, to say the least.

Kevin generalises from research conducted in a range of countries and cultures assuming that if it works in one context it will work in another. This of course is a basic research error. There are real problems in taking research findings from one cultural setting and transferring them to a completely different policy approach in another cultural setting, as though the findings are tablets of undeniable wisdom which are universally applicable.

Most of the researchers that Kevin quotes (eg Hanushek, Woessmann, Hoxby, Fuchs) are not educators – they are Professors of Economics. Invariably the research is statistical where the sole measure of education quality is narrow standardised test results – it tells us nothing about key aspects of education quality such as the nature of relationships, school environment or community engagement, let alone learning areas such as the arts and technology.

The most damning flaw is that Kevin assumes correlation implies causation. He seems to think that wherever there is a ‘good’ educational outcome in the presence of school autonomy, then there is a causal relationship, even if that has not been the focus of the research. This is a grievous research error.

These research flaws are significant issues for public policy claiming to be ‘evidence-based’. However, for the sake of the debate, let’s assume that such research does tell us something about the effects of autonomy that can be applied in Australia.  Even then the evidence doesn’t stack-up.


Claims there is international evidence in support of IPS are wrong

When announcing the IPS policy, Minister Pyne claimed that there was international evidence, based on PISA data, which supports greater autonomy for schools. In fact, that research actually shows that:

….school systems that grant more autonomy to schools to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments tend to perform better than systems that don’t grant such autonomy…. In contrast, greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall performance’ (PISA 2009 Results: What Makes Schools Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices, Vol. 4: 52).

This of course is the complete opposite to what Minister Pyne is proposing. In his policy the focus is on managing budgets and resources. Far from giving more curriculum freedom as the PISA research suggest should happen, schools must conform to state and national system-wide curriculum guidelines.


Clearly the PISA research won’t help the IPS case. So what other international evidence is there?

Kevin uses overseas examples of school ‘autonomy’ in places as varied as the United States, UK, and Africa. In the main, this evidence comes from the extreme ‘privatising public education’ end of the autonomy continuum. This includes models like Charter schools in the United States and Free Schools in England and Sweden, where governments have outsourced the operation of public schools to private corporations, individuals, community organisations, and so on. These schools seek to attract students from traditional public schools across large areas of cities, promising miraculous results.

Well, at best there is mixed evidence that these schools improve educational outcomes; and a lot of evidence about a number of troubling long term effects of unbridled autonomy, not the least of which is that it tends to exacerbate educational inequality. I can give you examples from each of the countries Kevin has named, but I will largely confine myself to Charter schools in the US.


United States: Charter Schools

Charter schools in the US receive public funding but are bound by an individual school charter and not by government regulations that apply to state schools. Started about 25 years ago, they are run by education management organisations and not-for-profit groups. They have sought to reduce costs by hiring less experienced teachers; paying teachers and staff less, increasing class sizes, and standardising curriculum. Many pride themselves as having a ‘back to basics’ approach, with constant assessment and performance pay for teachers. By 2012, there were approximately 6000 charter schools with over 2 million students in the US.

It is precisely because the charter sector is comprised of thousands of different entities, it is difficult to generalise about them. They range from schools which run like boot camps, to those which boast progressive pedagogies of the sort despised by Kevin.

As usual, the studies rely on standardised test results. In terms of student learning outcomes, the best that can be said about Charter schools is that the results are very mixed.

Most studies conclude that on average the scores on standardised tests are no different if charter schools and public schools enrol the same kinds of children.

In 2009, the performance of Charter Schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia was assessed by researchers at the Centre for Research on Educational Outcomes (Credo). They found that:

..a decent fraction of charter schools, 17%, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the Charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options, and over a third, 37%, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realised had they remained in traditional public schools.

This report was consistent with the results of five independent government reports completed between 2003 and 2007. It is possible to find studies which show that Charter schools have improved educational outcomes, such as research by Caroline Hoxby in New York, and the most recent CREDO report (2013), but the research methods used by both have come under strong criticism. However, for every piece of research that Kevin cites, I can produce research which shows the opposite. For these reasons it is pointless to cherry pick research to make the case one way or the other, without looking at the rigour of the research. You can’t just google and quote.


The adverse effects of Charter schools which have become big business in the US.

But the research is clear about the adverse effects of Charter Schools which have become big business in the US. A number have started up for-profit chains (e.g., KIPP, GULEN, EDISON), franchising education like Kentucky Fried Chicken. This may not worry Kevin, but it truly worries me, not least because the research tells us that in order to turn a profit many Charter schools engage in practices which would not be tolerated in a public education system serving the common good. For example:

In order to attract custom and improve results, many exclude the weakest students, and enrol lower proportions of disability students and English language learners than traditional public schools. One Charter school in Washington DC had an expulsion rate 28 times as high as the local public schools.

