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Oils Ain’t Oils

Australian schools aren’t homogenous. They differ by jurisdiction, by location, by size, by socio economic and cultural composition to name a few of the more obvious variables. And then there are the variations in community expectations, in leadership and in governance. As the old Castrol ad told us, ‘oils ain’t oils’. If you’re old enough to remember you’ll toss a ‘Sol’ on the end of that.

These differences matter. Apart from anything else they pose huge challenges for politicians and educational bureaucrats intent on improving Australian education. And the greater the distance from the school you are, the more challenging these factors become.

We’ve seen waves of educational reform and priorities come and go. Government priorities and initiatives often fail to take hold because schools are so diverse. Even if we accept that a particular initiative is evidence based (and many wouldn’t pass that test) it has to be relevant for an individual school and it has to be properly resourced before it can have any impact. Even then it has to pass into action through the work of teachers and that’s easier said than done.

Schools are very seasoned at resisting top down directions they can’t reconcile with their own priorities or they think they have limited capacity to implement. Non government schools can set their own agendas to a significant extent. Public schools are different because they are entirely beholden to the public purse and the accountability that comes with it. But they can still obfuscate and they can wait out governments because as sure as the electoral cycle changes so does educational policy. Perhaps the key to sustainable improvement lies in bipartisan, evidence based education policy which is capable of being implemented in a differential manner according to the circumstances of the individual school, is well resourced and is balanced with an appropriate level of accountability.

Governments have been telling us for years that they’ve got the answers. The evidence says otherwise and Gonski 2.0 will go the way of other well intended reforms if it doesn’t recognise the reality of schools. That will be the challenge for David Gonski and his panel over the coming months as they consider what advice to give to government about how additional school funding should be spent. They shouldn’t assume that schools are all the same and have the same capacity, needs and priorities.

If Gonski’s group looks for evidence of what has worked in schools they’ll find it hard to identify what has made a difference and what hasn’t. How can you isolate the impact of one factor when schools are generally working on several things at once? There will be plenty of educational research available to the panel. There will be a multitude of international case studies to consider. There will be no shortage of advice from educational analysts and think tanks. But in the end their recommendations have to be capable of being implemented in schools. And they have to face the reality of the tension between school autonomy and the desires of government, particularly the commonwealth government. The feds have shown that through funding they can change the structure of the educational system – not for the better if the last 15 years is any indication – but there’s no evidence they can impact on what happens in schools.

This might be as much a battle for the hearts and minds of school leaders and teachers as it is for sound policy.

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