We live in an age saturated by information and knowledge, driven by digital technologies.
This change is bound up with a changing economy and a changing society, offering mobility and opportunity to us as individuals and fuelling the growing exchange and interchange with the rest of the world.
In our own communities, we are now able to access information not dreamed of by past generations, often at minimal cost.
As the leading Canadian educationalist Michael Fullan argues, in today’s world ‘transparency rules’.
Information is pervasive and the demand for more and better data keeps growing in every domain.
Our capacity to find, sort and use knowledge in ways that create value is central to our success in the 21st century society.
One consequence of this ongoing change is the growing importance of education.
Having workers who can analyse problems and communicate through sophisticated devices is becoming a prerequisite for employers.
As our world is increasingly powered by knowledge and information, the consequences of educational failure become increasingly severe.
From 2001-2007 in Australian full-time employment among those who have post-school qualifications grew by 20.5 per cent. Over the same period, full time employment about those without qualifications rose by just 0.3 per cent.
That is why, when we were elected two years ago, we promised an Education Revolution.
We need to become a nation in which educational achievement is central to everything we do and those who contribute to educational excellence are respected and rewarded for it.
Everywhere I go around the nation I am struck by what great schools, staffed and led by great teachers, are doing to lift achievement.
But I am equally struck by how much more there is to do.
There are too many schools that do not manage to get the best from their students and too many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are not achieving what they should.
A new era of transparency
Our drive for improving every school and education for every child is driving our passion for school transparency.
As a result of that passion, in the first months of next year, for the first time ever you will be able to access information on Australian schools through the MySchool website which shows achievement in national testing, Year 12 attainment, attendance and numbers of staff.
This website will allow users to compare one school’s result with other local schools and with schools around the nation that serve similar student populations.
It will show how a school’s test scores compare to those statistically similar schools and to the national mean.
And it fits into the broader framework of accountability and investment that we have delivered over the last two years.
Those reforms include the first ever national curriculum, so that every student can access a world class curriculum and every parent and every teacher can understand the levels of learning and excellence that should be an entitlement for every student.
They include a National Education Agreement and School Funding Bill for non-government schools which, for the first time, require exactly the same accountability of all schools in all sectors.
And they include implementing new measures to improve the quality of teaching and school leadership, new ways of teaching literarcy and numeracy.
And these reforms deliver new resources and enormous new investments in creating 21st century learning environments.
These reforms give us, for the first time in this country, the chance to build an approach to schooling which is genuinely, comprehensively focused on the needs and the achievements of students.
The need for transparency
So why do we need this data?
When I was sworn in as federal Education Minister, I was not able to get accurate data about how our schools perform or how they are resourced across the country.
The Australian Council for Educational Research has observed that the Australian school funding system is one of the most complex, the most opaque and the most confusing in the developed world.
Although we have international data like PISA and TIMMS, we have never been able to examine how, or why, individual schools perform in relation to their students, to their overall resourcing, or to other schools operating in similar circumstances.
Australia has a highly differentiated education system, with separate educational authorities for government, Catholic and independent schools in each state and territory.
I believe that diversity is a great strength: but only if we can learn which approaches used under which circumstances are actually contributing to learning outcomes.
Data about what students are achieving and how they are progressing must be the cornerstone of any strategy for improvement.
Good teachers and school leaders need a constant flow of data about how and what their students are learning in order to diagnose learning needs and make sure they are teaching the right things in the right ways.
Effective schools are schools that continuously improve, using that flow of data to evaluate themselves and to examine where they need to adjust and how they can use experiences of success and failure to generate that improvement.
For whole communities and whole jurisdictions, accurate and timely data is also fundamental to creating the accountability that encourages effective use of resources and creates pressure to perform at the highest standards.
Comprehensive, accurate data is needed for all of these purposes.
But as we have debated these reforms, many have argued that schools and teachers can already access a lot of data and that it does not need to be published.
They argue that much of this data is available for individual families and in individual school reports. And they are right.
I do not agree, however, that it is ok for information to be in my hands or the hands of principals but not be available to parents in the same way.
The presumption should be that where data that helps us understand how a school is going is available, it is in the interest of that school, its students and nation to make it available to everyone.
