“What do you think about Australian school education?” Ever since I came to Australia with my wife and two school-aged children five years ago, this is the question I have been asked more often than any other.
Before that I worked as schoolteacher and senior education policymaker in Finland. It seems like people think that Finnish education is a good benchmark to check how school education here compares to the best of class.
After carefully exploring tens of Australian schools and having my own children attend some of them, my verdict is: We have a world-class school education – but not for everyone.
This is both bad news and good news.
It is bad news because we know from international studies and Australian research how systemic educational inequalities negatively affect the quality of our schools and education systems.
We also know that fixing these inequalities and raising the quality of education is primarily an issue of how schools are resourced and how education systems are structured, rather than what teachers and schools do.
And the good news? We already have many excellent, innovative schools all around this country, and we know what effective, future-focused schools look like. More importantly, we know what these schools have done to become world-class schools.
Future Schools is an example of homegrown movement that brings together some of the most innovative schools in Australian and in other countries to show what is possible in education. This expanding network of over 100 Australian schools from all school sectors offers inspiration and professional expertise to anyone curious about what schools could be.
Through my work I have visited hundreds of schools around the world. Some of the best I have seen here in Australia. Better yet, number of these future-focused schools where students experience top of class learning has been steadily increasing.
Despite these good news, media reports on schoolteachers have become more negative over the past 25 years. In her book “Constructing Teacher Identities,” Nicole Mockler from the University of Sydney concludes that given the harsh criticism and blame placed on teachers for problems that are not within their reach, it is no surprise that the status of teaching has been in steady decline.
We should also report good news about what teachers, principals, and schools do well. Here is what that could be.
First, we know what successful, inspiring schools look like and what they do. We also know how to help more schools get better. We need less reviews and reports and more action to support teachers to do their best.
Second, we know that successful schools make significant accomplishments beyond literacy and numeracy outcomes. Student well-being, positive contributions students make in the communities, and engaging all students in deeper learning are examples of areas of schooling that are important aspects of good school education.
Third, we know that children benefit when parents and teachers understand education as shared responsibility. It takes a village to raise a child, a proverb goes. It means that just like teachers are expected to teach all children well in school, parents need to take care that their children come to school ready to learn.
All things considered I am optimistic that we can offer world class education to all our children. But we will not get there with current directions of school policies and reforms. What we need is new thinking about what kind of schools we need and valuing more what teachers do.
Failure to do that makes me think that in education you can count on the Australians to get it right – after trying everything else!
Short version originally published in The Daily Telegraph on 1st March 2023