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EDUCATION

The ACT Liberal Democratic Party believes in a system of universal education from kindergarten to year 12.

However, education in the ACT is performing far below its potential.  While the Labor-Greens Government’s education strategy is based on nice sounding waffle and the pursuit of well-meaning social outcomes, it is divorced from the pursuit of excellence in education and in meeting the real needs of parents, students and Canberra’s businesses and community.

The ACT Liberal Democrats believe that the Territory’s education strategy needs be reoriented towards autonomy and choice.  Only this approach can address the fact that the ACT’s educational outcomes have been going backwards.  

The Grattan Institute found[1]that the ACT is the worst performer in Australia for helping students make progress over the course of their schooling. 

  • On a like-for-like basis, the ACT’s students make two to three months less progress than the national average in both primary and secondary school.
  • The ACT has been falling further behind in recent years. The Grattan Institute found that the 2010-12 cohort made around two months less progress than the national average in numeracy, and close to the national average in reading. But the 2014-16 cohort made five months less progress than the national average in numeracy, and four months less in reading.
  • The ACT Auditor-General[2] has also stated that ACT public schools are performing below similar schools in other jurisdictions despite expenditure on a per student basis for public schools being one of the highest in the country, in part due to high employee related expenditure such as low student to teacher ratios, higher than average teacher salaries and grandfathered Commonwealth superannuation schemes and payroll tax.

Educational performance is not dependent on how much money is thrown at the system.  Despite having amongst the highest state government spending on government schools, performance has been going backwards compared to other states.

Parents know this too.  A survey for the Centre for Independent Studies found that most Australian parents believe their schools have enough resources[3] but that there need to be more flexible spending approaches and that the spending priorities are wrong.  The most common funding priority favoured by parents is on infrastructure and facilities (29%), and on extra-curricular activities (24%).  These options are a higher priority than hiring more support staff (18%), increasing teachers’ pay (15%), and hiring more teachers (14%). 

Yet teachers in the ACT are the highest paid in Australia[4] and teaching staff to student ratios amongst the highest.  The ACT Liberal Democrats think that our teachers should be the best paid in the country – providing their performance warrants this.  However, with declining educational outcomes in Canberra’s schools, it is not evident that this is the case. 

The ACT Government is too much in the thrall of the Australian Education Union – and this is evident in the Education strategy, where the main focus is on investing in and empowering teachers but without providing a framework that would enable principals and other school leaders to improve school performance.  

Moving to a system of Independent Public Schools (IPS) – as has happened in Western Australia, where 80 per cent of public school students and teachers are in 575 Independent Public Schools – should be adopted in the ACT.

An IPS system is dependent on improving the quality and professionalism of teachers – meaning that they can earn high salaries commensurate with their performance.  Improved teaching practice will then mean that student achievement levels will rise.

Evaluations of the WA IPS initiative have shown that empowerment of teachers at an IPS increased their level of intrinsic motivation[5].  Principals know how to enhance teachers’ sense of meaning, sense of competence, sense of impact and sense of autonomy.  This motivates teachers to improve instruction in their classrooms and increases the willingness to discuss practices with colleagues and supervisors.

The WA IPS initiative empowers school communities to shape the ethos, priorities and directions of their schools to reflect the aspirations of their students and parents. 

IPS schools help build strong communities that are more able to respond to the needs of students, and bring more choice in schools which have energy, motivation, innovation and engagement.

Under this model, schools become self-managing and answer to a school board of educators and parents.  The system removes centralised administrators and provides the school with flexibility to respond to the student base and parental concerns.

However, the ACT’s steps to increase school autonomy have been half-hearted at best and are occurring in the wrong part of the education system. 

The Grattan Institute found that the ACT fares less well than other jurisdictions on a number of metrics, such as principal perceptions of teachers meeting individual students’ needs; teachers being open to change; teacher absenteeism; and educational leadership by school principals. 

The ACT Auditor-General also noted that shortcomings in student performance information were systemic and that a better balance between school autonomy and consistency across schools in performance reporting was needed.

Yet the Labor-Greens Government’s Future of Education strategy does nothing to enhance autonomy and choice in the right places.  Instead, the strategy is based on well-meaning social policy objectives of equity, student agency, access and inclusion. 

These may be laudable social objectives but they are unlikely to improve educational outcomes.  For example, the strategy’s “Strong Communities For Learning” is just waffle about schools serving as community hubs and parents and carers being active participants in school life rather than about improving quality.

Whether or not giving students greater agency is a good policy, the ACT already has the worst attendance rates at government schools in Australia (except for the Northern Territory) and has also had the largest decline in attendance (apart from the NT). 

