- Maxine McKew on the state of Australian education
It's an honour to be asked by the Murray-Smith family, to follow many distinguished speakers, in remembering the life of Stephen Murray-Smith, as we do this evening.
It strikes me that he and his wife Lita lived a very Melbourne life, even allowing for the happy escapes to Aerith and Bass Strait and the family base being at Mt Eliza.
The Murray-Smiths drank deep from the pleasures of urban life and in turn, because of their smarts and their style, they undeniably boosted the pulse rate of Melbourne in the post-war years.
They must have been grand days.
For a young returned serviceman, one of patrician bearing but egalitarian temperament, to engage with some very different Australians. The newly arrived Jewish émigrés, among them Stephen's future wife Anita, they were all there on the campus of the University of Melbourne. Alive to the possibilities of life, intellectually precocious, challenging themselves and everyone else, and above all intensely political.
Stephen's initial chosen path would be the god that failed. He was an early apostate. Good for him. But he paid a price in being shunned by some who would take decades to arrive at a similar position. No doubt it left its mark, but Stephen would go on to become, in Joanna's memorable phrase, ‘A missionary for the imagination’.
A historian, a literary editor, a great promoter of the talent of others through his editorship of Overland and always a teacher.
Did Stephen, I wonder, consciously think of himself as an educator? He certainly appears to have understood that we learn best from those we love.
Joanna's recollections are of a dad who put her to bed each night by reading the stories of Henry Lawson. Years later, in pursuing her own brilliant career, she realised that among other things, she'd absorbed important detail about structure and pace. Then there was the careful cultivation of an artistic sensibility. Joanna also recalls that the necessary accompaniment for trip, for a trip to the opera, the ballet, or the theatre, was a mini-tutorial by Stephen or Nita on the life of Mozart or some foundational points about the plays of Beckett or Osborne. They were quite consciously helping shape Joanna's aesthetic.
Australian contemporary drama, I think, can be grateful that the Murray-Smiths never favoured the fuzzy and increasingly forlorn idea that Joanna just might pick it up as she went along. Which brings me to my theme tonight, and if Stephen's ghostly presence joins us this evening, I wouldn't be surprised. I suspect he would have robust ideas on the subject of modern education.
Now, as Jill said, I've been working on a book that I've titled Class Act. I've been doing that work for about, really about the last two years.
I had the opportunity, first of all as a federal MP, to spend a lot of time in schools in the Northwest of Sydney, and it was really one of the highlights of the job. I also had a key role to play in shaping public policy on early childhood. And it is gratifying to see that changes that were put in place in 2008, the Early Years Learning Framework, which I spent a lot of time on, and the National Quality Standards, that they are still standing today and indeed have been endorsed by a group as hard-headed and as budget conscious as the Productivity Commission.
In writing Class Act, I had a couple of goals in mind. Primarily, a practical one. I wanted to document the specific approaches that schools are taking to transform themselves. To lift the academic achievement of all students and where teachers follow the mantra of Professor John Hattie, ‘Know thy impact’.
The elaborate song and dance act that teachers might put on in front of their students really counts for naught if they are unaware of what it is that students are learning. So the critical questions to be asked in the classroom, and in effective schools this is what's happening, the critical questions are around student growth and challenge. What's been absorbed? Can you explain this concept to others? How do you get to the next phase of learning? How to go deeper, rather than just do more of the same?
Now, you might have noticed that a few of these questions form part of the public education debate. As in so many areas of public policy, we are stuck in pretty useless binary debates. Whole language versus phonics, public versus private, autonomy versus command and control, and so on. These are all secondary issues. What matters is what's working. How we can replicate success across what is now a very fragmented sector and how we get a system-wide lift.
We need that lift because there really are some red lights flashing. The international data, the PEARLS and PISA tests show that we have a wide gap between our top performers and our lowest achievers, a gap that many of the top-performing countries manage to bridge. Well, actually, they don't allow that gap to emerge, because they intervene early.
