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The Second Gonski Report – Through Growth to Achievement”, a “Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools

The Commonwealth Government commissioned a second report on school education in July 2017 when it announced its decisions on funding, a further elaboration of the response to the first Gonski panel’s report.

This report was to focus on teaching: how could it be made more effective. The second Gonski Report, entitled “Through Growth to Achievement”, a “Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools”  was presented to government in March 2018 and released publicly in late April 2018.

The Report is an extremely important document, at least as important as the report on school funding by the first Gonski panel. However, it has received minimal attention; government has continued with its effort to work out what it should do about funding. It has thereby missed an important opportunity for genuine reform.


It is a tragedy that government continues to see everything through the lens of funding, especially costs. Progress is not anywhere principally linked to money. It is linked to how people work together and how decisions get made, on innovation and creativity, on clear understanding of what the intention of action is and who is supposed to benefit.

Government’s focus on money does no more than exit the stage by trying to spend as little as possible so that the citizenry and the corporate sector can pay as little taxes as possible. It is based on the proposition that government creates very little value indeed and that its activities hinder other parts of the economy in creating value. Unfortunately, much of media commentary goes along with this together with an effort to identify potential conflict between players.


The Panel comprised education experts; Ken Boston AO, a former senior executive in the NSW Government in the education area and also in England, was also a member of the panel for the first Gonski report. Other members came from various parts of the education community including independent and government schools, universities, community organisations and consulting firms.

The Report closes with a “Call to Action”

Enabling all Australian students to realise their full learning potential, and re-establishing Australia’s education system as world-leading, is an ambitious but achievable goal, which requires a commitment to sustained, long-term reform.

The strategy set out in this report, and articulated in the 23 recommendations, will transform Australian school education.

The Review Panel recognises that the scale of these reforms is ambitious, particularly given Australia’s federated education model. The challenges, however, cannot become an excuse for inaction. The evidence is clear; the reforms embedded in the strategy are necessary to achieve educational excellence in Australian schooling.

Taken together, and implemented in a sustained way, these reforms will reverse the decline in student outcomes in recent decades, and prepare current and future generations of school students to succeed in life and 21st century careers…

The Education Department stated, “The report’s recommendations and findings along with the Independent Review of Regional Rural and Remote Education and the final report of the STEM Partnerships Forum, have informed the development of the National Schools Reform Agreement  between the Commonwealth and states and territories.” (Further details of the agreement are given below.)

The Report makes a significant break with much of the prevailing ideology about schools and how they ought to be run which has dominated the debate in the last several decades. It pays considerable attention to important understandings from sociology, learning theory and organisational practice. The Report’s findings and recommendations concern early childhood, effective learning and assessment and effective organisational practice and leadership. These are issues on which there has been very considerable high quality research: they are areas which very often are ignored as preconceived views about education and learning, schools and their functioning and the entire purpose of education are privileged.

The Panel’s Report points out that the current practice of seeking overall improvement in learning outcomes across the entire system is in essence an industrial model comparable with a factory assembly line designed for the efficient production of identical items. It recommended that it should be abandoned! Instead the focus should be on each individual student, each of whom should be expected to gain a year’s progress as a result of a year’s schooling. Emphasis is to be placed on formative evaluation through attention to achieving that. The present model NAPLAN, an end- of-year standardised test taken by all students in alternate years, should be replaced by frequent formative evaluation conducted for each student by the teacher in the classroom.

Every student is expected to “grow and succeed in a changing world” by maximising individual growth and attainment. Without compromising the goal of achieving Australia’s high standing amongst leading education nations, the Report calls for teachers to assess each student’s current stage of knowledge and provide learning tailored to that. The present curriculum delivery – rigid and homogeneous – is ineffective not least because there is no scope for those students who were behind – “poorly prepared relative to other students” – when they started school to catch up to their peers. That has serious impacts on later achievement.

“Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators” replaces the usual rhetoric of blaming incompetent teachers. Summative evaluation through end-of-year standardised tests are criticised as limited in reporting achievement rather than growth. Cooperation amongst teachers and professional development are emphasised. “Teachers deserve greater recognition and higher esteem.”

Special attention is given to school leaders, principals, and the role they play as “instructional leaders: rather than administrators. To devote appropriated time and effort to that special administrative support is needed.  Their role is to see that maximising the learning growth of every student is their key priority. Structural autonomy is not sufficient: professional autonomy is needed to build professional capacity of teachers. Greater accountability is needed for achieving the goals.

Five critical actions are needed for school systems and schools to create a cycle of continuous improvement; innovation is needed to achieve these ambitions.

The Report’s summary commenced:

“In a world where education defines opportunity, schooling must support every one of Australia’s 3.8 million school students to realise their full learning potential and achieve educational excellence.

“Australian students should receive a world-class school education, tailored to individual learning needs, and relevant to a fast-changing world. They should be challenged and supported to progress and excel in learning in every year of school, appropriate to each student’s starting point and capabilities.

