How should Australia reverse its long-term decline in student outcomes?

How should Australia reverse its long-term decline in student outcomes?

On Tuesday night, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released its latest report into the mathematical, reading and scientific literacy of 15-year-old students.

An analysis of the data by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) found student performance across various domains including reading, mathematics, and science has remained steady despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, while the stats look positive overall, a closer look at the findings revealed widening achievement gaps between Australia’s most advantaged and disadvantaged students.

A staggering 70% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds failed to meet the National Proficiency Standard in maths, and Indigenous students were found to be around four years behind non-Indigenous students. Another worrying trend that persists is regional students performing worse than their metropolitan peers despite an increasing focus on addressing this gap in recent years.

“Australia has a good education system, but it can be a lot better and fairer,” Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare said following the release of the report on Tuesday night.

“We have to fix the funding gap and fix this education gap. That’s why I want the school funding agreement we negotiate next year to tie funding to the sort of things that help children who fall behind to catch up, keep up and finish school.”

‘Equity must be the number one priority’

Australian Secondary Principals’ Association president, Andy Mison agrees, saying “equity must be the number one priority in Australian education”.

“We need a coordinated effort across all education systems to target resources where they are needed most. The goal must be to lift the performance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Mison said.

“With the top performing countries in PISA showing what’s possible, ASPA believes Australia can aim higher. By focusing efforts on transforming investment into teaching and learning where it is needed most, system coherence and supporting school leaders and their communities Australia can close the equity gap and improve outcomes for all students.”

The Smith Family’s CEO Doug Taylor said that with the right policies and the right implementation, Australia can build a school system that works for all.

“One that matches the dedication and commitment of our teachers, educators and families and that gives every student, no matter their background, the best possible opportunities to make the most of their future lives,” Taylor said.

“It’s also time we acknowledged that digital skills are as important to young people’s futures as literacy and numeracy. Young people experiencing disadvantage often lack digital devices, access to the internet and the digital literacy needed to compete in the world when they leave school. School reform needs to address this as well.”

‘Warped priorities’ to blame

Shadow Minister for Education, Sarah Henderson said there is “no excuse” for declining standards and “the lack of tough action” from the Albanese Government.

“While the 2022 results have flatlined, there is very little to celebrate,” Senator Henderson said. The evidence shows the greatest disadvantage a child can suffer is not their postcode, but a lack of proficiency in literacy and numeracy.”

A recent study from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) found that teaching courses in Australian universities are “setting students up for failure” by spending too much time focusing on woke issues and activism and not enough on core literacy and numeracy skills.

The Institute’s Class Action program’s National Manager Colleen Harkin said the equivalent of just 10 weeks of classes across a four-year Bachelor of Education degree, less than one semester, is dedicated to the teaching of core literacy and numeracy skills.

“The warped priorities of universities and those in charge of designing the National Curriculum is making it impossible for our teachers to succeed, which is undermining the academic achievement of Australian students,” Harkin said.

Australia has a window of opportunity to set things right

However, others maintain that equitable school funding is the best way to improve the academic outcomes of Australia’s students.

The Greens have written to Commonwealth, state and territory education ministers to urge them to fully fund public schools, with the party’s spokesperson on Education (Primary & Secondary) Senator Penny Allman-Payne saying “the single biggest determinant of an Australian child’s school performance is their socioeconomic status.”

“This is unacceptable in a wealthy country that professes to value fairness,” Allman-Payne said, adding that with Labor in power federally and across the mainland, there has never been a better time to deliver a “truly sector-blind, needs-based funding model” for Australia’s schools.

“With education ministers meeting on Monday we urge them to seriously consider the PISA report and agree to fully fund public schools at the start of the next National School Reform Agreement, in January 2025.”