1 February 2024

Letter from the Editor: Why 'good enough' isn't OK for the ACT's education system

| Genevieve Jacobs
Join the conversation
kids in class

NAPLAN results show the ACT isn’t performing as well as it should in comparison with other states and territories. Photo: File.

There’s nowhere smarter than Canberra.

The ACT has the highest median income of any Australian jurisdiction, and it’s filled with well-educated people in very well-remunerated jobs in the public service, academia and associated white-collar roles.

So why don’t our students do better academically?

Results posted on the My School website last week are discouraging for the ACT, which has the highest median income, the largest proportion of big salary earners and the highest percentage of tertiary qualifications in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

While income and academic achievement aren’t an exact correlation, there’s no doubt that schools full of children whose parents have tertiary degrees (if not PhDs), and wander off to school carrying musical instruments or their language extension homework should do well on a national basis.

But that’s not what happens. The ACT is just ahead of other states on balance, while NAPLAN results show many schools are performing at below or well below average levels in a range of areas when benchmarked nationally.

READ ALSO ACT schools’ NAPLAN results are just above other states, but should they be better?

That goes for the Territory’s most disadvantaged and wealthiest suburbs alike. It’s discouraging reading because it means something is wrong for all students and probably really wrong for kids from the least advantaged backgrounds.

The disadvantaged kids’ results will be pulled up – and to some extent disguised – by the natural advantage enjoyed by a disproportionate number of students from well-resourced homes where education is a major priority. But the kids from wealthier homes aren’t doing well by comparison with their peers either.

It’s fine to say that ATAR and NAPLAN results don’t matter to you or your child so long as they’re happy and healthy. It’s fine – and true – to say NAPLAN doesn’t measure the whole of your child’s achievements and personality.

But these are matters to consider as a family and for your own child’s individual wellbeing.

They’re not good benchmarks for a whole jurisdiction and they don’t bode well for the Territory’s future as results unfurl over the next decade. Happy, healthy and poorly educated is not a good outcome for the smart city.

Considering the socio-economic advantage Canberra enjoys, we should have outstanding results on any national comparison – and we don’t. That means the system is “good enough” for bright, advantaged children – and failing those who struggle.

The ACT Education Directorate report for 2021-22 showed while the focus on achieving equitable learning outcomes and meeting individual needs is progressing well, the ACT did not meet any of its NAPLAN targets in literacy and numeracy for Years Three to Nine.

Due to COVID-19 disruption, the NAPLAN 2020 testing did not occur and the 2022 – 23 report says as a result, no data are available to report for the 2020-22 gain cycle.

However the report says the ACT is “continuing to deliver stable performance in NAPLAN where the ACT remains one of the highest performing jurisdictions”, from which it may be surmised there’s been no meaningful change.

It’s not OK to see results from many ACT schools that are below or well below those of students from similar demographics. It’s as bad – or worse – to see those results are equally disappointing when compared to all Australian students.

READ ALSO Report recommends Territory’s kangaroo culling methods continue as usual

There is real poverty in Canberra, make no mistake, but nowhere in this city has the degree of entrenched multigenerational disadvantage that exists in major cities or remote areas.

Yet a school like Fairfield Public in Sydney, where 71 per cent of students come from the lowest socioeconomic quartile does better than many schools in the ACT. No student cohort in the Territory comes close to that level of student disadvantage.

Many will say – and do – that our outcomes are “fine”. More than 70 per cent of students, assessed across all years in 2023 achieved at the “strong” and “exceeding” level in Canberra under the new NAPLAN results system.

That’s on a par with Victoria and NSW, but both states manage more complex demographics with areas of far greater social need. We should be head and shoulders above on literacy and numeracy skills measured by NAPLAN.

The ACT has the right to expect a first-class education for our children, rather than allowing students with a raft of financial and social advantages to coast through on results that are “good enough” but risk leaving others behind.

The ACT can, and should, do better. We ought to be the leading light in Australian academic achievement. If that’s not for your child, that’s fine. But let’s not deny others the chance to achieve in a city where they have so many benefits and opportunities.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

Some teachers are brilliant, some are awful, but the majority are mediocre. The normal curve applies here as anywhere else, so we need to work with it by developing all to potential and getting rid of those who harm students and the system.

Teacher qualifications need more focus on child psychology, so they have the skills to manage children, engage them in learning and make the classroom work for everyone. Some teachers do this brilliantly, whilst others struggle to cope, as they’ve not been taught the essential attitude and skills to make it work. Diversity in the classroom means teachers need to be taught how to work with all children, not just the ones that are easy to teach and manage.

I was horrified to hear teachers at a Christmas party talking disparagingly about students and their parents, saying that ‘parents need to understand that some students just can’t be taught’. If that is their attitude, they shouldn’t be teaching anyone. All children can be taught. It is up to the teacher to know how to engage each child and how to motivate them, as kids want to learn. It comes naturally to them, unless they’re scared off it or told they’re not up to it.

Martin Keast3:09 pm 23 Dec 23

The ACT educational approach has been characterised by very progressive ideology. Many schools are focussing on the “woke” agenda – rainbows in the foyer, climate activist etc. It is not surprising that results are low – one prime example is the new schools that were touted as the latest in best practice a few years ago and now languish very low down in the NAPLAN measures. Given how much is spent per student in the ACT, how many public servants in the Education Directorate for every teacher in front of the class, it is evident the Directorate is top heavy, overloaded with bureaucracy, and focussing on ideological goals rather than actual learning. No surprise with the entrenched Labor/Green government in charge.

Stephen Ellis1:42 pm 23 Dec 23

Education standards in Australia have been dropping for quite some time now when compared with international results, so a simple comparison of ACT outcomes against other Australian jurisdictions does not tell the whole story. Some ACT teachers seem more interested in teaching children to take up activist roles in relation to climate, anti-colonialism, critical race theory, and, most recently, pro-Palestinian/pro-Nazi terrorist Governments in the Middle East. Added to that, I know of one teacher who has breached the Directorate’s relatively low standards and yet maintains his position in the classroom…where’s there’s one, there’s bound to be more.

We need to know that those responsible for teaching our children are of the highest standard, behaviourally, academically and ethically…they need to be able to focus on teaching our children the basics, particularly in relation to the “three Rs”, and to present as ideal role models for our future adults. They must be able to do this without bringing their political biases into the classroom. While I know for a fact that we have many fine teachers in our schools, who meet and excel in their role, I fear that too many teachers miss the mark on too many of these standards to the detriment of our children.

Oh yes. It’s all the fault of the teachers. I think you will find Stephen Ellis that most teachers are absolutely flat out getting through the curriculum. They are not interested in worrying about little Sam’s views on climate change or middle eastern politics.

How about parents start taking some responsibility for their children? Kids come to school even without a pen or a pencil, let alone with their homework done or an assignment completed. And these are not necessarily children from low socio-economic backgrounds. And many show no respect for anyone; teachers, other staff, or other students who are trying to learn. So the classroom teacher is left trying to make sure that each student has the tools they need for that particular lesson and to control really antisocial behaviour. No wonder teachers are leaving the profession in droves. These are people with high IQ, tertiary qualifications and an amazing work ethic. Who can blame them if they want a job where they are appreciated.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.