The education bureaucracy is failing Australian students. Despite injecting record levels of funding into our schools, NAPLAN and PISA results show a continuing decline in Australian students’ academic achievement. In the last two decades, education spending has increased by 46% per student. Contrary to the belief perpetuated by some within the ranks of Parliament, it is policy not funding that is failing our students.
A lack of vision for major reform is especially hurting disadvantaged students, where educational attainment is the best pathway to breaking the cycle of poverty. Without basic fundamental language and mathematical skills, along with deep critical thinking drawn from the curriculum, we are failing in our duty to provide Australian students the opportunity to succeed in life.
In order to assess our failing education system, we must examine the classroom which has become a distraction rather than a haven of learning for students over the last two decades. Investment in technology, providing students with laptops and touchpads to include within their learning environment hinders a pupil’s education. Whilst the intention is to provide students with educational programmes only available on devices, technology in classrooms is consistently proven to be a major distraction to students learning.
Along with this, we are pursuing the failed ‘open plan’ learning environment. The traditional desk, chair and four walled classroom that has successfully delivered quality education to generations of Australian children has been slowly supplanted by ‘wobble boards’, couches and large shared learning environments. Mounting evidence in recent surveys has pointed towards open plan classrooms causing a decline in speech perception in students by 75%, along with teachers stating they are often distracted by noise and found oral communication increasingly difficult.
John Hattie’s research (a global meta-analysis of 95,000 studies involving 300 million students), states that Direct Instruction results in the best classroom results. That is, when teachers are standing at the front of the classroom and educating their students in fundamental basic skills, creating a rich interchange of knowledge, ideas and inspiration. Despite the evidence, State Education departments are continuing their expansion of open plan learning at the severe detriment of its students and teachers. Classrooms are an integral part of a student’s learning environment, but dodgy policy has made it a space for distraction rather than learning.
Secondly, failed education policy has been a momentous impairment to a teacher’s capacity to facilitate quality learning environments for their students. Educational Adjustment supported by the Australian Government’s Disability standards for education (2005), has resulted in students with severe intellectual and cognitive disabilities placed in mainstream classrooms. Teachers are often left without the appropriate training, resources and learning support staff offered in special needs schools. They are required to significantly adjust their delivery to cater for particular students, which can leave the class as a whole behind and at a detriment. We have failed to provide an appropriate learning environment for students with intellectual and cognitive disabilities and facilitate educational attainment for our most vulnerable students.
Adding to the problems riddling Australia’s education system, our curriculum has become cluttered with extra syllabus content, with additional focus on co-curricular activities, complicating the delivery of content by our educators. The primary focus should be on developing literacy, numeracy skills, along with science and history, to have the capacity to respond to the economic and social challenges of our time. The New South Wales Government has signalled a ‘return to the basics,’ however their interim report commissioned by the Department of Education is running in the other direction. It has advocated extra syllabus content in the following areas:
· A theory component in vocational education
· A practical component in academic subjects
· Identity politics through the proposals for an “Inclusive Curriculum” and “Recognition of Diversity”
· To increase second language learning
It is paramount that schools are focussed on evidence-based learning that develops a student’s intellectual capacity. Most notably the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) which is the final examination for NSW school leavers, disproportionately focusses on syllabus dot points that encourages rote learning as opposed to critical thinking and problem solving. If we continue to focus on assessing our students on the capacity of their short term memory as opposed to higher order academic rigour, we are failing to prepare a future generation for the challenges of the workforce.
The disproportionate focus given to failed education fads has caused a decline in investment in attracting high achieving teachers. Students with the lowest entry level scores are being offered places in teaching degrees, with one in ten teachers failing to meet basic literacy and numeracy standards. With little remuneration for high performing teachers, our ability to attract the best students to the teaching profession continues to be hindered.
We need reform in Australia’s education system. It should be actual educators, not ineffective bureaucrats, that lead this change. If we don’t reign education back to the basics, and provide competent teachers, Australia’s academic standards will continue to plummet and our students will be left behind.
By Lachlan Clark