Originally published in ABC Education on 24 April 2023
When I ask my own children what they would like to change in Australian primary schools, they say, “We want more play!”
My children are like yours: they tell the truth about things that matter to them. That is why I have been so curious to learn what other parents and their children think about their schools.
My anecdotal evidence suggests that more time to play would make schools better.
At the Gonski Institute for Education, our survey of Australian adults just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that 93 per cent think play helps children build the skills they need for the future. A further 72 per cent believe schools should encourage more play in primary schools.
I have lived as a primary school parent and worked as an educator in Australia for almost five years now and this is my takeaway: most primary schools are great places for most of our children to learn and thrive, but they could be better — and different.
Take the Nordic countries, for example. Children start primary education when they are six or seven years old. School days are shorter and offer more time for children to play outdoors. Student health and wellbeing are considered essential outcomes of schooling akin to literacy and numeracy.
I am not suggesting that Australian primary schools should become like those schools in Norway or Finland. What I would like to do, however, is to offer three simple ideas inspired by lessons from overseas that would make our primary schools different — and fairer and
Less formal classroom instruction, more active outdoor play
Perhaps the most intriguing fact in education is that there is no positive correlation between how much time children have formal instruction and how well they learn in school. Wait, what?
But Australian children spend longer hours in primary school than their peers in any other country. A lot longer.
School days in our primary schools typically start between 8am and 9am, and finish between 3pm and 3.30pm — every day.
In many other countries the duration of instruction time depends on children’s age. In early years there is less formal teaching and more active playtime. As children get older, the length of school days increases.
Here is my idea: because primary school days are long, and the duration of instruction time does not explain students’ learning at school, we could easily give all children more time to play while at school.
What would be enough?
If all primary school children had at least an hour of time for outdoor play during regular daily recesses, that would do no harm to their academic learning.
Indeed, this might be the fastest and cheapest way to address steadily declining student wellbeing and thereby also literacy and numeracy in primary schools.
More healthy school meals, less hassle with lunch boxes
Any grandmother can tell you: healthy kids are better learners.
Evidence from research around the world proves this commonsense wisdom to be true. So why is it that healthy school meals are so rarely served in Australian primary schools? It cannot be about lack of money.
A growing trend globally is to serve all children a daily, healthy lunch at school. Sweden, Finland, Estonia and India offer daily free hot meals to all school children.
It doesn’t stop there. The School Meals Coalition is an initiative of governments and partners to support the improvement and scaling-up of sustainable, healthy nutrition as children’s right in all education systems by 2030. Unlike many other nations, we are not yet a member in this campaign for healthier and happier kids.
Let’s consider this: because one of six Australian children are living in below-poverty-line households, we could make our primary schools better and fairer places by serving all children free, daily, healthy school meals.
This would also put an end to lunch boxes in children’s backpacks and give a positive boost of relief to parents who try to figure out what to put in those lunch boxes each day.
Less external testing, more assessments by teachers
Another thing that distinguishes Australia from most other countries is our persistence of annual standardised literacy and numeracy tests in primary schools.
Every parent has heard about NAPLAN tests — those tests that measure student achievement in numeracy and literacy during primary and junior high school. While these tests tell something about how education systems are performing in these basic subjects, they fail to provide information about learning in other important aspects.
Many primary school teachers think we don’t need such standardised tests to know how children are learning in school. Instead, we should trust teachers’ judgment in assessing how students learn and whether they make progress at school.
In recent years, external national tests have been gradually lessened or removed from primary schools in many places to facilitate assessments for learning led by teachers — even in the US and East Asian countries that are known for their testing cultures.
Shifting attention away from testing to learning in primary school will eventually benefit both students and their teachers.
Australia has good education systems, but they could be even better. We could do this.
Let’s give our teachers back an opportunity to assess what students learn and how they progress at school, and let’s push standardised national assessments (NAPLAN) to later years in the end of primary school or high school.
These three ideas already work elsewhere and could improve student outcomes in Australia. But when I ask parents what they wish for more than anything else from primary schools, they hope their children would be happy and curious to learn.
These changes would no doubt help with this too.