By Jordan Baker
There were balloons, banners and beaming smiles when students began returning to classrooms this week. In its 170-year history, the NSW school system has rarely seen such excitement; some kids declared it was better than their birthday, and others were in tears when it was time to go home.
Sandy Keyser, 11, was up and dressed by daybreak for his first day at St Mary’s Primary, Rydalmere. “He was bouncing off the walls’,” says his mother, Samantha. Sandy arrived at school in his red sports uniform to find all his teachers wearing red, too. “It was so special,” she says.
Across the city, for the first time ever, Owen Patient, 11, laid his uniform out the night before school, while his six-year-old sister Annika barely slept due to the excitement. “She doesn’t go back until next Monday now, and she’s devastated,” says mum Sharne Patient. “I’m so pleased they feel they belong and are valued in that community.”
Their childish joy is a stark contrast to the messy, sometimes ugly politics their parents have seen unfold during the COVID-19 crisis. As the virus exploits weaknesses in the body, so too has the fight to contain it exposed the deepening fault lines in Australia’s education system.
In the past month, Australian parents have watched Commonwealth and state leaders brawling over whether schools should remain open. They have seen those same leaders struggle to control the three school sectors, which have different masters and divergent interests. And they have witnessed the stark inequity all this division has created, all while having an unprecedented insight into their child’s learning over the kitchen table. They have been left anxious, confused, and wondering how all this high-level division and bureaucracy actually helps their kids.
If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 school dramas, some hope it will be a new resolve to tackle problems that have been festering, and to change the habits of decades. “Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” says one. But others fear the issues are so deeply entrenched in the structure of government, not even the pandemic will be a catalyst for change. “In the end it seems like a close call,” says another. “It has highlighted the frailties of the system, but has not been bad enough to make it collapse in on itself.”
The coronavirus crisis has reminded Australians of the vital role schools play in society. They are essential to the economy, not just because they allow parents to work, but because they educate the workers of the future. They are a safe place for our most vulnerable kids, and they bring the community together. When schools shut, everything shuts, which is why Prime Minister Scott Morrison has fought so hard to keep them open. But he came up against an insurmountable hurdle; the Australian Constitution.
States run schools, not the Commonwealth. That’s why each attempt by Morrison and education minister Dan Tehan to get their way – by directly urging parents to send their children to class despite the premier’s instructions, or accusing Victorian Premier Dan Andrews of taking a sledgehammer to his state’s education (an accusation Tehan later withdrew) – has ended with them backing down. It is the issue that has most threatened the unity of national cabinet.
That powerlessness has been a frustration for federal politicians over decades; they spend so much money on schools but have such little influence over them. “There is perennial dysfunction in federal-state relations,” says one close observer, who does not want to be named. “The best case scenario is almost always that the states go through the accountability motions, which is itself distracting and sucks up resources, and do what they were going to do anyway.”
Adrian Piccoli, a former NSW Education Minister, says the Commonwealth has one, blunt tool at its disposal to influence schools. “It’s called money,” he says. The federal government makes funding conditional on reforms, then the states “spend a lot of time working out how to get the money without doing it,” Piccoli says. Failed Commonwealth initiatives include the independent public schools push, and repeated attempts to introduce performance pay for teachers. Tehan has so far only had two takers in his attempt to introduce phonics checks around the country.
Co-operation has improved recently; there are now national teaching standards, and a national curriculum (although NSW and Victoria kept their own). But debate continues over whether they have been useful, or just create another tangle of bureaucracy. “I don’t know at what point we will stop pretending that the federal government can significantly improve schools,” says Ben Jensen, chief executive of education consultancy Learning First.
In the past few years, the Commonwealth has also formalised its role as the main funder of non-government schools, which has made it “much more directly involved in funding some sectors of schooling than almost anywhere else in the economy,” says Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at the Grattan Institute.
Federal politicians – particularly Coalition ones – have encouraged the growth of the private school sector because they encourage parental choice. Some also believe they want to use the private systems – which are regulated but not run by states – to extend their influence over schooling.
“[Private schools] are in between [the two governments] – not really accountable to anyone,” says one insider.
But that hasn’t worked either. Private schools might doff their cap to governments, and co-operate on policy issues, but they will ultimately make decisions in the interest of their own students – as highlighted in the COVID-19 crisis when Victorian private schools rebuffed federal Education Minister Dan Tehan’s attempt to use money to get them to defy the premier, and again when their NSW counterparts ignored the NSW government’s plan to return students to school in favour of their own. “We now see some of the consequences of that support for independent schools,” says Goss. “They are harder [for governments] to control.”
