Education Policies and Their Impact on South Australian Students

Increasing interest in student wellbeing has led to policy initiatives and approaches across different sector contexts. These have been shaped by best-practice research.

National reform directions have sought to balance high performance and equity. These remain relevant aspirations. However, a narrowing agenda has privileged private (social mobility) and economic (social efficiency) purposes of schooling.

Education Policy in South Australia

Across Australia and globally, there are many different models of education. Educators and policy makers often seek to learn from these examples to understand what works and why it might work in their own context.

In South Australia, education policy is largely the responsibility of the state government. It is administered by the Department of Education and Child Development (DECD). Schooling in South Australia begins with kindergarten or preschool and then primary school. Children attend school until they reach their last two years of high school at which point they complete the South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE). Students can choose to study at a public (government) or private school. The tertiary education system is also well developed with universities and TAFE providing qualifications that prepare students for employment in their chosen field of work.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are significantly less likely to achieve their secondary school qualification than students from more advantaged communities. They are also far less likely to pursue tertiary studies. This has a serious impact on their long term health and wealth outcomes.

The South Australian government is implementing a series of reforms to improve these outcomes. These include a major reorganisation of schools with a focus on student equity, the creation of a new resourcing model and support for community-led education initiatives. However, it remains to be seen if these changes will make a significant difference to student outcomes.

There is a strong body of evidence that shows how to create a more inclusive educational environment. Nevertheless, the challenge for the education sector is to implement these changes in practice. This is especially difficult given the competing demands of a market-based ‘school choice’ economy and the need to meet high stakes testing targets.

In the meantime, a number of schools and community organisations are courageously pursuing ‘doing schooling differently’ agendas to address social inclusion challenges. These include the ICAN-FLO program, which aims to help young people remain connected to their learning. While the FLO policy archive is replete with information on improved retention rates, individual student testimonies, program growth and the case for increased apprenticeships, there is very little SACE completion data available in any of the publications accessed by this research.

South Australia’s future depends on a world class education system that delivers on the promise of a fair go for all students. Other top performing education nations combine excellence with equity that ensures no child is left behind. This is what South Australia should be striving for too. It’s time to make a real commitment to change. The new state leadership must seize this opportunity. McKinsey’s Marieke D’Cruz, Seckin Ungur and Bart Woortman report.

Education Reforms in South Australia

Unlike many other countries, Australian education is constitutionally the responsibility of state and territory governments. This means that governance, funding and operational arrangements vary across the country. The Australian government has sought to devolve as much control as possible to local school leaders. Its aim is to provide schools with the flexibility and autonomy needed to respond to the individual learning needs of students.

A range of educational policy areas have been aimed at improving student outcomes and increasing educational choice. These include:

The’making decisions’ reform area was designed to enable school leaders to make decisions about specific areas of school operations (staffing, budgets and maintenance) within broad national policy guidelines. Our research found that although principals were able to use some of the flexibilities, they also incurred significant extra workload in interpreting and enacting these new policies. This was exacerbated by the reshaping of their roles, which was seen as reducing their capacity to focus on educational leadership.

In this policy area, principals were also asked to take on greater accountability for achieving agreed school performance targets. Our research shows that these new accountability measures have shifted the focus of school leadership away from teaching and learning to data management and reporting. This has added to the already high workload of school leaders and has resulted in less time available for planning, curriculum development and teacher professional development.

A key aspect of the ‘equity and transparency’ policy area was that it would address inequalities in per pupil funding. Prior to the Gonski review, funding for students varied greatly – with some non-government schools receiving much more than others for no apparent reason. The Gonski plan set out to change that. It was meant to provide a standard amount for every student across Australia; the level would increase for those with special needs and decrease in private schools depending on how much their parents could afford.

Education and training institutions in South Australia offer a wide range of qualifications that can lead to further study, employment or a career in many different industries. The qualification system is unified through the Australian Quality Framework which has 10 levels and links school, vocational and university education qualifications.

Education in South Australia is an important economic driver and a key part of our identity as a nation. However, the current education system is not meeting our needs as a growing population and the future demands of a changing world economy. There is an urgent need to review how we are preparing our young people for the future and to find a way that ensures everyone has access to an affordable, quality education. This must be done in partnership with families and communities to ensure that our children are ready for the challenges ahead.

Education Policy in Australia

Education is not listed as a responsibility of the Australian Constitution, so it is left to the states and territories to run schools and set education policy. South Australia, like most other states in the country, has a mix of Public, Independent and Catholic schools. While there has been movement towards devolving responsibilities to school level (such as curriculum development) there is still much control from the central government – including in areas such as funding, supply and enrolment.

The current federal Liberal/National Coalition government has made significant changes to the way that education is managed. This has been done by introducing national standards in core subjects, using competitive funding to encourage more new schools and ensuring that all schools are delivering a high quality education for all students. This is done by setting performance targets, creating school performance tables and imposing sanctions for schools that do not meet these goals.

In addition to these national policies, the government has also encouraged parents to choose the type of school they think is best for their children, through its funding system which favours choice and competition in the education marketplace. By putting emphasis on consumer choice, this government is assuming that parental demand for excellent education will drive system improvement – in the same way as it works in real marketplaces where competition between businesses pushes prices down and raises standards.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this approach will work. In fact, research has shown that inequitable schooling systems tend to become even more inequitable over time.

Another problem is that decision making in the education sector has been moved away from the schools. It is now at Ministerial level with working groups of officials whose decisions are largely bound by confidentiality. The former Labor Party privileged certain peak bodies (unions) and the present government has a different set of privileges, eliminating some and privileging others (Principals Associations).

Finally, vested interests have influenced the education policy debate in Australia. This is particularly true of the Review of Funding for Schooling (Karmel) which was a controversial report that suggested that the state and territory governments should be funded on a per student basis, rather than through block grants with some discretion to allocate funds between school sectors. It was argued that this would address the inequities that existed between Government and non-government schooling. Unfortunately, the five-person panel that was appointed to make the recommendations did not include any one with a background that connected them closely with the Public school sector which currently accounts for 66% of school enrollments. This meant that the policy recommendations were not focused on addressing the equity issues that were being raised by community and researchers. This was a missed opportunity to move Australia closer to the educational excellence enjoyed by world class education nations.