Peter is a maverick, a free radical, a challenger of the status quo. His strength is in transformational insight and supporting educational leaders to build innovative and adaptive cultures in schools. Peter co-founded the Future Schools; a global collaboration of innovators aligned to transform learning communities and co-evolve the future of education. Future Schools now includes a community of over 100 member schools, including ten of the most innovative schools in the world. Peter was the former Principal of Templestowe College, one of Australia’s most innovative schools.
Peter Hutton will deliver the 2022 Oration, “Australian Education: How did we get here and where are we going?”, on Sunday 31st July, 11am at the George Kerferd Hotel Beechworth and via Livestream.
QUESTIONS OF THE WEEK
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reports that Australia’s academic performance in reading, science and mathematics has been in continual decline for the last 20 years. Why has this been happening?
Response from community member Lesley Milne:
The decline in Australia’s academic standards in reading, maths and science is a hugely complex problem. Solutions to complex problems require careful study of the interrelated causal factors; location, culture and community, school resourcing, equitable access to housing, health, economic and social stability, and what constitutes quality teaching and learning. What we do know is that solutions to the problem of declining literacy and numeracy standards have, up until now, been largely ineffective. Perhaps the problem is less about getting ‘back to basics’ more about systemic inequality.
In an article published in the Guardian in January this year, Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg identified a fundamental design flaw in the Australian education system, namely the principle of providing choice to parents. This principle assumes that choice in the marketplace is a driver for lifting the quality of education on offer.
Any parent or carer who has agonized over the selection of the best school for their child is likely to value the principle of personal choice very highly. Freedom of choice is considered a fundamental right in a liberal democracy, right? What, however, if we considered ourselves not simply as consumers but as citizens? What if, as citizens we made decisions about the education of the next generation as a means of creating a vibrant, collaborative and equitable society rather than one based on separatism, elitism and privilege? What if we recreated the Australian education system where choice was replaced by the universal provision of high-quality education, by the state?
Because choice is not equal; most families lack the financial freedom to choose a school in which they’d like to enrol their child. This fundamental inequity profoundly affects the educational experience of our nation’s children. Indeed, as Elizabeth Farrelly argued in The Saturday Paper last month, ‘private schools are systemically toxic to the kind of vibrant and inventive future we desperately need to create’.
Many argue that private schools significantly reduce the burden on the public system. And yet, according to the 2021 Report on Government Services, the combined commonwealth and state government funding for private schools increased by more than six times that for public schools over the past decade. At the same time, private school fees have tripled since 2000. As a result, the proportion of students in government schools has declined and the independent school sector has been steadily growing. 46% of school students now attend non-government schools. This huge investment into private schools has certainly increased their popularity but it has resulted in a growing number of students left behind in a woefully underfunded public system.
Considering the bigger picture, Sahlberg suggests that ‘Australian education is an outlier also in a sense that schools in different parts of the country are more socially segregated than in most other rich countries’. There are undoubtedly serious implications for learning where the system ‘concentrates disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools (that is: where more than half of students come from disadvantaged homes)’.
Neither is this a question about the quality of teaching in the public system. There is little evidence that attending a non-government school will secure a better education. While there may appear to be differences in the academic achievement of students in private schools, these tend to disappear once socioeconomic background is considered. The 2018 Programme for International Assessment (PISA) tests showed attendance at private schools was not consistently related to higher test performance. This is a testament to the teachers in the public system who continue to deliver excellence despite ever decreasing funding, and why as a teacher of forty years in the government system, I remain a committed advocate for public education. And because like Sahlberg, I believe that ‘there can be no national educational excellence without stronger equity of outcomes. Australia should accept – as many nations acknowledged a decade ago – that equity and excellence are inseparable.’
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some students performed better when learning remotely during COVID lockdowns. What are the lessons of COVID remote learning for education?
Response from community member Jess Marshall
The simple response to this question would be to outline all the ways in which I observed students thrive during remote learning, and to list the lessons for education, as there are surely some, if not many. Where families were well-resourced, had the capacity to persist with facilitating learning for their children, and had reliable internet through which to remain connected with their classmates and teachers, students demonstrated a remarkable capacity to engage with learning from home. Every day, we saw work being sent in by students and families who were as passionate as we are about connection, belonging, and learning; a significant feat given the disrupting, terrifying changes we were experiencing around the world.
The lessons we can observe here are the power of one-to-one tuition, the impact of the emotional and physical investment of families, the comfort of a familiar environment and regular clothes, the ability to take as many breaks as required (or indeed, put learning aside for a day or two), and the sheer loveliness of being outside in the sunshine or splashing in puddles as part of one’s daily exercise allowances. All of these factors are immensely important in feeling safe, connected, and ready to learn, and all of these factors are implemented as best as they can be in a good classroom where children are seen as the brilliant, whole, wonderful individuals that they are.
However, it was beyond heartbreaking to observe the widening gap between those who thrive and those who struggle – families and students alike – despite the very best of intentions from all parties involved. The inequity that we see on a daily basis in the classroom was magnified, and has led to significant disadvantage in outcomes for learning. Some of our students who find learning difficult – for a multiplicity of reasons – found it nigh on impossible to remain engaged in learning, and indeed, connected to the school community. We all felt the fractures, the loss, the grief, over being apart for weeks and months on end, over and over again. Devastation over these first years, the middle years, and the last years of primary schooling being interrupted so significantly. There were many days that saw the eruption of tears in the staffroom when lockdown announcements were made, and many days of tentative, hopeful joy upon reunion.
