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Schooling Australia III: National purpose, efficiency and collaboration

By Fiona Mueller and Deidre Clary - posted Thursday, 22 November 2018

Educating young Australians for the future is one of the great challenges of the century. Australia is known for its early adoption of international trends, but a clever and cautious approach is appropriate in this work for the common good. Most importantly, we need a thorough understanding of the current policy climate as well asan understanding of the 'reality' of schooling before attempting to implement change.

It is time for a national information auditof schooling.

Where does all the money go? Who are the powerbrokers? On what basis are decisions made about what and how young Australians should learn? How are systems and schools endeavouring to meet the educational needs of students in the 21st century?


Current rhetoric focuses on how hard it is for education systems to make necessary shifts in curriculum design, assessment and pedagogy. According to the OECD's Andreas Schleicher (2018), educational leaders rarely succeed with innovation 'unless they build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change, and unless they build capacity and create the right policy climate, with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation rather than compliance.' Indeed, Australian teachers report a disproportionate increase in administrative demands, leaving them with little time or energy to innovate.

Business, government and other stakeholders make regular references to reinventing education for the 21st century, but one stark reality is that Australia's education system is rooted in a previous industrial age, designed and resourced to create workers for defined career paths.

A spokesman for Deloitte Australia identifies a 'natural tension' in how much Australia invests in education, and attributes this to inefficiency in the sector. Governments need to create greater flexibility so that 'a whole lot of resources' can be freed up to be applied in different ways, Robert Hilliard told the recent Future of Jobs roundtable.

Schleicher rejects the charge of inefficiency, suggesting our way of schooling is losing its purpose and relevance.

In the past, Schleicher emphasizes, the 'interests, beliefs, motivations and fears of the people' (including parents and teachers) most affected by education have been largely invisible, and tended to 'evade the radar screen of public policy.'

Recent reports such as David Gonski's Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools and John Halsey's Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, as well as OECD studies, have identified many shortcomings, particularly in relation to equity and quality in Australian schooling.


Mobilising for the future does not assume the adoption of fads or radical shifts in curriculum design, assessment and pedagogy. Common sense suggests that taxpayers, parents, employer groups, politicians and other stakeholders should be able to make judgments based on a clear picture of Australian school education. Educational solutions must be based on innovative partnerships.

A comprehensive national information audit – likely the first of its kind – would ascertain the nature, extent and effectiveness of expenditure, collaboration and innovation in Australian education. It would provide a unique platform on which to identify duplication and deficits and to recommend improvements. Most importantly, it would demonstrate genuine, cross-sectoral commitment to national goals.

Using unambiguous and rigorous criteria, it must be possible to identify distinctive and effective education policies and practices in Australia. What are their origins and how are they monitored and evaluated?

Data collection from state, territory and federal education authorities should include:

  • Purpose
  • Achievement against the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, particularly in relation to improvements in educational outcomes and equity since 2008
  • Philosophical, pedagogical, educational and other bases for delivery of school education within the jurisdiction, including vocational education options
  • Efficiency
  • Provision of school education, including enrolments, number of schools, teachers, non-teaching staff, school leaders
  • Funding allocations to systems and schools; methodology, accountability
  • Nature and role of government and non-government education authorities, including total cost of non-school salaries, consultancies, facilities and other resources.
  • Collaboration
  • Cross-sectoral collaboration within the jurisdiction
  • Collaboration beyond the jurisdiction
  • Relationships with national education infrastructure (e.g. Australian Government Department of Education and Training, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the Australian Institute for          Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and Education Services Australia (ESA)
  • Relationships with other Australian and foreign organisations (e.g. international associations, universities, research bodies, commercial enterprises and other for-profit and not-for-profit organisations, and associated funding)
  • Public consultation, including surveys and other strategies for communication and collection of feedback
  • Engagement with national education initiatives (e.g. Australian Curriculum, National Assessment Program)
  • The ideal of a prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse Australia is utterly dependent on the contribution of well-educated young Australians who can meet the challenges of the 21st century with confidence. The schooling of such citizens must emphasise sustained intellectual effort in a range of academic disciplines and the development of associated skills, reflecting approaches to education that are distinctly and proudly Australian. Improvements in educational outcomes are dependent on better national collaboration and accountability.

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    About the Authors

    Dr Fiona Mueller is a teacher of English and foreign languages and a former Head of ANU College at the Australian National University. In 2016-2017, she was Director of Curriculum at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). She is particularly interested in the history of education, international education, single-sex schooling and K-12 curriculum design.

    Dr Deidre Clary is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English and education at the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia. A former secondary teacher and deputy principal, her research interests include disciplinary literacy, critical literacy and new literacies. More recently, Deidre has engaged in comparative curriculum studies involving the Australian Curriculum.

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