What Victoria’s new Education Minister should do first - Grattan Institute

Victoria’s new Education Minister, Ben Carroll, has a lot on his plate. Schools across the state are still dealing with the ongoing effects of the COVID lockdowns, and grappling with workforce challenges and declining student attendance.

While there are many great things happening in Victorian schools, there is still plenty of room for improvement. According to the 2023 NAPLAN results, about one in four students are not at the level they should be in reading. One in four are also behind in numeracy.

Disadvantaged students are doing even worse. This year, about one in two students whose parents don’t have a university degree fell short of the proficiency cut-off. More worryingly, the learning gap for disadvantaged students appears to be growing, despite the government’s focus on improving equity.

Education is clearly a priority under the Victorian government’s new leadership. When he was appointed to his new role, the minister declared that education is ‘the single most important public investment we can make in our future’.

But improving school education is hard. While the minister develops his long-term vision for Victorian schools, here are three quick wins he could get under his belt before the end of the year.

First, he should commit to a state-wide audit of public schools to identify and fix poorly designed open-plan classrooms. Open-plan buildings that house multiple ‘classrooms’ without adequate soundproofing may look good in photographs but they are not good for learning. Yet this fad has found its way into many school buildings.

A recent Victorian study of six primary schools found that students tended to have slower reading development in open-plan classrooms, probably due to these spaces being noisier. Students with poor attention and listening skills did even worse.

The Victorian government should work with schools to remediate their open-plan classrooms where necessary. It should also follow the lead of the NSW government, which recently promised to stop building noisy open-plan classrooms after repeated complaints from teachers, students, and parents.

Second, the minister should mandate a Year 1 Phonics Screening Check for all Victorian schools – government and non-government – and publish the aggregate data.

This Check assesses students’ ability to connect speech sounds with letters to decode words: an essential skill for early reading. The test includes 40 words and pseudo-words of increasing complexity. It only takes seven minutes to complete one-on-one with a teacher, and it helps teachers to identify students who need more help with decoding.

Victoria’s current Year 1 English assessment is not as accurate. It includes only 12 words and pseudo-words, which means students are tested on fewer letter-sound combinations.

If a child fails to master the foundational skills of reading – including decoding – in their first few years of school, they will struggle to make the important switch from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’, and are likely to fall further behind. UK studies have found that results on the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check are highly correlated to Year 4 reading performance.

Third, the minister should commit to establishing ‘demonstration’ schools, drawing on the UK’s ‘English Hubs’ model, to spread best practice among teachers.

In England, the government selected primary schools with an excellent record of teaching reading to help nearby schools improve their instructional approaches. The support these schools provide includes showcasing best-practice teaching, providing training and resources, auditing schools’ reading instruction, and providing ‘partner schools’ with on-site coaching from literacy specialists. An evaluation of the English Hubs model found that partner schools outperformed non-partner schools on the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check.

Victoria already has several stand-out government and non-government primary schools with exceptional principals and literacy leaders who are using evidence-based approaches to improve the way they teach reading. Drawing on the English Hubs model, the Victorian government should choose 10 of these schools – across sectors and communities – and fund them to work with others.

These three initiatives would be economical, relatively straightforward to implement, and they would boost student learning, especially in reading. Given reading is an essential skill for learning across all subjects, they would help set up more Victorian students to succeed at school and in life, and put Victoria on a path to showing the rest of the country what the ‘Education State’ is truly made of.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Herald Sun on 23 November 2023.

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