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This paper will outline the tenets of the Melbourne Declaration. It will address the policies of the Declaration and critically examine the implications and the impact it had on the education of Australia’s young after ten years of national education reforms. Based on statistical and empirical analysis, the evidence presented will show why the Declaration did not adequately fulfil its vision and aspirations to enable all learners to reach their full potential.
Introduction – Tenets of the Declaration
The signing of the Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians (Melbourne Declaration) in 2008 sets the agenda for Australia’s educational future. There are two main goals and its purpose is to provide a long-term vision for schooling where all young Australians are “provided with the opportunity to reach their full potential” (MCEETYA, 2008, p.18). They are:
Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence.
Goal 2: All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens (MCEETYA, 2008, p.8).
The Melbourne Declaration also includes a ‘Commitment to Action’ in eight interrelated areas to support the achievement of the educational goals. They are:
- Developing stronger partnerships
- Supporting quality teaching and school leadership
- Strengthening early childhood education
- Enhancing middle years development
- Supporting senior years of schooling and youth transitions
- Promoting world-class curriculum and assessment
- Improving educational outcomes for Indigenous youth and disadvantaged young Australians, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds
- Strengthening accountability and transparency
In addition, the Melbourne Declaration supported by its companion document, the MCEETYA produced a four-year plan (2009–2012) that identifies the key strategies for each area of the educational goals. It also provides the framework for significant national reform for The Australian Curriculum, The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care, Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and Australian Professional Standard for Principals.
Review of the Declaration
On the surface, the educational goals are simple and easy to understand. Yet, the goal of promoting equity and excellence seems to contradict itself. The issues in question are, can excellence and equity be achieved with equivalency? Is it even realistic or practical to have both seemingly opposing attributes within the same goal? It may infer that this conceptualisation draws on a false distinction (Buchanan & Chapman, 2011).
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While there was some progress in delivering education services for the past 10 years, research from the National Assessment Program (program that tracks student performance in key learning areas such as literacy and numeracy) and the National Report on Schooling in Australia from the Education Council (report that highlights the progress on Australian community towards the Melbourne Declaration goals) show that, after 10 years of government policy reforms and targeted improvement strategies, the education system did not adequately achieve equity and excellence outcomes in creating educated citizenry for all young Australians (Lamb & Huo, 2017; O’Connell, Fox & Cole, 2016).
The above assertion is confirmed by the following statistics:
- PISA performances showed that 40,000 Australian 15 year olds (14% of students) lack reading skills to participate adequately in the workforce and contribute as productive future citizens. 57,000 students (20% of students) fail in mathematics (Thomson, De Bortoli, & Buckley, 2013).
- 22% of (or 60,000) children are developmentally vulnerable in one or more of the Australian Early Development Census (physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills) domains upon entry to school. They are at risk of poorer educational outcomes (AEDC, 2015; Australia Institute of Health and Welfare, 2015).
- 28% of Year 7 students do not meet achievement benchmarks in key academic skills. Approximately 78,000 students are below expected achievement benchmarks in literacy and numeracy in Year 7 and an estimated 62% of Indigenous students do not meet this milestone (Lamb, Jackson, Walstab & Huo, 2015).
- 26% of students do not attain a Year 12 certificate or equivalent by age 19. Approximately 81,000 students, with significantly higher percentages for Indigenous (42%) and low SES students (39% for the lowest SES quartile) (Lamb et al., 2015).
- 27% of 24 year olds (approximately 93,000 young adults) are not engaged in full-time employment, education or training, and with a higher proportion for Indigenous and low SES people (Lamb et al., 2015).
- One quarter of children and young people are not adequately supported to meet key educational milestones; and one in eight of those missing out at age 24 is likely to remain disengaged for most of their working lives (Mitchell Institute, 2017).
- 42% of Indigenous children are identified as developmentally vulnerable compared with 21% of non-Indigenous children. 33% of children from the lowest SES quintile are identified as developmentally vulnerable compared with only 15 per cent of children from the highest SES quintile (Australia Institute of Health and Welfare, 2017).
