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‘Big five’ challenges in school education – what progress have we made?

‘Big five’ challenges in school education – what progress have we made?

Six years ago, I wrote of the ‘big five’ challenges facing Australian school education on its journey toward improved quality and equity. Since then, results from large-scale international surveys such as PISA and TIMSS have revealed that equity is still an issue (particularly in a pandemic) in our education system – a system that, as I argued in my Teacher column recently, still does not deliver the kind of equal opportunity that is the goal of all fair and inclusive societies.

It is clear that change is necessary but, even with good intentions on all fronts, enacting meaningful change in education is difficult. As I wrote in 2015, a political response is often to pursue quick wins, making adjustments at the margins where change seems possible instead of tackling the real, often seemingly intractable, problems at their roots. There is no single ‘silver bullet’ solution here but rather a series of contributing and interconnected challenges that, addressed separately but simultaneously, will see progress toward fairer outcomes for all students.

In a special ACER five-webinar series from February to May 2021, expert practitioners, researchers and policymakers will revisit these five challenges and ask what progress has been made on each, and what needs to happen next.

Two sessions examine the issue of reversing long-term student disadvantage at different points along with the education lifespan. How do we ensure that children get off to a good start? The provision of quality and targeted early childhood education and care (ECEC) that meets the individual needs of each child is essential. And how do we reduce the ‘long tail’ of underachievement for those students whose disadvantaged start follows them through their academic years? Given similar findings in countries such as the UK and New Zealand, are cultural factors at play?

A third webinar will focus on how to raise the status of the teaching profession to attract the most able school leavers into education courses, in the manner of high-performing school systems such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland. A fourth session will look at reducing disparities between schools that are evident in the PISA data – disparities that similar countries have successfully reduced.

But our first session, on Thursday 25 February, addresses an exciting and dynamic topic: How can we better equip students for life in the 21st Century? There has been a long-term decline in the ability of our 15-year-olds to apply what they are learning to everyday problems, and fewer Australian students are choosing to study advanced mathematics and science subjects. Both trends are problematic in a world that demands discerning engagement with sophisticated information about complex societal and environmental challenges. As ACER’s Dr Paul Weldon has observed, today’s students will likely be working in jobs barely even conceived of as yet. How do we prepare them for these?

Identifying the knowledge, skills and attributes required for successful participation in modern life, and then teaching them in the most effective way, are ongoing challenges. Fortunately, ACER’s Dr Claire Scoular and University of Melbourne Professorial Fellow Dr Esther Care are well placed to address the question of the next steps. Dr Scoular has worked extensively in the area of general capabilities (or 21st Century skills) and was the lead researcher in the development of ACER’s general capabilities assessment framework. Dr Care’s work with the Brookings Institution saw her investigate general capabilities in diverse classroom settings around the globe. Both are committed to improving the way we teach and assess the kinds of knowledge, skills and attributes today’s students will need to participate fully in the society of tomorrow.