How can Australia have one of the best education systems in the world?

Date posted: 22nd October 2014

Laura PerryThe Australian education system performs well on international tests of student achievement but there is plenty of room for improvement. For example, data from the latest cycle of the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) shows that a number of countries are performing better than Australia. While many of these education systems are in Asian countries with very different cultural traditions, Australia is also being outperformed by some European countries, and is consistently outperformed by Canada. Comparisons with Canada are particularly enlightening since the two countries share many cultural and demographic similarities.

Previous and current prime ministers have stated that they want the Australian education system to be among the very best in the world. Reaching this goal will require work on a number of fronts. Again, comparisons with Canada are useful. As my research with colleague Andrew McConney has shown, socially advantaged students have similar academic performance in both countries but socially disadvantaged students have substantially worse performance in Australia. Indeed, data from PISA shows that the achievement gap between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students is greater in Australia than the average for all developed countries. These findings suggest that the key to improving Australia’s performance is to improve the performance of its socially disadvantaged students. As the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been arguing, equity and performance go hand-in-hand.

So how can the performance of socially disadvantaged students be improved? The solution should adopt a two-pronged approach, with attention paid to education policies and systems as well as practices in schools.

In terms of policies, data from PISA shows that Australia has the most inequitable allocation of educational resources between schools than in any other OECD country other than the USA. This finding is related to another key finding from PISA, that schooling is much more socially segregated in Australia than other OECD countries, including Canada. Both of these findings are related to inequalities in educational outcomes and stunted performance for socially disadvantaged students. Importantly, policies that tackle segregation and inequitable resourcing do not harm socially advantaged students, as our research about Canada and Australia have shown.

 In terms of school practices, supporting teachers to provide high quality instruction is essential. Here again we can look to other countries. Teachers in countries that outperform Australia on PISA are highly educated, with most having a Master’s degree with training in both subject matter and pedagogy. In Canada, most provinces require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree in a subject area (e.g., maths, history) and a Master’s degree in education, or two bachelor’s degrees in education and discipline area. Australia is one of the few countries (along with the US) where a bachelor’s degree is sufficient to become a teacher. Teaching is complex and demanding, and as such requires a high level of preparation. Teaching in socially disadvantaged schools is even more complex.

Given the large degree of social segregation and accompanying resource inequalities between schools, teachers in Australia need to be especially well trained. A bachelor degree in the arts or sciences, plus a Master’s in Education or Teaching is particularly suitable for preparing future teachers in Australia. It is encouraging that more Australian universities are offering such programs.

My colleagues and I at Murdoch University are very excited about our new Masters of Teaching course. We look forward to helping make the Australian education system one of the best in the world! 

Dr Laura Perry is Senior Lecturer of education policy, comparative education and the social contexts of education at Murdoch University. She conducts comparative and cross-national research about the ways in which education policies and systems can be leveraged to improve educational equity.