Given the amount of money we spend per student and our relative socioeconomic advantage, the ACT’s education system should be at the top of the class. Unfortunately, debates on performance rarely go beyond playground arguments.
Claims that any criticism of public schools is talking down the system are toxic and must be rejected outright. Equally, empty rhetoric about failing our students by the opposition must also be rejected. Voters deserve viable alternatives to current government policy, not just name-calling.
The ideological inertia of the Labor and Liberal parties in the ACT has squandered our opportunities.
The vacuous Future of Education strategy released by the ACT government this August epitomises the problem. The document has eight points that mean little, waffling about “putting students at the centre”, “empowering teachers”, and “strengthened systems”. The strategy says nothing about what will improve performance. The plan has no metrics to hit and no milestones to meet. It is a strategy that cannot fail, because virtually anything can be claimed as a success.
This ignores the real and growing problems in our education system. ANU research shows that our children are up to a year behind in learning compared to other children who come from similarly wealthy and educated populations. The most recent productivity commission report found that compared to other Australian states and territories, the ACT has the third-lowest year 12 completion rate of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
The ACT should be leading the nation and helping all our kids reach their highest potential, but our politicians seem stuck. Here are seven practical suggestions on how to do better:
- Increasing choice in public school selection. Every school has a unique style. A more traditional academic approach may suit some students, while inquiry-based learning or play-based learning may suit others. Unfortunately, the old-fashioned and strict in-area enrolment rules for ACT schools make parents feel that they have no choice for their children’s education, purely to avoid bureaucratic inconvenience.
- Learning lessons from all education sectors. Everyone should have access to free, high-quality public education. We must also accept that some parents want independent schooling, given that private schools like Radford College have a seven-year waiting list. We must ask the question: what are these schools delivering that the public school system is not? Why do parents want to spend the extra money?
- Publishing better statistics on educational outcomes. Although NAPLAN is controversial, it remains the main available measure of school performance. The Federal Government is currently implementing the 2016 recommendations of the Productivity Commission to create a National Education Evidence Base and drive education reforms from real data. Yet the ACT’s strategy does not reference this major project once, or the opportunities to compare notes with other jurisdictions to see what works and to learn from them.
- Equalising resources at all public schools. It is a travesty that some ACT public schools have multiple halls and sporting ovals while others have no oval at all. The infrastructure at Weetangera School, just 3 kilometres away from Florey Primary School (with a high proportion of lower socioeconomic and ethnic children) couldn’t be more different in the facilities available to them. The government should establish an asset register and prioritise capital works for schools with lesser facilities. Every child should have access to equal resources, regardless of the age or suburb of the school they attend.
- Committing to introducing early childhood education for three-year olds. Research indicates that early childhood education is essential to allow people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds to achieve parity in educational outcomes. Despite the Education Minister recently announcing that the ACT government would fund education for three year olds, this transformative change is conspicuously absent from the overarching strategy and there is no timeframe for commencement.
- Aligning schools to the capacity of working parents. Too many schools are still designed around the benchmark of the 1980s where it was common for one parent to stay home while the other worked. Now both parents work and care for their children, with an increasing number also caring for their ageing parents. Schools shouldn’t assume parents are easily available during school days any more. Further, parents may have limited skills or capacity to help at home. Schools cannot expect parents to provide additional tuition to students who are falling behind.
- A greater focus on fundamentals. Reading, writing, and maths are more essential than ever. Unfortunately a seemingly endless range of fundraising and awareness “events”, often combined with undirected learning activities, provide too many opportunities for the less-motivated student to be distracted and fail to obtain these critical life skills. The ACT government should review all use of school time that isn’t delivering on the core curriculum.
The ACT Government has poured more and more money into the public education system, including rolling out school computers worth tens of millions of dollars, but it has dropped the ball on practical educational reforms in favour of glitzy initiatives. The truth is that our ACT education system is not delivering the results it should, and we need to acknowledge that openly.
We can do better. With leadership, I believe that it is possible to have a high-achieving educational system that makes children, teachers, parents, and the community proud.
Kim Fischer is a social commentator and parent