Education policy

The perplexing political life of education online

One of our intermittent blogs during the #AARE2022 conferenceIf you want to cover a session at the conference, please email to check in. Thanks!

Online spaces have arguably given voice to more diverse actors and advocacy activities related to education policy. While policymakers have a responsibility to address areas of concern to Australian education, a highly digitised public sphere presents challenges to implementing appropriate reform. Online political machinations can open education policy decision making to moral panic, misinformation, and culture wars, but also offer new opportunities and hope. 

This symposium aimed to spark questions about the confluence of political shifts and online information sharing, commentary, and activism on the formation of Australian education policy. The series of papers presented in this symposium were a short overview of politics related to education online. Each raised questions about the influence of the Internet, and education-related information ecosystems, on education policy. The point of this symposium was to provide a national platform for discussing the challenges and possibilities of education projects that employ digital sociological approaches. The papers used a variety of online platforms and employed diverse methodological approaches to investigating education online. All projects are led by early career researchers and higher degree research candidates exploring cutting edge and traditional approaches to theory, qualitative and quantitative methods.

First, Barrie Shannon from the University of Newcastle spoke about how young people, especially young queer people, are looking online for relevant, affirming information about health, sex, gender and identity. Shannon explained that there is a wide body of knowledge that suggests young people in Australia are dissatisfied with the quality of the sexuality education they receive from school, that tends to take a heteronormative focus on puberty and reproduction, and the information that is presented is often piecemeal, irrelevant, or cautionary, framed as a minefield of potential risks and dangers. Further to this, contemporary political discourse in Australia positions trans youth in the fray of ongoing ‘culture wars’, with schools serving as central battlegrounds. This presentation drew on narrative data from trans, nonbinary and gender diverse Australians aged 18-26 who reported using social networking sites to find information, make friends and establish communities of care. Using the microblogging platform Tumblr as a case study, Shannon illustrated how the affordances of certain social networking sites facilitate alternative ways of communicating, peer-learning, and teaching that are not delivered by a formal authority figure and are not mediated by government policies or curriculum documents. 

Next, Blake Cutler from Monash University spoke about his work with Lucas Walsh, Libby Tudball, and Thuc Huynh surrounding  the rapid growth of the School Strikes 4 Climate movement over the past few years. Cutler argued that this movement has been an important way for young people to negotiate and enact their participatory citizenship and democratic rights, given the barriers they face to engage in formal means of civic participation. The presentation explored the role of Twitter in how young people identify with and express their political and civic identities in relation to the climate strikes. The team collected a total of 92,360 tweets from between 1 October 2018 and 5 October 2021 that contained the #auspol hashtag with at least one of the following: #climatestrikeonline, #fridaysforfuture, #climatestrike, #schoolstrike4climate. Using a novel deep learning algorithm they predicted the demographics of users to explore the role of young people (i.e., those under 29 y.o.) in this online space. 

Next, Keith Heggart from the University of Technology Sydney spoke about how Edutwitter is a fraught environment, with competing discourses about teaching approaches, how to teach reading, and the role of teachers in society. He explained how this space has become filled with a variety of third party actors, such as educational gurus, think tanks and institutes that work between politicians and the populace in the formulation of education policy. Heggart’s presentation examined the role of various non-governmental agencies in determining Australian education policy. Two sites were considered: Critical Race Theory in Australia, and the anti-vax movement amongst the Teachers Professional Association of Australia. These two sites provided evidence of policy borrowing (where policy is uncritically taken from other jurisdictions on the basis of its outrage appeal), policy washing (where extreme positions are cleaned through various interactions in order to appear more acceptable) and ideological absence (where organisations and other actors are quick to abandon principled positions in the pursuit of influence). 

Next, Naomi Barnes from QUT spoke about Wikipedia as a place where knowledge is contested and often vandalised. Unknown to many, Wikipedia communities have taken a major role in advocating for informed understandings of concepts like Critical Race Theory (CRT). As politicians increasingly do their policymaking in the media, Wikipedia stands as an important site of knowledge production. While ideas like CRT morph into policy objects, editors protect the page from misinformation and bad actors through a variety of editorial processes. Barnes explained this politics of knowledge protection and production within the context of the recent Australian Curriculum Review that saw both the Commonwealth and NSW Senates, courtesy of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and Tasmanian Liberal senators, ban CRT for Australian schools. This replicates a pattern in the political spheres of both the USA and the UK and is a danger to evidence informed policy making. 

Finally, Jessica Prouten, an Educational Doctorate candidate at QUT, spoke about the link between the presentation of teacher identity on social media, looking at how practitioners manage the interplay between personal, professional, monetised, relational and activist spheres. The paper used Foucault’s ideas of governmentality as a lens to understand social media policy as related to teachers and how people manage behaviour and have their behaviour managed by a network of gazes. 

These papers, collectively, highlighted the simultaneous affordances and perplexities of online spaces, and prompted questions about the politics of education online, including:

  • What do these various online communities and spaces enable and constrain for those engaged with them?
  • What kinds of literacies do young people, educators, education leaders and policy makers and researchers need in navigating the politics of education online? and
  • What are the ethical considerations, for researchers, when working in these online spaces?

These papers, collectively, prompted a robust discussion of the politics of education online.

Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, hstory and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.

Eve Mayes is a Senior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Pedagogy and Curriculum. She currently lives and works on unceded Wadawurrung Country. Her publications and research interests are in the areas of student voice and activism, climate justice education, affective methodologies and participatory research. Eve is currently working on the ARC DECRA project: Striking Voices: Australian school-aged climate justice activism (2022-2025).

Why we must talk about teacher professionalism now

In 2016, Judyth Sachs reflected on her 2003 monograph ‘The Activist Teaching Profession’ and asked, ‘Teacher professionalism: Why are we still talking about it?‘. In that paper, she argued ‘the time for an industrial approach to the teaching profession has passed’ and made a case for ‘systems, schools and teachers to be more research active with teachers’ practices validated and supported through research’ (p.413). I am not sure what Judyth would say five years later but I think this is the discussion that still needs to be had. We do need to talk about teacher professionalism in Australia in 2021 and particularly the way it is being constructed and reconstructed through teacher education policy.

In 2020, Martin Mills and I compared teacher professionalism as it was constructed in teacher education policies in Australia and England, and concluded,

… derision and mistrust of teacher education is evident in both contexts. The construction of teacher professionalism through the policies in Australia and England reflects a managerial approach dominated by performance cultures, increased accountability, and teacher standards … the extent to which teachers research and improve their practices, and invoke professional judgement involving interrogation of available research … rarely feature .

Mayer & Mills, 2020, p.14

The 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) review and the resulting updated accreditation standards and procedures have constructed teacher and teacher educator professionalism in Australia. Two key drivers are evident: making sure the ‘right’ people come into the profession and making sure beginning teachers are ‘classroom ready’. Teacher education was clearly positioned as a problem that could be fixed by tighter accountability mechanisms related to these drivers.

