Australian school education is falling short - Grattan Institute

The state of Australian school education is squarely on the national agenda.

Student learning is well short of what a rich country like Australia should aspire to. Despite increased spending, performance remains lacklustre, and the ever-widening achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children is cavernous. Meanwhile, teachers find themselves overstretched, with too little time or support to focus on the classroom.

This situation threatens to make a mockery of the collective commitment of Australia’s education ministers to deliver school excellence and equity. At present, Australia risks delivering neither.

Achieving excellence while ensuring equity requires classroom instruction based on well-designed and carefully sequenced lessons. But teachers can expect to find few pointers on how to prepare such lessons in Australia’s mandated curriculums. The Australian curriculum provides scant detail beyond high-level content descriptions.

Take as an example the year 8 geography content description that requires students to learn about “the location and distribution of Australia’s distinctive landscapes and significant landforms”, but does not provide a list of the most important landscapes or landforms.

The intention is to provide flexibility to schools, which many value. But the upshot is that Australia’s mandated curriculum stops well short of providing practical guidance to teachers on bringing the curriculum to life in their classrooms.

Most governments dramatically underestimate the time and expertise required for teachers to do this critical work. This failure has contributed to the well-recognised high level of variation in teaching and learning from one classroom to the next, producing a lesson lottery for students and teachers.

Resources of varying quality

Over the past two years, Grattan Institute has surveyed thousands of Australian teachers. Our research paints a stark and worrying picture.

Eighty-six per cent of teachers report that they do not have enough time for high-quality lesson planning. Only 15 per cent say they have access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes. Even more troubling, teachers in disadvantaged schools are only half as likely to have access to a bank as teachers in advantaged schools.

The typical teacher spends about six hours a week creating and sourcing lesson materials, and a quarter of teachers spend 10 hours or more. Two-thirds of teachers scour the internet and social media websites – such as YouTube and Facebook – at least once a fortnight, looking for resources that can vary wildly in quality.

Teachers are crying out for change. Nine in 10 say access to shared, high-quality materials would give them more time to hone their practice and meet the needs of individual students. It would also ease workloads.

Teachers spend three hours less each week sourcing and creating materials when common high-quality materials are available for all their subjects. If we stop expecting teachers to reinvent the wheel, we could save 20 million teacher hours a year.

The amount of government investment required to turn this around is infinitesimal in the scheme of government spending on schools.

Australia urgently needs a new partnership between governments, school leaders and teachers, in which governments acknowledge the heavy lifting involved in curriculum implementation. The revised Australian curriculum was agreed by ministers earlier this year, and the focus should now turn to providing schools and teachers with clearer guidance and much more practical support.

All schools and all teachers should have ready access to high-quality, comprehensive curriculum materials that they can adapt and use, if they choose. These materials should be well-sequenced and detailed, covering the lesson plans, teaching materials, workbooks and assessments needed to teach each subject.

These materials should be quality-assured by a new independent review body, so teachers can be confident the materials are road-tested and ready for the classroom.

The amount of government investment required to turn this around is infinitesimal in the scheme of government spending on schools. It is hundreds of times cheaper for governments to underwrite the cost of creating high-quality curriculum materials for the classroom than it is to leave all the heavy lifting to individual teachers and schools.

Improving curriculum materials is not a silver bullet. Schools and teachers need much more professional development, so they can use external materials effectively and adapt them as needed.

More monitoring needed

Governments should invest in strengthening subject-specific curriculum expertise and reinforcing the importance of whole-school planning and collaboration between teachers. This will require updating the national professional standards for teachers and principals, and overhauling professional development programs.

Governments – and Catholic and independent school sector leaders – should also beef up their monitoring and school review processes to give whole-school curriculum planning the central focus it deserves.

Curriculum planning is often treated as a “tick and flick” item in school reviews, which sends the wrong message to principals and teachers. Rigorous reviews of curriculum planning in all schools should occur every four years, to track curriculum implementation on the ground and target more support to the schools that need it.

For the sake of our teachers and students, it’s time to end the lesson lottery.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.

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