Many hire unqualified teachers, and spend more on administration and less on teaching than traditional public schools.

A number have been mixed up in shady real estate deals, and been closed down because of corruption, embezzlement or bankruptcy.


A number of research studies demonstrate that Charter schools diminish three of the most powerful characteristics of public education: diversity, community and collaboration.

First, they tend to segregate by race and class.  Charter schools are more racially segregated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the US. In some areas white students are overrepresented in charter schools while in other charter schools Black and Hispanic students have little exposure to white students.

Second, they destroy local community involvement in public schools as children travel across cities to get to their school of choice.

Third, they have severed any sense of a supportive public system. In an era of high stakes testing, Charter Schools compete, not collaborate with, their public school peers.


The failure of Free Schools, a similar model, in the United Kingdom.

Three years ago the UK Minister of Education, Michael Gove established hundreds of Free Schools citing the usual claims that giving principals the power to hire and fire staff, would cause standards to rise. In fact, it seems to be going the other way. A recent OFSTED report shows that the failure rate of free schools is running at three times the national average for state-funded schools. Overall about 78% of state schools are rated as good or outstanding by OFSTED, compared with 68% of Free Schools.


Tomorrow’s Schools in New Zealand are not a success story.

Kevin cites the highly devolved New Zealand model, Tomorrow’s Schools, as a success. Leading New Zealand researcher Dr Cathy Wylie (the Head of Research at the NZCER) argues that the self-managing schools model has not resulted in any significant gains in student achievement, new approaches to learning, or greater equality of opportunity since it started in 1989. Instead it has had a number of predictable deleterious effects, such as:

  • creating a system of fragmented schools, where self-interest is dominant;
  • creating competition between schools making it harder for those schools at the bottom of the local competition market;
  • making the principal largely a business leader rather than an educational leader managing property and finances, and marketing;
  • maintaining and widening large gaps in student achievement between rich and poor, with no gains in student achievement overall.

Wiley suggests a return to more central and regional support for schools in New Zealand.


Lack of Australian evidence that school autonomy improves outcomes.

What of the Australian research evidence? The Grattan Institute whose previous reports Minister Pyne has quoted enthusiastically, has published a research report which explores the claims about school autonomy and concludes that:

On autonomy, Australia and other countries have the wrong strategy. The world’s best systems have varying levels of autonomy. But it is not central to their reforms. …..Autonomous schools in Australia and other countries are no better at implementing these programs than are centralised schools (from Myth of Markets).

The same conclusion has been reached in a number of other Australian studies. The Productivity Commission’s 2013 report reviewed the literature on autonomy and found ‘… mixed impacts from delegating decision-making authority to schools’; and that greater autonomy for schools is associated with an exacerbation of inequalities.

Kevin has given us another angle on the Australian evidence – the claim that private schools perform better in terms of student outcomes than public schools, and that this can be put down to their greater level of ‘autonomy’. Not only has he again attributed causation by simple correlation without the research evidence, but his basic premise is wrong.

Recent Australian studies contest the premise. Chris Ryan for example in a research study published last year in the Economics of Education Review examines the decline in student achievement as measured by PISA results over the last decade, and found that declines in maths and reading literacy were more apparent in private schools than in state schools.

Other studies – such as Luke Connolly’s research using the 2008 and 2010 NAPLAN results of 15,000 year 5 students and 11,000 year 3 students have found that the NAPLAN scores of students from Catholic and other private schools did not statistically differ from those in public schools – after controlling for factors like household income, health indicators and parent education levels.


The West Australia’s model of ‘independent public schools’ is not evidence that IPS works.

At first, Minister Pyne claimed IPS had improved student outcomes in Western Australia. Howevere Melbourne University was commissioned last year to conduct an evaluation of the early years of the IPS reform. Their report stated very clearly that up to now ‘… there is little evidence of changes to students outcomes …’ (and indeed they reported many teachers saying that there had been ‘no change in teaching practice’ since their school had become ‘independent’).

Undeterred by this set-back, Minister Pyne recently turned to his latest evidential life-boat – the small increase in the proportion of students attending public schools in Western Australia which he claims points to the success of IPS. But once again the evidence fails him.

The fact is that over the past three years the mining boom in WA has produced an estimated increase in the population of about 1500 per week, with a consequent increase in the school population of about 10,000 per year. It is this increase which has produced the growth in numbers in public schools, not IPS. And the increase has been across the board in schools which are non-IPS and IPS. Grasping at disconnected fragments of evidence to justify already-determined policy is not the way educational policy should be made.



