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And How to Avoid Them in the Future
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Education policies should drive success and equity but in many countries they are failing to do so. Situating the cases of England and Australia within broader global policy trends, this book critically analyses what has gone wrong.

The authors draw on extensive research in education to review the impact of multiple policies on students, teachers and schools, with a focus on communities where children and young people need education most. They issue a fundamental challenge to the policy orthodoxies of recent decades and set out a blueprint for making education both better and fairer.

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This book is about the mistakes that have been made in education policy in England and Australia since the 1970s and how we can begin to put them right.

England and Australia are very different countries, with different education systems, histories and governance structures, but they have been following similar education policy trajectories. We argue that in many respects, these trajectories have made schooling in both England and Australia less rather than more able to meet the educational challenges our societies present.

In particular, as economic, social and spatial divisions have grown, the evidence is mounting that our education systems have become increasingly unfair in terms of access, opportunities, experiences and outcomes. And this is despite repeated political claims, over decades, that a major objective of education policies is to achieve greater equality of opportunity and greater social mobility based on more equal outcomes.

As we enter a new period of rapid technological, environmental, demographic and labour market change, super-charged by the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruptive effects, it is imperative we find ways to make our education systems work for all.

In this book, we argue that positive change is possible. There is no shortage of contemporary international examples that help point the way. But we need big policy changes, not policy ‘tweaks’. Taken-for-granted assumptions and well-established structures must be challenged, and a new consensus built for substantial change.

This will require changes in the nature of policy debates and a greater willingness to set aside whims, prejudices and long-standing antagonisms. We need to reclaim some of the common ground that exists in collective aspirations for children’s and young people’s wellbeing and success.

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Many people reading this book will know a lot about education in England or in Australia, but perhaps not about both. This chapter sets the scene.

In an era of international ‘policy borrowing’ and ‘policy convergence’ (Ball, 1999, 2019; Sahlberg, 2015), there are many similarities between their education policies. We argue that politicians in both countries have made the same wrong turns and are dealing with some of the same consequences. Yet there are important differences in the structures and organisation of the systems themselves. These enable, or constrain, particular policy choices, creating so-called ‘path dependencies’ in the policy process, and they mean that policies play out in different ways. So, we start by setting out some of the essential characteristics of these education policy landscapes.1

A fundamental issue is who makes decisions about schooling. England2 has a highly centralised system. Central government, in the form of the Department for Education (DfE), sets teachers’ pay scales and professional standards. Systems of assessment and qualification are national, as is the curriculum, and school inspection, although these functions are managed by semi-independent organisations (see Table 2.1). Until relatively recently, there was also a strong role for local education authorities (LEAs). This has been much reduced by the creation of autonomous schools that all report to the DfE. The funding system is now also based on a single national formula. So, the system is simultaneously becoming more centralised and more subject to hyper-local variation as schools can make more of their own decisions.

The Commonwealth of Australia is a federal system of government.

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Our fifth mistake relates to the nature of education policy making and the characteristics of policy processes.

Our central argument is that for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, educational policy making has become increasingly divorced from knowledge of educational theory and practice. This is not to say that the knowledge of teachers, school leaders, academics and researchers who study teaching, learning and other aspects of the educational day-to-day is the only kind of knowledge that should count in education policy. As with many of the issues we have discussed, the problem is not that everything that has happened is bad, but that the balance has tipped too far in one direction, making it more likely that the wrong decisions will be made and that established policies will continue to be followed even when the evidence is clear that they are mistaken.

In this chapter, we draw on research about policy, rather than about specific policies as we have done in earlier chapters. We describe some of the problems with education policy-making processes in England and Australia, how they have come about, and why we think they are getting in the way of making education better and fairer.

In their book on social policy mistakes in England, King and Crewe (2014) identify 12 factors that lead to ‘policy blunders’. Five of these come under the category of ‘human errors’: cultural disconnect (policy makers not understanding that other people’s lives are not like their own); group-think; prejudice and pragmatism; operational disconnect (policy makers not understanding how policies will play out on the ground); and panic, symbols and spin.

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In Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of this book, we identified three major things that are wrong with our education systems in England and Australia: the dominance of tests; the ways in which the least advantaged children and young people are often least well served by education; and the ways in which the work of teachers and school leaders is changing so that we are making less good use of this valuable resource.

In Chapters 6 to 10, we described five major policy mistakes that have come together to create these problems: a reliance on markets; letting test scores drive policy; over-prescribing teachers’ work; misunderstanding educational inequalities; and failing to draw enough on knowledge of education in education policy making. We explained how these big ‘wrong turns’ have contributed, in combination, to the problems identified earlier.

In this chapter, we sharpen this analysis to show how the mistakes have combined to produce a particular policy, one that currently attracts dispute and controversy in both England and Australia – the practice of synthetic phonics (SP) and the Year 1 phonics check. Unpacking this example in detail helps illuminate what is going wrong and how it might change.

In England and Australia, there have been long-standing concerns that literacy levels are too low, failing to meet the needs of employers. Low literacy achievement is also strongly associated with disadvantage, both in the sense that children from low-income homes are more likely than their more affluent peers to struggle with reading and writing, and in the sense that poor literacy skills hold people back in adult life, perpetuating intergenerational disadvantage.

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The educational policies discussed in this book are often described as constituting a distinctive era in which the principles of market liberalism have framed and structured education systems and practices around the world, often in tandem with social and cultural conservatism. A broad political consensus, within and between countries, has supported the development of market-driven systems characterised by standards-based education reforms, test-based accountability, reduced teacher autonomy, and back-to-basics curriculum projects.