Equally worrying, and quite puzzling to many, is the fact that since the start of the century our best students are trending down. Now, there's another statistic that I find the most depressing of all. In surveys conducted among Australia's primary school children, a worrying 45% say they only read if they have to.
You think about that. The keys to the kingdom, the world of intellectual discovery that meant so much to the Stephen Smiths, that is closed to these children because most only begrudgingly pick up a book.
It's why one of the Class Act stories that I love concerns Garran Public School in the ACT, because they did something quite revolutionary. There are no basic readers. There's no basic or standard anything at that school. They teach children to read, wait for it, by putting the best and most emotionally engaging literature in front of them. As a result, Garran is able to get more of its students into the top achievement bands than most others in the country. And at Garran, 80% of students say they read for the love of it. At Garran they also have a policy of only employing teachers who understand functional grammar.
I know you're gasping.
A real class act in education would be if we could have national figures that more closely resembled that of Garran. Now, in order to do that we need to get some fundamentals right.
Only this week, a friend of mine, a highly qualified math teacher, she quit a regional Victorian high school where she's been teaching, mainly because the school has such a lackadaisical attitude towards something as basic as attendance. Year 10 attendance levels can be as low as 60%. Now, this is discussed in a kind of relaxed way in the classroom, ‘Oh, sorry’ in the staff room, but there's no strategy in place to deal with it. To state the obvious, if the kids aren't there, you can't teach them.
There are things you can do to ensure that children attend regularly and they are in place in some of the poorest areas in the country.
Now, fortunately, my friend has not been lost to teaching. She's relocated to another very low SES school here in the city, and it's a place that actually puts a premium on attendance, on achievement, and growth in student and professional practice. But that regional high school that she's quit, more than likely, they've dragged in the PE teacher who's now attempting to teach maths.
Now, I want to stress that I have not come up in my book with a unique, I'm sorry, a piece of unique scholarship, but I have applied my narrative skills to the mountain of reports, the mountain of documentation that's been compiled over the years, all looking at what works and how we can apply those lessons.
You won't be surprised to hear that what I found is that it's a complex story. You can get some quick wins, but lifting academic performance and sustaining that performance is a whole lot more intricate than just getting a bit of a kick in NAPLAN.
Now my starting point is to celebrate success. To acknowledge the quite exceptional efforts that are happening right here in our major cities and in schools where children in some cases are bringing themselves up. Either that or they come from families where there is very little social capital and certainly not much geographic mobility.
The most shameful part of our education story as many of you would know is the extreme social segregation now of our schools and for poor children that means all sorts of things. They don't travel past the State Library every day. They don't get to see the Italian Masters at the NGV. More often than not, you are told of these schools that a lot of suburban kids don't even come to the city. That physical isolation has an effect on how you view the world and how ambitious you're likely to be.
I was at St. Alban's School, St. Alban's Secondary College a few months ago, and through one of their partnerships they had organised a trip to the city for the Year 7 children. And I was told one little boy looked out at the CBD towers as they drove across the West Gate Bridge and said, ‘Sir, is that New York?’ I hope his teacher said, ‘No son, New York has a better transport system’.
So what does a successful school look like? Well with the exception of one school I've written, and that's Garin, I've written five case studies of what we can call turnaround schools. Now these are places where, before major, whole school improvement took place, nothing was going on in the academic department. Children were being looked after. A lot of pastoral care. Teachers felt sorry for these children. They did their best, but not much else.
I'll mention a couple of things that are common to all these schools. Leadership is absolutely critical. Leadership that sets the bar high, sets a plan, finds the resources to back that plan, and follows through with effective implementation with the whole team. And we've got a wonderful asset here in Melbourne, we've got the Bastow Learning Institute in North Melbourne, which is doing really some fine work in this regard.
Schools, as I say, are complex places and the skills required to lead can be learned. The starting point is to recognise that getting promoted to the position of Principal is the first point. That doesn't necessarily equate to you automatically having the leadership skills.
