Tasmania is ideally poised to make landmark revolutions in education and the future of its students, a leading education expert says.
Queensland’s former Director of Curriculum Professor Bob Lingard believes Tasmania has the political goodwill, the cross-sector support, and the financial opportunity to make large strides in addressing education and socioeconomic inequality.
As a keynote speaker at the Education Transforms 2017 symposium in Hobart on Friday, Dr Lingard told The Examiner he was struck by the goodwill and cross-sector support shown for education reform in Tasmania.
With a record $23.5 billion secured nationally for needs-based education funding, Dr Lingard urged Tasmania to take advantage of the funding injection and think creatively about school spending.
Tasmania is set to receive $186 million of Gonski 2.0 funding, an amount the state government has welcomed despite misgivings from other states and territories about the needs-based funding model.
“I think at this moment there seems to be a will across policy-makers, the political process, the Underwood Centre in the University of Tasmania to do something about [inequality],” Dr Lingard said.
In particular, Dr Lingard pointed to the correlation between low socioeconomic status (SES) and poor education results as a vicious cycle that could be actively addressed with Gonski 2.0 money – but breaking that cycle would require cooperative work across all sectors.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics identifies socioeconomic disadvantage in terms of people's access to material and social resources, their ability to participate in society, and geographic location.
The federal government has a target of at least 20 per cent of domestic school enrolments coming from the lowest 25 per cent of households by 2020 – Tasmania already exceeds that target.
“There’s going to be this extra money coming into the system and it’s the moment where there seems to be an acceptance that reform is needed, both in terms of opportunity for everybody and trying to break the link to background so that everybody has the same opportunity,” Dr Lingard said.
“The Gonski money could be used to set short-term, medium-term, long-term goals in terms of the transition from year 10 to 12, everybody being given the opportunity to have 12 years, changing the structure of the school system so that's built in.”
Dr Lingard’s call for active participation between sectors to address not just school inequality, but the needs of students in daily life, is further supported by the Curtin Economics Centre’s ‘Educate Australia Fair?’ report published in June.
In that report, the authors stated that “expanding access to higher education for Australians in regional and remote areas requires a coordinated suite of policies addressing locality of offered places, student demand and enabling factors for regional students studying both locally and at metropolitan campuses”.
Inequality was made particularly stark in the report when comparing the educational advantages of a student living in Newstead and a student living in Ravenswood, with just four kilometres distance between the suburbs.
“It’s a moment that we’ve got to be smart to use the extra resource, to have the biggest impact … in the poorest communities, and also make the necessary structural changes to enable this to occur,” Dr Lingard said.
Research published in March studying the impacts of SES on Australian Capital Territory students reported that students from low SES backgrounds, on average, have poorer school results than their more advantaged peers.
“As an increasing proportion of jobs require tertiary level qualifications, individuals with lower levels of education will find it increasingly difficult to find well-paid, secure employment,” report authors Jenny Chester and Ann Daly warned.
It’s a warning Dr Lingard believes Tasmania should heed: the state’s system of college-level education and a Year 10 exit point are partly why Tasmanian students struggle to find employment compared to their national peers who have completed Year 12.
In his John West Memorial Lecture in March this year, economist Saul Eslake reiterated the powerful links between educational attainment and economic health, both for the state at large and its inhabitants.
“A smaller proportion of Tasmania’s population has a bachelor’s degree or higher than that of any other state or territory,” Mr Eslake said in his lecture.
“And a much larger proportion of Tasmania’s population than that of any other state or territory has no educational qualification beyond Year 10 of high school.”
While Mr Eslake disputed arguments that low SES status meant Tasmanian students were less likely to complete secondary school education, he pointed to the state’s college system as a factor in poorer student outcomes.
“It means that students who do go on to Years 11 and 12 at a college lose contact with subject teachers and other staff who have come to know their strengths and weaknesses … and have to ‘start again’ with college staff who will only have two years to achieve the same insights,” he said.
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Dr Lingard likewise identified this ‘structural break’ as an issue that could be addressed in utilising Gonski 2.0 funds in Tasmania.
“An aspiration for every young person to do Year 12 or equivalent in Tasmania, that comes up against the structure of schooling,” he said.
“The only other place in Australia that has government senior colleges is ACT, and that’s a very different socioeconomic setting from Tasmania.”
The state government has been working to upgrade education opportunities for students seeking to continue their schooling past Year 10, with the Department of Education recommending all students complete Years 11 and 12, Certificate III or find suitable work.
At present Year 10 students need to voluntarily enrol in Years 11 and 12, or choose to attend a college to complete their education.
The Education Act 2016, which came into effect on July 1, introduced 13 years of compulsory school attendance or training for students from 2020, and proposes to lower the school starting age.
Labor’s school policy is to have all students automatically enrolled from year 7 straight through to year 12 at both high schools and colleges.
But getting students into Years 11 and 12, and keeping them there with suitable support from their communities and their schools, remains an issue.
“The policy-players, education and all the other arms of government, housing, health and so on, could work in complimentary ways and get a big debate going in the community [about how to use funding],” Dr Lingard said.
“We could have a concerted set of policies which really target this retention issue, the quality of outcomes issue, but also the SES issue.
“There’s an opportunity for that complimentary, across-the-range policies, but also for schools in some of the outerlying regions to build relationships with their communities to try to change culture.”