This era is coming to a close. In the decade following the 2008 global financial crisis, as the fragility and failure of the neoliberal economic model came into sharp relief, cracks in the educational consensus began to show. Referenced throughout the book, multiple inquiries and reports, including those from parliamentary committees and government-appointed bodies, began to point out that in various ways the twin goals of excellence and equity were not being achieved. England and Australia were not improving in international league tables either of education or economic performance. Places and people were being left behind as governments struggled to manage rapid transitions and shocks fairly, leading to increasing political and social divisions. Social mobility was barely increasing and inequalities in educational experiences and outcomes barely reducing. Social stratification seemed built into systems. Markets and tests were producing more negative than positive effects overall. Schools were becoming less positive and productive places for many young people. Ideas of what might entail a ‘fair and equal education’ that privileges the interests of all young people in diverse contemporary nations seemed to have been lost (Hattam et al, 2018).

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This chapter is the first of three in which we set out the problems manifest in our current schooling systems. We put the biggest problem first – schools are becoming dominated by tests, in ways that are detrimental to children and young people and limit education rather than improving it.

In England, children do external tests from their first year of schooling. They take a phonics check in Year 1, Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) for English and maths at the end of Year 2 and again in Year 6, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or equivalent examinations at the end of Year 11, and Advanced (‘A’) Levels or equivalent at the end of Year 13. There are also standard teacher assessments at the end of the Foundation Stage (age about five).

In Australia, assessment regimes vary across state jurisdictions. However, in the earlier grades (3, 5, 7, and 9) ACARA conducts national assessments in literacy and numeracy through NAPLAN. The Year 12 end-of-school record of achievement is determined by each jurisdiction and may include a range of academic and vocational subjects assessed through a variety of means including examinations, performance tasks and portfolios. On completion of schooling, eligible students may also receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), which ranks them relative to others in their state or territory for university admission purposes.

The ways in which these assessment regimes shape the practice of teachers’ and children’s experiences of school has been the subject of numerous academic studies, enquiries and reviews by parliamentary committees, independent review bodies, teacher unions and others.

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One thing about which there seems to be near universal consensus among education olicy makers is that education systems should rovide equally for all children and provide the opportunity of success for all.

This holds whether you start from the position of the United Nations (UN) goal to ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (United Nations, 2015) or from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29, which states that ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full’ (UNICEF, 1992). It holds if you start from goals to reduce inequalities, enhance social mobility and foster social justice, or if you start from economic aspirations to increase human capital, maximise productivity and spend less on welfare. Inclusive and equitable education is, in theory, a ‘no-brainer’.

But it isn’t happening. In fact, in far too many cases, children and young people who need the education system most are actually getting less from it than their more advantaged peers. That uncomfortable fact has long been recognised, at least by sociologists of education if not always by politicians. But there is also evidence that the system is increasingly marginalising children who in different ways rely on it most. Instead of compensating for other injustices, the education system may increasingly be making them worse.

One major factor in the production of educational divisions is the structure of school systems, including differences between and within sectors that make up these systems. This may seem too obvious even to state.

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Many teachers say they joined the profession to make a difference, perhaps because they themselves experienced the transformative influence of a good teacher or tried their hand at a less fulfilling occupation. Whatever the reason, making a difference in the lives of young people is widely valued as a reason for joining and staying in a challenging profession. Take, for example, Belinda Lyons-Lee (2019), who took a year off teaching and became a published author. Despite the fewer demands and less pressure of her writing career, she returned to teaching because ‘I needed to reconnect with my passion of introducing these teenagers to the power of a narrative to change a life and then introduce them to the skills so they could write their own powerful narrative that would change lives’ (Lyons-Lee, 2019).

One of the most important functions of schooling is to help each young person to develop the narrative of their life, even when there are interruptions and when they face barriers beyond their control. Teachers’ work fundamentally affects young people’s experiences of schooling, but more than this it affects the likelihood that they will enjoy and succeed not only at school, but also in life.

In this chapter, we argue that in England and Australia, teachers are making less of a difference than they could, because of the ways in which their work is changing. Instead of concentrating their efforts on teaching, and on reviewing and developing their pedagogical practice, they are burdened by administrative demands associated with monitoring and activities are described by a teacher in Comber and Nixon’s (2009) study as ‘meaningless bullshit destined for a cupboard in someone’s office’ (p 339).

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The first policy move we describe as a mistake is the decision to rely increasingly on a market model of school provision. By this we mean a suite of changes including expanding the range of non-state providers, making schools self-managing, requiring them to compete for students and funding, and encouraging and enabling parents to choose schools.

Many countries have moved in this direction to a greater or lesser extent in recent decades. The results are rarely free markets. High levels of state management, subsidy and regulation limit market activity. So economists tend to call markets for schooling ‘quasi-markets’. But they still differ substantially from fully state-run models, where governments provide schools, employ teachers and allocate places.

In this chapter, we briefly describe the different paths towards marketisation that governments in England and Australia have taken, and the rationales for these changes. We also review evidence of policy effects, concentrating on markets themselves rather than on the mechanisms that have sprung up to govern them (such as performance measures), which we cover in Chapter 7.

Marketising policies in England and Australia started from different points but have evolved in similar ways.

In Australia, the ascendency of choice as the driver of education markets is somewhat ironically linked to a social-democratic moment in policy making. The Whitlam government (1972–75) overcame an ideological objection to providing state aid to non-government schools in order to support severely under-resourced schools, mainly Catholic parish schools. Whitlam established the Schools Commission that set about classifying schools according to need. The commission did not recommend funding already adequately resourced schools but the compromises that allowed the bill to pass through parliament enabled all schools, even elite private schools, to receive some government funding.

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