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Why our schools aren’t improving

In this series we’ll explore how to improve schools in Australia, write Tom Bentley and Glenn C. Savage at The Conversation. Some of the most prominent experts in the sector tackle key questions, including why we are not seeing much progress; whether we are assessing children in the most effective way; why parents need to listen to what the evidence tells us, and much more.

Australian schooling has undergone major changes over the last decade, mainly through national policy reforms agreed by federal and state governments. These include:

  • an Australian Curriculum
  • standardised national assessments in literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN)
  • national reporting on schools through the My School website
  • professional standards for teachers and principals
  • a universally accessible year of pre-school
  • partial implementation of the “Gonski” needs-based funding reforms.

During the same decade, rapid economic, social, technological and cultural changes have generated new pressures and possibilities for education systems – and the people who work in them.

For example, Australia continues to become more ethnically and culturally diverse, and more closely connected to the Asia-Pacific region. It is more active in its use of mobile and digital technology, more urbanised and more unequal in wealth and income.

These broader shifts, and the political responses to them, increasingly place education in a vice. It faces mounting pressure to achieve better outcomes for more people, while expected simultaneously to innovate and solve wider problems of society. And this is all to be done in a context of growing fiscal austerity.

Lots of change, but very little impact

Despite significant reforms over the past decade, there is unfortunately very little sign of positive impacts or outcomes. For example:

The percentage of Australian students successfully completing Year 12 is not improving.

State and federal school funding policies are still reproducing a status quo that entrenches sectoral division and elitism.

New evidence-informed methods, such as clinical and targeted teaching models (which focus on careful monitoring and evaluation of individual student progress and teaching impact), are being taken up very slowly in teacher education degrees and schools.

The status and efficacy of vocational learning have shown little meaningful improvement.

NAPLAN and My School have not led to improvements in literacy and numeracy, with 2016 data showing either stagnation or decline.

The performance of Australian students in international assessments of maths, science and literacy skills has steadily declined.

Replicating a failing system

The national reforms since the mid-2000s were designed to address many of these persistent issues.

Yet somehow, despite hard-fought political battles and reforms, and the daily efforts of system leaders, teachers, parents and students across the nation, we continue to replicate a system in which key indicators of impact and equity are stagnating or going backwards.

The school funding impasse exemplifies this problem.

The policy area is continuously bedevilled by the difficulties of achieving effective collaboration between governments and school sectors in our federal system.

It also remains hamstrung by highly inequitable funding settlements, established over many decades. These continue to entrench privilege in elite schools, while consistently failing to provide “needs-based” funding to schools and young people who need the most support.

As a result, educational opportunities and outcomes become further polarised. Young people from privileged backgrounds are accruing further advantage. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are increasingly locked out of competitive education and job markets.

The global growth of identity politics, fostering conflict over class, race, gender and migration, puts these trends in stark context.

So what are we doing wrong?

In Educating Australia: Challenges for the Decade Ahead, we tackle this question and seek to create a more innovative and productive interaction between ideas, evidence, policy and practice in education.

The authors

Principal Adviser to the Vice Chancellor, RMIT University

Glenn C. Savage,Senior Lecturer in Education Policy and ARC DECRA Fellow (2016-19), Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne


Educating Australia – why our schools aren’t improving (The Conversation)


Prinnie Stevens, Mahalia Barnes / Wikipedia / CCA – SA 2.0