Improving outcomes for all – recommendations for the next NSRA agreement

A statement from Australian Learning Lecture 

News & Events

Improving outcomes for all – recommendations for the next NSRA agreement

December 15, 2023

The panel set up to inform the upcoming National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) has now reported. During 2024 the shape of our schools for the next four years will be decided. Australian Learning Lecture (ALL) believes that the panel has opened the door for overdue and well-rounded reform of the framework of Australia’s schools. It’s not before time.  Improving outcomes for all clearly states that “the current system entrenches educational disadvantage and makes it less likely that other reforms will realise Australia’s longstanding ambition of equity and excellence.”

Improving outcomes for all comes just a week after PISA (2022) noted that the achievement gaps between high socio-economic status (SES) and disadvantaged students have continued to widen. For those at the bottom, this now amounts to even more lost learning time and opportunity in reading, mathematics and science. Unless this changes we will not sufficiently lift our most disadvantaged, and hence won’t lift the nation.

Australian Learning Lecture welcomes the unqualified recommendations from many sources, including this review, to implement full SRS funding for all schools. But Improving outcomes for all goes further and implicitly raises the question what if nothing else changes? The review believes how the money is spent does matter, and challenges assumptions that we’ll achieve equity and better outcomes within our current structures.

The report effectively confirms that a fundamental feature of Australia’s public/private framework of schools is its hierarchical nature. Schools operate on an unlevel playing field, with often similar funding … but markedly different obligations. For understandable reasons, the current review fell short of recommending specific ways out of this unhappy Australian uniqueness, but it devoted a whole section of its report to ways to achieve greater equity, including solutions developed in other jurisdictions and countries.

ALL believes there is much more to do which is why we will continue to follow-up our own ground-breaking initiative in Choice and Fairness: A Common Framework for All Australian Schools. After all, for how much longer can our framework of schools continue with enrolment discriminators, including school fees, which sustain this hierarchy and segregate enrolments at the expense of overall system achievement and school choice?

In common with earlier reviews Improving outcomes for all didn’t address Australia’s reluctance to state the purposes of providing and resourcing two quite different, competing and even incompatible sectors? In the absence of a clearly stated rationale for such a system, how possible is it to adequately plan and implement reform? At the other end of the reform process, it is difficult to evaluate whether we are achieving our goals, given that the unlevel playing field and hierarchical system will always undermine them – and has done so since the first national agreements were created back in 1989, and even the most recent, the Mparntwe Declaration in 2019.

This shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the achievements of the review. The panel has directly addressed the need to increase socio-economic diversity in school enrolments and to do it soon, by “reviewing existing policy settings by the end of 2027 and implementing new policy levers to increase socio‑economic diversity in schools and lift student outcomes” and, even earlier, to set in place the reporting of the SES diversity of schools and systems (Recommendation 2A). To serve this and other purposes it recommends substantial improvement in data collection and use at all levels.

It is a critical priority. The Productivity Commission has stated that peer effects and less experienced teachers in schools with high concentrations of disadvantage as drivers of poorer student outcomes – and that students from priority equity cohorts demonstrate, on average, less learning growth if they attend a school with a high concentration of disadvantage. The current review panel cites Michael Sciffer’s recent research, which suggested 78 per cent of low‑SES students in high‑SES schools performed at or above NAPLAN’s National Minimum Standards in 2017; that proportion fell to 38 per cent for low‑SES students in low‑SES schools.

This should concern every parent, teacher, school leader … and government: it is the work of schools, not who they enrol and where they come from, which should matter most. Making sure it does should become the ultimate rationale for the next NSRA.

ALL acknowledges that the path to implementing the suggested reforms may not be easy. Indeed, some recommendations risk being cast aside by rusted-on beliefs and practice. The report refers to the broad purpose of education, and Recommendation 7E calls for a ‘structured innovation fund’ which would encourage the development of new models and forms of schooling, for example to First Nations students, and delivery models that support student engagement.

But later in the report it states that “given the current unavailability of data for these [wider purposes and] domains, the Panel has purposefully contained the number of targets to focus effort on the fundamental building blocks of educational excellence and equity, such as literacy, numeracy and attendance”. The architects of the New Basics in school education have good reason to question claims about the apparent “unavailability of data” for anything else.

The shaping of the next NRSA, and eventually its implementation, is not guaranteed to escape the deals and distortions – and even reversals of policy – which have characterised reviews in the past.

Our leaders and legislators need to be firmly convinced that the relatively mild recommendations should remain and be even strengthened and implemented in full.

That’s the task that lies ahead, and one to which ALL is firmly committed. Our contribution to date, Choice and Fairness: A Common Framework for All Australian Schools, is about encouraging a new conversation about Australia’s schools. That process is well underway. The panel has listened, but we still have a long way to go.


Copies of Choice and Fairness are available from the ALL website.

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