“Schooling should enrich students’ lives, leaving them inspired to pursue new ideas and set ambitious goals throughout life.

“Australia has a strong educational heritage and committed educators. Since 2000, however, academic performance has declined when compared to other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, suggesting that Australian students and schools are not improving at the same rate and are falling short of achieving the full learning potential of which they are capable. As a nation, we need to act now to raise our aspirations and make a renewed effort to improve school education outcomes.

“As a nation, we need to act now to raise our aspirations and make a renewed effort to improve school education outcomes…

“The Review Panel was asked to recommend ways that Australia could improve student outcomes, return to being one of the top education systems in the world, and ensure that school systems and schools truly prepare Australia’s young people for an ever-changing world.”

The Report’s summary concluded,

“Australia needs to review and change its model for school education. Like many countries, Australia still has an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children. This model is focused on trying to ensure that millions of students attain specified learning outcomes for their grade and age before moving them in lock-step to the next year of schooling. It is not designed to differentiate learning or stretch all students to ensure they achieve maximum learning growth every year, nor does it incentivise schools to innovate and continuously improve.

“Although this problem is widely recognised by teachers and educators, schools’ attempts to address the issue are hampered by curriculum delivery, assessment, work practices and the structural environments in which they operate.

“The constraints include inflexibility in curriculum delivery, reporting and assessment regimes, and tools focussed on periodic judgements of performance, rather than continuous diagnosis of a student’s learning needs and progress. This is compounded by a lack of research-based evidence on what works best in education, the absence of classroom applications readily available for use by teachers, multiple calls on the time of teachers and school leaders, and a lack of support for school principals to develop their professional autonomy and prioritise instructional leadership.”

In what follows I review the main points of each chapter of the Report.

Introduction: Improving education outcomes is critical to future economic and social opportunity

The introductory section of the Report concludes, “Academic achievement is only one dimension of education and not the sole measure of success. Proficiency across the curriculum, however, and especially in areas such as literacy and numeracy, which PISA and NAPLAN assess, matters deeply to economic and social opportunity. That is why turning around the slippage in student outcomes, and regaining Australia’s standing as a world-leader in schooling, must be a priority for Australia and all its educators.”

The data on international comparisons derived from the well-known PISA surveys are considered and the influence of student’s socioeconomic background is noted. After repeating the now oft-repeated laments about the declines in educational achievement  of Australian school students and the common assertion that Australia “needs a world-leading school education to equip Australian students to take advantage of … opportunities” some important issues are raised which go beyond the usual.

The declines in educational achievement levels over the 9 years through 2015 and significant gaps compared with a number of other countries have been almost obsessively examined by most media over the years. In many cases in the popular media with little regard has been given to variations within the samples and trends have been treated superficially. This calls into question whether the reports’ authors understood the basics of statistics.

But discussion of these metrics is a minute part of the second Gonski Report.

A central statement of the Report is as follows:

“Students need to develop a growth mindset and a passion for learning and be inspired to aim high and pursue bold goals. The most effective way to inculcate this is by school systems and schools placing the learning growth of each student at the centre of their education model. By doing this, education can better enrich every element of a student’s life and future career.”

A significant criticism of the present system is the finding that “many Australian schools are cruising, not improving”. The declines in achievement are broad-based, across all socio-economic levels and “somewhat larger in higher socio-economic quartiles”. That is reflected in the scores for students from independent schools, schools which enjoy substantially greater resources and opportunities than do students at government schools. Greater declines in mathematics than in reading literacy were noted.

Focusing on each student achieving minimum standard in learning outcomes based on year and age levels does not achieve the necessary gain. “This can lead to the less advanced students falling further behind with the progress they make being largely unrecognised while the more advanced students are not being stretched to achieve their potential but being praised anyway: they become complacent. Each student’s should be encouraged to achieve their maximum learning potential every year.”

The Report identified three priorities

The issues identified which mark something of a break from previous reports include attention to “expert educators” and “school leaders”. The research literature has paid substantial attention to these and the Report includes reference to specific relevant research.

Addressing the now familiar view that improvement in education outcomes is critical to future economic performance, the Report addresses the well-known evidence from PISA, the declines in ranking of Australian students’ achievement compared with those of other states and countries in reading literacy, mathematics and science over the years from 2000 to 2015. Appropriately there is attention to statistical differences considering the variances of the means for each country. Unfortunately, it shows those significantly better and those significantly worse but it does break those groups down further. The intent is to show the slide in Australian student’s scores.

The Report observes, “One driver of this decline is variations in early childhood learning that result in very different starting points of children entering school. Unless these learning gaps are addressed early, they increase over the course of a student’s schooling. The gap between students for an advantaged background and those from a disadvantaged background grow from 10 months in year 3 to around two and a half years by year 9 [as revealed by Grattan Institute studies]

Further, the report notes that socioeconomic and other disadvantage factors are not the only cause of the unacceptably large group of children not attaining proficiency in key learning areas: the decline is broad based and somewhat larger in higher socioeconomic groups [my emphasis]. The declines are elaborated.

