Pasi Sahlberg Blog

Finnish education reform

Australia has its own education solution: Gonski

by Pasi Sahlberg and Dennis Shirley

Originally published in the Drum on 19 June 2014

Australia doesn’t need to import education reform ideas from the US or elsewhere – its own Gonski reforms would remove the inequality which is holding its schools back, write Pasi Sahlberg and Dennis Shirley.

One riddle of education debate today concerns the strange disconnect that occurs between how schools actually perform and how they are perceived. As regular visitors from Finland and the US to Australia, we find that the country’s schools are better than they are often given public credit for.

The Australian public school system that has successfully catered to a large and diverse student population has been a model for many other countries with similar challenges. As we see it, there is no calling for the nation to transport fashionable practices from abroad. What Australia needs instead is full commitment to its own jointly agreed-upon commitments.

Politicians are often eager to announce that the performance of their education systems is getting worse only to justify new reforms.

In Canada, England, New Zealand, and Australia, school systems have declined in rankings on international tests. When the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were released last December, several commentators concluded that the Australian school system is in crisis and needs to be reformed.

Beyond the headlines, in cases such as these, little attention is given to the topic of how equitable school systems are for children with different life circumstances. The OECD has concluded in its 2012 PISA study that “the highest-performing education systems across the OECD countries are those that combine quality with equity”. That same study found that Australia is the only country where differences in learning mathematics between advantaged and disadvantaged students are large, while the relationship between students’ achievement in school and their family background is weaker than average. This indicates that there is an equity problem in Australia but that public schools are able to cope with much of the inequality that the pupils bring with them to school every day.

The fact of the matter is that all the world’s successful education systems have carefully designed mechanisms to allocate resources equitably to their schools.

Finland, Korea and Singapore all resource their schools based on students’ needs, not just a headcount. The Review of Funding for Schooling by the expert panel that David Gonski led is exactly what Australia needs to enhance the equity and the excellence of its schools.

The question is not whether the government should or shouldn’t commit itself to full funding of the report’s suggestions. It is: Can Australia afford to continue to fund inequity in its school system as it seeks to bring its overall educational performance back on track?

Australia can build great schools for all of its children. Phenomenal cultural richness and substantial national wealth create a unique platform for improvement that places Australia far ahead of many nations.

The clearly articulated and widely shared idea of Educational Goals for Young Australians in the Melbourne Declaration provides a basis for development that other countries can only dream of. The Declaration proclaimed that the Australian governments “must ensure that socioeconomic disadvantage ceases to be a significant determinant of educational outcomes”.

Gonski’s recommendation for fairer funding of schools clarifies how to accomplish this important national goal.

Australia has another unique aspect in its education system. It has one of the largest proportions of children studying in non-government schools among the OECD countries. Public schools educate more than 80 per cent of students in the lowest quartile of socio-economic status, Indigenous students, students in remote areas, students with a funded disability, and the vast majority of students with English language difficulties.

As a consequence, deeply segregated Australian public schools continue to suffer from the unfair social stigma of serving these disadvantaged children, rather than carrying the inspiring connotation of providing a unifying, high-quality education for all.

Around the globe, all nations stand at an educational crossroads today. In the world that is becoming increasingly unequal, evidence from the OECD countries is clear: equity and excellence combined provide the best strategy forward.

Whatever politicians may say, there is no need in Australia to transport education reform ideas from the US or any other country. What this country needs now is to respect its earlier commitments to strengthen its public school system in order to build a new and inspiring system of schools that are not based on any foreign models but instead define a uniquely Australian and utterly compelling vision and strategy for giving a great education to each and every child.