There is no reason to assume that a department or an institution or a decision-maker has a monopoly of wisdom about interpreting the data.
Of course, professional expertise and judgement needs to be exercised in making decisions about the allocation of resources and about where professional effort should be directed.
But the beauty of transparency, while it may make us all uncomfortable at times, is the pressure it puts on decision makers to strive for improvement and to justify greater investment.
And for a parent in any given community looking at the options, at the moment there is no way to find consistent, comparable information about the schools in her local area.
This is a nation that rightly prides itself on giving parents choice when it comes to selecting their child’s school. But without hard information ‘choice’ is just another word for ‘guessing’.
Parents have often gone to hell and back to try and find out about schools and make good choices for their children.
Parents will now have hard information to help them make choices.
And the nation, for the first time, will have hard information about where best practice is so it can be studied and shared and where failure and underperformance is so we can address it.
Of course, in year one the information will not be as comprehensive as people would like.
We will add and build, piece by piece, including with school financial information so that we can truly judge what difference extra resources make to learning outcomes.
Inevitably we will hear a chorus of complaint, that we are not measuring everything, we are not fairly capturing school spirit or non-academic outcomes, that people will teach to the test.
And let me make clear now what my response will be.
To those who say we aren’t measuring everything, I say I am happy to measure more and put it out transparently. No system of measurement is perfect, so we can keep developing ways to make ours more comprehensive.
To those who say we aren’t measuring the whole of a child’s character development, I say I agree.
But I actually don’t believe our aim is to have schools full of happy illiterate, innumerate children.
Our aim is to have happy, confident children who are getting the skills they need for work and life like reading, writing and maths.
They are not the only measure of educational progress.
But I do not believe it is controversial to expect that every child in this country should master literacy and numeracy.
There are those who object that measuring children’s progress solely by these test results is too narrow.
But the tests have been designed to be a rigorous and valid test of knowledge and understanding.
To those who say people will teach to the test, I say if the test is appropriately integrated and testing the curriculum then learning how to do well in literacy and numeracy tests is not a bad thing in itself.
And to those who say this about naming and shaming, our education revolution reforms have been designed to ensure it is about helping and improving
Some critics of the reforms argue that the information should not be published because they could lead to league tables of schools.
I have always argued that tables ranking schools by their raw academic results are simplistic and unhelpful.
That is why, on the Myschool website, the information about individual schools is provided in the context of other schools serving students and communities that are genuinely comparable.
That means using the best possible evidence and the best possible data to analyse the background factors which we know do have an influence on student performance, and grouping schools with others that are comparable.
This is what ACARA, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, is done. The Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, or ICSEA, reflects 16 different dimensions that the evidence tells are linked to educational achievement such as the income and highest educational attainment of parents. It provides a basis for meaningful comparison between schools serving similar student populations.
Why is this worthwhile? First, because it will counter the idea that school performance can be meaningfully compared simply by looking at raw test scores.
Second, I believe that when this data is available, it will show that even among schools serving very similar groups of students in comparable communities, there are wide differences in performance and in outcomes.
I know that the resources devoted to education make a difference. That is one reason why, under this government, the investment in Australian schools has almost doubled to more than $62 billion over the next four years.
But resources can only make a difference when they are used effectively. Knowing what is effective is only possible in an environment of real transparency.
I believe it will help reveal that, as we know, there are fantastic schools in every sector that achieve outstanding results and overcome many of the disadvantages experienced by their students.
This week I spent a day and half talking to more than 160 principals about transparency and school reform. I showed them how the Myschool website will work. I listened to their views and their concerns.
I understand that this is a passionate debate and I realise that this is new territory for Australian school communities and that it will put them in the midst of real change.
I have committed that with ACARA, we will provide practical support to individual schools to prepare for the release of that data.
And after the release, I have committed to meeting again with principals to discuss the impacts of the reporting and to talk about how we can keep developing the system so that it adds even more information about the full achievement of students and the value created by schools and teachers.
There are also those in the debate who argue that, if we cannot guarantee how school results will be reported, we should restrict the data about their performance and their student characteristics.
Here I fundamentally disagree.
Of course information can be presented in ways that are misleading and unhelpful.
But that is the case now – it has already happened.