While the TEMAG review claimed to consider ‘wide-ranging evidence and research’ in recommending that the Australian Government act ‘on the sense of urgency to immediately commence implementing actions to lift the quality of initial teacher education’ (Recommendation 2), previous government reports, governments commissioned research consultancies, and/or reports from multinational entities like the OECD and McKinsey & Company, were used to support a perceived need for change. Peer reviewed and published research by teacher education academics rarely featured. In this way, evidence to support the claims and recommendations was constructed in a particular way, supporting Helgetun and Menter’s (2020) claim that evidence is often a rationalized myth in teacher education policy because policies are regularly politically constructed and ideologically based. 

An important component of the TEMAG argument and recommendations, as captured in the report’s title, was that graduates from teacher education programs must be ‘classroom ready’. As a result, teacher education accreditation requirements changed to include a final-year teaching performance assessment. This caused much upheaval, requiring significant changes to the teacher education curricula and to teacher education resourcing in order that programs remained accredited. However, little attention was given to what should be assessed; that is, what beginning teachers should know and be able to do. More attention was given to how teacher educators must design and implement the performance assessment, and various accountability mechanisms for surveillance of this process. The assumption seemed to be that the already developed Australian Professional Standards for Teachers accurately detailed the required professional knowledge, practice, and engagement, and that what was needed was a tighter accountability framework for teacher educators and their practices. Of course, regular critiques of such standards highlight how they construct a particular type of professionalism by focussing on what teachers do rather than what and how they think. None of this was not interrogated in the TEMAG review.

In addition, great emphasis was given to ensuring that the ‘right’ people come into the profession. This focus on the person (i.e., on teachers, not their teaching) resulted in recommendations about required academic skills and desirable personal attributes and characteristics for entry to teacher education programs. In the end, measures of academic skills ended up being the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and levels of personal literacy and numeracy. Of course, many teacher education entrants are not secondary school graduates. Thus, the political and media hype about ATAR and the quality of the teaching profession is misguided. In relation to personal levels of literacy and numeracy, TEMAG recommended that teacher educators ‘demonstrate that all preservice teachers are within the top 30 per cent of the population in personal literacy and numeracy.’ Not surprisingly, this 30% category proved rather challenging to associate with a score on the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education Students.

Another aspect aimed at ensuring that the ‘right’ people were admitted to teacher education was the recommendation for selection processes to assess the ‘personal characteristics to become a successful teacher’ (Recommendation 10).

At its worst, this conjures up visions of the 1930s so-called teacher characteristics ‘research’ associated with what makes a good teacher (which inevitably included being female and liking children).

Ensuring the ‘right’ people come into teaching was translated into accreditation requirements for providers to use non-academic selection criteria and, in practice, this has meant everything from a short personal statement attached to applications to the use of commercially produced tests designed to assess personal characteristics. Moreover, teacher education providers were required to ‘publish all information necessary to ensure transparent and justifiable selection processes for entry into initial teacher education programs’ suggesting a mistrust in providers to make appropriate decisions about selection of entrants to their teacher education programs.

Thus, teacher professionalism in Australia is being constructed as being the right type of person with appropriate personal characteristics and levels of personal literacy and numeracy, who can demonstrate successful teaching practice against standards within a system that determines performance indicators and mechanisms for classroom readiness. Moreover, teacher educator professionalism can be interpreted as ensuring the production of graduates who are classroom ready at point of graduation via programs that are accredited using nationally consistent standards.

In Australia and in England, the relentless reviewing of teacher education continues in 2021. And, yet again, the wording does not disguise the goals of these reviews. In Australia, the ‘Quality Initial Teacher Education Review’ will consider how to attract and select high-quality candidates into the teaching profession and how to prepare ITE students to be effective teachers Nothing new to see here. In the UK, the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Market Review is focussing on ‘how the ITT sector can provide consistently high-quality training, in line with the core content framework, in a more efficient and effective market’

Do we need to keep talking about teacher and teacher educator professionalism? Definitely! 

Diane Mayer is a professor of education (Teacher Education) at the University of Oxford and an honorary professor at both the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney.

Q:Which major party will fully fund public schools? A:None. Here’s what’s happening

You would be forgiven for thinking that policy related to schooling is not a major issue in Australia. In the lead up to the federal election, scant attention has been paid to it during the three leaders’ debates. One of the reasons could be because the education policies of the major parties have largely converged around key issues.

Both Labor and the Coalition are promising to increase funding to schools but neither is prepared to fully fund government schools to the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS).  Under a Coalition government public schools will get up to 95 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard by 2027, under a Labor government they will get 97 per cent by 2027. Either way we are talking two elections away and to what degree public schools will remain underfunded.

Both the Coalition and Labor plan to fully fund allprivate schools to the Schooling Resource Standard by 2023. Some private schools are already fully funded and many are already over funded

Yes, Labor is promising to put equality and redistribution back on the agenda in areas such as tax reform and childcare policy, but its Fair funding for Australian Schools policy fails to close the funding gap between what government schools get, and what they need.  And yes Labor is promising to put back the $14 billion cut from public schools by the Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 plan and will inject $3.3 billion of that during its 2019-22 term, if elected.

The point I want to make is neither major party is prepared to fully fund government schools to the level that is needed according to the Schooling Resource Standard.

I find this deeply disappointing.

There are certainly differences between Coalition and Labor education policies, the main being that Labor will outspend the Coalition across each education sector from pre-schools to universities.

However, as I see it, neither major party has put forward an education policy platform. Instead, they have presented a clutch of ideas that fail to address key issues of concern in education, such as dismantling the contrived system of school comparison generated by NAPLAN and the MySchool website, and tackling Australia’s massive and growing equity issues.

Both major parties believe that the best mechanism for delivering quality and accountability is by setting and rewarding performance outcomes. This approach shifts responsibility for delivering improvements in the system down the line.

And let’s get to standardised testing. There is a place for standardised tests in education. However, when these tests are misused they have perverse negative consequences including narrowing the curriculum, intensifying residualisation, increasing the amount of time spent on test preparation, and encouraging ‘gaming’ behaviour.

Labor has promised to take a serious look at how to improve the insights from tests like NAPLAN, but this is not sufficient to redress the damage they are doing to the quality of schooling and the schooling experiences of young people.

These tests can be used to identify weaknesses in student achievement on a very narrow range of curriculum outcomes but there are cheaper, more effective and less problematic ways of finding this out. And the tests are specifically designed to produce a range of results, so it is intended for some children to do badly; a fact missed entirely by the mainstream media coverage of NAPLAN results.