The research has also shown that the most powerful factor linking school autonomy and student achievement is the work of principals and other school leaders in building the professional capacity of their staff.  With more autonomy, principals can build the capacity of teachers to improve outcomes for students.  This allows them to drive a school culture that emphasises high expectations of students and staff, teachers as professionals, collaboration centred on improved classroom practice, norms of responsibility and problem solving where mistakes and problems were responded to by a search for better strategies rather than by excuses for students’ lack of progress.

Research also shows[6] positive impacts on average achievement levels – particularly for disadvantaged students and where schools operate on a ‘no excuses’ model of high expectations of achievement, strong discipline, traditional teaching methods, and longer school days and years.

The IPS model should become a central feature of the ACT’s education system.  This requires the Government to provide capacity building for principals and school boards.

An early place to start reprioritising resources should be to reform the Supporting Parent Engagement Grants program so that the capability of Parents and Citizens Associations (P&Cs) can be improved in areas that support independence and autonomy in running schools.  Under the current program P&Cs can access grants to increase their ability to operate canteens, uniform shops, and Out of School Hours Care programs[7].  This is just not relevant to improving school performance –Assistance to P&Cs should be used to improve the performance of their schools, not just for running tuck shops.

While the precise model would be up to the school board, the Liberal Democrats considers an ACT independent public system would involve:

  • school performance being subject to independent accountability through appropriate standardised testing and that performance indicators would be comparable across schools;
  • schools still being publically funded, but allowing more open enrolment, and greater flexibility and autonomy surrounding staffing and curriculum;
  • funding would be at an equivalent rate to government schools with similar student demographics;
  • the ACT Government providing resources to build the capacity of principals and school boards to operate effectively.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in homeschooling.  While the ACT Government has been flexible during the pandemic, the ACT legislation is still too strict and onerous.  Parents wishing to homeschool their children should be provided with the opportunity to do so, and also have access to large amount of course materials that were developed to enable learning from home during lockdown.

The ACT Liberal Democrats education policy is that:

  1. each school-aged child in the ACT deserves the best possible education but that current arrangements are failing too many students and their families.
  2. the education system must be reformed by enhancing choice and flexibility and promoting school autonomy.
  3. the ACT Government should pro-actively engage in the establishment of Independent Public Schools by:
    1. providing policy leadership, training and development for principals and school boards on independent school governance;
    2. encouraging the transition to greater autonomy, enhancing innovation, and developing leadership skills at the school level; and
    3. providing initial frameworks for IPSs to reward improvements in teacher quality.
  4. parents should have greater ability to take up home-schooling in the ACT.

 

 

 

[1] See Goss, P., Sonnemann, J., and Emslie, O. (2018). “Measuring student progress: A state-by-state report card”. Grattan Institute.

[2] See ACT Auditor–General’s report “Performance information in ACT public schools”, report no. 4 / 2017.

[3] See Glenn Fahey, 2019, “What Do Parents Want from Schools?” CIS Policy Paper 26, This study found that 88% of parents think their child’s school is at least adequately resourced, with the majority thinking their child’s school is ‘well resourced’ or ‘very well resourced’. 

[4] See “ACT public school teachers highest paid in the country” media release from Yvette Berry, released 03/07/2020.  The Minister’s statement noted that “Public school teachers in the ACT are well represented by their union, the Australian Education Union and as a result of effective workplace bargaining, ACT public school teachers will remain the highest paid in the country.  On July 9, when the latest pay rise in the Teaching Staff Enterprise Agreement comes into effect the top of range classroom teacher salary will reach $109,641.”

[5] See Shelby Associates and CPE 2013 “Evaluation of the Independent Public Schools initiative” and Hamilton Associates 2015 “School autonomy: Building the conditions for student success”.  A research project commissioned by the Western Australian Department of Education..

[6] See Trisha Jha and Jennifer Buckingham 2015 “Free to Choose Charter Schools: How charter and for-profit schools can boost public education”, Centre for Independent Studies, Research Report, August 2015.

[7] See “Supporting parent engagement to build stronger school communities Released 25/06/2020”, media release from Yvette Berry.  Under this program P&Cs can access grants of up to $20,000 to increase their capability to operate, administer and govern school-based businesses such as canteens, uniform shops and Out of School Hours Care programs, with total funding of $800,000 available in 2020. 

 

The official page of the Liberal Democratic Party in the Australian Capital Territory. Authorised by Guy Jakeman, Florey, ACT, 2615