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Educational Opportunity and Education Reform

Two extremely important documents about education, a lecture by Professor John Hattie of Melbourne University and a Report by the Centre for International Research on Education Systems give unique insights into the present situation and major issues.


Priorities in School Education Reform: Changing the Narrative of Choice and Autonomy

Professor John Hattie, Laureate Professor of Education Melbourne University

The Jack Keating Memorial Lecture, June 2016

Professor Hattie’s lecture of June 2016 is, in my view, one of the half dozen most important expositions of the last few years, alongside the careful analyses of long-term trends, the informed comparisons with other countries, other analyses of what works and the reviews pointing the critical role of early childhood.

The latest most rigorous review of that analyses the pointless favouring of independent schools, is the work by Queensland University researchers to which I have already drawn attention. Both draw on extensive amounts of data and go to the very heart of many of the most important aspects of the education debate.

The research published last year by Hong Son Nghiem of the University of Queensland and colleagues established yet again, this time with a large data set and sophisticated statistical analysis, that what matters is the parents and the home environment and the relationships between child and parent in the early years.

Some clear factors that had an influence were identified, factors extraneous to school! Children with high test scores had high birth weight, mothers whose work hours were not high, parents who had both completed Year 12 and lived in a neighbourhood of high SES and a household of well above average income.

“One of the strongest predictors of a child’s success is their level of development at preschool. What the data suggests is that because they haven’t been exposed to schooling yet, whatever skills that have been developed due to nature or nurture are really influential.”

John Hattie has conducted research on the effect sizes of various features of education for several decades using large amounts of data from meta-analysis of the literature. In earlier papers Hattie noted that some 50% of the contribution to achievement is related to what the child brings to school at the time of enrolment.

One of the many important points made by Hattie in the Jack Keating address is that Australia is characterised by a large number of cruising schools, schools whose students do reasonably well and who have not improved, and the large discrepancy between high performers and low performers. He further makes the important point, again the thrust of the Gonski panel’s review (as it was of the Whitlam reforms more than 30 years earlier) that the funds for school education need to be devoted to the lower performers. The “achievement” of the Howard government and the Abbott and Turnbull governments and their disgraceful shilly shallying has been to devote substantial funds to the higher performers who are already well resourced: their performance has flatlined or declined.

Hattie sets out five high level goals for the education system.

  1. Building confidence in the public school system
  2. The percentage of students at L2 Math and Reading by Age 8
  3. Schools demonstrating that they are inviting places to come and learn as reflected in the retention rates to the end of high school
  4. Having multiple ways to be excellent in upper high school
  5. Every school having at least one Highly Accomplished or Lead Teacher.

He prefaces this by reference to the current narrative, one of “success” which leads to a relentless focus on the differences between schools and arguments about school choice, a focus which is counterproductive!

He observes “Social stratification is sharper in Australian, and a lower proportion go to socially mixed schools than in most countries which we wish to compare. Paradoxically, this not only leads to more low-income students facing greater obstacles to educational achievement because they are segregated into residualised schools, but also to more ‘cruising’ schools serving better off students, but not adding significant value to their educational achievement. This latter trend is a major contributor to Australia’s declining educational performance.

“We need a reboot which focuses effort and resources on supporting teachers to work together, collaboratively, to improve student achievement over time. This requires that we build a narrative based on identifying and valuing expertise, working together and opening classrooms to collaboration, targeting resources at need, accepting evidence and evaluating progress transparently over time.”

Note this comment! Hattie reports that as part of the ABC TV program Revolution School (the ABC TV program on changes at a school in Victoria) in which he was involved, 1004 Australian adults were surveyed about what they considered to be the major influences on student achievement and schools. They ranked as most important smaller class sizes, extra curricula activities to improve results, enforcing homework, wearing school uniforms and other features which have no effect or are negative (homework). As well reposting a year and whether or not it was a government school, also of no consequence. “Wow, if we listen to the voters we will invest in the very things that have the least effect on the learning lives of students!”

Hattie points to the failures in math and science, so-called STEM subjects:

“We also need a reboot in schools attracting students into STEM subjects. We have spent trillions of dollars over the past 16 years in advancing the STEM agenda with a steady decline. More STEM scholarships will make nary a dent – they have not in the past and most of these schemes remain un-allocated .. “

Note this comment also! “… there is no evidence that increasing the content knowledge of teachers alone makes a difference to the quality of teaching math and science. Indeed, we need a reboot in how we configure Science and Math in our schools – these subjects should not be sold as the domain of the brightest, the talented, and the engineers and scientists. In many ways scholarships create substitution effects and we divert resources to those who wold have come to teaching anyway. Instead, we should promote the struggle that major scientists and mathematics engage in and all of us can struggle – the art of teaching is to help students enjoy the struggle.”

