A few weeks ago I was able to attend (virtually) the Sydney Morning Herald Schools Summit.
Now in its third year, the summit has become one of the most influential education events in Australia, one that more UK educationalists and edtech companies should pay attention to.
As is the norm, the opening keynote was given by New South Wales’s Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning, Hon. Sarah Mitchell MP. Her forthright speech was the opposite of that given by English Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson MP, an anodyne speech to the Foundation for Education Development (FED). Mrs Mitchell touched on the impact of Covid but her main points were about wider issues such as accountability – not stopping with schools and teachers but including bureaucrats and Ministers – and why universities will have to significantly improve teacher training or risk losing teacher registration. She focused on the greatest cause of educational disadvantage in NSW – not socio-economic or the usual indicators, but geography and distance, with students in remote and rural communities facing the greatest challenges. Education is mostly a state responsibility in Australia and NSW is over 800,000 sq km vs England at 133,000. This may not seem relevant here, but it relates to recruitment and retention, the use of technology, assessment, and all the familiar current challenges for schools and families in England.
Only one of the day’s presentations I thought particularly weak: Engagement as the new frontier of achievement made frequent references to the success of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the SNP have been deliberately delaying publishing a critical OECD report until after the upcoming May elections.
The most relevant themes were:
- Changes to the NSW state and Australian (advisory) National Curriculum, both due to start in 2022
- Does Australia need to spend more on early childhood education, with personal insights from Professor Pasi Sahlberg, Deputy Director Research, Gonski Institute for Education at the University of NSW (former head of Finland’s education system)
- Testing. There were several strands including:
– a review of the the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy & Numeracy) tests, that will be 100% online by 2022
– how NSW schools implemented the optional Check-in Assessments (covering years 3-9)
- data from the final year Higher School Certificate (HSC), A-Level equivalent
- data from the first large scale randomised control trial (RCT) into the impact of Covid 19. This forms part of a longitudinal study undertaken by the Newcastle of University which has helped shape the development of NSW’s A$330m/£185m tutoring program.
- wider general trends such as:
– NSW education will be “data informed not data driven”
– education policy will be driven by evidence, not “the loudest voices on social media”
- attitudes and approaches to student behaviour
Comparing NSW to England, where the latter’s K12 students have had more time out of the classroom will inevitably ignite controversy, particularly from those actively engaged in the narrative that the impact on students is unprecedented, for example the Sutton Trusts’ report, Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality (April 2020) and the more recent hyperbolic claim from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that children in schools will lose £350bn in lifetime earnings due to Covid.
In focusing on tutoring it may look as if NSW is mirroring the thinking behind England’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP) and the role of think tanks like the Education Endowment Foundation and the Sutton Trust.
However, the differences in methodology and policy are vast. First, instead of relying on rushed research and/or outdated studies focusing on the efficacy of tutoring, NSW had as a baseline robust and specific local data which was analysed by the independent public policy advocacy organisation, The Grattan Institute (TGI). While their recommendation was also for a tutoring initiative, it is for a system very different from the centralised NTP. Ms Julie Sonnermann of TGI, presented the research and recommendations that emphasised:
- the need in schools for teachers to be at the center of the program
- the most appropriate model is small group rather than individual tuition
- schools should only employ tutors with strong pedagogical training and experience
- class teachers have the central role in managing tutors and the student/tutor relationship
The bottom line here is that NSW has modelled their tutoring response based on solid data (including tests, confidence in data modelling techniques) along with school-based formative assessment and a fundamental trust that puts local schools and teachers at the centre.
There were many other relevant outtakes but to cover them all would require a lengthy article. What the day really highlighted was the difference UK and NSW/Australian response to Covid 19. In the UK, the policy response (so far) to the recognition of an increase in disadvantage is to throw huge sums at poorly-designed initiatives built on weak data and catastrophist headlines. Not everything we are doing is ill-considered – the £96m 16-19 tuition fund is like the NSW scheme in that it’s for small-scale tutoring and gives the money directly to institutions to spend (i.e. it trusts them).
Australia’s Covid toll so far (>1000 deaths and >35000 infections in a population of 25m) is a major success compared to England and the UK as a whole. Yes, their circumstances are different but the success is due largely to coordinated work at a national, state and local level, the background music to much of the discussion during the day. There is still a wide variety of opinion about education that runs along similar lines to the UK, but while I was hunched over a laptop in the midst of England’s lockdown, I was watching 300 real people in a room discussing education, with lunch and post-event drinks.
Many thanks to the Sydney Morning Herald and the conference organisers Informa Connect Australia for enabling my participation and I look forward to The Age Schools Summit in April, where the speakers include Professor John Hattie, well-known educator and blogger Greg Ashman.
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