The successful ACT senior secondary colleges have reached an evolutionary crossroads that may lead to their demise. Can they be revitalised – or will they face a ‘gale of creative destruction’?

VERONA BURGESS: THE OBSERVER Of all the areas of public policy, secondary education reform is one of the most difficult. Everyone is an expert, if only self-appointed; passions run highly; educational and political ideologies clash ferociously; lobby groups are entrenched and every family has skin in the game.

In the 1970s the ACT embarked on a radical reform of secondary education by splitting its comprehensive, co-educational Years 7 to 12 public schools into Year 7 to 10 high schools and a small number of Year 11 and 12 senior secondary colleges, where students were treated as the young adults they were.

The ACT ditched the NSW Higher School Certificate external examinations and created a system of school-based curriculum and continuous assessment leading to the ACT Year 12 Certificate (now the ACT Senior Secondary Certificate and Record of Achievement).

Students eligible for an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank also receive a Tertiary Entrance Statement; the ATAR is weighted and scaled by the statutory ACT Board of Senior Secondary Studies, partly against an external ACT Scaling Test set by the Australian Council of Educational Research. Those pursuing Vocational Education and Training receive a certificate or statement of attainment.

The independent schools all kept the Year 7 to 12 model but all bar the private Canberra Grammar School adopted the new assessment system. Later, the International Baccalaureate also appeared in a few schools.

The ACT’s Year 11 and 12 age cohort is now about 10,000 (147,000 in NSW and 126,000 in Victoria). Two-thirds attend the senior secondary colleges, the remainder attend independent and Catholic schools.

More than 40 years on, the ACT college system is still going – a remarkably successful, resilient reform that has largely suited the ACT’s well-to-do and highly educated socio-economic demographics. But is it also fit for purpose for the next 40 years, not least in the 24/7/365 digitally networked world?

That’s a question being asked by a group of concerned educators in the ACT, many of whom were involved in creating the college system.

To that end, a background paper by a former principal of the former Copland College, Mal Lee, one of the original system designers, provides a historical analysis aimed not at destroying the colleges but as a foundation for taking them forward.

It also raises an interesting side question – can this take the form of constructive evolution rather than being swept away in Joseph Schumpeter’s “gale of creative destruction”?

In researching his paper, Lee found a considerable body of literature on the creation of the ACT system and also held discussions with recent college principals and senior officers of the BSSS.

“Collectively the views expressed went a long way to explain the variables that went to make the perfect storm that made possible the creation and operationalising of the colleges, and why the model has been sustained despite the ACT experiencing the same kind of regression as other core system changes internationally,” he wrote.

One critical variable, interestingly, was Australian National University’s support of the fledgling system.

But he also found further research was necessary. “No independent whole-of-colleges survey of student opinion has been done since 1979, and no study has been undertaken on the impact of 40-plus years of college graduates on the ACT workplace and society.”

Lee suggests the ACT Government has basically two choices. “It can continue along the present path, forget any major revitalisation, understanding in so doing the colleges will move increasingly into a state of evolutionary equilibrium, become ever more dated and irrelevant, eventually suffering the same fate as the other system-wide innovation of the last 60-plus years. Alternatively, it can accept the challenge of revitalising a very robust model, return its colleges to pre-eminence and ensure they continue to grow and evolve for many more decades.”

The latter path, he says, is considerable, multi-faceted and would be continual, but could be done readily and at no great cost if approached astutely. Fortunately, like college designers 50 years ago, the “renovators” would not have to address the challenge of academic standards.

“They too can focus on the greater challenge, of providing very capable students an apt, more individualised, contemporary holistic education, while better attending to the student’s mental well-being.”

He acknowledges the difficulties of running a school system in a time of accelerating social, political, economic, environmental and technological change.

“It is little wonder that most education systems, including the ACT, have thus far stayed with the known, invariably, though possibly unknowingly, shielding their operations from the digital disruption, and opting not to pursue the digital transformation of their schools.”

One of the great challenges was complacency and the natural belief that everything will continue as is.

“Outwardly the colleges to most continue to look fine,” he says. “The students still look forward to college, relish the adult learning environment and close student- teacher relationships and most students are perceived to do well.

“The wider community likely don’t see the shortcomings, the staff cutbacks that limit pastoral support and subject choice, the dated elements that see the colleges continue to operate as site and paper-based organisations, the eroding of key facets of the college package like the freedom to choose, the increasing emphasis on the [tertiary entrance score], the demand by Treasury to prove added value, with few asking why the colleges haven’t grown and evolved as originally intended.”

The ACT Government, he says, needs to sell the revitalisation, communicating a clear vision for a college education in a digital and networked world, and explain why it was important that the colleges evolve in harmony with ACT society.

While the move to colleges was made possible by the strength and standing of the community voices seeking change, he says it now seems the colleges have lost the strong historical support of the ACT parent community, the Parents and Citizens council, the education academics, the teachers’ union, school principals and many of the decision makers within the ACT public service.

Some of this could be attributed to complacency and a shift to a strong Westminster style of government in which the government and bureaucrats manage the system vastly differently from earlier years when parent, community and professional nominees helped provide direction and ownership.

“But whatever the reasons, the challenge is to win back much of the lost support and ownership.”

Other issues included an absence in the ACT of high-level educational leadership and desire to innovate, except among the college principals.

A key challenge was to move the colleges to being digital, and not simply doing the digital.

“It could well be time for the ACT to draw upon the leadership of digitally mature organisations other than schools to assist grow that leadership within its colleges.”

While there was no clear written, public educational vision or guiding principles for today’s government secondary colleges, it would appear the current teachers, students and even possibly the parents understood what they were.

They appeared to have been communicated orally/aurally, very successfully, from generation to generation. But it was vital publicly enunciate what kind of education the public colleges wanted to provide, to ensure the next generation embraced those principles and how they should allocate resources and adjudge performance.

There was also the issue of site-based learning.

“The site-based thinking is accompanied by the belief that the students must physically attend the colleges to learn, and must do so for two years to graduate. That might have had some validity in a paper-based world, but not a digital. Strong arguments can be mounted, educational and economic, that in many areas of learning the students could better undertake part of their college studies online, from home, within an internship, with an academic mentor or overseas within a care program. Moreover, they could and should be able to move on to their next stage of endeavour when ready, and not be obliged to simply put in the time needed to graduate.”

While arguing the case for the college system to be “renovated”, Lee also says the ACT should take prides that its colleges are one of the few core system-wide educational innovations globally that has successfully stood the test of time.

“Tellingly, within a learned community with exceptionally high educational expectations, it has been the public education initiative, that caters free of charge to all who wish to attend, that has been embraced by Canberra as the norm for an upper secondary education.”

Verona Burgess is a former Education Editor at The Canberra Times

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