National testing, NAPLAN, is supported by both Labor and the Coalition. Both consistently tell us that inequality matters, but both know the children who underperform are more likely to come from communities experiencing hardship and social exclusion. These are the communities whose children attend those schools that neither major party is willing to fund fully to the Schooling Resource Standard.

Consequently, teachers in underfunded government schools are required to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of educating the young people who rely most on schooling to deliver the knowledge and social capital they need to succeed in life.

The performance of students on OECD PISA data along with NAPLAN show the strength of the link between low achievement and socio-economic background in Australia; a stronger link than in many similar economies. This needs to be confronted with proper and fair funding plus redistributive funding on top of that.

A misuse of standardised tests by politicians, inflamed by mainstream media, has resulted in teachers in our public schools being blamed for the persistent low achievement of some groups of children and, by extension, initial teacher education providers being blamed for producing ‘poor quality’ teachers.

There is no educational justification for introducing more tests, such as the Coalition’s proposed Year 1 phonics test. Instead, federal politicians need to give up some of the power that standardised tests have afforded them to intervene in education. They need to step away from constantly using NAPLAN results to steer education for their own political purposes. Instead they need to step up to providing fair funding for all of Australia’s schools.

I believe when the focus is placed strongly on outputs, governments are let ‘off the hook’ for poorly delivering inputs through the redistribution of resources. Improved practices at the local level can indeed help deliver system quality, but not when that system is facing chronic, eternal underfunding.

Here I must comment on Labor’s proposal to establish a  $280 million Evidence Institute for Schools.  Presumably, this is Labor’s response to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to improve the quality of existing education data. Labor is to be commended for responding to this recommendation. The Coalition is yet to say how they will fund the initiative.

However what Labor is proposing is not what the Productivity Commission recommended. The Commission argued that performance benchmarking and competition between schools alone are insufficient to achieve gains in education outcomes. They proposed a broad ranging approach to improving the national education evidence base, including the evaluation of policies and building an understanding of how to turn what we know works into into common practice on the ground.

Labor claims that its Evidence Institute for Schools will ensure that teachers and parents have access to ‘high quality’ ‘ground breaking’ research, and it will be ‘the right’ research to assist teachers and early educators to refine and improve their practice.

As an educational researcher, I welcome all increases in funding for research but feel compelled to point out according to the report on Excellence in Research for Australia that was recently completed by the Australian Research Council, the vast majority of education research institutions in Australia are already producing educational research assessed to be of or above world class standard.

The problem is not a lack of high quality research, or a lack of the right kind of research. Nor is it the case that teachers do not have access to research to inform their practice. Without a well-considered education platform developed in consultation with key stakeholders, this kind of policy looks like a solution in search of a problem, rather than a welcome and needed response to a genuine educational issue.

Both major parties need to do more to adequately respond to the gap in the education evidence base identified by the Productivity Commission. This includes a systematic evaluation of the effects of education policies, particularly the negative effects of standardised tests.

The people most affected by the unwillingness of the major parties to imagine a better future for Australia’s schools are our young people, the same young people who are demanding action on the climate crisis. They need an education system that will give them the best chance to fix the mess we are leaving them. Until we can fully fund the schools where the majority of them are educated in Australia we are failing them there too.

Dr Debra Hayes is Head of School and Professor, Education & Equity at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is also the President of the Australian Association for Research in Education. Her next book, co-authored with Craig Campbell, will be available in August – Jean Blackburn: Education Feminism and Social Justice (Monash University Press). @DrDebHayes

Effective teaching methods that work for Indigenous students: latest research

What does effective teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students look like? Thousands of research studies have been dedicated to finding answers to this question. But much of what we think we know, or hear, about Indigenous education remains mired in myths and legends.

Governments have been surprisingly frank about the failure of their Closing The Gap policies to deliver better health, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The search for better ways continues.

My colleagues and I are particularly interested in looking for what works in Aboriginal education, and most importantly, how do we know what works?

As part of the larger ‘Aboriginal Voices’ project we decided to analyse research studies on Aboriginal education from 2006-2017. We carried out several systematic literature reviews following rigorous and replicable protocols  across a range of key issues.

The review I want to tell you about is one that looked for evidence of pedagogies that engage, support and improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

This review sorted through approximately 2000 research studies and, after applying the systematic review inclusion/exclusion protocols, analysed the remaining 53 research studies.

So, what did we find?

Most studies are localised small-scale qualitative case studies focused on engagement

Most research studies were localised small-scale qualitative case studies producing evidence of successful programs that engaged and/or supported Indigenous students in the classroom and in many cases, these were the aims of the program. The assumption appears to be that if Indigenous students are engaged in their learning then their educational outcomes will improve but without empirical evidence to support this, this can only be considered as conjecture.

Wholesale literacy and numeracy programs where Indigenous students are a subset

Eighteen research studies identified pedagogical approaches for specific skills such as literacy and numeracy revealing mixed results in terms of success. In many of these studies, Indigenous students were a subset of a larger group usually connected by socio-economic status (SES), achievement levels and location. Any successes reported in these programs occurred for all students and therefore did not shed light on any specific pedagogical approaches that improved Indigenous student outcomes.

Not surprisingly research studies that focus on practical skill improvements like literacy and numeracy tend to receive large-scale funding as results are more readily quantifiable and reportable in terms of government policy priorities. Moreover, programmatic approaches to literacy and numeracy appear to have become the default approach for Aboriginal student learning in preparation for vocational pathways.

Specific pedagogies identified as effective

Yes we did find 21 studies of pedagogies identified as effective in improving Aboriginal student engagement, support and /or educational outcomes.

Most described effective, innovative pedagogies such as

  •  ‘Pedagogies of wonder’. This involves adults listening to the wonder of the children about their own history, culture and context and trusting children to research this rich resource.
  • Generative pedagogies  Here, culturally safe spaces were created for Indigenous girls to engage with their everyday experiences of oppression, through writing.
  • Place-based pedagogies (also here) that take students out of the classroom and onto ‘country’ and involve Rangers, teachers and community members in a collaborative approach to teaching and learning were successful in engaging students .
  • pedagogies prioritising local Aboriginal voices that involve listening to voices in the community and understanding the values and cultural elements that inform students in their engagement with a formal education context.

These teaching methods engaged and supported Aboriginal students rather than ‘improved educational outcomes’ and while it could be argued that culturally responsive approaches such as these create conditions for improving educational outcomes, there was no empirical evidence to make this causal connection.

The seminal extensive research project Systemic Implications of Pedagogy and Achievement in NSW public schools (SIPA) provides an exception. While Aboriginal students were a subset of a larger group, researchers focussed on results for specific groups, coding and measuring student assessment tasks utilising the NSW Quality Teaching Framework [QTF].