The Report observes, “… Australian education has failed a generation of Australian children by not enabling them to reach their full learning potential … a significant shift in aspirations, approach, and practice” [is needed] to focus on and accelerate learning growth for all students [irrespective of their rank].

Exhibit 6 shows declines from 2006 through 2015 in the top five countries, Australia, and the OECD average. Why?

Improvement every year should be possible, the Report says. But stagnating student results are a consequence of ‘cruising’. That is what Hattie has already observed but the constant critics in the media and government have ignored it. The strongest students are not being sufficiently challenged to reach the top levels of proficiency. TIMSS identified more than a quarter of science teachers and more than a fifth of maths teachers rated their confidence as “low or medium in providing challenging tasks for the highest achieving students”. It is a consequence of the move of advantaged students to independent schools, isn’t it?

Chapter one: Laying the foundations for learning

The first chapter deals with early childhood. “The Review Panel believes it is necessary to acknowledge that there are critical pre-conditions for success in school. This includes the role high-quality early childhood education, and the engagement of parents and carers and students as partners in learning from a child’s early years”.

These are matters well known to all familiar with studies of the very young but are usually ignored in considerations of school education.

“Parents and carers who engage children in high-quality learning experiences from a young age make a significant difference to a child’s educational success… Their support can foster a child’s confidence and motivation, early literacy and numeracy skills, and the social and emotional capacity to do well when starting school and beyond… Research shows students who have a growth mindset—that is, a belief that they can succeed if they work hard—fare better than peers who believe their intelligence and capabilities are fixed.”

That has not been the primary focus of resource allocation. Instead the aim has been to support women who return to the work force or engage in higher education. This ignores the unpaid, unpriced and unrecognised contribution women make already through child rearing and home maintenance. Just as importantly it ignores the critical relationship of the mother and child.

The level of attendance at preschool in Australia is well below the OECD average. Issues such as the low wages paid to preschool teachers have become bogged down in arguments about unionisation and assertions of money grabs by teachers and unions.

Individual Learning

One of the most important features of the Report is its focus on the student as an active participant in individual learning: indeed, as a partner in their own learning journey. Relationships with parents and teachers as partners will help them reach their own potential: it increases agency – ownership and responsibility – and creates positive learning habits. The ability to exercise some autonomy and ownership over what they learn and how they learn “helps develop a growth mindset and positive lifelong learning habits”.

John Hattie is quoted: “the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers becomes learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”. One submission observed that when students feel cared for their confidence and motivation increases. So does cooperation, a greater sense of belonging and a more positive perception of school; they develop better learning strategies.

Maximising individual learning growth and attainment

The Report notes that theory accepted since the 1970s holds that “learning is most effective when students are presented with challenging tasks just beyond their immediate comfort zone but achievable with application and hard work.” This is one of the important areas where the preconceived notions of many in the community have been privileged and the research has been ignored, notwithstanding that the research is many decades old. More respect for teachers and their knowledge would have helped overcome the ignorance. Finland and several other countries have done that and place little or no faith in standardised tests and average achievement gain, so favoured by traditionalists and the less informed.

The Report also notes that homogeneous delivery of the curriculum is “ineffective because of the significant gaps that exist when children start school”. The gaps are exacerbated over time if efforts are not made to help poorly prepared students to catch up to their peers.

The focus should be on the learning growth of each student. Where individual achievement is not recognised because the focus is on the level rather than the gain achieved in a test, the student can become demotivated. A sound understanding is needed of what long-term learning across the curriculum looks like. A focus on comparison with the gains of other students is unhelpful. Each student needs to know where they are on their own personal learning journey as a submission points out. Learning progression needs to build a foundation for further advancement. These processes are critical to learning situations in later life.

Chapter two: Equipping every student to grow and succeed in a changing world

One of the most important issues raised by the Report is the abandonment of what is termed the “industrial model” of schooling where the focus is on the aggregate performance of the class and the school.

Today’s school students have inherited a rapidly changing world where education outcomes have a significant impact on opportunity. Maximising the learning growth and attainment of every student every year is essential to improve student outcomes and increase lifetime opportunities. Equipping young people with the right knowledge, skills and mindset is essential for them to thrive in an uncertain world of work, and to find fulfilment in all aspects of their lives.

“While these aspirations were widely shared by the stakeholders contributing to the Review, achieving them in practice is challenging. Aspects of Australia’s school education system are not designed to accommodate individual student learning growth or rapidly evolving ways of learning. There is a tremendous opportunity to change our education policies and practices to tackle these challenges.

The approach relies on teacher assessment of each individual student’s current stage of knowledge, skill and understanding in each area of the curriculum. “Once teachers are aware of the relative positions of the students in their class, they can develop and provide tailored teaching to move each student to the next level of achievement”.