Surely the better public understanding and greater community engagement in schooling is better served by a reporting format which puts this information in its proper context?
Trying to restrict the publication by third parties of information in this way is like trying to hold back the sea.
But it also fundamentally misses the point of our reforms.
Which is that, ultimately, we are accountable – as politicans, as public servants, as educators – to the public.
It may cause painful moments, if this information brings into the public spotlight school performance that cannot be explained or justified.
But surely even that is better than allowing such performance to continue unchallenged or unnoticed because there is not enough accountability.
Being honest about disadvantage
In driving this reform, we are not just insisting on information about school and student performance in national testing.
We are also driving transparency about how schools are organised and how they are resourced.
And we are driving transparency on the community characteristics that also influence educational achievement.
We all know – parents know, communities know – that schools with higher results tend to be schools with better off families and higher levels of overall resourcing.
We know that there are schools serving children with English as a second language. Schools where many of the parents are not in work. Schools serving remote indigenous communities, often in the most extreme and harsh environments.
Our reforms are driven by the fact that the debates about these issues should be driven by fact and reason, not by prejudice or history.
Background characteristics such as parental occupation, family income or indigeneity may help to explain the educational challenge facing those schools and those children.
But they still do not excuse poor performance or low expectations in those schools.
Demography is not destiny.
But without real transparency, transparency that allows us to analyse and compare the real relationships between communities, schools and resources, how can we expect to get to a situation where the right resources support the right educational practices?
Transparency in the Early Years
In the early years we have also made information transparent for parents in new ways.
The mychild website provides information about more than 8,000 childcare providers, including their fees and rates.
As part of our quality agenda for the early years, we will expand that information to more providers and include information on vacancies and, in due course, quality ratings.
We have also implemented the Australian Early Development Index.
For the first time, we will be able to see how children in different local areas are doing on crucial dimensions of development like physical health and wellbeing, social competence, cognitive and communication skills.
Community maps will show what percentage of children in different areas are developmentally at risk.
Again, when we publish these data late this year, they will cause disquiet.
But these are facts that do not change if we do not make them transparent.
Creating momentum for change
Transparency will not only help to identify those children who may need more support, but it will and should spark community debate.
Why do some communities continue to live with that kind of disadvantage?
What can the various agencies and organisations that share responsibility for services in those areas do with this kind of data in order to provide better services and better outcomes?
We are already seeing this effect in school reform.
Since we initiated the transparency reforms in 2008, the Tasmanian government has taken a lead in publishing detailed reports for every government school, showing how that school is performing on key measures, whether it is doing better or worse than average and whether that performance is improving.
This month, Victoria will publish its own report card, linking school performance data to evaluations of the quality of teaching and learning.
Just today, 450 South Australian principals are meeting with their Education Minister, Jane Lomax Smith, to talk about how state reforms and national reforms are coming together to lift year 12 achievement.
In Queensland, the Premier has commissioned a review of primary education and is acting on the findings, using transparency as a tool for improvement.
These reforms are consistent with the national transparency framework that ACARA is delivering on behalf of all Australian governments.
They show that, once you start in a direction, it gathers momentum.
And of course, our transparency reforms are not being implemented in isolation.
They are part of our national school reform agenda which includes $2.5 billion for National Partnerships in teacher quality, literacy and numeracy and disadvantaged school communities.
Those reforms are about putting in place precisely the supports and investments needed to help schools improve achievement in all circumstances.
They will systematically try out a range of different models and strategies.
They will contribute to closing the gap in indigenous education.
And, through framework for reporting and evaluation that we have agreed with school systems, they will help schools and teachers to learn from each other about what works at the school level.
Transparency – the ability to gather, share and interpret rich and accurate information – underpins that shared national effort.
It is an essential ingredient of innovation and collaboration, as well as accountability.
So yes, I expect the passionate debate to continue.
I welcome it
Yes I expect controversy and claims of unfairness.
Yes I expect that there will be difficult moments – for governments, for schools, for me.
But ultimately I welcome those difficult moments too – because they will mean that those of us with responsibility for the quality of children’s education in this country – the adults – will be challenged about whether, collectively, we are doing a good enough job and what more we need to be doing.
That is a cause worth fighting. And it will be progress worth measuring.
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