In terms of outcomes, researchers provided solid evidence that high quality assessment tasks not only improved all students results but contributed to closing the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. While not identifying specific pedagogies to improve educational outcomes, they noted pedagogical approaches that contributed to poor outcomes particularly for Aboriginal and low SES students such as ‘defensive teaching’, low expectations and a focus on behaviour management rather than effective teaching and learning of curriculum content.

Contributing factors to effective teaching

Many of the studies [43] discussed pedagogies in relation to other contributing factors to effective teaching such as student engagement, teacher professional learning and curriculum.

Engagement strategies identified the importance of:

  • individually paced learning,
  • culturally safe learning environments,
  • providing transport, food and community-based staff working in the school,
  • opportunities for Aboriginal student voices,
  • local community involvement in the school,
  • teacher understanding about their students ‘out-of-school’ lives, and
  • school as a place of belonging and relevance.

Teacher professional learning included the need for:

  • increased teacher confidence and efficacy through actively learning about local Aboriginal culture, history and the impact of colonization,
  • a shift from behaviour management to subject knowledge,
  • time and resources to adequately reflect on and improve their practice, and
  • ongoing engagement with Aboriginal parents and communities.

Students and parents highlighted the importance of:

  • culture,
  • positive relationships,
  • needing to learn about the literacy demands of schools and how to code-switch between home and school,
  • support for student behavior,
  • schools and teachers rejecting deficit views of Aboriginal people, and
  • affirming Aboriginal student’s cultural identity.

Knowing the community is critical

While only 14 research studies focussed on context, most studies referred to this as an important consideration especially in remote and very remote schools. This suggests that the issues for students and the challenges for teachers are largely context dependent and so critical and nuanced understandings of each particular community are crucial. It also points to the invisibility of urban-based students and communities. If a study was conducted in an urban area, the location was not mentioned or considered a factor in the study. Given that urban Indigenous populations are increasing exponentially, this highlights a concerning gap in the research design and priorities.

Deficit thinking

Concern about school and teacher deficit thinking about Aboriginal peoples and cultures that also appear to permeate policy and practice, was evident in a number of studies, some of which contextualized this within ongoing issues of race and racism. Some studies also critically analysed the construction, problematisation and reproduction of knowledge noting that Aboriginal aspirations were not often included in definitions of what success might look like for these students and their communities, or how it might be measured.

The challenges are many and the answers complex

Consequently, while these research studies contribute to the conversation about ‘what works’ for Indigenous students, there certainly needs to be an evidence-based systematic approach to developing pedagogical approaches to improve Aboriginal student outcomes. In saying this, the combination of diverse Aboriginal contexts each of which are embedded in local place and knowledges, and the complexity of ‘measuring’ pedagogies given the multitude of complex, layered and nuanced variables that impact on the teaching/learning process, makes this an extremely challenging task. 

Need for a national vision

What we found throughout this review and the other systematic reviews conducted in this project, is what is missing or under-researched more than what was discovered or proven. It is clear to us that a national vision is needed. This vision needs to decolonize the parochial targets, outcomes and obsession with ‘measurement’ that currently restrains Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers and policy makers working together on the holistic project of improving Aboriginal student outcomes.

The Aboriginal Voices project will continue this work by developing culturally responsive approaches to schooling informed by local Aboriginal students and their families, who continually foreground the significance of Country, culture, language and identity to their success, emphasising the importance of success as ‘Aboriginal’.

Dr Cathie Burgess is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney currently teaching and coordinating Aboriginal Studies curriculum courses, Aboriginal Community Engagement and the Master of Education: Leadership in Aboriginal Education. She has extensive teaching and leadership experience in secondary schools with expertise in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal education, and implementing innovative literacy strategies. Cathie’s research involves community-led initiatives positioning Aboriginal cultural educators as experts through projects such as Learning from Country in the City, Aboriginal Voices: Insights into Aboriginal Education, Community-Led Research, The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program and the Redfern Aboriginal Family Cultural Program.

Image by courtneyk

Put professional judgement of teachers first or we’ll never get the systemic education improvements we all want. Let’s talk about it

In this blog I’d like to bring together three different lines of educational analysis to show how our contemporary discussions of policy are really not going to lead to any significant change or educationally defensible reforms.  I realise that is a very big call, but I’m pretty confident in saying it, and I hope to show why.

Essentially I think we really need to change the way educational reform debates are framed, because they are based on questions that will not lead us to systemic improvement that I think most ‘stake-holders’ really seek in common.  Before I launch into this discussion, though, I also need to point out that there are a host of related issues which really can’t be sufficiently addressed here, and which I won’t explain at all – but which I will name toward the end of this post.

For now, consider three main points

1) there is growing recognition that a fundamental linch-pin in quality schooling is always going to be our reliance on the professional judgement of teachers,

 2) there is also growing recognition that our current system architecture works against that in several ways, and

3) this is the clincher, the systems that we have implemented are producing exactly that for which they were designed (where teacher professional judgement plays little or no part).

The practical conclusion of bringing these observations together is obvious to me. We are never going to get that “systemic improvement” that we all seem to think will be good for Australia, because we don’t have the right system architecture to achieve it. I believe we need to start thinking more carefully and creatively about how our educational systems are designed.

The hard part begins after sufficient numbers of stakeholders come to this realisation and want to shift the debates.  We aren’t there yet, so for now I just want to open up this line of thought.

The first starting point won’t be a surprise for readers of this blog, and followers of public educational policy pitches.  On the one hand, anyone with Findlandia envy and followers of the recent statements from Pasi Sahlberg, now at UNSW’s Gonski Institute, will know that much of the strength of the ‘Finnish Education Mystery’ (as it has been named by Hannu Simola) has been built on a strong commitment to the professional autonomy and expertise of Finnish teachers.  This isn’t simply accidental, but a consequence of a long understandable history that included (but isn’t only due to) careful and intelligent design by the Finnish Government.

On the other hand, here in Australia, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Nicole Mockler, and her colleagues have aptly shown that teachers are more than interested in using evidence-based approaches to help guide their local decision, but their judgements are not really being supported by evidence they see as relevant and useful.

My own analysis of this situation has led me to raise significant questions about the way in which advance technical issues of measurement and its statistical applications have been reduced to incorrect and really misleading uses, and the way in which the institutions which are supposed to promote teachers and teaching has reduced that exercise to classic institutional credentialism based on tick box exercises that really don’t reflect that which it claims. 

No matter how much politicians and other stakeholders might wish to create systems that guarantee this or that universal practice, student learning is always individual and in schools always dependent on whomever is guiding that learning (the same would apply to entirely automated systems, by the way).  So the goal of designing systems based on the presumption that we can somehow specify practice to a point where there is no uncertainty in delivery, is folly.