There are dozens of lessons for education from this period in our history, lessons that will hopefully change the way we look at learning for all students to be more flexible, more thoughtful, more understanding, and allowing more agency. Moving to a hybrid system where online learning is an option would certainly be an interesting move, and it would surely enable some students to thrive holistically. The biggest lesson for me, as a primary school teacher in regional Victoria? The importance of connection; human connection. Being in the same space as peers, teachers, school community members. Weeding the school garden with volunteers, cooking meals to share on Fridays alongside friends. Making jokes, telling stories, being together in the playground. Celebrating successes and sharing sadness, conquering fears and solving conflict. This is the critical foundation of good learning; a sense of connectedness and the deep knowledge of self as belonging in a group. Something that is central to humanity, indeed.
What can individuals and communities do to help young people achieve their potential?
Response from community member Lexi Bussell
The number of times someone has said to me “Well that’s your generation’s problem, we created it, but you’ll have to fix it.” is ridiculous. Climate change, high cost of living, impossible costs of housing. But ok, bring it on. Albert Einstein said that“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” and young people automatically think differently. So actually listen to what young people have to say, take it on board, and be prepared for change!
If you are wanting to help a young person become the best version of themselves, start with a conversation, ask them where they want to be in 5 years or what they are interested in or ask their opinion on a current matter. Young people aren’t ignorant and do understand how the ‘real world’ works. Young people read media more than ever before, and whether they like it or not they are made aware of the environmental, political and economic issues.
Next, offer your support and reassure them that their thoughts are valid. If you want to take it a step further and take action to help, you can. This could be in the form of ‘I know someone that does that, I’ll give you their number’ or if you know of some kind of forum they can share their opinion, tell them about it. Our local communities are very engaged ones, there are plenty of ways to have your opinion heard, but these need to be welcoming to a younger age group, and not just those at the right hand of the local high school principals.
If you want to see a change, you don’t necessarily have to make it, but you must support the young people trying to. And to all the young people out there, accept the help of those around you, they too know what’s going on.
Advertise it and we will come, we want our opinions heard.
Question #4 : On some measures, Australia is the richest country in the world, yet ranks 30th out of 38 for educational equity. How can equity be improved at all levels of education?
Response from community member Rebecca Miles-Keogh
Educational equity is a hugely complex issue in Australia, and we are now seeing the outcome of successive governments where the funded model of the education system has further exacerbated inequality. While there are a multitude of things that can be done to improve equity in education at all levels, the following are two big areas that need action and support from our wider Australian society.
- Fund public schools on a needs-based model
There have been some strong shifts in improving educational equity in education in Australia, most notably the Gonski review (and the follow-up Gonski 2.0) which was released a decade ago. In his review of school funding, Gonski highlighted 5 key areas of educational disadvantage that have a strong impact on education outcomes – low socio-economic status, Indigeneity, English language proficiency, disability and remoteness. There is also a compounding effect of disadvantage; for students who are in more than one of these categories, the impact on educational outcome is higher.
Gonski’s solution was to address the way that schooling is funded in order to improve educational outcomes for all students. While the needs-based funding model proposed through the Gonski review was seen as providing a clear way to improve equity in education, unfortunately this funding model was only partially implemented by the then Gillard Labour government. Subsequent governments have further watered down the possibilities of the Gonski Review – indeed, in the past few years we’ve seen a greater proportion of government education funding going to private and independent schools then to public schools, despite public schools educating 80% of the students who experience disadvantage.
As the current funding model agreement is due to expire in December 2023, now is the time that we can support our schools and teachers by fighting for a fairer funding model, particularly in public schools, that addresses educational disadvantage in Australian schools. Join our teachers in strike actions and calls for improved conditions, contact your federal and state members of parliament and respective education ministers to demand that schools need to be funded fairly.
- Invest in high quality early childhood education and care
Another key area where Australia can improve educational equity is through investing in high-quality early childhood education and care. This has been documented in numerous research studies as key in improving the education outcomes of our children and young people. Early childhood education and care provides important socialisation, early language development and play-based learning that, again, research has shown conclusively, is important in addressing educational disadvantage.
However, early childhood education is expensive and affordable case can be difficult to access. Early childhood teachers are low-paid, despite the qualifications required to work in the industry, and the important role that they have in children’s early development – an issue also of gender inequality given the high proportion of early childhood staff who are women.
Like the school system, there are huge staffing shortages in early childhood education and this will lead to a compounding of problems unless funding is improved. There is a planned strike on September 7, on Early Childhood Educators Day, so support educational equity by supporting our early childhood educators and demand better pay and conditions.
While much of what can be done to improve educational inequity is linked to governments and funding, at an individual level there is much we can do to support the people who are working at all levels of education. As noted, this might be through contacting members of parliament, Education ministers and those who make decisions about funding and policy in governments to let them know that we care how our education system is treated. Importantly, participating in collective action to show support and demand change is an important show of solidarity that we can also join. To end with some words from the Gonski Review: “… differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. Equity in this sense does not mean that all students are the same or will achieve the same outcomes. Rather, it means that all students must have access to an acceptable international standard of education, regardless of where they live or the school they attend” (Review of Funding for Schooling – Final Report, 2011, p. 105).
MORE FROM PETER HUTTON
If you’d like to hear more from Peter Hutton, here are some of his recent interviews. Enjoy.