#42 Quality education

Image of UN goal 4
Image by United Nations

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

In my fifth decade of life and having just finished a PhD I describe myself as an example and advocate for life long learning. This brings me to question why I have embraced this opportunity and why many folks I speak with regarding the topic of education respond with a mixture of responses.

For some to consider ongoing education is a chore, for others it is a time issue and for some education is an option that was never easily available to them. My experiences could be described as being heavily biased and only from one cohort as they really only represent the group I frequent. (Board and C suite executive level with the relevant cohort being representative of the social purpose sector). Regardless of these frequent experiences across my five decades I have been exposed to many levels of access to education, with all levels sharing one ingredient, education being most important for all.

I have no debate that education should be inclusive, equitable, quality based and available for all but am interested to further understand the limitations for those who currently do not have the benefits that I have had. More importantly what needs to be done to achieve the fourth United Nations Sustainability Development Goal of inclusive, equitable and quality education for all. To begin my search I immediately considered the many well recognized education global scales and found the following of much interest but also quite alarming.

For a large part of the population international tests such as – PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) are used to compare and contrast education systems across a range of countries but…….

‘It isn’t an even playing field’

Why global education rankings don’t reveal the whole picture presented an argument that due to each country having such different social and economic (wealth variables) these global education rankings should be under question. It seems bizarre to me that with a global goal searching for inclusive, equitable and quality education that such knowledge is being in some way ignored.

The further I researched the more I realized that such sentiments about different ‘playing fields’ are not just based on anecdotal knowledge but data which exists in abundance on issues such as: Expenditure on educational institutions as a % of GDP; Early Childhood education and care (ECEC); % of children attending a public ECEC; enrolment rates in pre-primary education; share of expenditure on education; tertiary education.

More importantly as argued in Australians pay more for education than the OECD average – but is it worth it? it was shown even though expenditure is more than the average it is where the funding comes from in Australia (primarily families or students) that adds another level of distortion. So in the case of equitable education not only is there an issue of education not being an even playing field but how differing countries pay for their education. Using Australia as an example – with it being one of the recognized wealthy countries it doesn’t completely stack up- as its contribution to education is not necessarily a major priority of GDP – this again adds more confusion to ratings of countries against each other.

A really good example of such conflicting data is also achieved by considering the UK system of school performance and maintenance of quality of education. The system was put in place to enable parents and educators to understand and compare schools in their area. This is where the situation of basing decisions for the future on ways of the past becomes yet again a contributor rather than a disruptor – making the playing field even more uneven. Just like the global disparities we cannot ignore the argument such as why new school performance tables tell us very little about school performance.

My contribution to this argument is if we know that measuring performance is not the solution or simply distorting the future by bringing solutions from the past – then why are we considering them for the future? Why are such topics as education being tackled within flawed – outdated processes? A key argument at both the international and national level is that any league table only gives scores for a single group in a single year. In this I cant help but conclude there is an element of the competition paradox at play here – the desire of human nature to survive, where of course for much of our civilization it has been the way progress has been achieved. A constant theme throughout all my Consequences Blogs around the global goals has been the need to no longer do things (such as business) as we always have. The key difference is that the pace of life has increased monumentally. Our approaches therefore must evolve into a different mindset and the future cannot be based on an ‘old mindset’ or one that worked for yesteryear.

Considering how this could be approached in Australia with a mindset of getting our own ‘education back garden’ in shape is something I often consider. In this I am drawn to question NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) and its measurement processes. NAPLAN is ten years old – so how is the nation fairing? As this report further investigates does the scoring system really assist with education improvement? In line with the UK investigations the jury is definitely out on this question especially when considering how best to approach measurement in education.

A word of caution must be given and particularly for those countries that are still developing their education systems – following what is already in place may not be the most effective approach. A point of total agreement is that by simply continuing to do the status quo will not bridge any educational gap.

Wherever the educational scores of any country are established the complexity level becomes incredibly intensified particularly when experiencing educational disadvantage. Using Australia as an example of these disparities inequalities can be considered across three dimensions:

Dimension one: Opportunities – this is around the access students have to resources and facilities available to students, as well as to effective teachers

Australia – Low socioeconomic status (SES) schools in Australia have far fewer educational materials (books, facilities, laboratories) than high SES schools. This gap is the third largest in the OECD

Dimension two: Experiences- this includes students’ relationships and interactions with teachers and fellow students, their sense of belonging in their school, and their experience of classroom discipline

One third of students in advantaged school report (PISA) report high levels of noise and disorder in their classroom, compared to half of students in disadvantaged schools

Dimension three: Outcomes- how the students turn out, in terms of character, as well as the skills and knowledge they gain

In Australia the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is very large, equivalent to three years of schooling

The above statistics are not only unfortunate but also represent many more negative scenarios as documented in Educational disadvantage is a huge problem in Australia – we can’t just carry on the same. If there was one clear message for consideration in how to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education I would argue that the repetition of what we have always done is exactly what needs to no longer be the case.

If I was to summarise this Consequences Blog I am an advocate for lifelong learning but equally keen to share a voice for the countries that have the ability to do education better in their own ’education back-garden’. More importantly to do so without imposing methodology that is more akin and only suits historical eras. Likewise the countries that may also be disadvantaged in education (all for many different reasons) my plea is to not follow blindly in systems that are currently not ‘fit for purpose’.

Looking to the future and particularly the tertiary education system I was quite taken back by an education piece directed specifically for the millennial or nicely phrased ‘snowflakes’. Why we need to collaborate with ‘generation snowflake’ to improve universities. Albeit the article was arguing that the students of this generation are overly sensitive (hence the tag of snowflakes) there were some really important points to be considered –Student satisfaction and collaboration with students. I would go as far as declaring that these two points are exactly the two ingredients that need to influence all education decisions.

As a side note snowflakes when formed together form Glaciers and with that landscapes can change. To me we must get education right to enable our future generations to be the future they are destined to be!



PISA – http://www.oecd.org/

TIMSS – https://timssandpirls.bc.edu/

NAPLAN – http://www.nap.edu.au/

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