What should the ACT make of this week’s Productivity Commission report on schools?
First, the notion that the Territory is an island of high performance in a sea of stagnating outcomes is clearly not sustained.
The report says its findings apply across all jurisdictions, including that between 5 and 9 per cent of Australian students do not meet year-level expectations in either literacy or numeracy.
Initial poor results continue in subsequent years, so that for some students, once they fall behind, they never recover.
About one-third of the students who do not meet minimum literacy standards in year 3 also do not meet minimum standards in year 5. The same for numeracy and across years 7 and 9.
While the ACT does have economic advantages that have helped boost NAPLAN results, concern persists that performance in its public schools is not as good as it has been in the past or is as good as it should be.
The report calls for minimum standards to be just that, arguing that struggling students need tailored strategies, including intensive teaching in smaller groups, so they are not left behind.
“New approaches, developed and implemented in consultation with students, parents and communities, are needed,” it says.
But that should not be a licence for more educational fads.
Indeed, ACT schools could spend more time on directly teaching skills and less on student-led inquiry and projects, particularly in the primary years, which favours some and leaves others floundering.
Unsurprisingly, the report says effective teaching is the key, something the ACT Government says it is supporting with a strong program of professional development, but it also involves lifting face-to-face time in the classroom.
The ACT is also not immune from the pressures affecting the profession and schools across the nation, specifically teacher shortages and overwork, and indeed the Territory’s system of school autonomy could be contributing to the amount of administration teachers are expected to do.
One national survey estimates that teachers spend only 40 per cent of their time in the classroom, having to extend themselves across a range of tasks not even mentioned in their job description.
The report says reducing low-value tasks and deploying teacher assistants could help ease the burden.
It points to this high workload as one of the reasons teachers do not stay in the profession, which over the years has also suffered a decline in prestige.
But the report rejects lifting university entry scores as a way to raise teaching standards, arguing that it may exclude some who would still make excellent teachers.
ATARS may not be everything, but those with scores in their 50s and 60s are less likely to be across the basic literacy and numeracy skills they are expected to teach, even after four years of university.
And is a four-year degree really necessary to teach primary school? Perhaps a shorter degree would quicken the pace at which teachers enter the workforce.
The report suggests that governments could tap those mid-career professionals looking for a change to boost the workforce by reducing workloads and providing more support for new teachers.
It also points to the lack of career progression and reward for those who wish to stay in the classroom, the very ones that should be encouraged.
The other area the report focuses on is wellbeing, which can be a hard-to-define concept. But basically, students who feel safe and at ease in their school environment tend to do better.
That is an area that the ACT Government has been grappling with in recent years, with the blow-up at Calwell High a clear example where a school had failed to ensure the wellbeing of both staff and students.
The ACT Education Directorate should reconsider the amount of autonomy schools have and take up more of the administrative burden so schools can focus on where the real work needs to be done – the classroom.
But it’s not only admin. Teachers are increasingly being given extra responsibilities, some of which belong to parents when they should be focused on a core curriculum.
The directorate should also impose more oversight across the school system to ensure practice, performance and accountability on all levels, including wellbeing, and hopefully nip the Calwells in the bud.
The PC report says more accountability across the nation is a must.
It acknowledges that jurisdictions, like the ACT, need flexibility but says this should be tied to more transparency and accountability for results.
The next National School Reform Agreement should be “tight in its commitments and its reporting of performance, but not bind governments to one-size-fits-all solutions”.
The ACT needs Education Minister Yvette Berry and the directorate to drop its default stance of defending the system, accept a problem and take action.