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Improving Australian education: why upping the ATAR score isn’t enough

Last month, the Labor opposition called for systematic change in the Australian education system. "I don't want people with ATARs of 35 going into teaching," noted Labor spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek, vocalising a frustration shared by many.

The system is facing fundamental problems, including a lack of hands-on teacher training, low teacher retention rates, poor quality leadership pools, regional depletion and a general stigma around the profession itself.

At stake is thousands and thousands of students and their readiness for a very different working world. And while progress is in motion, I believe it is too simple to lay the blame on the quality of ATAR scores for those seeking to enter the profession – what comes afterwards is just as important.

What gives me expertise in this area? You may remember the seminal ABC TV series, Revolution School, which was filmed at Kambrya College during my term there as Principal. We opened up our doors to the project precisely because we saw the cameras as a chance to promote, in a positive light, the potential of state education.

There was a great deal of optimism and genuine evidence of progress after seeing our programs create a culture with high expectations for all students, and we wanted to bring about a belief that it’s possible to turn an under-performing school into one of the highest performing schools across the state of Victoria.

The lessons we’ve learnt and shared still present a valuable microcosm ahead of the government’s proposed macro progress. Here are four ways we’ve improved the system – from the inside out:

  1. Build teacher capacity and retention with hands-on training

Unfortunately, inadequate training still leaves a number of unprepared teachers in the system – no matter their ATARs. The challenge (and priority) we have as principals in schools is to constantly build the capacity of our staff to become better at their craft.

We’re also starting to see strides being taken by institutions in the way education degrees are delivered. For example, Masters students from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education spent extended hands-on time on our campus and were assigned a staff member employed specifically to be their support person. This mentorship helped impart strategies for helping new graduates build resilience and foundations needed to tackle their first foray into the classroom.

After all, teaching is a tough profession. New research shows that Australian teachers often work up to 53 hours per week. No matter how well prepared you are, that first year is physically exhausting and emotionally testing. For this reason, teacher retention is an ongoing problem. Often, we're putting graduates into schools and within three or five years they're gone.

Better preparation to cope with the realistic challenges encountered in the classroom gives new teachers a far better chance of successfully remaining in their careers.

  1. The best teachers are those who learn from their students

It's not just the students who go to school to learn. Teachers and school leaders are all part of the learning process.

At Kambrya, we revolutionised our ratio of what’s known as 'teacher talk' – or the percentage of a lesson spent listening to the teacher’s voice, as opposed to engaging students more actively in their learning process.

In fact, Grace Wong, a teacher at Kambrya, said that after finding out that her 'talking time' was 80 per cent, she altered her practice completely to give her students a voice:

“I changed lesson plans after listening to student feedback. I asked them how I could do better in my teaching, or if they had certain ways of working that helped them learn better – like working on worksheets, or collaborating with their peers. Getting their feedback really helped me restructure the way I taught.”

Helping teachers from other countries and teaching traditions assimilate with Australian methodologies is also key. Grace noted that adjusting to local classrooms after teaching in Asian countries was a big undertaking. “You know, so much of it is cultural. Back in Brunei, our teaching style is very different. Our teacher would talk to us for the whole lesson and we’d just write notes.”

  1. Stick with it: Solution longevity is key to continuous improvement

Teachers are a work in progress. There is always something else to improve on, and something new to learn. However, you can create institutional confusion and incoherence by trying to change too much at once and not sticking with new solutions.

There was a point in our early history where Kambrya students were just not reading enough. With guidance from the University of Melbourne, we set up mini libraries in every classroom from years 7 to 10 and every English lesson began with 10 minutes of silent reading. During that time there would be individual reading conferences with students with three trained professionals to assess the level of comprehension, enjoyment and content relevance.

At first, our librarian noted a 75 per cent increase in the volume of borrowing. But stopping there wouldn’t have been enough: two years on, when the NAPLAN results came out in 2017, the school showed exponential growth in reading and writing. You’ve got to see solutions through.

  1. Good leadership must be a priority

When leadership positions are advertised, the applicants are still not there. This at some level perplexes me, but I'd love to see more of the brightest and the best put up their hands for leadership.

Leaders can either breathe oxygen into a school and enable and energise it, or they can do the opposite. Or, even more dangerously, they can let it go into cruise mode. I think that principals play a pivotal role in the success of a school, and it's so important to get the right people in those positions. Clearer promotional pathways, improved leadership training and incentive to climb those higher rungs is key.

Because, as CEO of AITSL Lisa Rogers recently noted, “when you send your children to an Australian school, effective teaching should be a certainty – not a lottery.”

Upping the odds for the next generation

As teachers and leaders, the best we can do is to develop young people who can be independent learners, who can collaborate effectively with others, who've got strong reading skills, who are inter-culturally aware and who are good problem solvers.

Knowledge? We're awash with knowledge. Google is always a few clicks away. That's not the problem. Building those inherent social capabilities and individual skills is critical to succeeding, whatever the unknown future throws at us.

There are so many positive things going on, but we've got a way to go. The regions are depleted. It’s already a struggle to get quality graduates and leadership capacities into suburban schools, let alone rural and regional areas.

My current work in improving leadership and school outcomes across the Gippsland region (as executive principal of the Leadership Partners Program in the Department of Education) has quickly revealed that once teachers have made the move out of Melbourne, they’re met with terrific advantages – beautiful environments, rewarding progress and significantly lower cost of living. But getting them there is a struggle. All they need is a bit of encouragement and incentive, so special efforts need to be made – urgently and creatively – to encourage some of the brightest and the best back into the regions and lift standards across the board.

With this in mind, although it is a positive step forward, upping the ATAR requirement for education courses just isn’t going to be enough.

We’ve got to be building resilience, encouraging a desire for lifelong learning, and ensuring that our training, leadership and opportunities for ongoing improvement are up to scratch – from the top down and the inside out. The next generation of teachers and their students deserve nothing less.

Michael Muscat is executive principal of the Leadership Partners Program (Department of Education) and former Principal at Kambrya College. Michael is a speaker in the new University of Melbourne podcast series, Expert Hack.

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