Teacher Education

Referring to the huge number of students enrolled in university courses in teacher education programs across Australia – more than 80,000 – and the less than six percent of those who end up in teaching positions five years after enrolment, Hattie contends, “Such oversupply creates a depressed return in terms of teacher pay; but do we really have a supply or a retention policy? Yes, the evidence of declining entry scores into teacher education has continued unabated for the past 15 years and the debate about ATAR or not has not helped. We do not want the message to be that if you are not smart, then at least you can become a teacher. The Revolution School shows the complexity, the need for passion, but most of all the critical importance of expertise which is needed when you first begin to teach.”

He notes the devastation flowing from allowing private providers into the Vocational Education sector with billions of dollars lost in funding students to enrol in courses run by companies with no expertise but a strong profit motive. With greater globalisation and accompanying free trade it is likely many providers will enter this market.

He criticises a number of features of the present teacher employment situation: “The continuing use of short term contracts, the flatness of the current salary scale (and hence why get better is just get older), that the average age entering teacher education is now close to 30, little recognition of expertise over experience, declining numbers of those wanting to step out of classrooms to lead schools, and the influx of non-educators into the top of the administration of education. This is not a profession; it is a job.”

A reboot is needed about evidence in teacher education and the structure and rewards from teaching. Teaching should not be a profession that is taken when every other option seems to fail, as it has been for decades.

Student Retention and Assessment

Hattie worked in New Zealand for many years and draws on experience there several times. There is a problem with retention rates through to the end of high school. He writes, “After many interventions, the one that had the greatest effect was changing the assessment systems in upper high school. They moved from a narrow set of assessments (mainly focused on helping universities select students) to a wider range based on reliably discriminating between Excellent, Merit, Achieved and Not achieved. Any school subject that could devise reliable assessments to make these distinctions was considered to be part of the final three years’ assessments. This allowed students and schools to privilege moving towards excellence across a range of subjects (from panel beating, sports coaching, physics, language, history).”

Math and literacy, the subjects which standardised tests such as NAPLAN and PISA focus on, are relevant and, as has been pointed out by consultant and advisor Dean Ashenden in several essays, are generally indicative of likely achievement in other subjects. But they are not the absolutely fundamental requirement for every person for which they are given credit. There are plenty of examples of people who went on to be successful in many different areas who left school early or performed poorly in one or more of these subjects. The commentary on the way the insistence on these subjects being classed as fundamental has distorted teaching and learning is substantial. Hattie’s observations have merit.

Hattie concludes, “By introducing more legitimate ways to become excellent, NZ moved the retention rate from 80% to 92% in three years. It can be done. We need a reboot of our upper secondary examinations and curricula and evaluate schools in terms of whether they are inviting places to stay and learn.”

Social Stratification and Inequality the product of Independent Schooling and a Focus on the Best

Of course Hattie criticises the high level of inequality, the social stratification, the lower proportion of students going to socially mixed schools, as already mentioned. The OECD has long recognised this and the Gonski Panel focused specifically on this. The Federal government simply doesn’t recognise it. The average achievement is low because there is a long tail, a large gap between the high and low ends of the performance distribution, something not found in Finland and several other countries which do much better. Several countries pay special attention to it.

Lack of diversity depresses achievement. And it does more: it encourages ignorance and discrimination. The rise of independent schools has drawn high achieving students away from public schools and ended up costing lots of money and done little or nothing to advance achievement. What is the evidence that rich private schools add value? Little or none!

The focus on the best, like the narrow subject focus and obsession with a uniform curriculum, draws attention away from the many successes elsewhere: the country kids who achieve wonderful things singing together which improves their self-esteem, the experiments with engagement in science and the many examples of success in many subjects.

Two issues stand out: a general lack of understanding of how learning occurs and a near complete ignoring of creativity and the risk taking and encouragement of difference with which it is correlated. These are highlighted in many programs which have appeared on TV. The commentary every time results of tests are announced contributes absolutely nothing to understanding of what contributes to superior learning: Nothing! There is no human story of struggle, of the influence of parents, of mentors of out of school experience or most especially of early childhood!

The publication of what amounts to league tables by media such as The Australian Newspaper amounts to gross irresponsibility and the ongoing commentary of people like Kevin Donnelly who assert no link between socioeconomic background and achievement and give support to curriculum and teacher content knowledge is simply ignorance!

