Discover more from Rebecca Birch - On Education
On equity and inclusion
Gonski 2.0: Where to from here?
Owing largely to our funding model, Australia has one of the most segregated schooling systems in the OECD. To address this, about 10 years ago in Australia the Gonski review into educational funding came up with some fairly common-sense recommendations, the main one being that a needs-based funding model should be employed to address falling student outcomes and a widening gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged students. The recommendations had bipartisan support but were hobbled, initially by the same government that instigated the review, with successive deals and side deals undermining the implementation.
I was part of a panel that met recently to reassess, refocus and readjust. Professor Scott Eacott of UNSW pulled together diverse views — system leaders, principals, researchers and teachers — with a view to moving towards a kind of Gonski 2.0. Scott recently put the final touches on the report and I’ve been looking forward to sharing the findings here. The macro-level experience was invaluable, but it did leave me with a slight feeling of futility. Here’s why.
Recommendation 1: Total government (Commonwealth and State and Territory) funding to schools must be based on equitable distribution factoring in the capacity of the school to raise other funds, and the loading of school, student, and community educational (dis)advantage.
I agree in principle that funding should go where it’s needed most. What’s not clear is how that money would be spent, and with record spending in recent years, it’s unclear how the extra funding would generate better outcomes. Greenwell and Bonnor, in Waiting for Gonski talk about not only clusters of disadvantage due to the current funding model and segregation, but also that due to a lack of desirability, less effective teachers also cluster in challenging schools. If our use of TAs is anything like in the UK then this, just like reducing class sizes, is a high-cost, questionable-impact endeavour in the absence of a detailed strategy.
Recommendation 2: Systemic (Commonwealth and State and Territory) oversight needs to focus on the overall health of the education system with reforms and initiatives targeting inequities in the inputs, throughputs, and outputs of schooling using evidence-based interventions.
Systems need to do more, and Australia is a patchwork of funding, responsibilities and approaches to improvement. Several times at this event, and in my interactions with principals, I heard about a lack of human-centred leadership, particularly in the public system, with leaders citing the problem of goals and improvement plans developed without consultation or the required resources. The Department of Education was notably absent from this event, revealing a bleak lack of advocacy for the students most in need of representation.
The other glaring disparity was the contrasting (notably not exactly conflicting) visions of what equity and inclusion should look like within and between systems, with vastly different views on the purpose of education. The nihilist in me feels that even with greater cohesion in the oversight of education, these ideological differences would almost inevitably get in the way of progress. The term ‘evidence-based’ has become one of the most loaded and subjective in education.
Recommendation 3: Workforce planning programs need to be expanded to address the supply of housing (both rental and ownership pathways) and non-housing mechanisms (e.g., transport subsidies and income supplements) to reduce cost of living pressures on educators.
This recommendation was really interesting to me, having lived in London almost 20 years ago where housing subsidies had to be offered to essential workers, so that supply could be maintained. But again, some participants believed that equity came from students interacting with teachers who were not like them, this being the key to social mobility, and others felt that students needed to see faces that more closely resembled their own.
Recommendation 4: Education reforms represent a whole of government (Commonwealth and State and Territory and across Departments) approach tied to building the necessary infrastructure with explicit accountability for improved outcomes within timeframes.
Schools are expected to reach their goals, especially for students with a disability, often without basic staffing, let alone specialists and paraprofessionals. Disability is not evenly distributed between sectors. Again, a wide range of viewpoints made it difficult to discern, other than through funding, how inclusion and equity could be achieved. One participant is a known campaigner for full inclusion and the abolition of Schools for Special Purposes, while another noted that the students they represented were often unable to make an informed choice about the best educational environment to meet their needs, relying instead on the advocacy of their parents.
Recommendation 5. The Australian and state and territory governments establish a formal body where elected representatives from all school sectors can participate in decisionmaking regarding policy impacting on the operations of schools and school systems.
I loved this one and while I bring a critical eye to everything I do, I think this is so important in principle if we want to retain good teachers. Under this model, teachers would be consulted in the design of the policies and procedures that affect them. The design of the new NESA syllabus feels more democratic than I have observed in the past and perhaps this is an area that can help teachers regain a sense of agency.
Recommendation 6: Governments (Australian and state and territory) prioritise data linkage capabilities to enable evidence-informed policy decisions and aid researchers and systems in their efforts to improve education outcomes of all Australians and Recommendation 7: Education research funding needs to be expanded to address the scale and scope of data necessary to inform policy with matching incentives to integrate stakeholders in the design and conduct of projects.
There’s a caveat here for me. I think there is often a disconnect between the research conducted by faculties of education and the evidence-based principles of how students learn. Possibly studies of whole schools and leadership have a lot to offer, especially since it would be impossible to achieve equity as a lone-wolf practitioner. But I’m sceptical of education faculties being put in charge of measuring the inputs and outputs of the classroom. The track record here is not great.
Recommendation 8: Audit existing system and school structures and remove any administrative requirements on schools and staff that do not directly improve their capacity to deliver high quality instruction.
I do hold hope for research in real classrooms, but very little for a shared vision of what excellence, or even competence, looks like. Quality Teaching Rounds was presented as one such solution but the evidence would not warrant the coveted padlock icon, as Greg Ashman has unpacked in detail here. The criteria are student-centred and don’t seem to be based on the kinds of teacher actions one would see under EDI, instead referring to elements like ‘deep knowledge,’ the somewhat nebulous ‘higher order thinking,’ and ‘narrative.’
The Quality Teaching model doesn't go far enough to encourage pedagogy based on the Science of Learning. I consider myself a decent teacher, but if you walked into my classroom, you would be more likely to see things like routine, checks for understanding, teacher instruction and student practice. My Year 12 class are now becoming ‘deep’ thinkers as they walk out of high school forever, but Year 7 has several years to go and it would be a lucky observer indeed who overheard anything very profound.
This has been a long post and has taken me a while to write. I really wanted to get this one right. Despite my ‘conservative’ approach, I am a social justice warrior who grew up working class and attended a public school, so my advocacy for evidence-based practice comes from a deep feeling of injustice. Every single person at the event wanted the same thing as me. However, the conversations about the purpose of education and the ways to achieve equity often ran on politely parallel tracks.
Systemic progress may grind to a standstill without a radical shift in critically-distributed funding and bold leadership. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, individual teachers and certainly instructional leaders do have power over what happens in classrooms. But not without some kind of shared vision and agreement on the ‘evidence’ and practices that actually produce equitable outcomes.
This class know they give me life every day and they are highly intelligent people. It’s just that they’re 12.