Equity and Excellence in Education

Julie Moon
Relieving Editor and Publications Officer

Pasi Sahlberg’s message is very clear — investing in equity in education equals excellence. This self-described “humble servant” of public education believes that while there are many myths around competition for enrolments, standardised testing and competition leading to improvements in the quality of education, the facts are quite different: when education funding assists each school to meet the educational needs of every child outcomes are improved for all students. In short, a great school system for every child.

Dr Sahlberg, a former director-general of education in Finland and now a visiting professor of Harvard University, believes that the community should be mindful of “evidence” used to support educational policy; data can be used to suit the presenter’s needs. His research and experience has shown that implementation of the funding model set out by the Gonski Review Panel would be a great step forward in closing the equity gap in Australian education and assist students who have the greatest needs.

Dr Sahlberg set out to bust a few myths about improving educational outcomes.

The myth that when schools compete for enrolments the quality of education increases is refuted by PISA data gathered from 34 countries. Research has shown that for-profit private schools did not create significant learning gains and that competition, as perceived by teachers, generated negative effects on learning and create a greater degree of educational segregation.

Another myth is that sharper accountability through the use of standardised testing leads to a better education system. The facts, according to Dr Sahlberg, are that the more autonomy schools have to define and elaborate their curriculum and assessments the better the learning outcomes for their students. Test-based incentive programs not only lead to smaller educational gains but have also led to corruption where test results have been falsified.

Myth: teacher quality is the single most important factor in improving the quality of education. Research has shown that all school input combined — teacher quality, class variables and so on, on average, account for approximately 21 per cent of student outcomes — never above 40 per cent. Dr Sahlberg stated that an education system cannot be centred on teacher quality — a successful education system is based on student participation, equity and on needs-based funding that provides for expert intervention programs.

It is important for educational leaders to set the right goals. Making statements which create a finite timeline, such as being in the “Top 5 by 2025” are in not the best interests of students. Driving an education system focused on other countries means we lose sight of our community needs. Instead, goals should be set for local conditions taking into account the needs of students in a particular setting — that is the mark of a great school system.

Finland has become a world leader in educational outcomes — but it did not happen overnight. Forty years ago, all private schools were closed. For the next two decades the Finnish government invested heavily in school equity programs. Each school has a special education system inbuilt that includes healthcare and counselling services available to all students. There is no standardised testing in schools: schools are organised to cater for individual students. Grading of students does not occur until they are in grade 5, when students are approximately 12 years old.

The implementation of the full six years of Gonski funding would have gone a long way to improving equity for our most needy students. Loadings based on students identified with a disability, Indigenous students, students from remote locations, those with low English language proficiency and students from low socio-economic areas would provide for a fairer, more equitable and efficient school funding system.