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

By Deb Hayes

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.

2 thoughts on “Time’s up. Australia needs to ditch its bad education policies

  1. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    wonderful article! So very timely. I wish elections were fought on the grounds of achieving educational excellence, rather than political point scoring. I particularly appreciated;
    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.

  2. Les Treichel says:

    Great article Deb! Yes time is well and truly up for Australia to rethink the nation’s
    education policies and direction. particularly those elements centred upon the currently imposed, failed and flawed “Testucation” agenda.

    I am in wh0le-hearted agreement with your view that “education policies should be informed by the experiences of students, teachers, school leaders the expertise of education researchers and especially the hopes of our young Australians” It’s time for our politicians to swallow their pride and step away from “ballot box decision-making” and LISTEN to and place their TRUST in professionalism of those attuned to an understanding of the REAL NEEDS of our total school communities

    Great to note that countries abroad are seeing the light and moving forward in the right direction. What a tragic shame to see our great nation continue to wallow in a quagmire of educational uncertainty!

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