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What do we need to make Victorian government schools more successful?

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 29 July 2004

If the Australian Education Union (AEU) is to be believed, the answer is straightforward; more money. Increased resources will lead to more teachers, smaller classes and improved results. 

As highlighted by the union’s campaign for better salaries and conditions earlier this year, the assumption is that all the government has to do is to increase the education budget and the quality of student learning will automatically improve.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that research, both here and overseas, demonstrates that the best way to improve student learning is to focus on what happens, or does not happen, in the classroom.


Ken Rowe, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, argues that factors such as home background or socio-economic status are not the main determinants of educational success. More important is the quality and effectiveness of classroom interaction.

Studies associated with the Third International Maths and Science tests, carried out by the likes of Professor James Stigler at the University of California, also conclude that the key to improving student performance is to identify effective teaching/learning and to ensure that schools follow best practice.

What does such best practice look like? The consensus is that successful education systems:

  • adopt a strong discipline-based approach to school subjects;
  • enforce system accountability with explicit rewards and sanctions;
  • define clear educational standards; and
  • have greater time on task and more formal, whole-class teaching.

Internationally, more successful education systems also have regular high-stakes testing and students are provided with a varied curriculum and a range of school pathways; recognising that one size does not fit all and that students have different abilities, interests and post-school destinations.

How does the Victorian education system compare?  Based on research carried out when writing Why Our Schools Are Failing, the answer is that we have a long way to go before our system can be considered world’s best.


Victoria’s approach to curriculum is based on an outcomes-based approach.  In the words of Bruce Wilson, the head of Australia’s Curriculum Corporation, this approach is inherently flawed as it represents an “unsatisfactory political and intellectual compromise”.

It should also be noted that countries that outperform Australia in international maths and science tests forsake an outcomes-based approach to curriculum in favour of a syllabus or a standards approach.

When compared to other systems, it is also the case that our students have higher rates of absenteeism, there is greater noise and disruption in the classroom and Victorian teachers suffer from low morale and poor job satisfaction.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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