The contrast is with the present approach” presenting the curriculum for all students to achieve the same fixed year level of knowledge, skill and understanding. But every class contains students at different stages of learning.

“Mixed-ability classes are not inherently bad: evidence shows they are preferable to alternatives such as streaming by ability, which has little effect in improving student outcomes54 and profoundly negative equity effects.55 However, having students of mixed abilities in the same year means it is impractical to expect that the same curriculum content can adequately cater to each student’s different learning needs.

“Homogenous delivery of the curriculum is also ineffective because of the significant gaps that already exist when children in Australia start school. These gaps are exacerbated over time if efforts are not made to help poorly prepared students catch up to their peers.”

The Report calls for assessment and reporting to provide insight into learning growth and achievements. “Current assessment and reporting models which assess, judge and grade student performance which reveal learning outcome sin only very general terms. “They do not show the extent of a student’s learning growth” which can lead to a student seeming to be making no progress when in reality they may be making as much progress as a student who consistently receives high marks.

The Report pursues substantial commentary on senior secondary education and transition to post-secondary education as well as career education and youth unemployment.

Chapter three: Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators and school leaders

The contribution that teachers make to learning outcomes is amongst the top three issues in the school education debate and a principal focus of the brief to this review so what is said is of special importance. In Australia, no matter what is said by teachers and education researchers, teachers tend to be not highly regarded. The adequacy of their qualifications and the allegedly long holidays are topics of frequent opinions. Their salaries are also frequently a concern: for those who question adequacy of teacher instruction, the tendency is to argue that salaries are inadequate.

In countries like Finland, teachers are highly trusted. The actual contribution of teachers has been the subject of very substantial study. Expert teachers indeed do make a substantial contribution.

The Report observes, in again quoting John Hattie, that “an excellent teacher with strong professional skills, motivation and commitment can account for up to 30 per cent of the difference in achievement between students. The Report, in addressing what teachers need, references English researcher Dylan Wiliam, who with Paul Black, studied effective assessment of learning in school students. School systems and schools need to promote a profession of expert educators who foster learning growth of their students through collaboration, mentoring and continuous learning. This means, quoting Wiliam, “every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better. What is required is greater use of collaborative teaching models, more insightful formative assessment tools and better access to effective professional learning.”

The Report observes that on average Australian teachers spend less time on professional learning and collaboration than teachers across OECD countries. Research supports a concept of a school as a professional learning organisation with a high level of collaboration, shared practice among teachers working together and coherent activities for professional learning: a school can become more effective if school systems and schools create the right conditions for collective engagement and develop a culture that values continuous learning. Meaningful collaboration is more than just sharing resources, planning activities or administrative issues. “Teachers in Australia currently have limited scope to participate in formally structured professional cooperation outside professional subject associations, which have only small active memberships.”

“Teachers need a new tool of formative assessment of student learning…” The National Assessment Program focuses on literacy and numeracy though PISA provides a useful big picture view of learning across Australia. “In the case of NAPLAN at present the results are six months old by the time they are released..” And the test is only administered in alternate years.

Even though, when NAPLAN was launched, the results were not intended to be used to rank schools, some media, especially The Australian, has done so. Again, as Hattie has pointed out, the scores measure average performance but not improvement: some states have demonstrated greater achievement over time than other states whose students achieve higher average scores!

The evidence is that what works best in teaching includes intervening early to limit the impact of disadvantage, a systematic and sequenced approach to teaching, teachers having access to accurate information about what students know, using data and evidence to assess learning progress and tailoring teaching according to what students know and need to know (Exhibit 19 of the Report).

These two paragraphs address one of the main aims of the second Gonski Report! And the government’s response? Minister Senator Birmingham in the face of increasing criticism of NAPLAN observed that many parents found NAPLAN useful! The parents are not the learners and very few of them are in fact competent to assess student learning. Or teacher performance.

Pasi Sahlberg, commenting on Finland’s successful approach to student learning has consistently made the point standardised testing does not make a difference to achievement – Finland provides only one test in the entire student school life – and trusting teachers is vital. Less than one in three teachers [in Australia] in an OECD survey (TALLIS 2013) believe that the teaching profession is valued by society.

The Report also references research that shows, “Shanghai’s improvement in educational outcomes has been attributed to the creation of a high quality teachers workforce in which teaching is promoted as a desirable and prestigious lifelong career requiring professionals to continually improve.” Creating meaningful career pathways and valuing expertise and impact would cultivate a profession of expert educators in Australia.

The practice in Australia of having teachers, especially beginning teachers, deliver lessons in subjects outside their field of expertise is criticised and the Report calls for better induction and support in the early years. It is sometimes said that Principals wish to have maximum flexibility and therefore the unfettered right to deploy teachers to whatever subject areas are deemed important, irrespective of their qualifications and background. But the test is what action likely produces the best outcomes. Confronting this challenge requires negotiation, not blind acceptance of the assumed power of Principals any more than that of unions or any other actor.

