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Australia’s opportunity to emerge from coronavirus as a global education superpower

The scourge of coronavirus has placed an enormous strain on our educators and our education system. As a nation, we should have celebrated harder that teachers in all sectors were able to entirely re-imagine the learning experience for every single Australian student with next to no warning. It was remarkable, Machiavellian even.

In many ways, it’s been the greatest experiment and risk that we’ve ever undertaken with our education system. We might not have chosen to run this experiment, but that’s just what happened. And like any good experiment, there have been some discoveries. Should we choose to learn from them, we might just seize the opportunity to emerge from 2020's gloom as an educational superpower.

Smarter provision of technology

The first discovery is that technology is double-edged. While tech platforms have allowed us to facilitate remote learning, the leaning on tech as the fundamental future of education is fraught. Chiefly, the reason for this is that the kids with the highest levels of educational advantage also just happen to have the best tech.

While highly funded private schools were switching quite effortlessly to sophisticated platforms and seamlessly accessing their students to suites of online learning opportunities, the principals of our poorest schools were ferrying their own school’s laptops out to families without the means to afford one.

For many of these principals, there were too few laptops and too many families. Across an entire system, the fallout from this is that reliance on technology widens the opportunity gap between rich and poor, which is the antithesis of what a world class education system should do.

That said, we can address this. Building the most technologically advanced government school system in the world would begin to narrow that gap – and do it without removing any of the current advantages that private school students are born into.

This is harder than it sounds because it requires seeing the toxic funding habits of our education system for what they are. It means that when Member for Bayswater Jackson Taylor spruiks that fee-charging Our Lady Of Lourdes Primary School received $1.5 million of taxpayer dollars for modernising their art and music rooms, we should ask if that’s really a priority.

Just down the road there’s a school called Bayswater Primary School that takes most of the students without the laptops in the electorate. In 2018, the grand total of taxpayer dollars spent on capital works at this school was less than $19,000.

Obsess over progress

The second discovery is about the student experience of learning. Put simply, our obsession with tests, standards and benchmarks in schools is a daily screaming of 'you’re stupid' at the very students who need to believe that they’re not.

In a nutshell, we need to stop over-celebrating students who perform well on tests and start bragging about the distance covered by students who find learning tough. The current approach exploits high-performing students who are used as marketing pawns to attract the next batch of aspirational parents convinced that they are doing their kids a disservice by not trying to spend their kid into a 90+ ATAR.

And it convinces struggling students that school is a place where the gifts of only the ‘smart kids’ are recognised. Believe me, when a teacher can take one of these students and have them make progress, even to a bare pass, in their least favourite subject – that’s a great teacher. It isn’t the teacher who lazily leverages pre-existing advantage for a test score we could have predicted well before that teacher got involved.

A teacher-fuelled revolution

The third, and perhaps most important, discovery is that our teachers are already world class. For too long, we’ve made false and damaging assumptions that politicians, the market or academics know best about how to build a great school and how to help our students progress. For too long we’ve denigrated our teachers’ expertise and instead opted to follow useless three-word catchphrases, such as 'back to basics', to write policy.

The future of the great Australian education system will be sophisticated and teacher led. It will not be hallmarked by mandated, cookie-cutter programs that assume every school is the same. It will, however, be a restoring of trust in teachers to respond to local needs and a freeing of them from absurd workloads, administrative distractions, demoralising accountabilities and public scorn.

The idea of getting out of our teachers’ way and letting them teach excites me. They’ve shown us what they’re truly capable of in 2020. Imagine what they’ll do if we continue to let that creative professionalism shine.

Adam Voigt is a former school principal and system leader who is now the founder and CEO of Real Schools. Adam is also the author of Restoring Teaching, a book aimed at restoring esteem for the role of educators through establishing strong, productive and restorative cultures around Australia’s schools.

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