The BOSTES Review

The Review of BOSTES (Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards NSW) commissioned by the NSW Minister for Education in March 2016 has been released. Mr Piccoli has accepted all of the recommendations. This will result in a name change with BOSTES becoming the NSW Education Standards Authority or, as the report details, “the Authority“.

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday sensationalised aspects of the final report and the Minister acknowledged on Twitter that his choice of words were poor. I have read the detail now and think most of it, in the context of what we currently have in NSW, completely logical. There is much more to analyse and discuss than what can be explore in this blog post but many of the findings, especially when read in isolation or without other contextual knowledge about education in NSW, make a good deal of sense.

When one reads the report with teachers in mind there are a number of important acknowledgements of current issues. I will highlight a couple that are particularly significant for classroom practitioners. Recommendation 9 will interest teachers who have sought accreditation NSW schools since late 2003:

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Many teachers have been frustrated with these formal processes and last week I personally endeavoured to have a course, that didn’t fit neatly in a box, formally registered. The managerialism of it all defeated me, at least temporarily. Assessment for Learning in STEM Teaching, with Dylan Wiliam, looks brilliant and of course, one can clock-up the non-registered hours but without regaling you with the detail, “simplifying existing processes” would be highly appreciated.

Recommendation 11 is also worth looking at closely:

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The ARC (Assessment Resource Centre) website is a really good example of how we are neglecting students (and their teachers) by not providing better support materials. Reinvesting in curriculum support will be welcomed. In the rest of this post it will become abundantly clear to see where the educational reform dollar is being spent.

What’s changed?

The educational landscape in NSW and Australia has changed in many ways over the last decade or so, although much remains the same. Children still arrive at schools and mostly move from class to class when the bell rings, study the same subjects that their parents/grandparents experienced and sit pen and paper exams. Most have a limited experience of technology or control over what they study for most of their school careers.

What has changed is that bureaucrats and administrators are very busy making plans, creating regulatory bodies and evaluating them. Educators have many acronyms to navigate. Most of it appears to make sense when viewed in isolation but as a whole it gives one pause for reflection. There is a constant quest for alignment of standards and processes which stubbornly refuse to work, even when there is the best of intentions, in the real world of students and schools.

Here’s a brief, incomplete overview and timeline of some of the more expensive, important or structural changes in the last few years:

This is, by any measure, a great deal of reform, especially in the last five years. If we talk about measuring there has been, according to PISA and NAPLAN, no educational progress to show for the money or effort in Australia during this time. In fact, we are going backwards at a rate of knots. This is clearly politically and educationally unacceptable.

How could all this reform not be working? André Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, City University London and Mats Alvesson, Professor of Business Administration at Lund University have a few ideas that you may find interestingThe most damning commentary in their entire book suggests that “instead of focusing on the actual work process, schools spend most of their time on ceremonial activities. They develop plans, set up meetings, write reports, develop policy statements, prepare presentations and all the other things a ‘proper’ school is supposed to do”. The years roll by without any logical reconsideration of how all this actually helps educate children or improve the society it serves. Closer to home, highly respected educationalists like Professor Stephen Dinham, have made the point that:

“Australia has on average had one review of teacher education every year for the past 30 years…Each inquiry reaches much the same conclusions and makes much the same recommendations, yet little changes.”

Looking at the timeline above one certainly senses a concerted effort by senior educationalists and politicians to “do something” and one suspects there is a little desperation in it all. The events of 2012 are worth studying in some detail as major policy initiatives were introduced with unexpected funding cuts that led to major organisational disruption. There is a sense of inevitability about the loop where major initiatives are announced with no or reduced funding then a new report, several years down the track, recommends returning to what was previously in place but with significant tweaks in the language (ie literacy and numeracy ‘inspectors’ rather than ‘consultants’).

Teaching children and improving their educational outcomes requires a steady, consistent, collaborative approach. There are no silver bullets. There is a need for reform that is aligned with our societal values. I recommend re-reading the preamble to The Melbourne Declaration which stated these values (2008).

How do we measure educational attainment and improvement?