One example of the simplistic commentary and response which passes for public policy in education is the assertion that the reason for poor student performance is that the universities and colleges accept as entrants to teaching degrees students with low entrance examinations

In mid-January 2019 the Labor Opposition spokesperson on education, Tania Plibersek, announced the intention that, if elected to government, a higher ATAR score than presently applied would be required of universities admitting enrolments in teacher education: “we cannot have universities falling for the pressure of ‘letting a few more in to the teaching degree’ just to satisfy short-term financial interests. If a student does poorly in year 12, they should still have the chance to prove their academic capacity, for example, by completing an alternative pathway program.”

Several prominent university teacher educators pointed to the success of teachers and the inadequacy of ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) scores (which have been labelled ‘confusing and inconsistent’ by a panel of education experts.) However, the Australian Education Union’s President Correna Haythorpe endorsed the proposal and so did Kathryn Greiner AO (member of the first Gonski panel).[1]

Professor Nan Bahr (Pro Vice Chancellor (Students), Professor and Dean of Education at Southern Cross University) and colleagues pointed out, “Australian teachers are doing well. They are not under-qualified and they are certainly not under-educated, as some media stories would have you believe… They are, indeed, far better qualified and prepared than those in our nation’s glorious past that so many commentators reminisce wistfully about… These days, four or five years of tertiary education is the base line for preparation to be a teacher in Australia. This is followed by mandatory ongoing professional development. Teachers possessing a higher degree are also not uncommon.”

Whatever the utility of ATAR scores might be it is important to keep in mind that performance at school is not an entirely reliable indicator of later academic success. People who did poorly at school or left in disillusion have gone on to win Nobel Prizes and become Regius Professors. Or even highly successful musicians.

Chapter Four: Empowering and supporting school leaders

Anyone seriously interested in leadership knows just how important it is in influencing the behaviour of organisations. Too often however, leaders such as school principals are seen as administrators simply keeping the show going. Such a vision borders on the dangerous, not least in relegating to the margin the function likely to have most impact on the learning of students in the school; principals should constantly strive to improve staff performance in the skill and knowledge areas critical to the organisation. So it is with school principals. That is influenced by the tendency for salary structures to require undertaking administrative tasks as a justification for higher salaries.

These issues have been the subject of considerable research, summarised in a previous essay: career paths and pay systems can be, and need to be, linked to evidence of increasing capacity to promote valued student learning outcomes and, thereby, stronger levers for ensuring professional development and quality learning outcomes for all student.

It is more than refreshing that the Report observes that Principals are critical to delivering the change required to lift student outcomes in Australia’s schools. They heavily influence their school’s culture, learning and pedagogical approaches and as operational leaders they make critical decisions about resourcing and staffing. Allocating resources in a way that builds collaboration, observation and feedback into teachers’ schedules, support and challenge teachers to access and engage in professional learning to expand practices that maximise learning growth of every student.

The main role of principals is considered as instructional leaders, all their activities viewed through the lens of improving student outcomes, focusing on maximisation of teaching and learning, shaping and driving the school’s approach to pedagogy, influencing teacher’s performance through coaching and mentoring an encouraging collaborative practice and promoting a positive school climate for teachers and students.

But principals are not always appropriately supported to fulfil these diverse roles effectively: they need to be empowered and supported at each stage of their career. Great school systems carefully plan for and develop their school leadership workforce. (This applies to all organisations and is poorly practiced in Australia!)

However, too often other obligations crowd out the instructional leadership activities: the role has become multi-faceted and demanding with a growing focus on financial and resource management. An Australian secondary school principal spends 47 per cent of their time on administrative tasks and only 17 per cent on teaching-related activities, the sheer quantity of work and shortage of time the greatest source of stress. (Again, this is common in many organisations where knowledge work is the principal occupation.)

The Report notes that accountability mechanisms focus on administrative requirements rather than educational ones. Genuine delegation of responsibility should reverse this dominance of “head office requirements”. The administrative load needs to be reduced by “revising the professional standards for teachers and providing a form of autonomy which maximises their ability to work as instructional leaders”! Greater assistance is needed to reduce the hands-on administrative workload.

(Some politicians have maintained that greater autonomy for school principals leads to higher student performance within schools but the autonomy to which they refer is administrative autonomy. Moreover, a Melbourne University study found no evidence to support such a view!)

In the words of Brian Caldwell of Melbourne University, writing in 2016 on the Autonomy Premium, “To be effective structural autonomy needs to be granted over the right decisions, it needs to be accompanied by appropriate levels of administrative support and accountability and it needs to take into account the school leader’s capability to manage it for the benefit of the school and the students. Without this capability, there is a risk that the structural autonomy … may have no impact, or a negative impact.”