In Opening Classrooms to Collaboration Hattie describes the Visible Classroom development being developed by researchers at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. It aims to return information to the student and the teacher on what is happening in the classroom, the teacher’s behaviour and the students’ reactions. “The procedure uses the teachers IPhone to relay the lesson to a professional captioner – who not only re-speaks the classroom talk into their software solutions, but also simultaneously codes the lesson, combines this with the student ratings, and automatically sends back the teaching and learning analytics plus the transcript to the teacher at the end of the lesson.”

“Surely if teachers are going to understand their impact they need to shut up and listen to their impact via classroom discussions, through listening to students working with each other, through constructive dialogue.” Hattie refers to the wonderful research of the late Graham Nuthall in New Zealand. “It is time to stop reflecting about what we think happened particularly when up to 80% of what occurs in the class the teacher neither sees nor hears”

The Scandal of Early Childhood

Hattie concludes with some vitally important points about early childhood. The differences between the children of “welfare”, “working class” and “professional” families at 36 months impacts the whole of later life. The child of the professional family on average accumulates a vocabulary twice the size of a child of a welfare family and by the start of school the gap has risen to 30 million words, the professional family child now knowing some 45 million words. The lower class child has experienced 144,000 fewer encouragements and 84,000 more discouragements than an average child.

As Hattie points out, the school teacher is expected to remedy this gap in three years when they take their first NAPLAN test. The gap in exam pass rates increases as every school year passes and (according to UK research) at age 16 the gap has increased from the 24% at age 11 to 54%!

“Australia must mount a major campaign to improve the teaching of learning skills from Year 0 to 8, if the life opportunities of its students are to improve. I am NOT talking about teaching 0-5 children reading and writing, but teaching concepts about print, seriation, language, language, and language. I am talking about early childhood educators being more skills about evaluating and promoting learning from infancy through to school. There is much evidence that such teaching too rarely occurs in preschool settings (of any type) on a regular basis (Taylor et al., 2016). It is unreasonable to expect school teachers to remediate the gap within 3 years (5-8) when they first sit NAPLAN and when they reach a critical life time age in their learning.

“And this is despite Australia tripling its investment in early childhood education and care services over the last decade to $7.7 billion in 2015-16 and despite the good work of many to develop policy to improve service-quality… for around 20% of children who most need early learning support to change their education pathway there are limited or no quality services ECEC (Early Childhood Education Centre) programs available, even if they can get in.”

For governments to properly fund early childhood there would need to be an increase in taxes of some sort, or a decrease in the outlay in some areas such as submarine or fighter aircraft purchases. It depends on one’s perception of what is likely to make the greatest contribution to community wellbeing in the longer term!


I do my best to follow commentary in the major media, print and electronic. I have seen not one reference to Hattie’s lecture and certainly Minister Birmingham does not reference it. One of the references especially interested me beyond what I have said and that is to the study of which Professor Mulford at the University of Tasmania was a party. Mulford’s substantial contribution, with colleagues, has elucidated the important role of Principals.

Instead of seeking to understand how genuine leadership focused on the real role of teachers in encouraging learning, the commentary about principals encourages the belief that the school does better if principals can choose the school’s teachers and control the budget. Those are not unimportant tasks, but as in every single organisation from banks to museums to transport companies they are not the most important.

More critical is the utter failure to address the link between attention to cognitive development in the early years and later life. Huge attention is given to education during the school years whilst interventions such as child care and parental leave during the early years of the child are relegated to the financial impact of child care subsidies and economic impact of workforce participation by the mother. It amounts to economic and social irresponsibility and narrow-mindedness. No more significant indicator of the way neoclassical economics and its adherents have completely captured public policy is to be found than the near universal requirement that every activity be subject to economic evaluation expressed in monetary terms: to hell with human progress.


Educational opportunity in Australia 2015: Who succeeds and who misses out

This important study was reported by Professor Stephen Lamb, Research Chair in Education and Director, CIRES and colleagues Jen Jackson, Anne Walstab and Shuyan Ho.


The citation is Lamb, S, Jackson, J, Walstab, A & Huo, S (2015), “Educational opportunity in Australia 2015: Who succeeds and who misses out”, Centre for International Research on Education Systems, Victoria University, for the Mitchell Institute, Melbourne: Mitchell Institute.

This report is available from:  and

The Centre for International Research in Education Systems (CIRES) is part of the Mitchell Institute established in 2013 by Victoria University, Melbourne with investment from the Harold Mitchell Foundation.