That has ramifications for public schools, too. The public school sector feels pressure to match the approach of private schools, lest it be seen to have lower standards. Private schools have influenced government policy a few times during the pandemic; back in January, the NSW Department of Education backflipped on its plan to allow students returning from China – where the virus had taken hold in Wuhan – to go straight back to school after private schools asked them to stay home for two weeks. Earlier this month, NSW public schools scrambled to bring back year 12 because private schools did it first.
But even within the government sector, many argue that the COVID-19 crisis has shown how little influence state education chiefs have over their own schools. When NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian asked parents to keep their children home on March 23, teachers in NSW public schools rushed their lessons online. While the department developed a website featuring guidelines, templates and training material for teachers and parents, each school had to develop their own strategy.
“We need to ask really big questions about why we haven’t had any economies of scale and quality assurance [during remote learning],” says Rachel Wilson, an associate professor of education at Sydney University. “The teachers are killing themselves doing lesson planning, while they should be given material that’s quality-assured, and spending their time working on their relationships with students.”
Critics say this was the result of years of cutting back central education departments, and shifting most responsibilities to schools. There are many benefits to school flexibility, but it also means that in a time of crisis the department – which has been running distance education for 100 years – can no longer swiftly intervene at school level.
“What we’ve seen in COVID-19 is weak central systems, which have often not had the ability to provide a high-quality starting point for how to move online – or how to bring kids back in [to the classroom],” says Goss. “They’ve had to figure it out by themselves. I fear we are about to see this play out again, as schools reopen.”
NSW Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott rejected suggestions the department’s response was inadequate. “The feedback we’ve had overwhelmingly has been gratitude for the creation of that learning from home website – the traffic around that has been absolutely enormous,” he says. “There’s been more traffic to that … than there was to the NSW Health website in the heat of the pandemic, because of the quality of support that was provided.”
Within all this, the deeply entrenched inequities in Australia’s school system have become more pronounced. While some schools had top-notch online learning systems ready to launch, others have had to scramble to not only furnish their students with laptops and internet access, but give them tables and chairs. In some more disadvantaged areas, schools – both public and private – also delivered food to their students, knowing that the only decent meals they received where the ones they were fed at school.
“Some schools were able to pivot rapidly and extensively,” says Paul Kidson, an education academic at the University of Wollongong and a former independent school principal. “They were well prepared, they could roll stuff out, flick switches. Other schools were struggling to provide that support at school, let alone deliver it remotely. That’s a funding issue, but it does go to the core of how structural inequities were just reinforced at a moment like this.”
The problems frustrating the education sector for years they have been thrust into the spotlight by COVID-19, not only via headlines about the high-level battles between governments and sectors, but by the unprecedented insight millions of parents have had into their own children’s education, as they helped them with lessons. “If you can take any positive out of this whole experience, is that schools are front of mind for a lot of people now,” says Piccoli.
Dr Jensen argues the parental insight into their child’s everyday classroom activities could be the most significant by-product of the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s shone a light on the weeds of teaching and learning – that is where teachers live, and where all the hard work is done,” he says. “Education policy has not gone into the weeds for a decade-and-a-half. We have been hopping out of providing support at that level, and instead all this money is going into the high-level stuff.”
While observing the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis in Canberra, Kidson has spied an opportunity for reform. If the national cabinet has carefully considered the advice of medical experts during this time of crisis, without ideology or agenda, could it not do the same for education in a post-pandemic world? “There has been this profound respect and honouring of the professional knowledge,” he says. “Put aside partisan politics, put that aside for the national good. This serves as a blueprint of what can be the case. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
For Piccoli, COVID-19 has provided yet another argument for Australia following the lead of Canada, and dumping the federal education ministry altogether – a proposal also outlined by former Coalition opposition leader John Hewson last week. “In Canada, the provinces run their own systems, and to me that kind of competitive federalism is most effective,” says Piccoli. “Each jurisdiction learns off the other ones, from their successes and failures.
“When you try to standardise things, in education or anywhere else, I don’t think it works as well. NSW had a basic skills test, and the other states wanted to do the same thing, so they made it national [in the form of NAPLAN]. But once it’s national, you can’t change it. National bodies should set a strategy, and state regulators should be responsible for the implementation of that strategy.”
Eleven-year-old Sandy Keyser and six-year-old Annika Patient were oblivious to all this as they skipped off to school this week. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that schools mean the world to their most important stakeholders – the students themselves. “What we have learned – powerfully -is about the social value of schools as communities,” says Kidson. “When you contrast that with some of the divisive and exclusionary debates, I think it’s saying something to us.”