And yet, point two, these are precisely the sorts of education systems Australia has been building since at least the late 1980s. In broad terms this corresponds to the significant changes in educational governance known as ‘the ministerialisation of education’ documented by educational researchers Dr Janice Dudley and Professor Lesley Vidovich, long ago.  It was in this time period where the penultimate attempt to nationalise curriculum developed, with the corresponding creation of national goals (the Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne declarations), former civil servants were replaced by contracted ‘Senior Executives’ across federal and state bureaucracies, and teacher education was handed to the federally funded Universities alone (plus a range of massive shifts in TAFE). 

Since then it has been a long slow process of standardisation within and across state systems, the formation of ‘professional institutes,’ and the expansion of public funding to private schooling. 

The roll out of ‘standardisation’

The case for why these systems inhibit or actively work against the exercise of teachers’ professional judgement should be pretty obvious with the term ‘standardisation’.  These days, national curriculum is designed with the intent of making sure children of the military can move around that nation and ‘get the same stuff,’ accountability is centrally developed and deployed via the least expensive forms, like NAPLAN (and an expanding host of supposedly valid measures), teaching has become regulated through standardising the people (at least on paper, via the ‘professional standards’), and securing employment and advancement has been directly tied to these mechanisms. 

Even measurement instruments originally designed only for research and later to help provide evidence for teachers’ use have become tick box instruments of surveillance.  As a researcher I am not opposed to good measurement, and in fact I’ve created some of those being used in this larger schema, but how systems deploy them make huge differences. 

From the reports of the implementation of NAPLAN it is very clear (as was predicted by then opponents) that many of these have become much more high stakes than advocates predicted or intended (opponents were right about this one).  Whether it be novice teachers beholden to developing paper work ‘evidence’ of standards for their job security through to executives whose jobs depend on meeting Key Performance Indicators (which are themselves abstracted from actual effect), we have developed systems of compliance within institutes in which real humans play roles that are pre-defined and largely circumscribed.  And those who readily fit them without too much critique fill these roles. 

After years of this, is it any wonder that teacher education programs by and large no longer teach the history and practice of curriculum design, nor the history and philosophy of education (which is now largely relegated ‘ethics’ in service of codes of conduct) and what once were lively fields of educational psychology and sociology of education have become handmaidens of ‘evidence-based’ teaching techniques and bureaucratic definitions of ‘equity’? (In the University sector these ‘foundational’ disciplines literally do not belong in education anymore for research accountability purposes.)

One bit of historical memory: in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this process of moving the intellectual (‘mental’) work of teachers into standardised categories defined by management was shown to have a long term effect known as ‘de-skilling.’  From our work in the New Basics Trial in Queensland (which was actually much more successful than most realise) it has been very clear that what once were wide spread teacher capacities in local curriculum design and development have been forfeited to (extremely well paid) bureaucrats.  When I met the teachers who took part in the early 1990s National Schools Project (in 1993 and 1994), state differences on this were really obvious and relevant. 

When teachers were invited to restructure any aspect of their work to improve student learning, through an overt agreement between the Unions and employers, teachers from states where there were strong traditions of local curriculum development and pedagogical reflection (most obviously Victoria and South Australia) were squarely focused on trying to find ways of providing rich educational experiences for their students (curriculum, pedagogy were their mainstay).  Teachers from the state that has provided the basic structure of our current systems (NSW) were largely concerned about timetables and budgets.  Of course this is a very big generalisation, but it is also obvious when you work with teachers in schools developing new curriculum projects.

What is the effect of all this?  Precisely as intended, the systems are standardised, stratified, countable and a ready source of ‘evidence’ used to meet the needs of the politicians and ‘independent’ stakeholders, and advancing employees who probably actually believe in the reforms and initiatives they advocate. 

But let’s be honest, these actors are not around after they have used the political capital gained from initiating their pet projects.

Let’s go further

Here is where there are hosts of other developments that buttress this larger system which need further analysis and elaboration than I can provide here.  From the expansion of testing measures based on statistical assumptions few teachers and principals and fewer parents really know well (they aren’t taught them), to professional development schemes based on market determined popularity, to pre-packaged curriculum and apps literally sold as the next silver-bullet, contemporary ‘texts’ of education carry far more implications than the ones named by those selling them.

There are the huge range of ideas and presumptions that lie behind those sales pitches. Of course some teachers sometimes blindly seek these out in the hope of finding new ideas and effective practices.  Teachers’ dispositions and capacities have not come from nowhere, they are the historical product of this system. But who is going to blame them (or the bureaucrats, for that matter) when they rightfully focus on making sure they have a job in that system so they can support their own children and parents?

Yes, we have systems we created. On the one hand, that’s not encouraging.  On the other hand, that does mean that we can re-create them into something quite different.

Change the questions

One of the first steps to collectively trying to find new ways of constructing our school systems, I think, really is about changing the questions we think we are answering.  Instead of using the type of questions needed to drive research, e.g. anything of the form ‘what works?’, we need to start asking, ‘how do we build systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and wise decision in their work?’ 

Research and the categories of analysis CAN provide clear ideas about what has occurred in the past (with all the necessary qualifications about when, where, measured how) but those answers should never be the basis for systems to prescribe what teachers are supposed to do in any given individual event or context.  For example, diagnostic testing can be incredible useful for teachers, but they can’t tell teachers what to do, with whom, when. 

Do we have systems that support teachers in taking the next step in their decisions about which students need what support at what time, while knowing what those tests actually measure, with what margin of error, in what contexts for whom?  The question for systems designs isn’t what’s ‘best practice’, it’s what system increases the probability of teachers making wise and compassionate decisions for their students in their context at the appropriate time.  That includes making judgements relative to what’s happening in our nation, economy and in the larger global transformations. 

Our systems, in the pursuit of minimising risk, are very good as proscribing what teachers’ shouldn’t do; but, they are not designed to support teachers to wisely exercise the autonomy they need to do their jobs in a manner that demonstrates the true potential of our nation.

We can see that potential in the all too rare events in which our students and teachers are given that sort of support – often on the backs of incredibly dedicated and professional teachers and school leaders. From local innovative uses of technology, to large scale performances in the arts, the potential of Australian educators isn’t really hard to find.  But we need new systems to support them in doing more of that type of work, with more students, more of the time.

So when it comes to advocating this or that system reform, please, change the focus.  We don’t need more ‘best practice’ policies from vested interests, to discipline our teachers, we need systems designed to promote true, authentic excellence in education.

James Ladwig is Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and co-editor of the American Educational Research Journal.  He is internationally recognised for his expertise in educational research and school reform.  Find James’ latest work in Limits to Evidence-Based Learning of Educational Science, in Hall, Quinn and Gollnick (Eds) The Wiley Handbook of Teaching and Learning published by Wiley-Blackwell, New York (in press). James is on Twitter @jgladwig

Time’s up. Australia needs to ditch its bad education policies

What kind of schooling system do we want for our kids in Australia? I ask because In England, after almost thirty years of high stakes testing, the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, is talking about a decline in England’s quality of education and blaming “an endemic pattern of prioritising data and performance results, ahead of the real substance of education”.