It is very clear from the Premier’s Priorities that improvement in literacy and numeracy will be measured by NAPLAN and 8% more students need to be moved into the “proficient” bands by 2019. In fact, if you consider now that Year 9 students may establish their eligibility for gaining a HSC by meeting the minimum literacy and numeracy standard (Band 8) from 2017 (see last point on the timeline above) and that very many schools have been listed for the “bump-it-up-strategy” would suggest a very determined approach to focus attention on achieving this goal. One hopes literacy and numeracy improves too.

ACARA, at the Senate References Committee on Education, Employment & Workplace Relations investigation of 2010 noted that “the main purpose of NAPLAN testing is: to identify whether all students have the literacy and numeracy skills and knowledge that provide the critical foundation for other learning and for their productive and rewarding participation in the community”.

Since then the FAQ has changed and now one can see:

NAPLAN is the measure through which governments, education authorities, schools, teachers and parents can determine whether or not young Australians have the literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for other learning and for their productive and rewarding participation in the community.

The tests provide parents and schools with an understanding of how individual students are performing at the time of the tests. They also provide schools, states and territories with information about how education programs are working and which areas need to be prioritised for improvement.

In the SMH article from yesterday it is all made pretty clear:

Mr Alegounarias, who will become the part-time chair with a chief executive beneath him in the new structure, cited the highest achieving education jurisdictions globally as a target for NSW.

“It’s about setting our targets against international standards. How do we get to Shanghai, how do we get to Finland?”

Proof the reform has worked would be “a big bump” in the state’s NAPLAN results in the next few years, he said.

I know of no research or data that suggests this is how “Finland” got to where it is (in fact they took the opposite approach to Great Britain and the USA that NSW is following) but suspect that these targets will be met, the system aligned and our society in danger of being left a little educationally poorer in the effort.

Feature image: cover of BOSTES Review

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8 Comments

  1. Willa:

    A refocus on tertiary entry requirements into teaching degrees, the quality of higher education and perhaps ensuring teachers have no less than a Masters degree should get us closer to Finland. Currently we have teaching pathways for school graduates who think teaching is a fallback course if they don’t do well and who themselves probably could not achieve highest bands in Year 9 NAPLAN.

  2. Ann Caro:

    What annoyed me immediately was the comment “devolution of compliance to principals” . No thanks!
    Too much too soon.
    It will chase staff away.. The punitive tone in the SMH article was highly destructive. I am confused .. What is this about!

  3. Darcy, thank you for writing this! I’m now well & truly out of the education change this time round but have been around for almost every other one you wrote here. I can honestly say that the announcement yesterday must have put teachers & DPs & Principals offside. It was done poorly and why oh why when teacher morale needs to be nurtured was the tone so punishing. I have bookmarked this post because I sometimes write about education matters despite being retired & the facts of reform and changes you’ve put in the post blew me away and I was there from the start. I will never forget the impact of the 1990 act! Cheers and thanks again. Denyse

  4. Terje:

    Finland have a curriculum based upon problem solving and critical thinking (and they write PISA, which is therefore designed to measure these skills). Australia has a content based curriculum, hence the difference in results. Comparing countries using PISA is like comparing apples and oranges. It is only a suitable measure when comparing your own results, not results between countries or systems..

  5. Andrew FitzSimons:

    Much to consider here. My 12+ years as the principal of a proudly comprehensive high school covers much of this change. The ‘learning groove’ is a key driver of learning and teaching success. Our bell rings at 0828 and 1100 of us move towards the Main Quad; that sense of purpose and unchallenged compliance is the key to creating ‘space’ to enable good learning and good teaching. We consciously nurture our ‘learning groove’ and only change it for good strategic reasons; ie, thoughtfully. The reforms and changes listed could be seen as us thrashing about looking for some magic answer; the antithesis of the much admired and now formally desired, Finnish approach. Their excellence built on 50+ years of building teacher competence and nurturing a learning culture in their society.

    We are one of the LMBR 229, BYOD, attendance 93% and rising; much to feel proud of. But……………… it is harder and harder to push back the feeling that these changes will be supplanted by others before anyone has time to really engage. I hope not!