The study, referenced in Hattie’s Keating Lecture, is summarised in these words: “The study draws together information on the opportunities being provided to young Australians as they negotiate the various stages of education and training and attempt to establish themselves in the workforce during their transition to adulthood.”

“Four milestones are used, constructed as an index of opportunity. For the early years the milestone is the proportion of children who are developmentally ready at the point of entry to school, as measured across five domains: physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills. For the middle years it is the proportion of Year 7 students who meet or exceed international proficiency standards in academic skills. For the senior school years it is the proportion of young people who have completed school and attained a Year 12 certificate or equivalent. For early adulthood it is the percentage of 24-year-olds who are fully engaged in education, training or work.”

The data comes from censuses, the Productivity Commission, Reports on Government Services, NAPLAN and so on.

The report reveals major differences in success in respect of indigeneity, socio-economic background (using parental education as a proxy) and gender.

The executive summary continues, “Helping young people who are falling behind to catch up and take advantage of opportunities over later stages is no easy task, because they are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds. Success at each stage varies by Indigenous status, language background, region and gender, and markedly by the socio-economic status (SES) of students.

“But what we learn from the patterns is that young people who are missing out can recover and gain ground. Being behind at any point need not be a life sentence, even for the disadvantaged, though even here the chances of recovery and of gaining ground are still in favour of students from more advantaged backgrounds. The most advantaged learners are not only less likely to fall below expected standards in the first place but more likely to catch up again if they do.”

This extremely valuable report is one of a number of comprehensive studies, some ongoing, which deal with educational achievement and related demographic data. All of those reports show the importance of early childhood, the critical influence of socioeconomic background, including educational attainment, of parents and the influence of Indigenous status and other demographic influences such as ethnic/language background and place of residence.

Probably the largest and most important of the Australian studies is “Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children” is conducted in partnership between the Department of Social Services, the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.


 Growing Up in Australia is described as follows:

“The study aims to examine the impact of Australia’s unique social and cultural environment on children born in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The study has a broad, multi-disciplinary base, and examines policy-relevant questions about children’s and adolescents’ development and wellbeing. It addresses a range of research questions about parenting, family relationships, childhood education, non-parental child care and health. By tracking children over time, the study will be able to determine the individual, family, and broader social and environmental factors that are associated with consistency and change in developmental trajectories. The study will further understanding of child and adolescent development, inform social policy debate, and will be used to identify opportunities for early intervention and prevention strategies in policy areas concerning children and families.”


A separate study follows Indigenous children. Footprints in Time – The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC) is an initiative of the Australian Government conducted by the Department of Social Services under the guidance of a special Steering Committee chaired by Professor Mick Dodson. The study covers a wide variety of topics about children’s health, learning and development, their family and community. Reports and data are released regularly.

These two projects and other longitudinal studies are within the National Centre for Longitudinal Data in the Department of Social Services.

In considering education policy most of these reports are hardly ever referenced, certainly seldom by the media or politicians. That is a tragedy. And of course they are ignored by the ideologues intent on ensuring that we understand that public schooling will never succeed, to the extent it should, which is untrue, and that sending their kids to private schools is saving the government money, which it isn’t. The one report which is referenced is The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

The Report concludes, “about six in 10 or more of all children starting school get through early and middle childhood with the kinds of academic and social skills needed for later success. Similar numbers complete school and are fully engaged in education or work by their mid-20s. For this large group of young Australians, the education and training system works well and they succeed across all stages, making the most of the opportunities that the system provides.

“The challenge of helping young people who are falling behind to catch up and take advantage of opportunities over later stages is no easy task, because those missing out are far more likely to have disadvantaged backgrounds. Success at each stage varies by Indigenous status, language background, region and gender, and by the SES background of students. Only 68.3 percent of children born to parents in the bottom fifth of family SES are school-ready, compared with 84.8 percent of children in the top fifth. The disparity is similar in the middle years. Strikingly, only three in five from the bottom fifth (bottom two deciles of SES) complete a Year 12 certificate or equivalent by age 19, compared to more than four in five from the top fifth. Finally, SES affects the likelihood of economic success in the transition to adulthood, with 85 percent of those born into the top fifth being fully engaged in education, training or work at age 24, compared to just 65 percent of those in the bottom fifth.”

In a useful “concluding reflection”, the differences which the OECD has identified as existing between countries in student skills and achievement are listed. The OECD outlines policies considered important in promoting stronger performance and greater equity.