In all the cases that I have documented, you have leaders who push and push. They push themselves, they push their teaching staff, and they push the system. They test the limits of their authority all the time. Not because of some power trip, but because they want to address significant educational deficits.
Now this kind of leadership does mean unsettling the status quo.
When Mark McConvel took over the very troubled Toronto High School on the New South Wales Central Coast, he thought he would take about 12 months to take a good look around before he started his change program. Well that idea went out the window in the first week, just after he called for a look at the learning plans for all subject areas and at the curriculum documents, pretty standard. Well, there was almost a riot among staff, and when McConvel got to the bottom of it and got all his staff behind a closed door he found out just how poorly organised the school was. In some Year 12 subjects, there was no curriculum plan. What was worse, some teachers didn't even seem too embarrassed about this. And by the way, I'm talking about the period of seven or eight years ago, not 20 years ago. Toronto had a dismal academic record but that has changed, and I say in about seven or eight years, now around 40% of those students from Toronto go on to university, about another 30% go on to TAFE.
To start with something even more basic, that of the personal safety of staff and students. I spent time over in Perth. A wonderful school, Roseworth Primary, and a better model of integrated schooling. It's a bit like a Scandinavian model, where the health, the social and the educational needs of children and parents are met. They really have brought it all together. But again, very, very different about a decade ago.
When Geoff Metcalf started there as Principal, no teaching was possible because the place was so violent. Teachers just hunkered down. Either that or they were too afraid to even get out of their cars in the morning. Because standard practice was that local families—my, my, editor kept questioning me when I had this in my initial draft. She said, ‘Are you serious? Local families who are actually coming into the school during the day. Certainly at lunch time and continuing their inter-family feuds in front of children?’—Well, that was tolerated. It wasn't tolerated for long by Geoff Metcalf, who literally put his own safety at risk, at first by staring down the worst of the offenders and then by setting new rules and enforcing them.
Now a huge help, and this is where the resourcing matters, a huge help was a complete redesign of the school with supervised entrances and exits. Roseworth now picks up Safe School awards, but it's taken a lot of years, some critical partnerships, because no schools transform themselves without critical partners, and very purposeful leadership.
In the case of Metcalf, he was driven by a very basic idea. The children deserve a slice of normality. A safe environment where they can be taught and where performance can be lifted.
Now that kind of leadership is always allied to a particular ambition. All of the effective principals I've interviewed have big ambitions for their schools. They all repeat that much quoted line that by trying to overcome the soft bigotry of low expectations, time and time again they still come up against the view in poor schools that ‘well, these kids can't cope with much’.
Maria Karvouni, in this town, heard all of that when she took on the principalship At Charles La Trobe. When she looked at an analysis of how students spent their time, and again, this was only five years ago. When she looked at this analysis for how students spent their time, she found that far more time was spent in PE than in English. Yet most of the students had extremely poor vocabularies and exceptionally poor writing skills. When she, when she queried these priorities she was told, ‘well, this is what suits the kids. It's where they're happy’. It didn't suit Maria Karvouni. She changed the timetable, put a major emphasis on literacy at all levels and got rid of the dumbed-down electives, junked the lot of them. This is another theme that comes through.
She's interested in challenging her students, not in feeling sorry for them. A migrant herself, she remembers the public schools of her day where she was pushed to do better, and that's what she's been doing at Charles La Trobe. You visit today and they'll take you to a philosophy class for Year 9 students where they practice Socratic dialogue. Attendance is up, behaviour is not the problem it was, and the school is no longer bypassed by parents because of the poor reputation of the school.
So leadership, ambition and that brings me to the third element, rich content. Give the kids the good stuff, where else are they going to get it?
In schools that are stretching their students. In secondary schools they're ensuring a broad range of subject offerings and in primary schools they're getting rid of the idea that you give your poorest performers the low calibre readers with the baby vocabularies. Turnaround schools are doing the reverse.
We know that a child's vocabulary is one of the best predictors of success at school. So smart schools are ensuring that young children are exposed to rich literature.
