On Monday evening I attended the Social Ventures Australia Education Dialogue Dinner. They bring together:
150 senior national education leaders – representing all states and territories, all sectors, and national agencies and organisations – to focus our collective efforts on enabling and supporting great teaching in all schools through a culture of evidence-informed practice. Such a collective focus is necessary to arrest the decline in the educational performance of Australian students and the widening gap in performance between the most and least advantaged young Australians.
I was keen to attend, though I did have a couple of reservations about the premise:
I do want to see ‘collective efforts focusing on enabling and supporting great teaching’ and the ‘widening gap between the most and least advantaged young Australians’ addressed.
However, while a ‘culture of evidence-informed practice’ seems a worthy goal, I can’t help wondering who decides what evidence is? The definition of good evidence in the field of education seems to be quite contested with some types of evidence privileged over others.
I’m also not certain that there truly is a ‘decline in the educational performance of Australian students’. The evidence for this is based on performance in PISA, TIMMs and NAPLAN. As Radhika Gorur & Margaret Wu explain in the video below, those data sources can be misleading and a ‘more nuanced understanding would point to quite different policy actions’ (Full paper here). Of course this feeds back into my questions around how we decide which evidence will inform our practice.
Nonetheless, It was extremely interesting to hear representatives from different sectors share their thoughts about how to achieve these goals.
Back in 2013 the federal education minister, Christopher Pyne, said in a Lateline interview
“The OECD says that we are a high equity nation in terms of our students… I don’t believe there is an equity problem in Australia.”
In spite of what Minister Pyne believes, the evidence of a huge equity gap is compelling, and not in dispute at all. Therefore, it was heartening to hear so many speakers from business, government, think tanks, academia and education systems acknowledge that equity is indeed a significant problem.
Over dinner we heard from a number of speakers.
Ian Narev, CEO of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia shared his perspective:
as citizens of the economy we must care about equity in the education system.
The Thatcherite notion that we’re citizens of an economy rankled slightly, but aside from that, I liked what he had to say.
He talked about renewed calls for focusing on ‘basics’ and said that from his point of view, basics include not only the traditional 3Rs, but also financial literacy, some technological literacy (though not necessarily coding) and
being a good human being is a basic foundational skill.
He described the kind of human beings he thinks we need to raise, emphasising qualities like acceptance and inclusiveness.
We heard from The Hon. Adrian Piccoli, Minister for Education, NSW. Minister Piccoli spoke about the need for education policy and practice to be evidence-based. He provided examples of how his government has used evidence to reform education in NSW: providing principals with more decision making autonomy; focusing on quality teaching through the Great Teaching Inspired Learning reform; and reforming Initial Teacher Education through means such as the legislation of minimum entry standards.
He wondered aloud why, when there is so much evidence to support these reforms, every other state and territory is not doing the same thing. I meanwhile, wondered privately if it’s because the evidence itself is contestable or if it just comes down to money.
Over his time as minister, Piccoli has shown a great willingness to inform himself about education in Australia. He doesn’t just surround himself with advisors. He attends conferences, visits schools, talks with teachers and principals and has a far better sense of some of the challenges we face than many of his predecessors.
He spoke about the inequity of our system in NSW, and gave the example of Walgett Public School in one of Australia’s least advantaged communities. Walgett is an inland school in a sweltering climate. Piccoli told us it has air conditioners that rattle so loudly they can’t be used in lesson times, they drown out the voices.
Much has been written about the problems at Walgett that create so many barriers for learning, so I won’t go into them here. What impressed me was the minister’s willingness to state publicly that a school in a system he is responsible for is in dire need of better resourcing. He challenged anyone to visit a disadvantaged school and then say money doesn’t make a difference.
The two keynotes were followed by a panel discussion. I admit to drifting in and out of this a little, possibly because not only was I participating in an active backchannel on Twitter, Summer Howarth and Bruce Burnett, sitting on either side of me kept topping up my wine glass. It was great to see Summer again. She was the organiser of the EduChange conference I blogged about here. It was also a pleasure to meet Bruce, along with Jo Lampert. Bruce and Jo are behind the very promising National Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools initiative, and we had featured an interview with them on the Teachers Education Review podcast the weekend before.
The panellists were Chris Roberts, non-executive Director, Res Med; Tony Cook , Associate Secretary – Schools and Youth, Australian Government Department of Education and Training; Maurie Mulheron, President, NSW Teachers Federation; and Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive, Education Endowment Foundation.
As Shani Hartley noted on the backchannel, all the speakers and panellists were men. However John Bush, Associate Director, SVA quickly pointed out that two senior women had dropped out of the panel in the days leading up to it.
Tony Cook spoke about the achievements of the Federal Government’s reforms, including the national curriculum and the MySchool website. Both of these examples caused a few eyebrows to be raised in the room, as many in education see the MySchool website, created under the former Gillard Government, as a damaging Federal initiative. The national curriculum is not without it’s critics either, having been reviewed before it was fully implemented, resulting in a number of very controversial changes.
Chris Roberts framed education in economic terms. He referred to it as one of Australia’s biggest exports, and talked about growth, flexibility, employees and customers. He said that from a business perspective, we need to be developing in students the skills to innovate, problem solve and think about issues broadly.
Sir Kevan Collins began speaking about his belief that the solutions to education’s challenges already exist in the system. Our challenge is to identify, verify and distribute them. He asked us to consider how we determine what is good evidence and went on to suggest that we need to take a scientific approach stating,
‘there are not enough medical style randomised trials in education research’.
At this point one of my table mates almost choked on dessert, considering the ethical implications of RCTs in education, and my twitter backchannel erupted in a frenzy. (Well, it was more a slight disturbance in the feed where a few small voices suddenly sighed and then things went on as usual)
I know little of research methodology, but I’m connected with a wonderful network of experts who patiently explain things and share articles with me. A few months ago, a useful paper was published in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education called “The medicalisation of current educational research and its effects on education policy and school reforms”. If you’re not sure why such choking and frenzied tweeting occured at this point, then the paper might be worth a read.
If you don’t have time, this video provides an overview.
For me, the highlight of the evening was listening to Maurie Mulheron. He speaks gently and reasonably about issues, but makes strong, important points.
He began provocatively, claiming talking about quality teachers is offensive. We never talk about doctor quality, and during a financial crisis there is never discussion of the quality of economists. He asked that instead, we talk about quality teaching. I agree with him. Language frames the way we think about things. There is a subtle, but important message embedded in the choices we make. I blogged about it here.
Maurie made powerful points about research and reform:
- teaching is one of the most demanding, complex professions. Teachers need to be at the table in reform discussion.
- our children have been guinea pigs for education reform from outside the profession that has never been evaluated. Only 10% of education reforms across the 34 member countries of the OECD have ever been evaluated.
- the Gonski funding review is the most important social reform in 49 years, with 329 pages of evidence. If we don’t start every conversation with Gonski, then we’re missing the most serious evidence.
His contributions were met with rousing applause from many places in the room.
The SVA Education Dialogue Dinner was an interesting and entertaining evening, I enjoyed being presented with such different perspectives on school reform and the opportunity to discuss them with people from a range of sectors in such a relaxed setting. The following day, even more dialogue occurred with a range of panels and speakers which I hope to blog about at some point.
I’m very grateful to John Bush and Social Ventures Australia for allowing me to be a part of it.