NAPLAN: small schools are beacons of light at chalkface

Opinion Article

2018 May, 5

Yarwun state school is a small rural school serving 34 students from this township and surrounding properties in the countryside outside Gladstone. I turn up the day before Anzac Day amid preparations for a small ceremony later in the morning, as they will attend a larger gathering elsewhere on the day itself. 

The children and staff are welcoming, if bemused. I am visiting with a former director-general of the Queensland education department, Julie Grantham. The little ones shake my hand and introduce themselves spontaneously. 

Yarwun is like hundreds of small state schools dotted across rural, regional and remote Queensland, and the township is tidy, with one shop and maybe a couple dozen houses. But Yarwun is no ordinary school. 

We meet principal Jayne Hoffman, who is working part time because she has been on maternity leave. She shares the principal’s role with Amanda Ryan, a local and former education lecturer. At once you sense this is a powerhouse partnership. They are teaching principals in a small school with composite classes. 

We are introduced to Ros Penrose, a long-time teaching aide from the local community. Hoffman says: “She is really a teacher. She teaches the rest of us.” 

I have come to Yarwun because it was No 1 in the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy in Queensland primary schools last year. Schools that my organisation works with in Cape York and across remote Australia are of similar size and face the same, if sometimes more extreme, challenges. I want to learn from Yarwun. I figure that if Yarwun can do it, then the schools I work with can do it, too.

For the next couple hours of interrogation and touring the small campus, Hoffman and Ryan give the former director-general and me insights into their school improvement journey and their remarkable achievement. We visit the chook shed and the garden in the back of the school. They offer a strong music program and robotics. They accumulate and constantly have their eyes on student data. “We know where every student is at,” says Ryan. They know where they want them to get to and the kids know it, too. 

They are self-effacing and humble, and almost indifferent to NAPLAN. They want their kids to do well, but they make it clear to me that it is not the be-all and end-all for their school. They explicitly teach the children through a phonics program that they use throughout all primary years. There is not much fancy computer technology in the school. The broadband connection is not great, and a collection of those One Laptop Per Child green things sits on a table, unusable. Whatever Yarwun is doing right, it has nothing to do with computers. 

These women are obviously expert educators. They are on top of the literature and, while they are reticent to prescribe what other schools should do, they cite University of Melbourne professor John Hattie’s evidence on what works in schools. 

Yarwun’s results started to climb in 2014 when Hoffman became principal. However much she may want to brush it away, it is obvious Hoffman and Ryan put this school on a trajectory to excellence. Yarwun may have been a good school years ago but now it is excellent. The most striking insight for me is what they say about the conversations they have about teaching challenges, techniques and practices — and the needs of their students. There is great collegiality in the staffroom, and teachers share insights and learning with each other. If a teacher is facing a particular difficulty, she will ask colleagues in the staffroom who will suggest something, and that teacher will then report back on how she went. This is the essence of teacher professionalism and a school that is focused on its teaching craft and every child’s learning. 

Education departments do not publish “league tables” comparing the relative performance of schools in annual NAPLAN results. I understand the reasons for not doing so. However, it is possible to construct a table from publicly available data. A table comparing years 3 and 5 results from last year, assembled by the organisation I co-chair, Good to Great Schools Australia, puts Yarwun at the top of the Queensland table. 

Another rural school in the Gladstone hinterland is No 6. 

We drive another half-hour down the highway to the small township of Benaraby, whose state school was established in 1886, the oldest in the district. This is another school serving small towners, property owners and industrial workers. There are 100 students and seven of them are indigenous. They have lost some market share to a nearby Catholic school and I wonder whether the parents paying those fees understand the local state school is one of Queensland’s most excellent primary schools. 

The principal, Jane van der Weide, meets us and we are introduced to the groundsman, who is a local builder. The school buildings are meticulously maintained and the grounds are bucolic and prideful. The man whose hand I shake has obvious pride in this school, which has such a close connection with the local community it is able to draw on it for all forms of engagement and support. 

The diminutive principal is a former physical education teacher. She is a teaching principal, teaching all aspects of the curriculum except what she calls “the fluffy stuff”. She, too, is humble and self-deprecating, but you can sense the steely determination of leadership under the surface. 

There are explicit behavioural expectations and routines posted all over the school. You could not fail to know what is expected of you as a student or a staff member at Benaraby. 