The very organisation Spielman leads, the Office for Standards in Education, has played a significant role in driving the decline she is now so concerned about. But it is good news that she is openly questioning the effects of testing and wants to discuss “the real substance of education”.

Singapore, a country often touted for its success on international test comparisons, has announced that starting in 2019, exams for primary years 1 and 2 students (aged six and seven) will be abolished. The change is aimed at discouraging comparisons between student performance and encouraging learning. But it is nonetheless driven by economic concerns. Singapore wants schools to concentrate more on developing ‘soft skills’, those supposedly needed for 21st century economies (such as decision making and collaborating in a team) to bolster personal development and help students acquire ‘real-world skills’.

So, what lessons can we learn in Australia from these initiatives in other countries?

Well, we are indeed “prioritising data and performance results, ahead of the real substance of education” with the NAPLAN regime, so you might think the UK is ahead of us in coming to the realisation that something is going badly wrong. And while Australia considers imposing a national test on six year olds (a phonics test) Singapore is busily getting rid of tests for six and seven year olds. However, we are also not England or Singapore.

The problems we have in Australia are largely of our own making. The education policies pursued by both major political parties in recent years have created a unique set of problems.

Australia’s unique set of problems in education

The problems we are facing in Australia include the following:

  • Most alarmingly, we have an inequitable system of school funding, skewed in favour of independent and Catholic schools. A recent analysis of school finance data compiled by ABC News shows that, the income divide is wider for many schools than at any point in the past decade. And the proportion of public money being spent on private schooling in Australia is higher than in any other advanced economy and has increased significantly over the last decade.
  • The income divide is also reflected in student performance. A recent UNICEF report shows Australia doesn’t do well at ensuring equality across the three stages of children’s education: preschool, primary and secondary – it ranks in the bottom third of countries in all three stages.
  • Despite massive investment in national testing and reporting, analysis of the most recent NAPLAN results of writing, conducted by Associate Professor Misty Adoniou (University of Canberra), shows that the numbers of low-performing students are increasing, and the numbers of high-achieving students are decreasing as they move through school.
  • Many young people are unhappy at school. According to OECD figures, about 30% of Australian children don’t feel as though they belong at school, and almost 25% report having been bullied at school.

As we build towards a national election, what education policies should the major parties propose that will improve our system of schooling?

We should not be going down the pathway to more testing.

Research conducted by Johanna Wyn and her team (University of Melbourne) shows that NAPLAN has had significant unintended consequences. Professor Wyn states that two of these include a negative impact on both the quality of learning and student wellbeing.

We are flooded with data that we don’t seem to be paying attention to, and we don’t have access to some data that would enable us to have a clear-headed assessment of how school systems are faring, and how specific education policies are affecting them.

The kind of data we need to make good education policy

For example, there has been a spike in suspensions and exclusions in recent years. Research conducted in Queensland by Linda Graham (Queensland University of Technology), shows the growth in suspensions outstripped growth in enrolments, which suggests that student numbers alone are not driving the increases.

Professor Graham argues that the increases do not necessarily mean that student behaviour is getting worse, education reforms and policies also contribute, such as zero tolerance behaviour policies and the expansion of principals’ disciplinary powers. These are policies that gained a lot of political traction, and popular support when they were announced, as they were intended to do. However, they changed how some teachers and schools interacted with their students and school communities.

I doubt those who were most affected by these policies were ever consulted about the perceived problems they were supposed to solve.

If we knew more about who was being suspended and where we might see the bigger consequences more clearly and our school systems could more easily work on solutions. Recent separate analyses conducted by the NSW (2017) and Victorian (2017) Ombudsman, noted the absence of central collection and reporting of suspensions and expulsions data across government schools. The problem is succinctly described by the Victorian Ombudsmen.

The lack of data makes it difficult if not impossible for the department to recognise patterns in which student groups are being expelled and to subsequently develop policies to address any issues identified. There is a clear need for better data and oversight systems. (p. 5)

I am very aware this is only a discussion about the collection of expulsion and suspension data from public schools. The collection of similar data from private schools is of equal concern and would pose a whole new set of problems and issues to discuss and work through, but it is not collected even though private schools are increasingly funded by public funds.

The point I want to make is that if we gathered such data systematically it could be used by teachers, school leaders, system personnel, and political parties to understand how policies, however well intentioned, are specifically affecting young people.

For too long we’ve made families doing it tough, teachers, schools and initial teacher education providers the political scapegoats of students’ underperformance. In the process, we’ve ignored how educational policies have contributed to kids struggling at school and, for an increasing number of young people, leaving or being expelled from school.

Beware election promises that require others to be more accountable, because that is political speak for more testing, and it continues to shift the focus from failed education policies.

Let’s do an audit

I believe we need to do an independent audit of the success of intended consequences, as well as the unintended consequences of past policy regimes. This is the sort of valuable data we should be collecting. Is there a political party with the courage to undertake such an audit? Tragically, without such a reckoning, I fear that one of our great public institutions, public schooling, will remain in unsafe hands.

But I hope we will do something before our education chiefs start publicly blaming our testing regime, or the economic damage of how we are schooling our children becomes so obvious we have to act.

And educators like me keep saying it but I’ll say it yet again: education policies should be informed by the experiences of students, teachers and school leaders, the expertise of education researchers, and especially the hopes of our young Australians.



Deb Hayes is Professor of Education and Equity, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. Commencing 2019, she will be the School’s new Head. She has just returned from a stint as Hallsworth Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester, where she is working with Professor Ruth Lupton on a new book titled Great Education Policy Mistakes, to be published by Policy Press.


This week Deb begins a two-year term as President of the Australian Association for Research in Education, which is currently holding its annual conference 2018 AARE in Sydney. All the Australian researchers cited in this article are members of the Association.

Economic thinking is corrupting education in Australia

There is a growing trend in education of proposing and enacting policy ideas that are based primarily upon economic thinking. I believe there are hidden impacts of applying economic thinking (typified by price signals, market mechanisms and market-oriented ideas) to education. In this post I want to unpack some of that thinking and look at what is happening to education because of it.

 Corruption of the concept of education

The philosopher Michael Sandel proposes that there are two main arguments against policy based on economic thinking. These arguments are made on the basis of fairness and corruption, and both are significant for education researchers and policy makers. While it is typical in policy formation for much attention to be given to the concept of fairness – with steps taken to ensure that policy is as fair as possible – the concept of corruption is rarely given consideration. In the case of education policy, this relates to questions about how policy can change (or corrupt) society’s conception of the role and purpose of education, and about how the moral value of education can be crowded out by economic values.

