On Monday 3 September, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her response to the Gonski report on school funding. Emeritus Professor Terry Lovat, the former Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Education and Arts at the University of Newcastle, provided his opinion to the Newcastle Herald today.
Read it here or read below.
As we consider the Australian Government’s recent announcement (‘Gonski Response’) that funding to school education will be increased over time in order to retrieve its status as a ‘Top Five’ system, it is worth a few thoughts. First is whether it is ‘failing’, as alleged; if so, precisely how and why? Second, if it is failing, whether more money is the answer. Third, if so, on exactly what should it be spent?
Australian education is said to be ‘failing’ mainly because it doesn’t do as well in international testing as it used to. Being in the ‘Top Five’ is all about this issue. We should remember that this testing is, for the most part, narrowly framed around basic literacy and numeracy and what it tells us about overall preparation for life is limited. So, even if our schools are failing in these test results, whether they are failing in preparing young people for university, other post-school training, for work and for developing healthy personal and social relationships in an increasingly complex, multicultural, multi-values, multi-faith world are different considerations altogether. It is also worth considering whether the broad assessment of ‘failure’ does justice to the many dedicated and inspiring teachers who oversee these wider preparations. Leaving all this aside, let’s accept that Australia is not doing as well as it used to in international testing and so, in that sense, is ‘failing’. What then is the problem and is more money the solution?
Success in international testing relies especially on how the middle and lower end of the achievement scales perform. Australia’s top end performers achieve exceedingly well but we have a problem with our lower end performance. Other nations, with arguably less vocal aspirations around being ‘fair go’ societies that support the ‘underdog’, have beaten us at our own game, at least in this narrow achievement band. No doubt, this is a blight that we should address, albeit keeping it in perspective. So, is money the solution?
On the evidence provided by Finland, the nation that does best in these tests, the biggest issue is around school equality. Finland has a flat public system, with excellence and equity standard expectations for all schools. When Finnish experts are asked about their success, they refer to equity in the system leading to greater equity in test results. Granted that Australia is unlikely to go down the path of a single system, the only other way to emulate this essential feature of the Finnish success is to bring the less advantaged schools (largely public) up to the resourcing levels enjoyed at the most advantaged end (largely private schools). In that sense, the plan announced by the government constitutes the only plausible way forward and the only way of doing this is through extra funding. So the question becomes ‘how to spend the money?’
An obvious, though unenlightened, way would be to prepare all children better for these testing regimes. So, one might say, even more testing (of the NAPLAN type) and ramping up competitiveness between schools (represented by the My School website). Now let’s listen to the Finns. Dr Pali Sahlberg, Director General in the Finnish Ministry, has said: “Finnish authorities… have not endorsed student testing and school ranking as the path to improvement.” The wisdom of the Finns is that equity builds self-esteem and lifts morale, and these are the key to lifting results. Especially if we don’t have equity in the first place (as Australia doesn’t), multi-testing regimes only serve to drive the self-esteem and morale of the lower end even further down. When their results are then held up for the world to see, the situation becomes even worse – hence, the very problem we are trying to solve is exacerbated. So what might seem like the obvious way to spend the money would in fact be the least wise.
What the Finns do is put resources into the best forms of teacher training and upgrading, treat teachers as professionals in every sense, including in remuneration terms, and ensure that schools have sufficient autonomy to allow these professionals to get on with the business they know best. Australian governments, teachers, unions and teacher educators have much to learn from Finnish wisdom.
Terence Lovat is Emeritus Professor and former Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education & Arts) at the University of Newcastle.