1 May 2024

Public schools face shake-up after literacy and numeracy inquiry urges system-wide changes

| Ian Bushnell
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Panel chair Professor Barney Dalgarno: “A shift towards consistency is key to improving literacy and numeracy outcomes.” Photo: University of Canberra.

A significant shift towards explicit teaching, more testing and a consistent approach across the ACT public school system are the key take-outs of the Final Report of the Literacy and Numeracy Education Expert Panel.

Education Minister Yvette Berry has accepted all eight of the panel’s recommendations and announced a four-year implementation plan starting in the 2025 school year.

Panel chair Professor Barney Dalgarno said there was no one-size-fits-all solution to lifting literacy and numeracy standards in the ACT’s schools, but the report makes it clear that the evidence points to a more centralised approach to curriculum, a greater focus on explicit teaching, especially in the early years, and getting the basics right.

The report, Achieving equity and excellence through evidence-informed consistency, calls for a culture of high expectation that prioritises learning.

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The panel has responded to feedback that school-based autonomy was not working, recommending that the Education Directorate implement a system-wide model of curriculum implementation, teaching, assessment, and professional learning to achieve greater consistency across ACT public schools.

It says this would relieve teachers of the burden of curriculum development, which added to their workload.

“While the ACT public school system has a history of school-based curriculum and autonomy, this must evolve to deliver consistency for families and ensure the workloads of teachers are manageable,” Professor Dalgarno says in his letter to the Minister.

“The Education Support Office must take a more central role in determining a system-wide approach to curriculum implementation, teaching, assessment and targeted support used in schools.

“A shift towards consistency is key to improving literacy and numeracy outcomes.”

The panel says this new teaching framework should be evidence-backed, using strategies proven to work and supported by quality professional learning and coaching for teachers.

More testing and diagnostics, including a phonics and numeracy test in Year 1, should also be conducted to prevent students from slipping through the cracks.

The panel recommends that the Directorate develop an assessment strategy that includes mandated progress tests, a suite of diagnostic tools, and a new data management system to collect the results.

However, Professor Dalgarno sees no value in making these results public as they could lead to perverse outcomes such as league tables.

The panel says teachers should take a multi-tiered approach in the classroom – from teaching the whole class to groups to one-on-one situations, according to student ability and need – and use different strategies depending on the student.

But when it comes to foundational work in primary school, teachers should use a systemic approach to reading and writing that includes explicit teaching of phonics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and vocabulary, as well as regular assessment and more guided inquiry.

Decodable readers should be used before predictable readers, which should only be used after decoding capabilities have been well established.

The panel recommends scrapping the much-criticised use of pictures as visual cues for teaching word recognition.

On numeracy, the panel says teachers should focus on foundational concepts, teach these concepts alongside problem-solving, ensure children can orally explain how they solve problems and revise foundational concepts as new skills are taught.

Professor Dalgarno said the evidence had shifted on literacy and numeracy approaches over the past 10 years and the report reflected that change.

This will mean teachers will need to undergo more training in specific foundational literacy and numeracy approaches.

The panel also says the Directorate and schools need to listen more to students, families and the community and take steps to do so.

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Ms Berry said she embraced the panel’s key message of greater consistency across the public system.

She said, “I’ve heard there is a broad desire across the ACT community for a more consistent system-wide approach to teaching and learning in ACT public schools.

“Teachers and school leaders have told us they want more centralised curriculum support and consistent assessment tools that provide real-time feedback, so they can use their professional judgement on what really matters – delivering high-quality teaching.”

The Expert Panel received 295 survey responses and 96 written submissions, conducted 25 targeted consultations, visited 53 ACT public schools, and observed the implementation of the Catalyst teaching framework in Canberra’s Catholic schools.

The inquiry was announced last October after growing concerns about slipping standards in ACT schools, highlighted by the Equity Economics’ report Raising the grade: how schools in the ACT can lift literacy outcomes for students and the economy.

Equity Economics, the ACT Alliance for Evidence-Based Education and The Snow Foundation have welcomed the panel’s findings, saying they reflected the recommendations made in the Raising the grade report.

The Equity Economics report, which was commissioned by the Snow Foundation in 2023, highlighted that too many students in the ACT are not proficient in literacy with many students being ‘instructional casualties’, students who could and should have become proficient readers but who did not receive appropriate instruction.

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Martin Keast7:05 am 03 May 24

So the very bureaucracy that has done the damage is now going to take control and improve it? They’re blaming school autonomy whereas the schools are driven by directorate policy and “expert” advice from head office.

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