If you want to read more about this notion of economic thinking in education you should read Hidden Privatisation in Public Education and (released in July this year) Commercialisation in Australian Public Schooling. This latter study provides data confirming that teachers in Australia are indeed concerned about the influence of commercialism in schools, characterised by “top-down, test-based accountability, the introduction of market competition between schools, the use of private sector managerial practices, and an increasingly standardised curriculum that focuses on literacy and numeracy” .

In this climate of economic thinking there is a great need to attend to the moral value of education – its role and its purpose in society.

What does economic thinking in education look like?

 Some examples from Australia and around the world demonstrate what economic thinking in education looks like:

1) Various schools within the USA have experimented with paying students to learn. In Dallas, a school district paid students to read books ($2 per book) to motivate higher literacy. In New York and Chicago students were given rewards based on their performance in assessments.

2) Still in the USA, there was an experiment in some charter schools with the inverse of this: giving students financial penalties for bad behaviour. This was dubbed as a move “from corporal punishment to capital punishment”.

3) In Australia, in the Northern Territory, a similar concept was enacted on a broader scale when schools had part of their funding determined by student attendance levels. Some commentators referred to this as “inverse needs-based funding”.

4) Politicians and think tanks have at various times come up with the idea of linking school funding or teacher pay to performance in standardised tests such as NAPLAN.

5) In Australia, recent increases to higher education student fees and repayments have been justified by claims about the higher earnings gained by those who have attended university. Minister Birmingham uses this rationale to suggest that the extra cost for students is a “fairer deal for taxpayers”. In the United Kingdom, the former Secretary of State for Education recently stated this same argument more bluntly, saying “it’s wrong if people who don’t go to university find that they have to pay more in taxation to support those who do.”

6) Australia has invested $5.1million to pilot ‘P-TECH’ (Pathways in Technology) high schools, and there are currently 14 pilot sites across the country. These schools are jointly funded by industry and government. They provide traditional high school study in parallel with industry-supported STEM education geared towards employment, or further education, in a particular sector. The economic thinking and employment-oriented focus of this program is evident in Wyong High School’s rationale for adopting the P-TECH model:

“In the P-TECH model, local employers partner with schools, TAFEs/RTOs and universities to strengthen students’ prospects of a successful transition to work by ensuring they develop the technical and personal skills employers are looking for. To achieve this goal, the school is working collaboratively with other education and training providers and a number of major locally-based employer partners including Mars Food Australia (Masterfoods), Sanitarium Health & Wellbeing Australia, the University of Newcastle and the Central Coast NSW Business Chamber. Commencing in January 2017, Wyong High School has begun to introduce an innovative P-TECH styled skills-based program that will provide an industry-supported pathway for students to achieve a post-school qualification in areas of growing local employment demand.”

When economic thinking takes over

These varied examples highlight different aspects of economic thinking. For example, when students are being paid to learn or are fined for bad behaviour, when schools are being paid for improving attendance, and when teachers are being paid for having higher achieving students, a financial incentive is being introduced where, previously, the motivation had been intrinsically oriented.

The economic justification for these ideas is that by “incentivising” a particular behaviour, you get more of it. However, this is not always the case as introducing a price mechanism, certain intrinsic or pro-social motivations can be lost – or “crowded out” as Sandel describes it.

This crowding out effect can be observed in a classic study of a childcare centre in Israel. Parents were often late to pick up their children, so the childcare centre experimented with the idea of introducing a financial penalty for being late. Traditional economic thinking dictates that this should result in fewer parents being late to pick up their children as they now have an added disincentive to be late.

However, the inverse occurred: more parents were late to pick up their child than previously, when there was no financial penalty. One interpretation of this is that the pro-social motivations for being on-time for picking up children (e.g. not infringing upon the teachers) were crowded-out by the introduction of a financial mechanism, and the parents felt that this justified them in being late.

A similar phenomenon can occur with the introduction of price mechanisms in education. For example, to return to the cases listed above, a student may feel justified in not doing their homework if they have resolved to accept the corresponding infringement. The intrinsic motivation in this case (i.e. that doing homework will help the student learn) is therefore at risk of being lost, and the student may begin to make decisions about their education that are based primarily on perceived economic benefits. Whilst there are many possible reasons to critique such ideas of performance pay for schools, teacher, and students, the focus here is upon the way that the introduction of an incentive changes how people relate to the activity; the very concept of what that activity is about can shift.

What is lost when education is framed in economic terms?

In the case of the recent changes to HECS-HELP fees and repayments, the public discussion centred almost entirely around whether it was fair. Debate went something like this: On the one hand, there is evidence that those going to university earn more money than those who do not. On the other hand, education is a public good and should be supported by the government. What percentage of student fees should be paid by students and what percentage by government? What kind of repayment system would enable equality of access to higher education without the burden of repayments becoming prohibitive?

My point does not address the final mix that was present in the policy but rather that the terms of the debate were entirely around fairness. Was it fair for students? For different degree types? For women? For students from lower socio-economic areas? For those who drop out of a degree? These are all important questions that do deserve to take primacy in debate around this policy. However, there is a separate argument to be made about the resulting degradation of the concept of education from the repetition of such policy ideas and their rationale. What is altered or lost by framing university education as a purely personal and economic good?

A similar question applies to the case of P-TECH schools in Australia. An economic way to frame the argument is that having industry invest in high school students is a “win” for everyone who is involved: schools get more money for education, students get a head-start in skills in technology that employers want, and industry gets graduates that have the skills they need to take up entry-level positions following graduation.

However, we can ask once more: What is altered or lost when we frame the debate in these terms? Or perhaps: What are the moral values surrounding society’s conception of education that are being degraded or corrupted by promoting models of high school education solely on the basis of their economic merit and their ability to help students get jobs? To be clear, having an education system that supports a strong economy is not problematic in and of itself; but what happens when such aims crowd out other goals for education?

Why economic thinking degrades education

The aim of this short post is to draw attention to the way that economic thinking degrades the very concept of education. Often those critiquing economic rationale do so on the basis that it is unfair to certain sectors of society. Another critique that is often missed is that such rationale cheapens the very meaning of education: why we engage in it, how it benefits society.

A response to this excess of economic thinking in education is increased public discourse around why education ought to be valued as a social good.

Many teachers complain that students only wish to learn the things on which they will be examined– the classic question “will this be in the test?” Students are chastised for even asking the question because it indicates that they are blind to the broader merits of learning.

Is there not a large contradiction here? We expect our students to be aware of the intrinsic value of learning, yet they are taught within a system that increasingly values only economic thinking.


Dr Nick Kelly is a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education and the Science and Engineering Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology. He is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Digital Life Laboratory at the University of Southern Queensland. His research focuses on motivation within the teaching profession, the online support needs of beginning teachers and the cognition of creativity. Further details can be found on Nick’s website 

Changing from single sex to co-ed can be good if based on educational (not economic) reasons

Single sex versus co-ed schooling is back in the news with the announcement from The Armidale School, a traditional, private, all boy school, that it is turning co-ed. Of course there are many opinions about it, you probably have your own. So, as someone who has written extensively on the issue, here is mine.

