By Pasi Sahlberg and Caitlin Senior
As the new political leadership in South Australia state their plans for improving education, we should all keep one fact in mind: Australia is an outlier in global education. Not because it provides every student a ‘fair go’. Quite the opposite. Because it is uniquely unfair.
In Australia, according to international data, at the age of 15 the most socio-economically disadvantaged students are more than three years behind their most affluent peers. We offer world class school education to some students, but it is not accessible for all.
Rather than suffering from a lack of quality of teachers or curriculum, South Australian education suffers from a lack of equity. The real question for the new leadership is: How to keep the promise to give a ‘fair go’ to every child.
Educational equity improves when a student’s home background less explains their educational performance at school. In Australia, this link between students’ home background and educational performance is greater than it should be, given we are one of the wealthiest nations.
We also tend to send our most needy students to disadvantaged schools at a rate that is higher than any other rich country. That is a wrong way to a world class education.
Not so long-ago Australian education was ‘world-class’ by international standards. Many educators remember that South Australia once was a model for other states and territories in future-looking school education. That is no longer the case. Regardless of political commitments of the Gonski Review in 2011 and Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration in 2019, Australian school systems have gone backwards in excellence and equity.
The primary task of the new leadership in South Australia is to turn around these inconvenient trends before it is too late.
Business management models can be helpful in enhancing effectiveness of education systems, but they are often unfit to improve schools. South Australia’s route to ‘world class’ education for all its children must be guided by a careful blend of best available science and teachers’ professional wisdom.
South Australia already has world class principals and teachers to do what it takes. We now need to realign education policies and administration to empower schools to do their best.
All world class school systems take a fair go promise to heart. They combine educational excellence with equity that guarantees no child is left behind. The goal for South Australia must be to break the cycle of inequalities in education that keep too many students from succeeding in school. This is what’s preventing South Australia from actualising a world class education system.
Canada is among the best performing education nations today. Alberta, a western province, shares many economic, geographic, social, and political similarities with South Australia. Why has Alberta been able to lead the way in educational equity and excellence compared to South Australia? To answer this question, we recently interviewed education leaders in South Australia and Alberta to find out some answers.
We first found that South Australian education system leaders mostly viewed equity through an academic lens determined by NAPLAN test scores. Higher scores and narrowing achievement gaps were used as main criteria for educational progress.
Consequently, schools began to compete for students who would do well in NAPLAN. Affluent students who often do better in these tests became high currency in school markets. A side effect of this competitive approach is increased socioeconomic segregation of students, exacerbated social inequalities, and stagnated educational performance overall.
Our second finding was that South Australian teachers felt their voices had been increasingly muted in education policy discussions and school improvement. At the same time, teachers’ workloads are at a tipping-point due to growing top-down mandates that has increased schools’ administrative burden and taken time away from more relevant classroom focused work.
We also discovered that in South Australia education leaders thought that public education resourcing was unfair and often insufficient to respond to growing education needs in schools. This is understandable given that government funding for non-government schools has increased by five times that for public schools over the last 10 years.
We found a very different situation in Alberta.
Albertan education leaders seemed to have a different understanding of equity. They described equity and quality of education meaning more than academic outcomes, they recognised that each student has their own diverse needs, and that teachers are trusted professionals who work together with their colleagues to explore how to meet those individual needs.
Probably most importantly Albertan educators have had an equal seat at the policymaking table over the past two decades. Instead of thinking that competition between schools is a key to success, Albertan education leaders believe in collaboration amongst all education stakeholders.
It is cooperation for equity, not the race between schools for higher test scores, that has improved teaching and learning in schools in all world class education systems.
South Australia is holding a twin opportunity in educational betterment. On one hand, the ongoing pandemic has made the need to change school education a moral imperative. On the other hand, new state leadership has a moral obligation to keep the promise to give everyone a ‘fair go’ through more equal education.
We suggest that going forward, the South Australian government should drive their education improvement with those ideas found in other world class education nations, rather than continue down the inequitable path it has been on so far.
This means understanding equity as a complimentary concept to excellence, making smart investments in advancing real collaboration between schools, engaging educators as real partners in policy considerations, and allocating available resources fairly to schools where they are most needed.
Improving equity is the best route back to a world-class education nation. The evidence is clear, and the road ahead should be too.