5 May 2024

ACT public school shake-up is long overdue, and parents will still have questions

| Ian Bushnell
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ACT Council of P&C Associations president Liane Joubert, Education Minister Yvette Berry and AEU ACT president Angela Burroughs have all welcomed the report. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry is to be congratulated on the Final Report of the literacy and numeracy inquiry handed in last week.

When then Liberal education spokesperson Jeremy Hanson called in the Legislative Assembly for an inquiry into the way literacy was being taught in ACT public schools, she could have taken the partisan route and shut it down.

To her credit, she widened the scope to include numeracy, appointed an independent Expert Panel and arrived at broad enough terms of reference for it to provide a comprehensive 282-page report with recommendations urging a fundamental shift not just in teaching practices but also how the ACT education system organises itself.

While concern about slipping standards in ACT schools has been ongoing for more than a decade, the catalyst last year was Equity Economics’ Raising the Grade report released in June, which found that one in three ACT 15-year-olds wasn’t reaching the national benchmark for reading.

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Ms Berry, the Directorate and the teachers union defended public school standards and resisted change for years, despite research, data, and the experiences of parents and their children.

Of course, this was not a debate peculiar to the ACT. The reading wars have raged in Australia and the West, and unfortunately, they have also become tangled with politics to the detriment of students and teachers.

In fact, the Australian Education Union criticised Raising the Grade and hoped the inquiry would debunk a few myths.

Now it is calling the panel’s findings, whose recommendations reflect those of that very report, a game-changer.

What changed? The evidence, according to both Ms Berry and the panel chair, Professor Barney Dalgarno.

For the AEU, the move to centrally controlled curriculum support means relief for the members who have been bogged down in school-based curriculum development, a contributing factor to burnout and teachers leaving the profession.

But the ACT, so long at the forefront of education, is now a follower, with other jurisdictions already down the road of returning to explicit instruction and phonics, among other changes, to a primary place in the classroom.

Professor Dalgarno, Dean of Education at the University of Canberra, was quick to say that there was no one-size-fits-all approach, and teachers would still have a range of strategies at their disposal. It was more of a change in emphasis than a revolution, but change is coming if the recommendations are implemented fully.

Long-criticised practices are to be dumped, and there will be a general tightening of procedures in the classroom and more guided inquiry. And more testing will pick up those not catching on.

The Council of ACT P&C Associations is relieved that parents have finally been heard and welcomes the recommendation that the Directorate and schools do more to engage with parents and explain what is happening in the classroom.

However, it also wants students who have fallen behind to be identified and offered support, something Ms Berry says will happen.

Some will argue that the panel does not go far enough, but the fact that “evidence-informed consistency” is in the report title points to a key change. Many of the ideas that have come to dominate literacy theory have been untested.

It is as if Australia is waking from a decades-long dream to realise that we already had effective tools to teach children to read and write, which are now supported by new developments in how developing brains work.

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Parents are entitled to ask how this happened and who is to blame, and they can be angry if it was their child who lost their way.

The evidence may have shifted in recent years, but the alarm bells rang long before that.

Parents will also be relieved to know that the ACT’s autonomy experiment is now officially a failure and that their cries for consistency across the system have been heard.

Council of ACT P&C Associations president Liane Joubert put it perfectly when she talked about the postcode lottery that afflicted families.

The panel has recommended a four-year implementation program, but some schools apparently are already changing, and we are assured that teachers are capable of making immediate adjustments in the classroom.

But some will need support and even more professional learning, or unlearning as it may be.

The devil is in the details, but the changes should help restore the reputation of ACT schools as nation-leading institutions.

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At last. Let’s hope this government doesn’t stuff it up and that they support the teachers to do this well.

HiddenDragon7:07 pm 06 May 24

“It is as if Australia is waking from a decades-long dream to realise that we already had effective tools to teach children to read and write…”

Tools which worked well when average class sizes were somewhat larger than they are now, and when public schools ran on the proverbial smell of an oily rag compared to present resourcing levels.

The “autonomy experiment” in ACT public education is yet another example of the seemingly dogged determination of those who govern this town to spend as much public money as possible on reinventing the wheel.

The idea that a jurisdiction with a population which would, at best, amount to an area administration in one of the larger states, can and should develop so many public policies and programs from scratch, or close to it, is a conceit and an increasingly unaffordable extravagance from people who should drop the pretensions and just get on with delivering the services which the public needs (and pays a high price for).

davidmaywald3:46 pm 06 May 24

It’s positive that the final report focuses on student outcomes, improved assessment of each individual student, and applying evidence-based approaches. The Productivity Commission’s analysis of the National School Reform Agreement in December 2022, showed a poor overlap between the three “priority equity cohorts” and the students who are below the national minimum standards (70% of underperforming students weren’t in any of the “priority equity cohorts”). Hopefully there will be a lot less ideology and a lot less identity politics in our education system, because it hurts children and families.

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