  6. Jane Hunter:

    I sense your frustration too Darcy.
    We have a system that is out of step with what education must look like. Principals and teachers in NSW schools work extremely hard to ensure their students do well.
    Shanghai is not the answer – compelling arguments for why are made by Yong Zhao and other education scholars & Finland is a particular cultural context not replicable here.
    Our world is complex and change in schools takes time – quick fixes are everywhere and now that NAPLAN has flat-lined we are looking for yet another quick fix – the nature of standardized tests/testing means this happens over time.
    Resources and energy used to make yet another change to schools through BOSTES – determined by bureaucrats many of whom are quite removed from ‘the front line’ make us all ‘shake our heads’ in horror. I do agree there is an urgency to address duplication and tiresome form filling but it is all very reactive. Making people in schools ‘nervous’ is not the answer. Sad.

  7. Brendan Cookson:

    A cynic would believe the endless re-structuring and ‘busy work’ engaged in by governments is a method of sabotaging public education with the end game being to off load it to the private sector. Let us believe for a naive moment that this is not the case.
    So on this 60 seconds of delusion the quick fix for education begins with a return to academic rigour-no pass no progress. Literacy and numeracy programs must be allowed to run the course of a students school life to know if they work. Screen time must be limited to an hour per day and management need to make the hard decisions such as suspending or expelling violent students.
    Your 60 seconds is up-you may now privatize education-look how well it’s working in TAFE…

  8. Paul:

    As you say Darcy, there is much to think about and a quick response to a scan of material might well need to change in the light of new information. The sensationalist newspaper reports immediately brought on thoughts of the UK’s OFSTED which created mayhem all round and replaced a far superior model with a risk-averse, headline-creating system that does not appear to have delivered that which it promised. Based on the evidence we have, which is not much, I fear we might be going the same way.

    There are several items that concern me at the moment:

    a) the haste of the process given the supposed importance. 3 months, effectively, from go to whoa is not, in my mind sufficient time to analyse such a critical function. Much of the main report was made up of ideas already contained in the terms of reference and views from stakeholders. I saw no references to academic research or literature review on the nature of educational administration and yet there is a wealth of research in this area;
    b) the review panel might think that c4700 responses is “widely consulted” but, given the time span and the number of people involved, it is a very small percentage of the total population. If it’s that important, it should have a wider base of respondents.
    c) the four themes that emerge from the review (p8) seem largely to be drawn, again, from the directions in the terms of reference. All are focussed on the administration and construction of the organisation rather than its role and accountability to education.
    d) turning to the recommendations, there is a mixture of ideas. The first three seem to be involved in constructing committees which seems to be counter to their ideal of being “agile”. Loads more jobs for a fortunate few. Recommendation 4 might need to define and parameterise “risk-based approach” before it convinced me it had merit in schools. Given the red tape at the moment, any attempt, in recommendation 5 to improve the accreditation process should be welcome. They can hardly cope now. When every teacher is accredited, the workload will be insurmountable without change. As an assessor and external reviewer, I can see the merit in the process but scaling up this process needs thought not apparent in the review. I thought recommendation 6 was already being done! At last, we reach a syllabus in 7 and 8 with the thrust being towards a slimmer curriculum that takes away the NSW focus to become the Australian curriculum – why not, it’s supposed to be a national curriculum after all. Perhaps if we focussed on standards and not standardisation, we might get somewhere. Of course, if they push the idea of satisfying outcomes and not content, you can get the situation of reduced educational quality and the destruction of the notion of a national system! I’m not convinced that 9 makes sense unless we say it becomes a popularity contest for private providers. Given 10 suggests limits to ESA, private may well be the way we are going. 11 seems paradoxical. We need more rigorous regulation but with fewer resources where the surplus goes to teaching and learning that is being outsourced? Must be too late at night for me to process!!

    Overall, I must say it’s an interesting document (as in “may you live in interesting times”!). It’s rapid work has gaps of concept alongside some suggestions that people have seemed to want for ages. We will have to see what comes of it. I’d like to think that it will improve the system but I’m also thinking that in following the UK (a failed system) to re-create Shanghai and Finland (totally different contexts) we might end up with a worse system than we have.

    The cynic in me suggests that this is a push towards edu-business, a transfer of capital from public to private gain with little to show for the education of the masses. Perhaps that’s the aim after all!

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