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‘Schools are a microcosm of society’: the quest to close Australia’s education gap

‘Schools are a microcosm of society’: the quest to close Australia’s education gap
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At Keilor Views primary school in Melbourne’s western suburbs, teachers are always talking about “hitting the zone”.

“The zone of proximal development,” Helen Butler, the school’s assistant principal explains. “It’s the difference between what a student can and can’t do … the aim of every lesson is to hit the ZPD, to make sure every student is challenged.

“If it’s not working, we’re asking, ‘How do we go about hitting the zone for this kid?’”

By most measures, Keilor is a typical Australian public school. The socioeconomic background of its students is roughly standard, Naplan results are about the average and there is a growing cohort of students from a multicultural background.

But about 18 months ago Keilor began using the Evidence for Learning toolkit, a global database of education research that schools can use to introduce new teaching programs into the classroom.

The difference between it and the multitude of other education fads? The material is evidence-based and has plenty of research behind it.

These days, in classrooms and staff meetings, Kielor’s teachers and students are speaking and acting like education researchers.

“We started from the premise of simply looking at what works in the classroom,” Butler says. “For our teachers it’s about developing the capacity to identify the most effective research, employing it, and then evaluating it to make sure it has been working.”

The Evidence for Learning toolkit was introduced in Australia by the not-for-profit Social Ventures Australia (SVA), but was developed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in the UK. The foundation was set up in 2011 with a £125m grant from the British government and a brief to establish a research base to help schools make better-informed choices as new needs-based funding was rolled out.

It’s an issue Australia is now grappling with. After the federal government secured the passage of the Gonski 2.0 funding arrangement in June, the education minister, Simon Birmingham, established a review panel to look at how the extra money should be spent.

Its terms of reference ruled out revisiting funding calculations and instead focused on how to improve student outcomes and Australia’s national performance, as measured by national and international assessments of student achievement.

The panel, headed by David Gonski, is due to report its recommendations to the government next year.

In the meantime, Sir Kevan Collins, the head of the EEF and the UK government’s newly appointed education “evidence champion”, is in the country on behalf of SVA to meet policymakers to push for the establishment of a similar foundation in Australia.

He has already met Birmingham, who said Collins and the SVA had made “valuable contributions to the education systems in the UK and Australia and I had an engaging discussion with them”.

Since 2011 Collins, through the EEF, has helped commission hundreds of research projects with the aim of breaking the link between social disadvantage and education achievement. “One of the features we see in many education systems including Australia is that outcomes for students from lower incomes are nowhere near what they are for other families,” he told the Guardian Australia.

“We’re always trying to work out how to improve outcomes for everyone, but at the same time we need to focus on how do you narrow that gap.”

In Australia, that gap is only growing. In December the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development released its latest Program for International Student Assessment report, which found the performance of Australian students in science, maths and reading had declined over the past decade. It also found significant gaps between states and territories, particularly Tasmania and the Northern Territory, which were both below the OECD average.

Collins believes the best way to bridge that gap is with evidence-based research. “The key thing is that in the last 20 years or so there’s been a pattern where people have been telling teachers what to do – sometimes they’re people who know what they’re talking about, and sometimes they’re people with just another opinion,” he said. “But what teachers need are insights and information that give them the chance to make better decisions.”

School students on an excursion.

School students on an excursion. Education researchers are divided as to the impact of evidence-based learning on inequality. Photograph: Fairfax Media via Getty Images

He’s not the only one to make that suggestion. In December the Productivity Commission released a report titled the National Education Evidence Base, which called for an institution to develop research priorities and commission research in Australia.

It recommended the institution be run by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, and suggested the states have “veto power in the selection of research projects”.

But not everyone in the sector believes research alone will help. Stewart Riddle, a senior lecturer in the school of teacher education and early childhood at the University of Southern Queensland, believes the impact of evidence-based learning on inequality is limited by factors outside of the school gate.

“Schools kind of work as a little microcosm of society, and you can tell a lot about a society from its schools,” he said. “But the current policy focus ignores that to a large degree because … there is a policy desire to just make teaching better.

“Meaning, we just need to improve the evidence of the effectiveness of teaching methods, or the curriculum just needs to be better manifested, and if we do that it will solve everything.

“The assumption that underlies all of this is we have a problem with teachers and schools [but] none of it addresses the material, social, economical, political and cultural inequalities that preexist when a student walks into a classroom.”

He points to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s 2015 technical report on Naplan results, which found that almost 80% of the variant in scores was attributable to socioeconomic status. “It’s almost a perfect fit,” he said.

But if results in education aren’t really about what happens in the classroom, what impact can policymakers have?

“You could start by acknowledging that advantage breeds advantage and that the reason some schools do well has nothing to do with having better teachers or better instruction,” Riddle says. “We’re focused on the wrong thing.

“I’m not against having good teachers or resources – but it’s not the real problem. Teaching is like every profession, there’s good ones and there’s bad ones.”

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