Henrietta Cook, Education Reporter SMH 12/5/17
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The great schools funding debate
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Australian schools are in deep trouble and students will continue to slip behind in reading, maths and science unless there is urgent action from all governments, a new report has warned.
It’s a grim picture of the country’s education system, where high school students lag behind global standards, there is growing inequity and teaching has become an increasingly unattractive career.
Australia was “drifting backwards”, said the author of the report Geoff Masters, chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research.
“We ignore these warning signs at our peril … Unless we can arrest and reverse those trends we will continue to see a decline in the quality and equity of schooling in this country,” he said.
The decline in the maths skills of students was particularly alarming, Professor Masters said.
Australia’s results in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – an international survey that pits the world’s education systems against each other – has steadily declined over the past decade.
The top 10 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds now perform at about the same level in maths as the top 40 to 50 per cent of students in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
It coincides with a declining proportion of year 12 students taking up advanced maths and science subjects.
“It means we won’t have the supply of people who are highly trained in mathematics and science that we are likely to need in the future,” Professor Masters said.
The report comes at a critical time, with education shaping up as a key election issue. The federal government has promised an extra $1.2 billion for schools and Labor has pledged $4.5 billion.
But the report, which was released on Thursday, found that increased spending on education had not led to better outcomes. It said funding needed to target “evidence-based strategies”.
“A decline in outcomes has often occurred in parallel with increased spending,” Professor Masters said.
“Money alone is not the answer, but to turn around current trends we may need more money.”
It also raised concerns about the drop in ATARs required for teaching courses.
In 2015, just 42 per cent of Australian students embarking on a teaching course had an ATAR above 70.
It recommended that teaching courses become highly selective, and make the bulk of their offers to students with ATARs above 70.
“The world’s highest-performing nations in international achievement studies consistently attract more able people into teaching, resulting in better student outcomes,” the report said.
“In some of the world’s highest-performing countries, entry to teaching is now as competitive as entry to courses such as engineering, science, law and medicine.”
In Victoria, the government is considering a similar model to New South Wales where future teachers are sourced from the top 30 per cent of school leavers.
Professor Masters said federal and state governments needed to agree to a national action plan to halt these “worrying trends”.
He also took aim at “passive, reproductive learning” in schools which did not promote creativity.
Federal education minister Simon Birmingham said the report supported the Coalition’s approach.
“The Turnbull government’s back to basics Student Achievement Plan focuses on what ACER has called for, the better use of resources to target evidence-based initiatives,” he said.
“Our once-in-a-generation plan to lift school student achievement provides more money than ever before for Australian schools but most importantly it focuses on measures that improve student results through clear and targeted action.”
Victorian government spokesman David McNamara said many government initiatives were addressing concerns raised in this report – including the new Victorian Curriculum which teaches coding.
“The government knows that great teaching is the single most important factor for schools in improving student outcomes. It is always considering ways to ensure we attract and recruit the best teachers, including from among high achieving VCE students.”