I've interviewed—it's one of my favourite chapters—I've interviewed a University of Canberra academic by the name of Misty Adoniou. Wonderful name, isn't it? I recommend her very lively, and in some cases quite iconoclastic pieces, in the conversation, if you, if you look through the conversation regularly.
Misty is prepared to say out loud what many won't. That too many of our children are falling through the cracks because teachers don't have the tools to help them to develop sophisticated language. So she teaches pre-service teachers functional grammar. And she doesn't do it the old way, you know the noun, verb, predicate. She hit on something again, quite radical, she takes teachers through the wonders of the English language by getting them to read and reflect on great children's literature. Who would've thought it?
One of her favourites is the book by Margaret Wild, Fox, if there are any teachers here. And she takes students through, you know, Margaret Wild’s language line-by-line, talking about the adverbial phrases, why writers use language in the way they do.
She also runs, she's actually run off her feet doing this, she runs seminars across the ACT and increasingly across the country, and she calls this 10 things that every teacher needs to know about the English language. She goes through simple compound, complex sentences, you know, how many tenses in English, what's ellipses, you know. By morning tea, the kind of the, the grammar if you like, what we say the grammar bores, the people who think they know everything, are sounding, you know, a little bit shaky.
The point is not to be a grammar fundamentalist but to give children, guess what, an important framework. And it's poor children who don't get to hear rich language and they surely deserve the same repertoire of language as children from affluent homes.
The final feature I'll mention from the schools I see as successful is that they have a lot of respect for the people at the heart of the system, the students. Now, I know everyone says this, you know, it's about the students. But you have to see a school that takes seriously the idea of student voice, before you appreciate this point. And I mentioned St. Albans again, here in Melbourne. It used to be one of the schools I mentioned; a lot of fluffy care but lousy results.
And I have to say that people who, you know, who've engineered the change say this about themselves, which is very interesting.
We know that it turns out that it was St Albans students who actually thought that they were getting a pretty mediocre education. We know this because St Albans did a very bold thing and actually asked the entire student body what they thought of the place. This is a very big school about thousand students, years 7 to 12, and they conducted forums right across the student cohort. The students took the exercise very seriously. It turned out they were acutely conscious of the fact that they were at a low-performing school. They mentioned the fact that many teachers turned up late for class with no organised learning plan, that they rarely provided feedback, and more than not set homework that was never marked.
Now, in the hands of someone else this might have caused a bit of an industrial relations meltdown, when the feedback went back to the staff. But with Carrie Dosley as Principal, someone who had been at that school for a very long time, she managed the very difficult conversations with the faculty about the response of students.
Kerry then took a second step. She went back to the students and she asked them what they thought a high-expectations environment would look like. Back came the answers. The students wanted order, structure, clear guidelines and teaching of the curriculum. They didn't want to go into exams and be surprised by what they encountered. Above all, they ordered specific feedback and feedback about how to get to the next stage, you know, how to keep on learning. This is all the stuff that is invisible learning. The product of Professor John Hattie's immense research over 20 or 30 years.
Well, needless to say, you cannot conduct an exercise like that and not act on it. So, of all the lower SES schools I've looked at St. Albans really has achieved the most consistent uplift in results, because they have acted on this. And I invite you to read the chapter. It's most interesting, I think, in the precision and the detail that the school has applied, but it has not happened in five minutes. It's really been a 20 year process at that school, marked again by intelligent leadership, a high-level of collegiality and significant ambition. The result is a huge pride in what's been achieved and a culture of consistent improvement.
So lead, be ambitious, challenge students and above all listen to them.
I could mention many other things, and I've heard some exceptional stories over the last couple of years, but I'll just go to the end point. As I go around schools, I find myself thinking a lot about the world that young people are being tipped out into. Excuse me. For those of you, I think with teenage children or young adult children or grandchildren, it is a compelling question. Degrees have never been more expensive and about to become more so. Apart from the professions, and even there we are going to see a lot of disruption, but whether it's a straight bachelor degree, a combined degree or a masters, graduates are finding the labour market a very difficult place to negotiate.
