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Bright spots in education: postcodes shouldn’t matter

Australia’s disadvantaged children start school behind, fall further behind while at school, and are less likely to complete 13 years of schooling. By the age of 15, students in the bottom quartile of socio-economic status are nearly three years behind Australian students in the top quartile. To prepare all Australian young people for the 21st century, we can and should do better than this.

The good news is that some Australian schools are already delivering great education outcomes for kids in low socio-economic communities. These “Bright Spots” schools are proof that a young person’s postcode does not have to be a predictor of their educational achievement.

One example of a Bright Spot is Dandenong North Primary School in Melbourne. This school’s students consistently achieve significantly higher results on the annual NAPLAN test than the average Australian school. The school achieves these results despite a challenging set of circumstances.

Some 78% of students come from a language background other than English. Over half the students are from families in the lowest quartile of socio-economic status. In many Australian communities this student profile would translate to poor academic achievement, but Dandenong North PS is demonstrating it’s possible to get great outcomes for kids, no matter what postcode they are from.

When we look at these Bright Spots, we see three critical success factors that explain the results: great school leadership, high-quality teaching and strategic school-community partnerships that enhance student learning. Research evidence backs this up.

So, if we know so much about what works, why are so many of our other low socio-economic schools still struggling to deliver great outcomes for students?

Leaders from schools, government, academia, philanthropy and business are gathering this week at the Social Ventures Australia Education Dialogue to discuss exactly this issue. How do we spread good practice from the Bright Spots to more schools across the country? Clearly, knowing what works isn’t enough.

One of the international guest speakers is Dr Kevan Collins, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation in the United Kingdom. EEF is an independent grant-making charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, ensuring children from all backgrounds can fulfil their potential and make the most of their talents.

“The next step is to strive for a system which is reliable: where every child, of any background, can fulfil their potential and make the most of their talents.” 

According to Collins: “The challenge we face is inconsistency. Across our systems, schools demonstrate that outstanding performance is possible. But the variation between similar schools, serving all types of communities, is wide. The next step is to strive for a system which is reliable: where every child, of any background, can fulfil their potential and make the most of their talents.”

SVA has observed several beliefs and behaviours that get in the way of leaders and teachers using evidence of what works to drive their own practices.

One particularly pernicious belief among many teachers could be called context mismatch, where an educator believes that their context is completely different to the example in the research and that the practice therefore would not have the same impact in their classroom.

Something else that often stops the spread of good practice is the complexity of the tasks. Most educators already know that one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement is feedback to students. Providing effective feedback is challenging. The complexity of the task means that teachers often do not know how to implement it effectively.

We need to make it easier for educators.

We should put in place structures that will make it easier to adopt good practice. Synthesising the research evidence into a usable format that teachers can understand is vitally important. A brilliant example is the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, a plain-English summary of decades of academic studies. Breaking the practice down into smaller, sequenced tasks that are easier to learn and allocating time for professional development that doesn’t increase a teacher’s workload are also important.

We should acknowledge that people learn complex tasks more effectively by working with others. The first step is to create a culture of openness and trust in school staff rooms and between schools. Building on this, we should give teachers and leaders opportunities to observe others who have already mastered the practice. We should help them learn together with their colleagues to develop their own skills.

Australia invests billions of dollars in educating our young people. We want to ensure that this capital is applied where it is needed most and that it supports our talented teachers and leaders to improve outcomes for our most disadvantaged students. We must look hard at the evidence of what works so that all educators can learn from and implement these approaches.

In this way, we will ensure that all Australian children are learning and are well prepared for the 21st century.

The SVA Education Dialogue, beginning October 15, includes senior bureaucrats, academics, social purpose sector leaders and school principals, with guest speakers Dr Kevan Collins, David Albury and Woon Chia Liu from the National Institute of Education in Singapore.

Author Bio

Suzie Riddell

Suzie Riddell is executive director, education at Social Ventures Australia working with not-for-profit, social enterprise and government clients in education, indigenous affairs, health and employment. She was previously a consultant at Bain & Company.