Teachers in Singapore, a leader in advancing student achievement, “teachers can choose a leadership track in consultation with their principal in their third year on the job and then advance to department head and vice principal. The system then progresses teachers along the leadership track through milestone courses to equip teachers for leadership roles by ensuring they meet quality standards.” The Report argues that Australian schools should adopt a proactive approach to leadership development and offer a distinct pathway to principal. In fact surveys show that many school leaders in Australia undertake less training prior to appointment than in other leading countries.

School leaders themselves rate more support, a more positive image and reduced workload as the most important elements required to attract and retain their replacements: higher pay for extra qualifications, amendments to superannuation and performance pay are the least favoured!

Leadership in schools has also been a subject of important research, summarised in a previous essay. There are a number of expert researchers in the area of school leadership, people who have undertaken wide ranging studies contributing important insights into the role of the Principal and the behaviours which are most productive. Unsurprisingly, it is what is termed transformational leadership which is most critical. Professor Bill Mulford has led and participated in many important studies: I believe it is indicative of just how leadership in schools is considered that in hundreds of articles about schools in the popular, as opposed to academic, media I have not come across Mulford’s name once!

Chapter Five: Raising and achieving ambitions through innovation and continuous improvement

In summary, the fifth chapter of the Report identifies five critical actions that school systems and school should take to create a cycle of continuous improvement. They are

In addition a Unique Student Identifier (USI) to track individual performance is recommended. A national research and evidence institute to drive better practice is proposed.

Moving away from an industrial education model is a cornerstone of this Report. It is to be replaced by a continuous improvement model focused on individual students.

I note with interest that the first three of the critical actions are the same ones that have been identified from study of successful innovative research organisations. And I note also that encouraging innovation involves learning from every initiative whether it is successful or not. Being risk averse is antithetical to a successful innovation environment. Successful innovation DOES NOT mean supporting only those initiatives judged to be successful! It is fair to say that there is a generally poor understanding of the nature of innovation and creativity in the community and that extends to very high levels of government and other organisations.

Reaction to the Report

The common media response referred to declining achievements and the recommended focus on individual students. Michael Koziol, with Henrietta Cook, in the Sydney Morning Herald of 1 May 2018 wrote,

“Australia is slipping in international education rankings, and a new report recommends a greater focus on individual teaching to help students improve.

“That prompted criticism from conservative think tanks and commentators. Kevin Donnelly, who reviewed the curriculum for the Abbott government in 2014, dismissed Mr Gonski’s report as “all that is wrong with the system” – while Jennifer Buckingham, a researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies, said it privileged “psychobabble” over science (see below).

“In an interview with Fairfax Media, Mr Gonski hit back at such remarks, insisting anyone who claimed he wanted a shift away from basic literacy and numeracy had not read the report.

“”We are categorical in the report – absolutely categorical – that you need the basics,” he said.”

Koziol also quoted Andrew Pierpoint, president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association, who also endorsed the plan for a greater focus on general skills such as creativity and critical thinking in the curriculum.

And Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek who said Labor would consider Mr Gonski’s report but noted many of its key points had already been canvassed or commenced. “There’s nothing particularly objectionable in these recommendations – but there’s nothing particularly new in them either,” she said.

Whilst teacher unions sought more money, politicians avoided the question. That teachers are underpaid would suggest more funding is needed to avoid ongoing departures of teachers editorialised the Sydney Morning Herald.

Natasha Robinson at the ABC, and other reporters summarised the Report. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull observed, “We need to have more … focused, personalised attention… “We’ve got to make sure they’ve [students] got the skills to excel and to compete and be their best”.

Union president Correna Haythorpe said it was about properly resourcing disadvantaged schools and students. “We do have outstanding teachers across Australia who are delivering a very high-quality curriculum, but the reality is that they are missing out on the resources needed to close the student achievement gap,” she said.

Two commentaries deliver exceptionally good summaries of the Report and raise important questions.

Dean Ashenden, advisor and consultant to governments, recalls on Inside Story the genesis of the Report. “When the Coalition, via education minister Simon Birmingham, abruptly switched from opposing Gonski to embracing it, the are-we-wasting-all-that-money question became Mr Birmingham’s to answer. His response was to recall David Gonski and ask him to “examine the evidence and make recommendations on the most effective teaching and learning strategies.”

The panel was constrained by four realities. It was asked to “focus on practical measures that work,” an approach that, it turns out, it didn’t really agree with. Second, what no doubt looks to the minister to be a perfectly reasonable effort to ensure value for money may look to others like a velvet glove around Canberra’s financial fist. A third difficulty is that the report had to come up with an approach that could and would be implemented faithfully by each of Australia’s twenty-plus very different school jurisdictions. And, finally, the review was required to focus on school and classroom practice when most of the problems, including problems in practice, have their origins elsewhere.

In essence, the panel “was asked to resolve two deep and ancient schisms in Australian schooling — the conflict between “conservative” and “progressive” educational approaches, and the conflict between the federal government and the states — while pinning down the notoriously elusive relationship between school funding, educational practice and academic outcomes”.

