Category: Education

Which school model works best?

With the kids heading back to school, I found myself wondering about the history of schooling in Australia and how we ended up with our current system in the ACT.

It turns out that having a society with a large proportion of convicts is a good way for governments to get involved in funding education. Schools were mostly owned and operated by religious orders in the 19th century, but churches in Australia didn’t have the resources to fund or staff schools themselves. So even back in the 1820s the State paid for the operations of schools.

As a result, education in Australia has always been quite secular. While we take non-religious education for granted, this approach was very different from that of the UK. Even today, a large number of UK schools are fully funded by the government but operated by the Anglican church.

In 1848 the Anglican church agreed not to oppose the creation of public schools in Australia, as long as government subsidies to religious, private schools were maintained. This tension between relative levels of funding for government and non-government schools is a theme that continues today.

In the 1870s and 1880s, attendance at school was made compulsory, with NSW requiring children to attend between the ages of 6 to 13, and in Victoria from 6 to 15. This was quite an early recognition of the value of education, with the British system only requiring attendance until the age of 11 at the time. Education of the day was as much about crime control as learning:

Crime was the result of ignorance, ignorance was the result of a lack of education and, therefore, education would decrease crime … [education was the] means of forging the penal colony of Australia into an organised and orderly society. This society would be based on, but hopefully better than, the existing British system. It was, therefore, imperative that the government set up schools so that all children could be taught, not only the three “R’s,” (reading, writing and arithmetic) but how to be good moral, law-abiding citizens.

Here in the ACT, the Federal Government was responsible for funding and running local schools until self-government. Our schools operated under the conventional primary and high school model until 1976, when the college system was established. This has been a very successful model for year 11 and 12 students. In particular, it is an excellent fit for Canberra in the way that it maximises subject choice and access to specialist resources for senior students, given our comparatively small population.

More recently we have seen other models trialled here in the ACT, including the very popular integrated early childhood education and care approach for 0-7 year olds, as well as the single campus P-10 schools.

The best point to switch from the “single teacher” model of primary school to secondary education is not agreed either. Some educators maintain that starting secondary school in year 7 happens at a very vulnerable time in a child’s life, during rapid biological and mental changes. Many private schools in the ACT are structured as a junior (P-5), middle (6-8), and senior (9-12) campus. However, it is not clear whether any difference in academic achievement is due to socioeconomic factors or to the school structures themselves.

My big takeaway is that there is a lot that our education system does well. That said, Australia has been steadily slipping over the past decade in international rankings for achievement in mathematics, science, and reading. We can’t afford to be complacent. Education reform is an ongoing task, and we all need to be part of that debate.

Let’s clean up Canberra’s early childhood education mess

High quality childcare improves learning outcomes for children.

It’s that simple, or at least it should be. Unfortunately, in the ACT, when you have children under four you are forced to navigate a system that is a bit of a mess.

Some parents can’t access childcare places, while others can’t afford them. People are forced to sign up to multiple waiting lists because there is no coordination across providers. And the quality and diversity of activities at childcare centres can vary substantially depending on the provider and the fees paid.

This patchwork of private, community and government providers of childcare is sold to us as “choice,” when in reality parents are often forced to take what they can get.

This isn’t a problem just with the ACT – the other states and territories have similar problems. That is why the implementation of the National Quality Framework in 2012 for childcare providers was an important step in providing more consistent standards of care. It reflects the ongoing evolution of childcare into an early childhood education provider, not just a babysitting service. Many other countries already get it: in Germany and France, kindergarten is available for children from two years old.

In our current childcare system, the focus is on increasing workforce participation by parents. However, according to a 2014 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, there are even greater economic and social benefits for the children who attend a quality education and care program.

This research shows that children who attend early childhood education from age three or earlier have improved academic and social abilities by age six or seven. Kids from vulnerable families see particularly important improvements, with one study showing an increase of 17 per cent in Year 12 graduation rates. As taxpayers we benefit from the higher earnings, lower delinquency, and lower reliance on government assistance programs by these children.

In 2009, the ACT government tried something innovative by opening five Early Childhood School facilities. The goal of these Schools is to provide integrated services and support to families with children aged 0-8.

As well as providing both childcare and formal K-2 schooling on site, the school also provides access to community playgroups, parental education programs, and referrals to health services.

Now that the early childhood schools have operated for six years, a comprehensive study should be undertaken to confirm both societal benefits and ongoing individual achievement. A review of similar Queensland centres that opened in 2006 found they improved developmental, social and behavioural outcomes for children; strengthened families and parenting skills; and achieved better outcomes for vulnerable families.

If we’re serious about improving education for our kids, we need to make it more accessible and more affordable right from the start, particularly for lower income earners.

Some options for achieving this include:

  • guaranteeing access to 15 hours of classes per week for 2 – 4 year olds
  • implementing a means-tested subsidy for children in lower-income families to attend a qualified and certified childcare facility, and
  • centralising waiting lists across care facilities

It’s important to give our children the best start in life. Let’s not wait any longer to start cleaning up the mess.

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