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Gonski: If only we would stop moving the goalposts

By Sam Di Sano on 30 April 2019NSWstaffroomLeadership

Twelve months ago, former Prime Minister Turnbull suggested that the Gonski 2.0 review would recommend ‘the most effective teaching and learning strategies to reverse declining results and seek to raise the performance of schools and students.’

He suggested that the report would advise on how extra Commonwealth funding should be used by Australian schools to improve student achievement and school performance. Essentially that was to be the genesis of the new Gonski report – a revised funding proposal.  

Mr Gonski was first commissioned by the Gillard government in 2011 to compile a major review on school funding. The review formed the basis for legislation that created the resourcing standard that currently exists.

What has been delivered since, however, is a long way from that initial intention, and for a number of related reasons, education has been in the news a great deal, often in response to the same failing comparative international standards in literacy and numeracy which the former Prime Minister cited.

On one hand, according to a Grattan Institute report in late 2017, Australia’s education system needs comprehensive reform to tackle widespread student disengagement in the classroom.  On another level, according to Gonski’s review into schools to achieve educational excellence in March of 2018, Australia must urgently modernise its industrial-era model of school education and move towards individualised learning for all students; or, to quote Professor John Hattie, allow young people to gain “a year of learning growth from a year of schooling”.

The problems: Where do I start?

1. Disengagement

As many as 40% of school students are unproductive in a given year according to the Grattan report. Unproductive students are on average one to two years behind their peers, and their disengagement also damages their classmates and teachers.

The main problem though is not the sort of aggressive or even violent behaviour that attracts media headlines. More prevalent, and more stressful for teachers, are minor disruptions such as students talking back or simply switching off and avoiding work.  

The Grattan Solution:

'What is taught and the way it is taught are crucial in engaging students. Creating a good learning environment in the classroom will also help. An integrated strategy to address this will require new approaches by governments, universities, school principals and teachers.'

2. Mass education vs individual learning goals

According to the report, the current national curriculum which is organised into traditional year levels rather than levels of progress, leaves some students behind, fails to extend others, and limits opportunities to maximise student learning growth. Gonski argues that the structure of Australian schools reflects ‘a 20th-century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children.’ None of this is new. One critic recently wrote that to him all this is yawn-worthy — not because it is wrong, but because it’s all been suggested before.

Back in 2013, in his essay Towards a Growth Mindset in Assessment, Professor Geoff Masters, from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), argued for the same re-visioning of the way we assess students to better focus on student growth.


Gonski has also opened old wounds by recommending new diagnostic assessment tools to assist teachers in creating individual learning plans to be reported nationally. This would reduce the league table fixation on NAPLAN, allowing teachers and schools to chart where their students are up to in terms of what they are learning, how they are progressing and allow parents to be fully engaged in the process. While NAPLAN and the international sample test PISA provided ‘a useful big-picture view of student learning trends across Australia and the world, they provided limited assistance to teachers at the classroom level.’

Sound familiar?  That’s what NAPLAN was originally designed for.

Mental health and wellbeing: A critical backdrop

Understanding the context of young people implicated in the Gonski reforms is critical. Anxiety and mental health issues have never been as significant or as defining of a demographic as they presently are. There’s no doubt that not only the afflictions affect performance and achievement, but also the ability of their educators to recognise and deal with these effectively are also crucial. That’s where PD comes in. Until we understand our students’ context and what hinders their learning, nothing will succeed.

The Mission Australia survey of November 2017 indicated that 34% of 15-19 year olds consider their mental health to be the single biggest issue of concern – the largest single ticket issue ever recorded in the surveys 16 year history, more than doubling from 15% only two before.

According to Beyond Blue:

  • Around 1 in 35 young Australians aged 4-17 experience a depressive disorder;
  • 1 in 7 experience a mental health condition;
  • 1 in 14 experience an anxiety disorder;
  • The number of deaths by suicide in the age bracket is the highest it has been in 10 years;
  • Evidence suggests that half of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders start by the age of 14.

Will anything change?

The Gonski review boldly recommends a fairly radical overhaul of curriculum, assessment and reporting. The only problem is that we have been there, and we have done that; it’s 2019 and we still haven’t seen any dramatic changes. Think national curriculum, NAPLAN, MySchool website, accreditation and teaching standards – all laudable reforms in their own right, but given their aim was to lift our national standards in student achievement, their success has been underwhelming.

A good number of commentators far better credentialed than me have questioned whether the Gonski recommendations are doing any more than treating the symptoms rather than the actual problem of funding disparity for lower socioeconomic communities, which ironically, Gonski version 1.0 sought to address.

Liked what you read? Check out more great articles:

Explicit instruction and teaching

The teaching and learning culture – does it all come down to money?

Individualise learning and increase engagement – Trangie Central School

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