These include

Lamb and colleagues observe that ECEC (Early Childhood Education Centre) services are often geared toward the needs of parents rather than the rights of children to learning and support and remain a game of chance for many children, gambling on availability, affordability and parental participation.

They also point to other research finding a decline in the benefits gained from early learning programs which emphasises the need for sustained intervention.


 The report contains a statement I find interesting in respect of early childhood programs and the persistence of gains from them.

Here are the statements

At page 39: “There are many possible explanations for the different patterns emerging between jurisdictions. For example, Victoria’s strong performance at Year 3 could be attributable to programs targeting the early primary years, although the steep increase in Victorian learners missing out in subsequent year levels suggests that these efforts must be sustained in subsequent years.”

At page 91: “Ensuring that Australian learners get off to a good start in the education system also requires follow-up at later years of learning. The benefits gained from participation in early learning programs have been found to fade by the later primary years (Claessens & Garrett 2014), pointing to a need for sustained interventions to capitalise on early progress. While many Australian education systems are achieving strong results in the early years of schooling, the substantial decline in the proportion of learners meeting milestones at Year 5 suggests that these efforts must be sustained.”

The paper by Claessens and Garrett, which Lamb et al reference, is also summarised by the MGSE in a note on early childhood studies in Australia. The note says, “Claessens and Garrett (2014) conducted a comparative study of the various ECE programs in Australia and found preschools and child care centres to be equally effective in promoting early academic skills. Children who did not attend any form of ECE programs lagged behind in school readiness. However, more research is needed to understand how best to sustain the benefits of ECE programs, which fade out by late primary school.”

Fade out of the benefits of early childhood is not an issue discussed only in Australia. In fact it has been a major debate in the US.

A note of December 27, 2013 on the website of the First Five Years Fund (FFYF) entitled

Busting Early Childhood Education Myths – The Fadeout Myth” has a detailed comment.

“Early childhood education opponents are upping their efforts in the wake of federal early childhood initiatives such as the recently introduced Strong Start for America’s Children Act.” It points out that Head Start Fadeout is a common argument against investing in early childhood and is based on a “highly selective read of research findings found in Head Start evaluations and, to a lesser extent, Perry Preschool Project”.

It is argued that gains made in early childhood fade out by the third grade: though disadvantaged children who received early education arrive at kindergarten ahead of peers who did not “but use third grade evaluations to claim there is no lasting effect to justify the investment.”

The FFYF post argues that an evaluation at third grade is a snapshot in time. “Research from many studies—including those cited by fadeout critics—overwhelmingly show that the benefits of early childhood education become more evident throughout schooling and adult life. There is no fadeout; there is constant, steady movement into upward mobility. Disadvantaged children who receive quality early childhood education are more likely to persist in school, enjoy better career outcomes, higher wages and healthier lifestyles…” The numerous analyses and studies are referenced and links given.

The statement which I believe clinches the point is this: “Nobel Laureate Economist James Heckman found that the social and emotional skills learned through early childhood education were the major drivers of success in school, career and life among the Perry treatment group, who far outperform the control group in adult outcomes.

“Heckman says that using the Head Start Impact Study to claim that early childhood education is ineffective is “a generalized conclusion that is neither thoughtful nor accurate.” Heckman also finds that “Head Start graduates tend to be more persistent in their education, more inclined to healthy behaviors, and less inclined to be involved in criminal activity.”

The conclusion by Claessens and Garrett could be considered amenable to the same points made in the FFYF note and especially Heckman’s conclusion.


This study, like many others, notes, “children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds tend to achieve less well at school, are less likely to stay on at school or enter further or higher education and are more likely to be unemployed or in low-paid jobs. These students have higher levels of need and require additional support to achieve the outcomes attained by other groups of students. This means that schools with larger numbers of disadvantaged or high-need students must invest more resources than other schools to meet the same standards.”

Unsurprisingly, the report notes the disproportionate increases in Australia in recent years in resources provided to non-government schools, an increase which has “far outstripped growth in enrolments … [and Commonwealth funding] is currently provided without the same levels of accountability as public funding for government schools. The funding is provided despite the fact that average combined per capita funding from both private and government sources is as much as 40 per cent higher in independent schools than in government schools.”

Noting that school performance is linked to a range of factors including programs, resources, practices and teachers, the interplay of which need to be taken into account, the report points to the fact that the academic climate the school creates is also important.

An increasingly constrained labour market pushes students toward tertiary education which means those who have not completed their schooling are disadvantaged and face severe consequences. The differences in educational opportunity which arise in the course of progress through education and training translate to inequalities in adulthood so reducing cohesion in society.