Poor distribution not teacher quality drives our school inequity: Piccoli

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This article was originally published by EducationHQ on 5 February 2020. View the article here. 

Adrian Piccoli believes that if you're sending your child to school in Australia, they’ll be attending one of the best institutions in the world. 


"We often complain about what Australia could do better - we're always looking to improve, but I always start from the position that if you're going to be going to school somewhere, Australia is a pretty good place to be… 

“What we're looking at is 'what can we do differently to improve?'” the director of UNSW’s Gonski Institute for Education, and former NSW Minister for Education, tells EducationHQ

For starters, some key ‘structural’ problems persist, and they’re driving deep fissures of inequity throughout our school system. 

 "…For example, we don't do a very good job of making sure we've got the right teachers in the right schools,” Piccoli says. 
"This is one of those issues in rural and remote [education], we've got some of the more challenging communities that have real trouble attracting experienced and highly qualified teachers. 

"Yet, often where those most experienced teachers teach is in the areas actually where you've already got high performing students. 

“Selective schools in Sydney don't have trouble attracting experienced, highly trained teachers…"
This is an issue of distribution not teaching quality, Piccoli argues. 
"We have a structural problem there; we've got really great teachers and really great beginning teachers, but they’re not distributed as well as they should be.” 

Piccoli is gearing up to present at The Sydney Morning Herald Schools Summit later this month.

Firmly on his agenda is addressing the persisting equity problem on our hands, and discussing how we can work to deliver the best educational opportunities for students, irrespective of their socioeconomic status. 

"Much of the focus of what we'll be talking about is around equity," Piccoli says. 

"Talking about some of the opportunities in rural and remote education, perhaps some of the changes that need to be made.

"I live in Western New South Wales and whilst I was minister it was one of our areas of focus.

“…[so] talking about the things that get in the way of Australia delivering for every student."

Piccoli says there is no evidence to suggest that selective schools are actually a “good thing for the system”. 

“They might be good for individual students but there isn't really any evidence that I've seen that says they're good for the overall education of NSW students. 

"What you might be gaining in some places, you might be losing in other places, and the net effect is [zero].

“NSW has 50 selective schools and Victoria has four, but NSW doesn't perform better than Victoria."

Piccoli says that selective schools also work to skew the concentration of high performing kids across the system. 

“We are one of the worst performing countries in terms of how we've concentrated advantaged students in some schools and disadvantaged students into other schools.

"And that in itself, when you do that with disadvantaged students, it magnifies the disadvantage. 

The Gonski Institute for Education (GIE) is driven to investigate educational issues that affect Australian students, find solutions and help convince policymakers of their importance – and Piccoli now relishes the freedom to offer his own opinions straight up, free from the constraints of “party politics” and pressures. 

"When you are the minister, you're calling the shots … but not being the minister for education gives me, in many ways, greater flexibility, in that I'm freer in my advocacy.

"When you're a minister, you are bound by the government; your own government's decisions and government policy.

"I'm free to express an opinion about NAPLAN or school funding, without having to get  approval of cabinet … it's quite liberating and I enjoy being liberated like that,” Piccoli shares. 

Piccoli is eager to continue using the knowledge and experience he gained in his former role to help drive change at the school level. 

“…You don't need to survey 200 teachers to get an appreciation of what are some of the things you could do to make it more attractive to go and teach in a regional area.

"You only need to visit two schools and you'll get 10 suggestions.
“I've just spent a few days in Dubbo and Walgett and Coonamble and Nyngan.

"You learn more there in three days than you learn in three weeks sitting in an office at a university….”