Hewson's View: We need to do much better with our schools

Forging ahead: A classroom in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. A recent survey shows Australian students lag more than three years behind their Chinese counterparts in maths. Picture: Shutterstock
Forging ahead: A classroom in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. A recent survey shows Australian students lag more than three years behind their Chinese counterparts in maths. Picture: Shutterstock

Yet another survey of the performance of our schools was released this week, and again with disturbing results.

A global study (done every three years), the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed 600,000 15-year-olds from 79 countries, comparing maths, reading and science performance. In Australia, 740 schools and more than 14,000 students were assessed.

The study found that Australian students' reading, science and maths results were all in long-term decline. The students' scores for science plummeted to their lowest level ever. While many comparisons can be made, a couple of the most disturbing examples were that our students lag 3.5 years behind their Chinese counterparts in maths, and more than a year behind their Singaporean counterparts in reading.

Obviously, our schools are failing to give our kids the skills they need in these subjects as they do in other countries. This should not only be a concern in absolute terms here in Australia, but our kids now have to compete in a global market against kids from these other countries.

Australian student performance was on a par with countries such as Sweden, New Zealand, the US, the UK, and Japan, but was lower than China, Singapore, Estonia, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Korea and Poland.

There should be no doubt that these results should be taken seriously, as something of a national "wake-up call". Politically, it certainly should not be taken as just another opportunity to score points on the other side, or to shift blame to the other side, or to kick the states, or the unions, as we have seen so many times in the past.

To be clear, the federal government doesn't run any schools, although it does heavily fund school education. The states differed in performance, with NSW, Victoria and Queensland on the OECD average, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory fell behind, and the ACT (the best performer) and Western Australia both beat the average. However, overall, Australian students had fallen behind by a full school year in maths, and almost a school year in reading and science.

While the major political parties score points about which one is "spending the most", there is no doubt that funding for schools has increased significantly over the period, and there has been a special focus, as a result of the Gonski Review, on correcting the misallocation of funding against disadvantaged schools.

Clearly, the allocation and effectiveness of this funding needs to be fully reassessed, and relative to other countries. For example, Canada, a country similar to Australia in many ways, seems to outperform our schools on almost every measure, and they seem to have focused more on lifting the performance of disadvantaged students. Are there lessons here?

Two factors strike me as of particular importance. First, as a society, we don't give subjects such as maths, science and reading, and performance therein, the standing and prominence they deserve. They are more "must do" subjects, on the way to doing something else, rather than important "ends in themselves", performance in which is recognised, lauded and rewarded.

Indeed, it's the reverse in the case of say science, where say climate scientists have been attacked for even speaking out on what is one our most challenging global issues, and those who actually excel in all three of these fields are rarely recognised for their performances, unlike say entertainers and sports stars.

Second, not only do we not give these subjects the focus they get in other countries, but I suspect our teachers are of poorer quality. There are many aspects to this.

Our best high school graduates don't tend to go into teaching, indeed, in some subjects they rank quite low. While their starting salaries may be competitive, career paths are limited, and therfore opportunities for advancement, and to increase their incomes, are constrained.

I fear we also put too little weight on teacher quality, and are reluctant to accept the need for improved assessments of teacher performance, and for financial incentives, both positive and negative, to be pursued in relation to their performance. We certainly don't afford teachers the social status they deserve.

The allocation and effectiveness of funding needs to be reassessed ...

There are no easy answers to how to lift our national performance in schooling. But, clearly, it MUST be a priority, for our governments, parents, and right across our society.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.