Does Australia have a policy laboratory? Insights from education policy.

Today, at the World Congress of Political Science, I'll be sharing findings from my five-year study examining how federalism directly and indirectly influences policy making in the schooling portfolio.

I’ll be focusing in particular the extent to which governments could innovate in this policy area, which in Australia is characterised by extensive, complex and growing overlap in state and federal roles.

I’ll show that, yes, evidence from this study does suggest the presence of a policy laboratory.

I’ll also point out how this has changed over time, and identify some of the enabling and constraining factors. I’ll conclude with insights on how we can enhance policy experimentation, learning, and “smart” practice to improve policy outcomes.

Here are the slides, and here is my speech.

Submission to the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australia's schools

Achieving excellence for all students in Australia’s education system is a complex challenge in which schools play a key but not exclusive role. Mitchell Institute has focussed this submission on priority actions to transform Australia’s education system to secure educational success for all students. These priority actions are:

1. Improve the quality of early education and care services, and expand access to preschool so that all children can participate in quality preschool programs for two years before starting school. All children benefit from high quality early education, but it is particularly beneficial for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and for the one in four children who are developmentally vulnerable.

2. Build the evidence base, teaching support, and understanding around capabilities, engagement and learning growth. This includes tools for teachers and families to better identify the progress children are making and where additional support is needed.

3. Support the creation of a national education evidence and data institute to generate, evaluate and disseminate research on established and emerging education programs and practices with transformative potential. This includes developing a unique student identifier (USI) to track students as they progress through early education, schooling and further study or training, and link this with other data sets to ensure we can understand the impacts interventions have on a variety of student cohorts.

This was just the executive summary of Mitchell Institute's submission to the "Gonski 2.0" Review. Read the full submission here.

Policy coherence across the education continuum in Australia: understanding and improving service delivery

New book chapter published this week by Federation Press and launched by Professor Ken Smith, Dean on ANZSOG and Dr Lee-Anne Perry (Head on Catholic School system in Queensland and on panel for the Turnbull Government's Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools (aka "Gonski 2.0")!

My chapter argues that evolving state and Commonwealth roles, responsibilities and policy objectives have contributed to an education system characterised by fragmentation, complexity, sub optimal resource allocation, blurred responsibility, and an incoherent policy mix. As a result, this system does not meet the needs of young Australians as well as it could, or should. Despite this, the intersection of federalism and education policy show promising examples of effective intergovernmental collaboration, policy innovation and inter-jurisdictional learning.

Given that significant federal reform is unlikely, my chapter engages an intergovernmental and systems approach, identifying alternative pathways to improvement that work with, rather than against the federal system, enhancing coherence and better meeting student needs.

The other chapters cover topics including:

  • Public officials’ views on allocating policy responsibilities in the Australian Federation
  • The changing role of local government and why it still matters
  • Intergovernmental negotiations in Australia and the United States
  • Mental health policy and bridging sovereign spheres through professional networks
  • Federal financial relations
  • The failure of the federalism reform process and ideas for moving forward

The book can be purchased from Federation Press, among others, and should also be available in most university libraries.

Response to the Senate Inquiry on the Australian Education Amendment Act

The Gillard government's Australian Education Act, responding to the Gonski Review of School Funding, was a major advance on previous school funding arrangements that sought to improve equity and promote excellence in Australia’s schools.  However, it had a number of weaknesses and shortcomings, which this amendment bill put forward by the Turnbull government has the potential to remedy.

In this Mitchell Institute submission, I identify encouraging elements of this bill (such as a faster transition to the Schooling Resource Standard) that represent an advance on current legislation, as well as several elements of that could be further improved, with specific recommendations. This includes even stronger targeting of funding to schools facing greatest need, and  a call for the Commonwealth to support the development of an independent institute to grow and freely disseminate a national education evidence base on the policies, programs and practices in Australian schools and early childhood education and care services which work best, and the circumstances (where, when, for whom) they work best.

The two-page submission concludes:

"With these amendments so described, we feel this Bill could better match Commonwealth’s school funding investment to educational need and enhance educational impact and opportunity. We further note that schooling is one of several vital elements of Australia’s education system. To maximize the benefits of these reforms, complementary reforms are needed to early childhood education, tertiary education and vocational education, to match investment to opportunity, informed by evidence, as part of a cohesive education system."

Early learning

The Early Learning Association of Australia is the peak body for parents and service providers working to delivery high quality early learning programs to all kids. They provide invaluable training, advice, lobbying and resources for their members - over 1200 early childhood education and care services, including independent, community-managed preschools, cluster managers, long day-care services, integrated services and more.   They've been an absolutely fount of wisdom and pillar of support for me in my role as Vice President of a public, independent, community-run preschool in relation to the myriad staffing, occupational health and safety, policy and regulatory issues that cross my desk as Vice President of an independent, community-managed, public preschools, and as an academic exploring education policy. 

So when ELAA asked me to write an article for them pulling out key points from the Quality Early Learning For All report I co-authored with colleagues from the Mitchell Institute, I was very happy to say yes. 

Here's a taster:

The research is clear. High quality early education is one of the best investments governments can make to maximize learning and life chances for all kids, especially those most vulnerable.

"The most important discussion of the last 40 years for Australian schools"

Flat or falling results in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, persistent gaps in resources and school completion rates, and worryingly-high student disengagement indicate new approaches are needed in education policy.

