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Australian Education: moving from 'good' to 'excellent'

By Ian Keese - posted Wednesday, 28 March 2012

In a previous article in On Line Opinion I provided a snapshot of where the results from Australian schools stood on international comparisons. Using the PISA 2009 results in Reading, Mathematics and Science as a guide Australia ranked 9th out of 65 countries. Of all educational jurisdictions Shanghai in China was clearly the best performer. A second group consisted of Hong Kong, Finland, Singapore and South Korea. These were followed by a group consisting of Japan, Canada and New Zealand. Then came Australia.

Four items of concern stood out in Australia's results. Since 2003 it had slipped behind Canada and New Zealand; our results in Mathematics were particularly poor placing us 15th in that area; there was a wide variation between the different States and territories in particular areas; and we had a relatively high level of social inequality.

Strategies to improve our results can come from looking at what other more successful school systems are doing, while at the same time acknowledging our cultural, structural and political differences. Finland for example has a population less than that of New South Wales and only has a handful of private schools – usually faith based – which are fully supported by the state. Canada has a province based system like ours, but less than 8% private schools. The high performing systems of Singapore and Hong Kong exist within quite different political structures and cultural expectations.


However, while these differences may affect how change is brought about the actual changes themselves have much in common. For school systems which, like ours, have got the basics right, the way was to move from a good to an excellent system was through improving what happened in the classroom to ensure that all students, in all classes and at all stages of their education had rich learning experiences, irrespective of their social background or the school they attend.

As our results indicate, most teachers do a reasonable job, but anyone who has been through the school system, or had children who have done so, will be aware that the inspirational teacher is the exception rather than the rule.

What works?

In 2007 McKinsey and Company in the United States produced a study of school improvement in selected schools around the world. In 2010 they produced a follow up report How the world's most improved systems keep getting better. In the schools they studied they looked at what types of intervention actually worked in improving outcomes. The forms of intervention depended on where a system ranked on a scale from poor to excellent. The most relevant sections for Australia looked at how schools went from 'good to great' and from 'great to excellent' and the common features of schools that moved through these stages were;

  • Raising the entry level for new teachers and lifting the quality of pre-service training and certification requirements.
  • Raising the calibre of exiting teachers and principals
  • An increase in school-based decision making
  • Creating additional support mechanisms for professionals so that teachers and principals could focus on teaching and learning.
  • The system sponsoring and identifying innovative practices across schools so that what develops as best practice in one school is shared across the system.

Pre-entry training

Finland is renowned for its high entry level requirements for teachers –it is as difficult to enter primary school training as it is to enter medicine -and this reflects the high level of professionalism and the respect teachers have in he community.

In Finland all new teachers have a Master's degree. In Australia the states and territories have agreed to a new national system for accrediting pre-service education courses based on standards developed by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and made a recommendation for an increase in the minimum length of graduate courses from one to two years. This would allow for extended internship experience.


The Productivity Commission in its draft Research Report on Schools Workforce argued against this on the basis of cost, but if such training meant fewer teachers resigned early and bureaucracies were reduced it could pay for itself.

Career Structure

Once a teacher is in the workforce it is vital to have a career structure that encourages continual improvement and rewards the teacher who chooses to stay in the classroom. In Australia teachers reach their maximum salary after only ten years and yet they have another thirty years of teaching ahead. The only way to increase their salary is by leaving the classroom. This means that the best teachers are usually removed from the classroom and those who do stay get no recognition for continuing to build up their expertise. This would be seen as demoralising in any profession.

Singapore offers three different career tracks; Senior Specialist; Leadership, and Teaching. In Australia the AITSL has developed a clear and comprehensive set of standards that distinguish four stages increasing levels of proficiency: Graduate; Proficient; Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher. Professor Steve Dinham from Melbourne University has demonstrated how these could be used to recognise and reward the career teacher who remains in the classroom by providing a series of salary steps each of which recognises mastery in the classroom.

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About the Author

Ian Keese has degrees in Science and the Arts. He has been a secondary school history teacher and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators. He lives in Melbourne and writes on history and education or anything else in which he becomes interested.

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