I’m dismayed when, as in the case of The Armidale School, the announcement to adopt coeducation is put forward on economic grounds, in the media at least, rather than being driven by educational ones.

I think the case has to be made strongly for educational reasons, and understood by all concerned, before the development from single sex to co-ed should proceed.

There are excellent educational reasons for choosing coeducational schools for your children in 21st century Australia, such as their capacity to offer a wide range of subjects in senior school, the classrooms tend to display greater diversity of outlook and opinions, friendship groups are less stratified and more fluid and students move relatively easily into mixed contexts such as university, work and social life generally.

However fifty years ago in Australia the situation was very different. In coeducational schools up until the late 20th century girls had significantly less access to education compared to boys. Before 1975 girls were much less likely than boys to complete school and to progress to university where they were vastly outnumbered by male students. All too often girls were channelled into domestic science and clerical courses rather than mainstream academic ones because the latter were thought to be too difficult for them. Consequently we are indebted to the tradition of girls only schools for establishing that girls can and do achieve highly in curriculum areas once reserved for males.

But now that education is widely viewed as the right of all young Australians much of the earlier gender discrimination has diminished, if not entirely disappeared. Education in mixed settings has been seen to prosper to the benefit of all concerned, teachers, parents, administrators and most particularly students.

I’ve been involved with several schools in the decision to become coeducational and in each case it has been a time of productive professional development for the school community. Teachers, in particular, have been ready to respond to new challenges and to rethink the tried and true pedagogical styles in terms of broader applications.

However one school, a previous single sex school, after about 3 months of coeducation sent out a newsletter to their school community with the headlines “It’s just the same … and we are all doing very well!” I must admit to considerable disappointment at this, given I had anticipated they would be relishing the change in their student body and enjoying different sorts of learning processes. I guess they were trying to be reassuring lest there were parents who were frightened and opposed any element of difference.

I must say although I am generally in favour of coeducation, I am not anti single sex schools. There are some very good single sex schools and also some very ordinary ones, just as there are good and bad coeducational schools. My position is that gender context is not the most important feature of schooling in terms of successful student achievement and positive attitudes to education. It just happens to be the feature most readily remarked on, and thus becomes a stalking horse for all sorts of other issues that are more likely to make a difference to student learning.

Schools with excellent teachers, concerned and involved parent community, inspired leadership and a good spread of relevant resources are to be found in both single sex and coeducational institutions. These features are much more important than the issue of gender context.

I think speculating on whether single sex schools have a future or not in the 21st century is rather pointless. Personally I don’t like or dislike them. However I do object when school leaders make the claim that girls in particular can only learn effectively in single sex schools. There is so much research showing this is not true, that girls are achieving at the top levels in coeducation schools.

So the often reported claim from all girl schools that “research shows ..” is a falsification of properly assembled evidence and/or deliberate mystification. Education is too important for such spurious claims.


You can read more about my research and views in my book “Beyond the Great Divide: Single Sex Schools or Coeducation?” UNSW Press available through Amazon and other local outlets


JudithGillJudith Gill PhD is currently an  Adjunct A/Professor in the  School of Education at the  University of South Australia where she worked for 25 years in teacher education. She has a longstanding interest in gender, work and education, particularly in terms of  gender contexts of learning, which has involved investigating the experience of students in single sex school compared with coeducation, leading to the book Beyond the Great Divide: Single sex schooling or coeducation? (Sydney, UNSW Press 2004).  Another line of enquiry is citizenship education  as in the 2009 book Knowing Our Place: Children talking about identity, power and citizenship. (Routledge NY). More recently she has investigated engineering education, as seen in Gender Inclusive Engineering Education (NY Routledge 2009) and Challenging Knowledge, Sex and Power: Gender, work and engineering (NY Routledge 2014)

It’s time to hear the voices missing from research and planning, those of children and young people

Children and young people are using services all around us that have been designed for them by grown-ups. These are in parks, playgrounds, schools, health clinics, court-rooms, libraries, museums and homes, including dozens of forms of social media. But, it is rare for children to be consulted about the design of services created specifically for them, let alone be invited to research how they use, or are affected by, these creations and what works for them.

It may come as a surprise to many that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) entitles children to a broad range of rights including the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them and have their views taken seriously. But entitlement is not the same as action.

My colleagues, Sue Dockett and Dorothy Bottrell, and I believe that those who work in, and research children’s services have a responsibility to spend time with kids, asking them, not only what they think, but also how things can be improved. Beyond that, even, we see that youngsters can contribute to future planning and evaluation.

We believe that very young children have insights into, for example, the ways in which they might enjoy an art exhibition or be able to play with their friends in a park. As well, truculent adolescents have views on the ways in which they are dragooned into taking tests in their schools and such-like to satisfy some remote government policy about which they have little say.

We are well aware that many would argue that children already have too much say in matters that affect them and that decisions should be left to adults who know better. But we have explored the arguments extensively and see that very few discussions examine the great differences in power that exist and that “knowing better” is little more than a kind of blindness to children and young people’s lack of voice.

All too often, any kind of consultation is little more than tokenism. Children might be asked to complete a survey or two, but they are rarely told of the results and the impact on planning, if there is any.

We are committed to the notion of an ‘active citizenry’, that is, being enabled to participate in the many matters that surround us. Active citizens are responsible citizens who take an interest in not only local affairs, but also those large issues that cause concern. Active citizens will stand up for what they believe to be right, for example, ensuring that public broadcasting is properly funded or that mining resources is not at the cost of the environment. We believe this should start with the very young and continue through until adulthood is reached.

When we do engage more completely and authentically with our children and young people we face many dilemmas. They may not always say and do things that make us comfortable. They may challenge us to listen to them more carefully and not merely play some tokenistic game.

We have put these ideas and more into our new book Participatory research with children and young people. It is a practical guide, written to be a useful resource for all professionals who work with children and young people, as well as for children and young people themselves as they contribute to research and inquiry into matters that affect them.


SGS Image copySusan Groundwater-Smith is an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work. She facilitates practitioner researchers working in Schools, Museums, the State Library and Taronga Zoo, paying particular attention to eliciting feedback from children and young people and engaging them in inquiry. She convenes the Coalition of Knowledge Building Schools, a hybrid group of government and non-government schools, single and co-educational schools and cultural institutions. She has published a number of books and chapters in this area, working closely with Nicole Mockler, also at the University of Sydney.

Groundwater-Smith, S., Dockett, S. and Bottrell, D. (2015) Participatory research with children and young people London: Sage. Available through Footprint Books