Is aged-based education out of touch with the needs of today’s students?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

An education expert believes the education sector needs an overhaul to support Australian school students shifting away from the current “conveyor belt” model.

The proposal from Professor Geoff Masters, chief executive officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research, would see students progress through levels based on individual proficiency, rather than being assessed by an aged-based grading system.

Professor Masters said that, in the current system, there could be up to six years’ difference in the levels of knowledge in each class – something that proved difficult for many teachers to manage.

“The consequence … is that students who don’t master content in the time that’s given often lack the prerequisites for what comes next,” he said.

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Australian students falling below expected standards

Results from this year’s NAPLAN testing revealed more than a quarter of the nation’s year nine students were performing below expected proficiency.

According to Professor Masters, the best predictor of where students would be when they reach year nine is looking at where they were at an earlier age, with early intervention proving more practical and helpful than continual monitoring to assess ongoing progress.

“I think part of the problem has been that we haven’t done that as well as we could,” Professor Masters said.

“Kids get to year nine or year 10, and they’re still reading at the level of a year five student … and that’s because skill gaps have emerged and not been adequately addressed, because we’ve had to move on and teach you the next curriculum, even though you might not be ready for it anyway.”

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To help address the issue in Victorian schools, the state government there announced last week it would spend $485 million to extend its tutoring program across the next two years.

But although Professor Masters said tutoring programs went some way towards addressing the issue, he believes that examination of the entire school model is needed. He cited the example of music grading, that enables a six-year-old to be studying an instrument at the same level as a 50-year-old, if their proficiency levels are the same.

What he wants, he said, is “more systemic responses”.

The design of NAPLAN, say some education sector experts, cements this inappropriate expectation of grade-based performance. While some European schools have already embraced non-graded alternatives, turning that into a reality within the Australian education system would require a complete rethinking of the current Australian Curriculum, as well as a different view of assessments, with students encouraged to take greater responsibility for their own learning pace.

A future of level-based learning

Reducing the increasing number of students currently performing below expected proficiency levels would also need to be addressed – something experts say could not be achieved without addressing the broader issue of socio-educational disadvantage.

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Dr Paul Kidson is senior lecturer in educational leadership at the Australian Catholic University and believes that the concept of levels-based learning would be supported by some teachers – especially in maths, where students required foundational knowledge to underpin their learning.

But sustainable solutions needed to group students according to proficiency, rather than age, would prove challenging in many school settings, with timetable considerations being just one of the components to manage.

“Each subject discipline has its own requirements. In some regard, then, marking some as ‘best’ infers others are not as good, or not able to be delivered satisfactorily. This creates artificial, and in some regards unhelpful, distinctions and competition between different elements of the curriculum. For example, mathematics is a very circular type of curriculum where content on a smaller range of concepts is revisited in increasing depth and complexity. Students currently in primary years do both fractions and geometry, as do students in secondary years, but the complexity of those secondary topics is far greater than in primary years. On the other hand, elements within the creative arts are well-suited to mixed-ability groupings in earlier years yet would benefit from level-based learning for more complex concepts in music or drama throughout secondary years,” Dr Kidson told The Bursar.

“Decisions about what could be delivered in level-based groupings will also vary from school to school, based on the staffing profile, experience, and skills, as well as practical matters such as the availability of learning spaces across the school. It is more complex than content alone.”

Changes to the curriculum are needed

Dr Kidson says decluttering the curriculum, as well as reducing administrative work currently handled by overworked teachers, would help free time needed to enable schools to offer tailored lessons to different skill levels.

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There are three ideas, he says, for initial consideration.

“First, engage with teachers and students (where practicable) for their suggestions. The value of teacher insight is that they are the ones who can see the long-term ‘narrative arc of the curriculum, the direction it is taking,” he told The Bursar.

“Students may not always see this, which is why constructive conversation is needed. Curriculum is always contested, because teachers, like all of us, have a diverse range of views about what is ‘essential’. One interesting approach could be to have a group of teachers audit their current curriculum into ‘essential’, ‘beneficial’, and ‘optional’, then discuss their findings together. This could give some key insights for where to begin,” he says.

To build on the findings of that audit, Dr Kidson says the second idea is to use what we learned through COVID to build platforms that support progression via online resources.

“Beneficial and optional elements of the curriculum could then augment essential class learning through a range of curated online resources, many of which could be self-paced, he says.

What is critical, though, Dr Kidson says, is that teachers are integral to their implementation, based on their knowledge of student progress.

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“Giving students access to online learning resources per se is not the solution – this must be purposeful and meaningful access, based on teachers’ judgement in response to assessment of student progress with essential learning,” he told The Bursar. “Third, these suggestions, however, can only be undertaken in a school culture that is supportive of them, and where resourcing, particularly time, is provided to enable these changes. Too often, changes in policy or practice are not balanced by removal of other requirements on teachers’ time, and the net result is that workload increases, rather than decreases.”

With consultative processes underway on curriculum reform, and teachers encouraged to share their views and to make their voice heard, Dr Kidson says one part of the remaining challenge is that curriculum in Australia is heavily regulated through state and territory variations of the Australian Curriculum.

“Any endeavours to achieve change in this will require policy and regulation changes,” he says.

Two linked positive benefits possible through a level-based approach include enabling students to progress successfully at a rate and stage better suited to their needs.

“Students who are progressing onto new curriculum without having mastered previous knowledge and skills decrease their motivation because they are more likely to become overwhelmed and frustrated by the challenge,” Dr Kidson told The Bursar.

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“Achieving success with learning is at the heart of increased motivation for future learning, so providing opportunities to succeed and progress (without the simplistic and artificial “it’s great that at least you tried your hardest”) can increase the likelihood of ongoing engagement with new knowledge and skill acquisition,” he says.

Positive benefits for students and teachers

Teachers also benefit from spending their time on more focused teaching and learning, rather than creating differentiated learning and assessment for an overly broad range of student needs. This has a positive impact on the amount of time spent on preparation.

“In turn, this can lead to increase in their own energy and motivation. Research is clear that teacher and student motivation are intrinsically linked, so students achieving greater progress can also have a positive benefit to the teachers. This reciprocal relationship benefits both,” he says.

What sits underneath, though, is the cultivation of a positive and respectful relationship between teachers, students, and their parents or caregivers. Structural changes, in and of themselves, cannot deliver all these promises where there is little, or antagonistic, connection between the school and home.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]