Ashenden considered the Report to comprise a list of things worth doing and a “vision statement”, only the elements of a strategy but not a fully formed strategy. I am reminded of the reaction to the first report greeted by then Minister Christopher Pyne with comparisons to chickens – “all feathers and no meat” and “unworkable and grotesquely expensive.” – which amounted to a complete inability to understand how one might go about framing a policy to implement a clear goal, in essence an exercise in intellectual laziness. (The same occurred when the report by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel presented his report on the Future Security of the National Energy Market. Choosing an appropriate strategy to achieve a desired goal seemed entirely beyond the capability of the political class.)

Ashenden makes this important characterisation of one of the major conclusions of the report: “[the existing policy] boils down to the fact that since Australia adopted a strategy that promised to improve outcomes, outcomes have continued to deteriorate. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this strategy, organised around “outcomes” and the notion that accountability and competition would cause teachers and schools to lift their game, has been a complete failure, and should be ditched.”

I agree entirely. As he points out, and as very many others have also, “massive redistribution of the population across schools and school systems, a steady and continuing increase in the concentration of the “advantaged” in their schools and the “disadvantaged” in theirs, and a shrinking proportion of schools with socially mixed enrolments”.

He also correctly points to the major finding of the Report: “By far the most important of the review’s conclusions is that the “industrial model” of schooling — the forty-five-minute lesson in a single subject delivered to twenty-five or so students of the same age by a teacher standing at the front of the classroom, followed by assessment of all against a single standard — is obsolete. Formed in a long-gone era, it leaves the slow behind and the quick bored, and fails to teach the kind of broad competencies that life and work increasingly demand.”

Ashenden criticises the “workforce planning” as missing the opportunity to “the opportunity to engage teacher organisations and draw them away from oppositionism and a narrow focus on the terms and conditions of employment. And, since most industrial relations questions are settled at the state level, any review process should include the local as well as the national.”

It is correct to say that workforce industrial relations issues are dealt with at state level though it should not be forgotten that the Coalition under Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison have been quite prepared to intervene in that area. I consider the recommendations concerning school organisation and responsibilities of principals as learning leaders rather than mere administrators to be entirely consistent with best organisational practice! They are areas which have been addressed by research including by Professor Bill Mulford of the University of Tasmania. Certainly, engagement of teacher organisations is a challenge but it is one which must be confronted.

Chris Bonnor, Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, former school principal and author of a number of reports, accurately summed up the Report: “In a world where education defines opportunity, schooling must support every one of Australia’s 3.8 million school students to realise their full learning potential and achieve educational excellence. Australian students should receive a world-class school education, tailored to individual learning needs…Schooling should enrich students’ lives, leaving them inspired to pursue new ideas and set ambitious goals throughout life.

“The whole report is indeed about “every one” of our students and “individual learning needs”. Words like “enrich” and “inspired” come like a breath of fresh air to an education system straitjacketed by NAPLAN, made mediocre by markets with children graded – and often degraded – for their whole school lives. Thorough work by the panel and their supporting team, endless consultations and nearly 300 submissions have finally brought home the big message: we need to do school differently.”

Bonner also appropriately responds to the ideological commentary: “the debate has certainly begun. First out of the blocks are the usual suspects who haunt places like News Limited and the Centre for Independent Studies. It’s quite amazing how they can read, understand, criticise and reject a 140 page report in just a few hours after its release. Oh, to have such a talent.”

He concludes, “This Gonski report deserves to be a springboard for authentic and sustainable school improvement. Let’s just do it.” Absolutely.

Julie Sonneman and Peter Goss of the Grattan Institute pointed to the need to “make better use of our teachers”. Noting that in theory every teacher is expected to use evidence to improve teaching, a task which ends up being no-one’s day job, they say, “It is hard to change culture and behaviour in schools, as in any organisation. But teachers like learning from other teachers, and peer influence motivates change far more successfully than external accountability mechanisms.”

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra wrote in The Conversation on April 30 that the Report was an “attack on Australia’s schooling quality” and a “damning report”. She highlighted the Report’s criticism of “cruising” in many schools and pointed to the strong recommendation that one of the top priorities should be to “deliver one year’s growth in learning for every student every year”. She also pointed to the inflexibility in curriculum delivery and drew attention to the recommendation for a new on-line and on-demand student assessment report.

It may be that many features of the Report represent actions already being taken, as Tania Plibersek says, but that is most certainly not the conclusion one would draw from the statements and policies of the Coalition Government!

One could conclude that the Commonwealth Governments of Turnbull and his Minister Senator Birmingham are irrelevant except for the profound impact they have on the resources provided to schools and the policies to which those resources are directed.

As is always the case, there were some ridiculous assertions.

