When is Australia going to be come a nation? In terms of education, Australia is both world-class and unequal. Both innovative and parochial. Both research-based and politically whimsical. Our states operate only nationally because of funding that flows – or doesn’t – from federal coffers and always does with a set of footnotes that cause flags to be raised, reports to be redesigned and curricula adapted. Even though we live in a country where it is unnoticeably common to pick up a phone and watch a video of an event our friend has just experienced on the other side of the world… or indeed start a video call with a colleague interstate with nothing more then 3G reception and the right app… yet we find that students in different states have vastly different experiences of education despite our relatively small population.
On the one hand, we are centralising more and more about learning and teaching through curriculum, teaching standards and legislation, on the other realising more and more that differentiation is not an optional extra to 21st century schooling.
I think we have an opportunity in Australia – perhaps a fragile one so we must speak quietly, so as not to snap a thin, wavering thread – to combine several national initiatives for the benefit for every child and for the benefit for our country and that of our fellow global citizens.
Let’s recap on some of these initiatives that I believe can still reshape the education profile of our country:
- The Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young People
- The Building the Education Revolution (BER) and Digital Education Revolution (DER) funding
- The Australian Curriculum as provided by ACARA
- The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership
- The National Broadband Network
- Associations and groups such as the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL)
What we have from the above are the following national potentialities:
- National priorities and measurable goals
- Precedents for significant investment in schools and other education institutions
- A common understanding that we can have a set of national learning goals for students
- A body that promotes and actively supports teacher and leadership excellence
- A method by which to connect all educational sites, homes, workplaces and other places of interest to students and teachers
- Organised chorus of voices for teachers, schools and other stakeholders that can help shape decision making
We can connect these dots. We can bring the jigsaw together to establish a thriving, pulsing education community that is both professional and personal, that is aspirational and reflective. The experience, the creativity, the passion, the purpose, the value is there. And, if it’s not, we have the capacity to ask our friends outside our borders for fresh eyes and a patient ear.
There is a gaping hole that exists in this formula: a fair, equitable and sustainable model of funding for Australian schools. The “Gonski” reforms – agreed upon by all major political parties and between the federal and state governments before the last federal election – sought to bring this to reality by reassessing where government funding was streamed, how this was done and, most crucially, increasing the levels of funding overall. I have written before about my pleasure at seeing the Gonski reforms so passionately supported by the vast majority of society, the media and politics. I have also written about how (approx) $6 billion doesn’t actually impress me all that much in the context of spending, for example, $50 billion on building submarines or tens of billions on road projects. It seems the future workers, employers, artists, lawyers, scientists, shop owners, teachers… aren’t as important a priority as the roads they will use to get to jobs that may or may not exist. I believe we need an independent body established to distribute funding in an appropriate way, separate from the 24 hour media cycle and from the churn of national and state elections. This forms one of the last critical pieces of the jigsaw.
If each of these bodies, as well as decision makers, those at the coalface, and everyone in between, understand what their part is – which of the Melbourne Declaration goals is primarily theirs and which they have a stake in seeing succeed, perhaps we can become the educated nation we ought to be.
States can still have their legislated powers, the Feds can still have theirs. But as far as I know, kids don’t really care where curriculum comes from or the wording of teaching standards. They do care about whether school is worthwhile, and relevant, and interesting, and speaks to them and their dreams. Let’s shake off our dusty, colonial uniforms. It’s about time.