Don’t attach too many strings to Gonski 2.0’s vision

Ahead of a briefing to state and territory education ministers at a special COAG meeting on Friday, it’s important that David Gonski’s vision for Australia’s education future isn’t just a tick-the-box exercise

Julie Sonnemann and Dr Peter Goss, Grattan Institute

Julie SonnemannDr Peter Goss

Published 3 May 2018

Gonski has done it again. The Gonski 2.0 plan unveiled this week offers a strong vision statement on the big reforms needed in Australian schools.

It’s a much more sophisticated and comprehensive strategy than past federal government efforts. And it’s refreshing to see the national conversation finally turning away from ‘how much’ government funding, towards ‘how best to use’ extra government funding for schools.

The idea of improving student achievement through a greater focus on learning growth is critical. Picture: Getty Images

David Gonski’s review team – largely adopting the approach we recommended in our February report, The Commonwealth’s role in improving schoolshas used the review as an opportunity to stand back and articulate a big reform agenda. Within this bigger picture, it proposes only a small number of Commonwealth reforms, in areas where there are genuine benefits of national scale and coordination.

Gonski lays out the framework for an adaptive education system that continuously improves itself at every level, based around maximising individual student progress. It articulates the actions that will help the use of evidence across the system: in the classroom, the school, the region, the state and nation-wide.

Gonski’s idea of improving student achievement through a greater focus on learning growth is critical. The report includes proposals to help the profession realise this vision: more teaching tools to track individual students’ progress; better use of Australia’s most expert teachers to teach and train other teachers; and enhanced opportunities for teacher feedback, collaboration and mentoring.

In a sense, big ideas are easy in school policy. Implementation of those ideas can be hard.

Creating the right conditions for behavior change in schools is no small task. Gonski’s vision statement is light touch on the ‘how’, but it is still worthwhile; it helps to put a focus on the things that matter, and to get the Commonwealth government and the states on the same page on what needs to happen next.

Importantly, Gonski’s review team suggests a small number of worthwhile federally-led reforms. In particular, the proposed new, voluntary, Teaching Tools for diagnostic use in the classroom is a big step forward. Until now, Australia’s national reform effort has invested a lot more in ‘big data’ assessments for benchmarking and reporting purposes, such as NAPLAN and My School, rather than ‘small data’ assessments used by teachers for improvement in the classroom, which are known to have one of the biggest impacts on teaching.

Some have suggested Gonski 2.0 focuses too much on student growth. Picture: Getty Images

It makes sense that Teaching Tools is led nationally, given the benefits and cost-efficiencies of scale. Of course, for the tools to be successful a lot will need to be done by state governments to lift teacher capacity to interpret and use the assessment results, a big issue in schools.

Some have suggested Gonski 2.0 focuses too much on student growth, and that school reporting will omit information on how a student is performing in absolute proficiency terms, or how the student compares to his or her peers.

The review does not recommend throwing out reporting of achievement, but rather broadening it to include growth measures as well. Are high achieving students being stretched enough? Are low-achieving students making adequate progress? We cannot answer these fundamental questions unless we have the extra information on student growth over time.

Other critics have raised concerns that Gonski’s call for more focus on non-cognitive skills and creativity will come at the expense of focus on core content and knowledge. This is not our interpretation of the review, and it would be a mistake if it were to happen. Presenting the two objectives as trade-offs is a mistake. The development of general capabilities tends to rely on the understanding of core content and should not taught in isolation of knowledge.

One big missing element of Gonski 2.0’s terms of reference was what the Commonwealth will do next on early childhood education. To their credit the review team included discussion of the reform area anyway, and it’s an issue the federal government cannot ignore.

But it would be wrong for the Commonwealth to now take the review’s recommendations and mandate them as new funding requirements in forthcoming negotiations with the states and territories.

One missing element is what the Commonwealth will do next on early childhood education. Picture: Getty Images

We must learn from history.

Heavy handed funding requirements have been tried before for little benefit. Unless there is strong state government buy-in and a good political environment for collaboration then states are most likely to answer with tick-a-box responses.

The most likely outcome is increased reporting and red tape, with few ways for the Commonwealth to independently verify what is happening in schools.

Accountability in schools policy works best when voters hold state governments to account, rather than state governments reporting more to federal bureaucrats.

Let’s hope the Commonwealth doesn’t use this document to pick a fight with the states on new funding conditions. Friday’s Council of Australian Government’s meeting of education ministers will be critical.

For the sake of Australia’s school students, David Gonski’s big vision needs to prevail over politicking.

Banner image: Shutterstock

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