Catholic educators help shape critical education review

By Christian Zahra, 6 November 2017
Christian Zahra. Image: Supplied.

Leaders of Catholic education systems from around the country gathered in Sydney recently to meet with a man whose name has recently become synonymous with Australian schooling: David Gonski.

While Mr Gonski acknowledges that, as a distinguished business leader, he’s not an expert in education practice, he has now been placed in charge of significant reviews of school education by a Labor Government and a Coalition Government.

In 2011, Mr Gonski led the Review of Funding for Schooling, now colloquially now as “the Gonski Review”.

His current work, the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, has been dubbed “Gonski 2.0” by some.

As opposed to the earlier review, the name of which points to its clear focus on school funding, this new review seeks to understand how teachers, staff, parents, schools and school systems can create the right environment to help students reach their potential.

So, when Catholic school principals, teaching experts, system leaders and a leading education professor from Australian Catholic University sat down with David Gonski and fellow panel member Ken Boston, the former head of multiple state education departments, what did they say?

Several clear messages were delivered on behalf of Catholic schools – and were supplemented by formal written submissions made the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.

Echoing sentiments that are reverberating around the country, a focus on supporting current teachers and principals and providing the best possible training for future teachers was a resonant message around the table.

With the voice of regional, remote and very remote Catholic schools present at the meeting with Mr Gonski and Dr Boston, the realities of finding teachers – especially experienced teachers – to head to remote areas was explained in detail, with plenty of real world examples that gave the panel a real sense of what many schools are challenged by in rural and remote locations.

Incentives for teachers to move to those areas exist, but are they enough? And can they access the professional development opportunities that they would be able to enjoy in regional or metropolitan areas?

When the average age of teachers in such areas is in the late 20s, as opposed to the late 40s in regional and metropolitan areas, the challenges that already exist for remote education become somewhat clearer.

Catholic education leaders also raised questions about the benefits of standardised testing such as NAPLAN.

Are students being taught for a specific test, rather than being prepared for the educational and life challenges that lie ahead? Can such a test really assess the abilities of a student or a school? And if every Australian school is required to participate in NAPLAN, is there a way to understand if it’s actually helping to support educational outcomes?

Could some schools act as a “control group” and use other methods of assessment and see how their students perform on later measures? These were just some of the questions explored with Mr Gonski and Dr Boston.

A similar question was asked about admission requirements for those planning to become teachers. Should there be a minimum entry score? Or should there be other ways to help nurture young people who express an interest in teaching during high school and encourage their pursuit of a teaching degree?

A more existential question about Mr Gonski’s review was rightly asked: “What does educational excellence look like?”

Is it observed in the highest-achieving schools across the country, which are often those with the highest overall resources and often come with an in-built advantage because of the background of students and their families? Or is it best observed in schools that see students who might have arrived at school below an arbitrary “average” and manage to progress to sit above that mark because of the teaching and learning they have encountered?

A Catholic school principal reflected the powerful story of their own school community to Mr Gonski. With many students coming from challenging backgrounds, helping those students complete their education, become strong contributors to their family and community and help stop intergenerational violence and poverty is clearly delivering “educational excellence”.

But is that what a Commonwealth Government means by “educational excellence”? Or is that measured by NAPLAN, the Programme for International Student Assessment or the Trends in International Maths and Science Study?

Indeed, is the obsession with data distracting educators from the art of teaching? One system leader implored Mr Gonski and Dr Boston to back education policy that is “evidence-informed” rather than “data-driven”.

Across our system of 1,737 schools, there is much evidence of what is working to help support student outcomes in settings from inner-city suburbs to some of the most remote parts of the country.

And Catholic schools aren’t the only keepers of wisdom on what helps support students and schools. More can be done to improve collaboration between Catholic, government and independent schools to help families, teachers and students who are all pulling in the same direction – towards educational excellence.

Catholic schools and school communities do, however, offer an approach to the education of the whole person – academically, psychologically, spiritually, physically and emotionally – that is proving to be increasingly popular with Catholic families and families from all faith backgrounds, including those without faith.

Just as our schools have much to offer individual students and families, they have much wisdom to offer to policy-makers.

The Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools has some time yet to run, with the panel due to report in March 2018. The voice of Catholic families, schools and school systems has been expressed as part of this important process.

In the face-to-face engagement with panel members and in our formal submissions, Catholic school leaders have been able to share with Mr Gonski and his colleagues our view that the 200-year history of Catholic education in this country provides a blueprint for pursuing a great education for young people.

Christian Zahra is executive director of the National Catholic Education Commission.

With thanks to NCEC.

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