Fundamentally, ‘Human Capital Theory’ underpins the Declaration where expenditure is aligned with an increase in economic prosperity (Becker, 1962, 1964; Schultz, 1962). The government’s neoliberal, capitalistic agenda for economic reform is concealed under the pretext of educational advancement. A 2012 Deloitte’s report showed that by investing in Early Childhood Education (MCEETYA, 2008, p.11), student participation would increase by 0.7% and productivity up to 1.2% by 2030. The percentage increase may look minuscule, but this would translate to a GDP increase of about 2.2% or $25 billion in today’s dollars (Deloitte Access Economics, 2012).
Since 2015, the Government has committed to improving STEM skills of young Australians by placing an emphasis on STEM education through the Australian Curriculum. It has allocated $64 million funding early learning and school STEM initiatives (“Support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) | Department of Education”, 2019). According to a PwC 2017 report, if the Government were to shift 1% of the workforce into STEM roles, the country’s GDP will realise an increase of $57.4 billion (PwC Australia, 2017). It is apparent that the government’s neoliberal agenda possesses the power to “dehumanise education and reduce it to an equation of inputs and outputs” (Smith, 2019).
In 2010, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) was established to presumably support quality teaching and school leadership. It is a regulatory mechanism that was setup to monitor teachers’ work (Brennan, 2009; Rizvi, 2008). Control over teaching was transferred from the states and territories to the federal level. New policies like DER, NAPLAN, PISA (to name a few) were introduced and that changed the nature of teachers’ work. As a result, the bureaucratic and neoliberal policies negatively impacted the teachers and teaching becomes the “objects of scrutiny and critique” (Luke, 2006).
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Progressively, the government is reinforcing its control and authority over educational matters by imposing accountability and efficiency of a national curriculum and standardised testing system through ACARA and AITSL (Ball, 2008). This outlines how the Declaration interacts with the other commitments, adhering to a coordinated and collaborative federalism (Blackmore, 2004). The federal political structure and different ideological perspectives effected this shift and now has control over the educational restructuring in Australia.
Schools are filled with tensions as policies are implemented to centralize school-based management and decision-making (McInerney, 2003). The purposes of schooling are expressed through the funding, structure, organization and curriculum of an education system (Cranston, Kimber, Mulford, Reid, & Keating, 2010). These managerial and marketization agendas replace the public purposes of school education with political ideology and influencing them through power, control and efficiency (Labaree, 1997). The national curriculum is consequently streamlined to focus on the narrowly defined learning outcomes, excludes the broad range of skills, capabilities and priorities of school leaders and teachers (Jackson, Adam & Turner, 2017) and disregards the learning needs and aspirations of the students (Bentley & Cazaly, 2015).
In essence, schooling has become a ‘national economic reconstruction’, as a means to generate greater national productivity and international economic competitiveness (Knight and Warry, 1996). The emphasis is placed on the individual, private sector practices, market, economy and competition. There exists a clear divergence between education and political ideological practices where politics overshadows the purposes of schooling (Singh and Taylor, 2004). Based on the evidences presented, it is difficult to ascertain that progress towards the goal that “all young Australians become successful learners” is achieved.
The Declaration implies a “formal commitment” to the public purposes of education (MCEECDYA, 2008, p.4). However, it did not adequately provide the overall development and holistic growth of the student. National assessment results show large social gaps (Thomson, De Bortoli & Underwood, 2017) and an exaggerated equity gaps between the most and least advantaged students (Goss, Sonnemann, Chisholm & Nelson, 2016). The Catholic educators sum this up as “a lack of understanding of human dignity” (Catholic Education Commission, 2014, p.6).
Australians today need to learn more continuously than any generation before them. Schools need to prepare students for a lifetime of learning and incorporate effective social and economic participation. It has to prepare and equip them with skills like critical and creative thinking, intercultural capability, and personal and social capability; skills that are beyond academic competences (Education Council, 2014).
The Declaration will have a greater impact on system improvement if it is built upon a collaborative commitment between policy-makers, practitioners, students, families and communities (Fullan, Gallardo & Hargreaves, 2015). It has to focus on continuous improvement, collective responsibility, shared leadership and accountability towards a shared set of educational goals that will meet the full learning potential of all learners.
The Declaration will need to embrace a holistic vision and provide values pedagogy (Lovat, Dally, Clement, & Toomey, 2011) with educational goals that serve the public good (Martin, 2010) and schools to serve and build a socially cohesive society (Loader, 2008). It is hopeful that the 2019 review to update the Declaration will aspire all stakeholders to transform the educational experiences and opportunities for our young people, their citizenry and future in society.
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