The performance of Australian school students has been flat or declining over the past decade, despite significant increases in school funding. Debate about why canvasses issues including curriculum, teaching approach and centralisation. But what can the practices and results of different Australian school systems teach us about system improvement?
Students across Australia are showing different rates of progress in core skills, with some making up to a month of progress more in each year than their peers elsewhere. While some factors are specific to local conditions, others can be emulated by school administrators and principals. As part of my work with system leaders and in educational leadership development, I was keen to understand more and what it means for system improvement.
To explore the topic, I brought together two experts with decades of experience to discuss what we can learn by comparing the outcomes across different Australian school systems. Nous Group’s Tanya Smith is a public policy guru who has previously served in senior government roles and was a lead author of an important report that informed the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling (‘Gonski 1.0’). Dr Jim Watterston is the Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and previously served as Director-General of the Department of Education and Training in Queensland.
A recent Grattan Institute report analysing NAPLAN results for students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 shows that students in different states of Australia are making very different rates of progress. Whether a student attends a government, Catholic or independent school has little impact on how fast they progress.
I started the discussion by asking them what was striking about this finding.
“There’s got to be something going wrong in secondary schools,” Jim said. “There hasn’t been a lift in Year 9 performance over a decade. It seems incredible to me we have developed better results in Year 3, hold them into Year 5 and then don’t seem to sustain them into secondary.”
Tanya said it was valuable to see the rates of improvement in different states and territories. “Doing that highlights the validity of focusing on growth for students rather than on raw outcomes,” she said. “This is consistent with the recommendations of the more recent Gonski report, which put an emphasis on ensuring that each student experiences at least one year’s growth in learning every year.”
The data also shows differences within each state. Jim noted that the further students were from metropolitan areas, the worse their results in all states. “The eight capital cities have performance that is close to that of Finland, at the top of international measures, but regional areas do not perform as strongly. The good result in Queensland is in part because it has managed to improve performance outside metro areas, which make up more than half the state.”
The report found that Queensland primary students make two months more progress in reading than the national average between Year 3 and Year 5, and about one month more progress in numeracy over the same two years. I asked Jim what he attributed these positive results to.
He highlighted Queensland’s approach: empowering regional directors and school principals; aligning central office, regional office and individual schools; building leadership capabilities among principals; and promoting collaboration among schools.
As an example, Jim cited one successful program in which principals are trained to act as assessors on the performance of other schools. These peer assessments give the principals of the schools under review some valuable feedback, but also elevate the thinking of the principals carrying out the reviews.
“As a valued member of the review team, principals get to speak to a whole school’s staff and understand what school improvement looks like. When the principals go back to their own schools, they are able to think of strategic improvement it in a different light. Principals feel so esteemed, and it takes the pressure off them.”
Professional development training for peer reviewers on the essence of school improvement has been attended by most of the state’s 1,300 principals, each of whom received consistent high-quality information, Jim said.
“The jury is absolutely in on the need for more data-driven instruction,” Tanya said. “It’s not as complicated as it sounds: it’s about monitoring how individuals in the class are going week by week and adjusting your instructional focus and method accordingly. Technology can increasingly help to get more of those real-time assessments.
“For example, in the ‘flipped classroom’ model, students do more self-directed learning outside the classroom online, which can produce data that the teacher can access. The face-to-face time in the classroom is then used to reinforce concepts or work through problematic areas.”
However, many schools face the challenge of putting into practice the insights that emerge from the stream of available data.
“There’s enough data, but things fall down in the implementation,” Jim said. “What do you do with the information you have? If you know you have a student who is not functionally literate, what do you do? People are really good at diagnosing problems, but schools are struggling with identifying the appropriate intervention. Having specialist expertise within the school that is available to teachers in the classroom is vital to achieving collaboration. It’s about reorganising the way you provide expertise in a school.”
There is also evidence that effective use of data may be a blind spot for some school leaders, many of whom have been in leadership roles for some time and for whom the focus on data is relatively new. These leaders may not seek support because they are not sufficiently aware of what good use of data in their role looks like or because they see it as a vulnerability.
The analysis of NAPLAN results also found little difference in performance improvement between government and independent schools, once you factor in the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“There is work to be done in changing the way people think about school quality,” Tanya said. “People see a school with bright and shiny facilities and assume it is a school that offers a better education. This is not always the case. We need to understand this better and promote a true ‘whole-of-system’ view rather than treat the different sectors – government, Catholic and Independent – differently.”
Jim took the point further to talk about the work done in Queensland and elsewhere to develop stronger networks among government schools, noting there was greater potential to leverage this approach.
“We’ve never really explored using the system of public education as an asset to help government schools be the best they can be,” he said. “In Australia, we think of school improvement by doing precision tasks – like a pedagogical framework or a particular program to teach reading. But unless people in the system think of themselves as being part of a system, then you may get some success here and there, but you won’t get consistency across a whole state. When you build a house, you don’t start with the roof.”
There can be a tension between school autonomy and schools operating with collective responsibility as part of a system. There are examples across all states of productive collaboration among schools that improves outcomes for all involved, however many jurisdictions struggle to create these productive connections purposefully and at scale.
Schools and education systems need to take active steps in developing the next generation of leaders. As Nous’ previous work has found, there is a causal link between school leadership, quality teaching practice and student outcomes in the world’s top performing school systems.
Jim agreed it was important for the public education system to offer a pipeline of professional development at various career stages to help turn rising stars into future leaders.
“If you look across Australia, there are not a lot of people moving through the education system to become system leaders,” he said. “Unless we start getting people to study the craft and work alongside senior education officials, we risk becoming dependent on the existing leadership. Our geography and our lack of investment in building the next tier of leaders has put us behind the eight-ball.”
Some of Nous’ work with the Victorian Department of Education and Training has developed the leadership of emerging school leaders, using an innovative blended learning model that incorporates a local, leader-led component that has enabled delivery of the program at scale across the state.
Tanya added that professional esteem and the sheer ability to manage the responsibilities that come with school leadership remain issues of concern. “It is a tricky balance between allowing principals the freedom to make decisions that are right for that school’s students or local circumstances, and not burdening them with the need to write the rule book from a blank page.” She noted that Victoria, as an early adopter of greater school autonomy, had recently given this a lot of attention.
There are some great success stories in the Australian schooling system. The challenge ahead is to help all parts of the system find practices among those successes that they can emulate. And there is a great opportunity to harness the system itself as a resource, potentially making it the engine for self-improvement through purposeful collaboration.
Get in touch to discuss how we can help your school or school system to realise its objectives.
Written by Penelope Cottrill during her time as a Principal at Nous.
 Goss, P., Sonnemann, J., and Emslie, O. (2018). Measuring student progress: A state-by-state report card. Grattan Institute.