Treating public education as though it is a business designed to make profits rather than a public good which benefits the entire community is to betray its essence. The strength of our public schools depends on their collectivity, cohesion, connection to community, collaboration, and diversity. Destroying these characteristics will not raise standards, it must lower them and widen the inequalities which currently exist in our schools and the wider society. The policy of IPS could irreparably harm our public education system which is so central to the development of Australian society and its democracy.


alanreid-1 copy  Alan Reid

This is an edited version of the negative case made by Alan Reid in his debate with Kevin Donnelly held at the ACSA Symposium in Canberra on Friday August 1, 2014. Find the full text  HERE

Professor Alan Reid AM is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. Alan presented the Radford Lecture at the AARE annual conference in December 2012.



Decisions about teaching methods should be made by educators not politicians

Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia

One of the chilling features of the Federal Government’s education policy is its obvious intention to tell teachers how they should teach.

Until now governments have stopped short of dictating how teachers should teach, on the assumption that these are professional decisions that are best made by educators armed with the technical expertise, and knowledge of their students and their learning context.

No longer. It is clear that this government wants to follow teachers into the classroom and direct their practice. How so?

Let’s start with one of what Minister Pyne calls his ‘four policy pillars’ – quality teachers. On the surface this would appear to be a reasonable policy goal. Who could disagree that all our students deserve quality teachers?  But scratch beneath the surface and you will find some worrying policy intentions.

The first is the rationale behind the call for ‘quality teachers’. One of the features of the education debate over the past few years has been commentators and politicians confidently pronouncing on educational matters about which they have little knowledge or understanding. This is usually preceded by a recitation of the bleeding obvious, the most well-known being the platitude that ‘research demonstrates that the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor which promotes student learning’. If you say that seriously enough, it can sound quite profound.

Of course, once you have established this earth shattering revelation it is but a small step to making a number of other claims. The most prominent of these is to take the quality of the teacher as an independent variable, and then dismiss as irrelevant such matters as class size, teaching resources and factors of educational disadvantage.

Once this is done it is possible to claim that all the money spent on these peripheral matters has resulted in reduced learning outcomes, and hey-presto, you have an educational justification for reducing expenditure.  It is not surprising that Minister Pyne finds this an attractive thesis.

The problem is that it is nonsense. It is the interrelationship of the variables in the context of the learning which is important. They cannot sensibly be separated out in this way.

But having isolated teacher quality, the government is able to focus on those strategies which it claims will enhance it. This demands a view of what good teaching looks like – something Minister Pyne has not been shy to articulate.

In an interview with the Minister on November 28 last year, Alan Jones asked:

… Now you’ve got kids and you know that the way they’re being taught in the classroom is not the way you were taught and it’s not better than the way you were taught,

to which Minister Pyne replied: Well we’ve said all along Alan that we want to return to more orthodox teaching methods….

Then, after being sworn in as Minister he reflected that:

My instincts tell me that a back-to-basics approach to education is what the country is looking for, what parents feel comfortable about.

In these examples we have a lawyer, turned politician, suggesting that education policy should take us back to an earlier era on the basis of his intuition, the comfort level of parents, and how he was taught many years ago.

Since then, the Minister has fleshed out his vision. It involves going back to teacher-centred methods of teaching with an emphasis on ‘direct’ or ‘explicit’ instruction – both models based on the theory that learning is telling children things, getting them to remember things, and then having them reproduce what they have been told. This fits with his narrow view of curriculum as being largely about facts.

Now if this was just a personal view I guess there would be no harm done. But unfortunately there are signs that Minister Pyne wants to ensure that such approaches to teaching become the norm in Australian education.

A favourite target has been teacher education, and it is clear that the current review into teacher education is one of the vehicles selected to carry his version of how teachers should teach.

My view is that directive approaches to teaching have a place in any classroom, but they should not be dominant. If the curriculum aims to develop young people to be critical, creative, empathetic and inquiring, then there is an important, indeed central, place for process models of teaching which foster the capacity of students to learn how to learn.

With any single cohort of students, teachers will use a number of teaching models ranging from teacher-centred to student centred  as they are needed. Teachers must have the capacity to adjust programs to suit the needs and interests of their students, to assess student learning outcomes, and work with their peers to investigate issues, problems and dilemmas in their teaching.

And yet the Minister’s excursions into teaching practice never mention this. He and his acolytes focus solely on direct and explicit teaching methods, and ignore the fact that it is the professional responsibility of the teacher to select the balance of teaching approaches needed for the students in her/his care.

If we want to prepare students for the challenges of this century, education policy should focus on providing the conditions within which quality teaching can flourish, not seek to tell teachers how to teach.

An approach which values teachers and enables them to professionally develop throughout their careers is far more likely to result in quality teaching than one which demeans their professionalism.

Educators don’t need their Minister to be making decisions for them about how they should teach, any more than surgeons need the Health Minister to be telling them how they should operate.


alanreid-1 copyProfessor Alan Reid AM is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. Alan presented the Radford Lecture at the AARE annual conference in December 2012.