The school’s phonics program, too, is taught throughout all years. This surprises me. Rather than just phonics for prep and the earliest years, they do it to Year 6, presumably increasing fluency and automaticity with all students in the school. They host a reading club first thing in the morning before school starts. Then all the students go for a run for a couple of kilometres. This is clearly the physical education principal coming to the fore. Then the teachers read to their classes. What is common to Yarwun and Benaraby is they allocate at least two hours, often more, to literacy each day. 

Yet remote school systems resist timetabling more than an hour of literacy instruction a day with Aboriginal students who do not have English as a first language and who come from much more impoverished backgrounds than kids at these schools.

Van der Weide says several times throughout the tour that her approach to teaching literacy and numeracy is like her approach to teaching swimming: “We keep going until the kids learn it.” 

It reminds me of a metaphor I sometimes use to emphasise the crucial importance of literacy and numeracy. It is like teaching swimming. If we don’t teach the child to swim, they will drown. If we don’t teach the child to read, they will drown. We know how to teach swimming. We know how to teach reading. Why are we not preventing Australian children from drowning through illiteracy?

This week businessman David Gonski’s report to the Turnbull government, the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, was released. This is the so-called Gonski 2.0 report. Gonski 1.0 recommended funding formulas and a significant increase in funding for schools. This new report is aimed at advising government on how to best use the funding to achieve better education outcomes for Australia. 

Australian educational funding increased dramatically during the past two decades. The point has been made many times over many years now that this increased investment has not produced better results. In fact, Australian schooling has gone backwards relative to other leading systems around the world. This new report makes for sober reading of how far Australia has fallen behind. 

Compared with the year 2000, our 2015 Program for International Student Assessment results show catastrophic decline. In reading we were fourth out of 25 OECD countries, and 16th in 2015. In mathematics we were seventh and now we are last out of 25. In science we were fourth and now we are 14th. 

Our national schools performance is in crisis. That is the truth. 

Many of our schools are doing very well, but most are not. The Australian Education Union objected this week to the Prime Minister describing the great middle of the schools spectrum in Australia as “coasting”, saying it was offensive to educators. 

Coasting is the word used by Gonski. If offence at the use of such a word in the face of all of the evidence of decline is the response of the AEU, then it kind of explains why we are in the state we are in. 

Surely some honesty in facing the situation is necessary if we are going to do anything about it. The great middle of Australian schools systems is one tectonic performance stage behind where we should be. Good schools need to become great schools. 

The Gonski report is a disappointment. I cannot see how it provides a road map to school excellence. Simon Birmingham, one of the most astute ministers to have held the education portfolio in my experience, will have to decipher his own strategy in response to the Gonski committee’s vagaries and failure to come to grips with what the worldwide evidence says about how school systems (which surpass us today, like Singapore and Shanghai) leapt ahead while we declined.

There is virtually nothing said about pedagogy: how schools teach. There is no mention of effective instruction or explicit instruction, which has been central to the progress of many Queensland schools in the past decade, and schools elsewhere in the country that have focused on teaching. Can you believe there is no mention of the word phonics in the entire report? 

Whatever curriculum school systems adopt, how do we teach the chosen curriculum effectively and successfully? The what of curriculum has an even more important follow-up: the how of pedagogy. The Gonski panel obviously decided to shy away from these ideologically charged debates and took a disingenuously agnostic approach. In doing so it has squibbed its mandate and done a disservice to the Turnbull government and Australians. 

There simply is no road map to school improvement and school systems transformation. 

This is most clearly evidenced by the fact the report does not grapple with the fundamental question facing the federal government: how does it ensure the money it provides to state, territory, independent and Catholic systems is invested in those things that will achieve educational excellence? What mechanism can the commonwealth use to ensure these systems deliver? Because they did not deliver on previous investments. They didn’t deliver on Brendan Nelson’s 2005 national reading inquiry, of which Gonski makes no mention. 

The massive National Partnerships funding under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard did not yield improvement. Why did these previous efforts fail? Gonski’s report says nothing about past performance and offers no inkling as to what mechanisms will ensure Gonski 2.0 funding will produce reform in the future. 

There was one thing Gonski said this week that made sense and I extend here. We should give every school, principal and teaching staff an award within the Order of Australia, specially created to recognise those schools that have been raised from good to great and sustained it for five years. McKinsey & Company has a metric to objectively identify such schools.

If it were up to me I would be heading back to Yarwun and Benaraby next year to pin a medal on Hoffman, Ryan and van der Weide for the outstanding service they’ve given to their kids and to the country.

NAPLAN: small schools are beacons of light at chalkface