Two weeks ago, Professorial fellow and former Dean of Education, University of Melbourne Professor Brian J. Caldwell delivered our annual Ann D Clark lecture. It was timely for two reasons – Professor Caldwell and Jim Spinks’ book ‘The Self-Transforming School‘ is recently published and the book contains advice to our incoming federal government – stay out of education.
While the incoming coalition government has committed to supporting the autonomy of school systems and playing a limited role in school education, we are yet to see what this looks like in reality. In a piece last month on the role Canberra should play in our schools, the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen wrote, “because the commonwealth spends about one-third of all public funds in school education, it will always want something for its investment”.
There is consensus across school sectors, academia and tiers of government that in terms of student achievement on international tests, we haven’t made any significant improvement. What is more worrying though is the ever widening gap between low and high performing students.
One of the reasons why Caldwell and Spinks are suggesting that the federal government stay out of education is that the ‘control and command strategies’ used in the past haven’t resulted in the desired outcome – ie. sustainable and long term school improvement. Caldwell writes, “tying everything to implementation of a ‘national plan for better schools’ was bizarre, given that school improvement is something that schools must be responsible and accountable for.”
Caldwell argues that there is a strong case for change in Australia. He proposes that we follow Canada’s lead (which outperforms Australia on international tests of student achievement) where there is no federal government ‘apparatus’ in education. A Council of Ministers that would determine national policies and priorities would replace a Minister of Education. Wherever possible funding would be directly funneled to schools or at the very least to state and territory governments as well as independent and Catholic school sectors. This model is built on the premise that you locate expertise and resources as close as possible to the learning space. It takes into account the equity and diversity of school needs as well as being open, transparent and accountable to public scrutiny.
Caldwell says that self-transforming schools don’t need two levels of governments competing against one another in order to tell schools what to do. In Canada there is competition among provinces and almost all innovation comes from individual schools and systems. Leadership is critical in this model because school leaders are empowered to respond to change. Who better to address the diverse learning needs of a school community than the school itself? I agree but the challenge is how to go about about increasing school autonomy while ensuring we get the learning and teaching strategies right for every child. This requires effective instructional leaders leading in every school. That’s perhaps the biggest challenge of all.
My view is that those who can and must improve schools are schools themselves (supported by forward-thinking systems and governments). However, there will always be a place for intelligent debate and intelligent educational policy that acknowledges the demands of a contemporary and connected world.
Let’s hope that in the next few years, Australia will become a truly ‘learning nation’.