Many are in jobs that have nothing to do with their area of expertise. So the post-GFC world is a very different beast. We're seeing plenty of creative destruction, because of massive changes in technology. More and more, the expectation being that young people are required to create their own work. How many times have we heard this? That's fine for the entrepreneurial types, but what about the others?
We've always had a mixed record on innovation in this country, and I don't see much evidence that in schools we’re any more savvy about nurturing a future generation of creators and inventors. It's why there is huge interest in what Sir Ken Robinson talks about in his TED Talk lectures on education; the importance of building and encouraging the creative potential of our young people. He claims to have had something like 20 million hits on his TED Talk. The one, I think its entitled How Schools Kill Creativity. And as he says, the fact that so many people have downloaded and looked at this video suggests that a lot of people feel, you know, badly done by in terms of their education.
At the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, where I've spent a good deal of time over the last two years, Professor Patrick Griffin has had nearly 20,000 students across the globe sign up to his online moot course on 21st century skills and those skills that emphasise collaboration and creative problem solving.
And you might say, what's new about this? I bet Stephen Murray-Smith did that a bit of that in his time. Certainly, many of the big breakthroughs in science and elsewhere have come from an ability to work and share data and to systematically work through problems. But this is now an issue not just for scientists in the labs, but an issue for the wider workplace. As Pat Griffin says, some of the big global corporates, the Intel’s, the Microsoft's, they've backed the 21st century schools project, because they want to hire people who can work out what the problem is in the first place. And they have significant skill shortages because too few individuals can effectively work like this.
It’s why I think we might see a revival in the study of the humanities. As long as they are challenging courses, they can help extend the ability of young people to synthesise their arguments and to understand the power of language and concepts. Humanities studies teach people how to play with possibilities and how to be comfortable with ambiguity. And if you look at some of the inertia in either I think our commercial arenas or in this country or in government, boy do we need people who can imagine alternative ways of solving problems.
One of the more interesting things I've read on the subject has come from a column written by Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist. And it was, it was done about six months ago. It's one that gets passed around a lot. What Friedman did, he interviewed the Vice President of People Operations, don't you like that, for Google, who made some very interesting points. He said, ‘For every job, the number one thing we look for is general cognitive ability and that's not IQ, its learning ability. The ability to process on the fly and we assess that using structured behavioural interviews that we validate to make sure that they're predictive. Ongoing learning ability’. Very, very interesting. And, and Friedman concludes that column by saying, ‘Beware’, this is his message to young people, ‘Beware, your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about and pays off on what you can do with what you know.’ I think they might be right.
So to conclude, I'm hoping that my little work Class Act is something of a catalyst for some different discussions about what success looks like, about how we can create a richer set of opportunities for all of our young people, and particularly, about how we can apply a more consistent policy approach to one of our most compelling national issues.
'The elaborate song-and-dance that teachers might put on in front of their students really counts for nought if they are unaware of what it is that students are learning.'
- Maxine McKew
About this video
Former politician and journalist Maxine McKew presents the 2014 Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture, discussing the issues raised in her most recent book, Class act – success and challenge in Australian education.
Maxine examines culture and academic change in Australian schools, and reflects on one of our most pressing national dilemmas: how do we replicate success across a fragmented system and reverse the decline in student performance?
The 2014 Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture commemorates the contribution to Australian intellectual life made by Stephen Murray-Smith, founding editor of Overland magazine, with the lecture promoting research and debate in the broad areas of Stephen's interest and influence.
This event was also part of the Library's Big ideas under the dome lecture series, bringing to Melbourne great minds in the arts, culture, social justice and sciences to discuss, debate and reflect on the big ideas and issues of our time.
Maxine McKew is an Australian former politician and journalist.
She was the Parliamentary Secretary for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government in the First Rudd Ministry and the First Gillard Ministry.
For the past two years Maxine has been a Vice Chancellorʼs Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Located in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education she has drawn on the expertise and substantial research of the school to inform her stories of success and challenge in Australian education.