Australia's federalism system of government may seem abstract or even irrelevant to efforts to improve student learning and outcomes.  But the messy arrangement of government responsibilities for school funding, policy, program delivery, regulation, evaluation and accountability directly affects every school in the country and limits their capacity to help students achieve their full potential. A smarter alignment of these responsibilities among governments would mean that precious funding and time would be better-targeted to where needs are greatest, reducing the growing gap in resources and outcomes. It would make it easier for schools and school systems to develop, implement and evaluate cohesive programs tailored to the needs of their students, and to collaborate with other schools, with families and with agencies working in health and welfare. Finally, it would make it easier for educators and policy makers around the country to understand their impact and to learn from each other in a cycle of continuous improvement.

Today the Melbourne School of Government launched a new report I prepared for them called Schooling Federalism: Evaluating the Options for Reform.  This report assesses the four reform options proposed by the Prime Minister's Department's federalism taskforce in their leaked Green Paper and Discussion Paper late June.

These four options received scant media attention and analysis. The bulk of the commentary focused on Option 4 and its footnote. Under this Option, the Commonwealth government would have provided all school funding (and potentially charged fees for public school education, which I discuss here) while the states would have done almost everything else including provision of public schools and regulation for all schools. This would have been disastrous for policy effectiveness, efficiency, fairness and accountability. It was also extremely unlikely to be pursued. 

The absence of scrutiny of the other three options was worrying. In this report I measure each of the reform proposals against the six criteria put forward by the federalism taskforce and also consider their political feasibility and desirability.

Option 1 (full state responsibility for education) was the clear winner, but its success is dependent upon the states receiving revenue increase commensurate with increased funding responsibilities. Option 3 (greatly reduced Commonwealth involvement) offers similar potential to improve learning outcomes and equity, although to a lesser degree. Under all four options, ACARA, the national curriculum, NAPLAN and MySchool would be retained, but with the Commonwealth taking a back seat and instead following the states' leadership and supporting their initiatives when in the national interest.

Complementing the online launch of the report was a national radio interview on RN Sunday Extra. Host Jonathan Green and I explored some of the complexities and historical background in what Dale Pearce, Principal of Bendigo Senior Secondary College and Board member of Victoria's Curriculum and Assessment Authority, described as "the most important discussion of the last 40 years for Australian schools."

Of course, what works in one policy domain is not necessarily appropriate for others. For those interested in vocational education and training and the best intergovernmental arrangements for this important area, check out the valuable work of Peter Noonan and other colleagues at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy.

What does the education issue paper tell us about potential intergovernmental reforms?

"Released two days before Christmas, you could be forgiven for missing the issues paper on government roles and responsibilities in education that is part of the process in developing the federalism white paper. This is a pity. Because if you wanted insights into the Commonwealth government’s attitude to federalism in education and potential directions this could take, it’s a good place to start."

Click here to read the full article.

Frontiers and opportunities in Australian education

My latest publication, a chapter on schooling policy in the newest edition of Social Policy in Australia: Understanding for Action has just been released.

It looks at issues and opportunities in education policy.

As the chapter argues, education is the bedrock of a successful society. It benefits individuals, communities and the nation. Relative to other developed nations, Australia's education system is relatively high performing but with sub par equity. Decades of reforms and increased spending by state and Commonwealth have had minimal impact reducing this inequality or improving excellence.

Contributing to these challenges is the uneasy relationship between choice and equity - competing principles that have been ever present in education policy in Australia. The book can be bought on Oxford University Press' website and from university bookstores. To whet your appetite, you can read an edited extract discussing the choice and equity aspect on MI Brief, the Mitchell Institute's blog.

Policy innovation and leadership from below

We talk a lot about the importance of innovation in education - as we should.  We talk less about how to foster, sustain and share successful innovations that enhance student learning and engagement. This is a pity. In this recent expert comment article for The Conversation, I discuss the astonishingly blunt and honest comments of Victoria's education chief, outlining why the states rather than the Commonwealth government should drive education policy. It was encouraging to hear a very senior bureaucrat, who has worked at both state and federal levels, concur with my PhD findings on the opportunities our federal system of government offers for innovative and best-practice policy-making, tailored to the needs of their residents.  Could this be the dawn of a new era in education federalism in Australia?

I also spoke recently on Radio National's Drive program on the controversial "IBM school" in Brooklyn, New York. I argue that such innovations, when developed carefully to meet the needs of students at a particular school, can work wonders. Dismissing them as "US-style corporate schools" is a missed opportunity to learn how new models of schooling can improve excellence and equity here in Australia.

Does NAPLAN need an overhaul?

Since 2008, Australia has had a national assessment program for literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN), providing objective, nationally-comparative 'point in time' data to governments, schools, parents and the public on how students and schools are tracking on these essential learning foundations.

It replaced standardised literacy and numeracy tests at the state level that had been in place for almost 20 years but were difficult to compare and were not available to the public or external researchers.

NAPLAN is not an authoritative, holistic assessment of the capacity or quality of a student, teacher or school. Nor is it a high stakes test - students are not penalised for poor performance and NAPLAN results do not effect the remuneration of individual teachers.

NAPLAN is a diagnostic tool to assist school leaders and policy makers deciding how to allocate resources and tailor programs and strategies to maximise learning for their students. It also provides objective "snapshot" data to parents and teachers on how individual students are tracking, and an extra piece of information - objective data - to assist them deciding which school to send their kids, rather than relying solely on visits, advertising materials, at times sensationalist media and hearsay.

While NAPLAN's objectives are very worthy, misconceptions over the test and an over-emphasis on it by a small minority of parents and schools has raised serious concerns.  I joined Senator Penny Wright on ABC television's News Breakfast program on 28 March to discuss the Senate Inquiry into these concerns. Here's the segment and the report.  I also discussed whether MySchool be abolished on ABC's Radio National on March 7.