Where to focus in 2015

By Professor Field Rickards, Dean, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

My colleague professor Linda Darling-Hammond, from Stanford University, likes to tell a story – albeit mock-grudgingly, as it features research from rival institution the University of California, Berkeley.

Researchers at Berkeley, she explains, discovered that between 1999 and 2003 more new knowledge was created than in the entire preceding history of the world.

This presents a huge challenge for us educators. As Darling-Hammond said, "Young people are going to have to solve problems we have created for them and can barely frame, with knowledge that hasn't been invented yet, [and] technologies that haven't been discovered yet."

So, in considering what 2015 has in store for Australian education, I am keeping this challenge in the back of my mind. It provides, I believe, an important test for new education policy proposals.

Early childhood

We know, without doubt, the crucial importance of high-quality early learning, particularly for children coming from backgrounds where there is less opportunity for learning in the home and community.

When these children receive high-quality early education, the achievement gap is narrowed before school, outcomes such as drop-outs and incarceration are reduced, and rates of university entry and levels of health in young adulthood improve.

So when the Productivity Commission recommended last year that minimum staff-child ratios could be removed and staff qualification requirements could be lowered for children under 3, my colleagues in early-childhood education were understandably concerned. We will be watching the government's response to those recommendations closely.

Affordability of childcare is a challenging issue, but it is vital we preserve our commitment to quality, as outlined in the National Quality Framework and Standards, when considering any changes to early childhood education and care in Australia.

Teacher education

I welcome the federal government's focus on teaching quality as one of its four priority areas for education. As most educators know, the teacher is the single most important in-school factor when it comes to student outcomes and, as such, I believe teachers should always be a priority for our policymakers.

As a member of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, it has been rewarding to contribute to the national discussion around how we can best prepare graduate teachers for the classroom. Much of the discussion, I believe, needs to focus on the profession of teaching; both on professionalising teaching and on holding it in the same high esteem as we hold other professions.

Professions all have a common body of knowledge and skills that is acknowledged and shared amongst all their members. They also have a commitment to the welfare of their clients to do what is right based on that shared knowledge, and they define, transmit and enforce those standards of practice. As a member of a profession, you cannot do what 'feels right'; you must do what is known to be right.

In Australia, we are making great steps towards recognising teaching as a true profession. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) standards are playing an important role here, and under the leadership of professor John Hattie they are in safe hands in 2015 and beyond. The focus on the accreditation of teacher education courses and school leadership is vital. However, teacher education institutions like my own, at the University of Melbourne must also play their part.

Teaching is a complex, challenging, clinical practice profession that requires high-calibre individuals. We offer only graduate teacher education courses at the University of Melbourne because we believe teaching students need the foundational disciplinary knowledge gained from an undergraduate degree before they are ready to learn to teach. And we consider non-academic skills in our selection processes, including communication and resilience.

Our graduates are prepared to become clinical teachers. This means they focus on growth and development to ensure every child excels. Clinical teachers are capable of using data and evidence to meet the needs of individual learners. They determine what each student is ready to learn, have the capability to support learning, and are able to evaluate the impact they have on the learner.

Our graduates have the foundation to be true professionals, who will be capable of preparing their students for the challenges of the 21st century. In 2015, I hope to see more opportunities for graduate, clinical teacher preparation become available in other parts of Australia.

School autonomy

Another of the government's four priority areas for education is school autonomy. As my colleague professor Stephen Dinham pointed out in his address to the Australian College of Educators at the end of last year, this seems influenced by recent developments in the UK and the US, with little consideration given to the impact of such policies in those countries.

The government is pursuing its school autonomy agenda through the creation of independent public schools. Sadly, there seems to have been little consideration of the evidence about the establishment of similar schools elsewhere – most notably charter schools in the US and free schools in England and Wales. In both cases, such schools have been controversial, with some producing particularly poor outcomes. We ignore the lessons these countries have learned at our peril.

The pursuit of school autonomy is based on the belief that locating responsibility at the local level will generate incentives to improve the quality and accountability of each school. However, arguments in favour of autonomy ignore the fact that Australia already has high levels of autonomy in our system, and this has not addressed many of the issues our schools face.

Instead of focusing on autonomy, choice and creating a market of schooling (which entrenches disadvantage), we should be focusing on making every neighbourhood school excellent.

Valuing our government schools

Which leads me to the importance of our government schools. We cannot forget the stark realities the Gonski Review demonstrated; there is a huge difference between student outcomes in well-endowed schools and those in low-socioeconomic areas.

As the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) demonstrates, we do have an equity challenge in Australia. The gap between our lowest achievers and our highest is greater than the OECD average. Moreover, our overall ranking is now behind nations that were equivalent to us 12 years ago, and it is our most able students who are falling behind. What the top-performing nations have in common is that they have strong public education systems.

There is another worrying trend in Australia. Over the last 30 years, there has been a drift in enrolments from the government to the independent sector. About 20 per cent of students are educated in the Catholic education system and this has been steady. But in 1985, 74 per cent of our students were educated in the government system and nearly 7 per cent in the independent sector. Those figures are now 65 per cent government and 14 per cent Independent.

This is a significant drift indeed, and it weakens our public education system. Whilst that system is generally strong in Australia and, overall, produces good results, we cannot seem to shake the myth that our government schools are failing. This myth is incredibly powerful, and it exerts a great deal of influence on parents' choices about where to send their children to school. We have a great deal of work to do to counter it, and esteem our public schools in our national conversations.

Empowering for the future

Whilst I welcome the federal government's focus on teaching quality, there remains a danger this government will fall into the trap that caught many of its predecessors: focusing on policies that affect factors outside the classroom, instead of on what counts.

These political distractions lead to many millions of dollars spent for little gain in student or teacher learning. Instead, we need to focus on building a profession of teachers, esteeming excellence and asking teachers to be critically involved in building their profession so change can be successfully implemented.

By empowering the profession of teaching, we will, become able to prepare our young people for the unimaginable challenges they will face in the future. And that, surely, is the best opportunity we can offer them.

This article originally appeared in Education Review.