Australian schooling reform: Lots of change, but very little impact

Glenn Savage portrait
Completion rates remain persistently low, with only 74 per cent achieving year 12 by the time they turn 19. This means a staggering one in four young Australians don’t complete school. This rises to nearly one in three for young men, with only 70 per cent finishing.

Australian schooling is in a worrying position.

Over the past decade, the nation has undergone unprecedented reforms, backed by significant federal and state investments.

Major reforms include the Australian Curriculum, standardised literacy and numeracy assessments (NAPLAN), professional standards for teachers, national reporting on schools through the My School website, and the partial implementation of the ‘Gonski’ needs-based funding reforms.

These reforms have been supposed to deliver a range of improvements, such as greater equity and access to quality schools, better teaching, increased year 12 completion rates, and ultimately, improved student results.

But have we seen these impacts in schools?

Unfortunately, the evidence overwhelming suggests ‘no’. Indeed, despite significant efforts and investments, there’s been very little sign of positive impacts on key measures.

For example, the performance of Australian students on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has continued to steadily decline since the year 2000.

Of great concern arethe clear inequalities reflected in PISA data, with an average of three years difference in achievement between young people from the highest and lowest socio-economic backgrounds.

Domestic NAPLAN data mirror these issues, showing a stagnation of literacy and numeracy results over the past ten years, and clear achievement gaps between young people from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Another major concern is the percentage of young people successfully completing year 12, whichis one of the strongest predictors of success in study and work beyond school.

Completion rates remain persistently low, with only 74% achieving year 12by the time they turn 19. This means a staggering one in four young Australians don’t complete school. This rises to nearly one in three for young men, with only 70% finishing.

So what are we doing wrong?

There is a wide and complex range of factors that give us insight into what we might be doing wrong, but three stand out.

First, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that growing inequalities pose great threats to educational outcomes and progress.

These inequalities continue strongly along the traditional faults lines of race, socio-economic status, gender and geography, and also between public and private systems.

Most unsettling is that some major policies designed to tackle inequalities have in some cases contributed to further division.

Recent reforms associated with school funding (aka ‘Gonski’) exemplify this problem. The Gonski report, released in 2011, was designed to deliver a fairer ‘needs based’ model to determine the federal funding of schools.

However, due to complex political factors and lobbying from vested interests, we instead ended up witha highly compromised arrangement that ensures the over-funding of many already wealthy schools, and the underfunding of some schools needing the most support.

Second, it is clear that good public policy matters, but is often elusive.

Policy creates ‘conditions of possibility’ for both the ideas and practices of education – sometimes producing highly valuable outcomes, butother times serving as an impediment to positive change.

Unfortunately, Australia has too often seen politics get in the way of good policy.Indeed, schooling policy remains perilously hamstrung by party politics, short-termism and political distractions.

Third, while there is a rich and expanding body of quality research evidence about ways we might improve schooling, this evidence is rarely translated into widespread practice and the pace of change remains remarkably slow.

In many cases, this is because of a lack of adequate collaboration between systems and schools to ensure the sharing of good ideas and practices.

A major challenge, therefore, is finding ways to better connect politicians, policymakers, school leaders and educators with research-informed evidence, so that new ideas can be ‘put to the test’ in real settings.

Where to from here?

We cannot expect schools to solve all society’s problems.Yet,it’s inescapable that education plays a vital role in influencing the direction of social, economic, technological and cultural change.

So, if education matters, but is not a ‘magic bullet’, we must turn to questions about how to best refine and share knowledge about what leads to positive change.

There are many emerging opportunities, ranging from new channels through which policy-makers can collaborate, to online technologies allowing teachers and young people to share and learn across vast distances.

To harness these, however, reform of our existing systems is required.To borrow from Albert Einstein, ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’.

Most importantly, none of these efforts will make much of a difference if we fail to tackle deepening social and educational inequalities that continue to limit what’s possible for schools to achieve.

As social organisms, schools are both made by and make society as a whole.

If we want to see positive and lasting change, we need a holistic approach that simultaneously addresses what happens within and around schools, and which supports all young people to reach their full potential.


Glenn C. Savage is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Sociology of Education at the University of Western Australia. His current research examines the development of national schooling reforms and how policies in federal systems are mediated by global policy shifts. He currently holds an Australian Research Council ‘Discovery Early Career Researcher Award’ (DECRA) titled ‘National schooling reform and the reshaping of Australian federalism’ (2016–2019). Glenn recently co-authored Educating Australia: Challenges for the decade ahead with Tom Bentley.

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