Jennifer Buckingham, senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, in an article published in both the Australian Financial Review and The Spectator very shortly after the Report was published thought we should feel sorry for (Minister) Simon Birmingham because he “was effectively shoe-horned into asking David Gonski … to do a second review of schooling, even after the political debacle created by the first one…” She continued, “Most grievous, however, is that the central recommendations of the report have no research to support them, putting psychobabble over cognitive science. There is absolutely no evidence that the proposed new assessment and reporting regimes will have the impacts claimed — that continuous assessment of learning growth will be more motivating for students and therefore lead to higher achievement.”

Jennifer Buckingham claimed the Report “offered no clear guidance to schools and did not meet the review’s terms of reference… Many of the findings are not supported by research, and lack detail about implementation. For example, the disproportionate attention to policies that facilitate ‘growth mindset’ have no evidence-basis in terms of impact on student achievement. Likewise, the pre-occupation with increasing the focus on general capabilities has no support in rigorous research about curriculum design and how children learn.”

The last statement is patently false: the research published as, “Assessment and Classroom Learning” by Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black of Kings College London – which has received over 9,000 citations – clearly shows otherwise. “Several studies [on classroom formative assessment] show firm evidence that innovations designed to strengthen the frequent feedback that students receive about their learning yield substantial learning gains.”

Birmingham makes the astonishing claim that creativity and critical thinking can’t be taught or assessed separate from the academic disciplines. Such claims belong in the same realm as creationism and anti-vaccination hysteria!

Buckingham’s comments are nonsense! Every aspect of the Report, both the educational issues relating to teaching and learning, and the organisational issues including leadership, are based on sound research. It is extraordinary that a person who serves as a director of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership should make such comments!

In the Australian Financial Review of 30 April 2018, for instance, business and political journalist Jennifer Hewett asserted that the Report “is destined to fall straight into the sinkhole of jargon-filled reports purporting to address Australia’s steadily declining education standards but offering almost nothing to alter that dismal trajectory” and “actually following many of the recommendations in this review would only make a bad situation worse.” And even, “To the extent Gonski’s premise the system should be “tailored to individual learning needs” is implemented to undermine standardised testing and any prospect of improved teacher training or a more rigorous curriculum, it will only create more hardship long term.”

In Hewett’s view, “it was hard to give a pass mark to the Report as a blueprint for education success. Unfortunately, this blueprint is destined to fall straight into the sinkhole of jargon-filled reports purporting to address Australia’s steadily declining education standards but offering almost nothing to alter that dismal trajectory.” Hewett described the recommendations as “so vague as to be relatively meaningless”.

Perhaps Hewett’s problem was that the Report urged replacing the standardised testing regime, thereby compromising accountability. Hewett favours continuing the present system despite it clearly not having much success, presumably because of union interference and bureaucratic paperwork: yet “A sound foundation of knowledge is the necessary basis to fulfilling the potential of individuals and of any society.”

Like Buckingham’s criticisms, Hewett’s comments are irrelevant! They join those of Kevin Donnelly who has never had anything of merit to say about education yet has been engaged as a consultant by the Government precisely because of his right-wing views!


There are several studies of school systems which are radically different from the formality of the mainstream system which most children attend. Reviewing several of these in Australia, Tom Greenwell, Canberra-based teacher and writer, and a Professional Associate of the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra, asked whether Australia was really running schools like factories, referring to the use of the term “industrial model” by the Gonski panel. He wrote of Lindfield Learning Village which has thrown out age-based classes and instead the school is designed to enable students to progress through stages of learning at their own pace. He notes that the Morrison Government is clearly focused on whether schools are politically effective.

Greenwell reviews several schools including Templestowe College and Mount Alexander College in Victoria and Music Industry College in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. Different approaches to schooling are exemplified by the Reggio Emilio movement. Less well-known is the approach of Vasily Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970), of Ukraine. He gave a lot of emphasis to children’s aesthetic development, to developing an appreciation of beauty in nature, in music, in art, in literature, in human relationships. At his school, children spent a great deal of time in the open air — gardening, walking, working in the fields and orchards. They were encouraged to take responsibility for their environment — cleaning their classrooms, planting flowers and trees in the school grounds, looking after animals, caring for friends and family.

Sukhomlinsky thought it was very important for teachers to work closely with parents, and held twice monthly seminars for parents from the time their children were pre-schoolers until they completed secondary school. He devised a program of lectures covering many issues which arose for parents during their children’s development. Moved by the increasing incidence of marital breakdown in society, he developed classes for senior pupils to attempt to prepare them for marriage and family life. You could almost say he attempted to develop a system of total education.


A few of the elements of the second Gonski report have been taken up in an agreement between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories. The National School Reform Agreement comprises eight national reforms, stated to be based on evidence of what works and informed by several key reviews including Through Growth to Achievement.

The reforms include

As the song says, after all that work, “is that all there is?”



[1]In 2018, NSW Minister for Education Rob Stokes announced a credit average requirement and new psychometric testing for teaching graduates before they could apply for jobs in government schools.