The ACT Government has backed an expert panel’s call to dismantle its ‘highly autonomous’ public school system and implement a system-wide shift to literacy and numeracy instruction that aligns with the science – but one expert says the messaging for teachers and school leaders remains somewhat cloudy. 

Jessica Del Rio, researcher and Government and Public Finance Lead at Equity Economics, has welcomed the findings of the Government-commissioned inquiry and said the report has excellent recommendations which should be implemented immediately.

She acknowledged that education is a difficult environment to shift practice and there is a well-known research to practice gap, not just in the ACT but across school systems around the world.

The reform commitment was “20 years overdue” for a number of jurisdictions in Australia, Del Rio said. 

“These recommendations … are really not very different to the 2005 [National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy] – and there’s been no shortage of reviews from experts calling for reform of the ACT education system. 

“So, there can’t be any delay in acting on these observations from this recent inquiry,” she warned. 

Previous research by Equity Economics has already flagged that a high variance in instructional approaches to teach reading used by ACT public schools meant too many students were ‘instructional casualties’ within schools still wedded to following discredited balanced literacy approaches. 

Another Equity Economics report examined the literacy performance of all states and territories and found that the ACT and Victoria were the worst performers when it came to implementing evidence-based practices at scale. 

Last year the Directorate’s own annual report found there was “more to do” to close the widening learning gap between disadvantaged students and their peers across the system, putting the jurisdiction’s equity gap of 58 NAPLAN points in reading, and 53 points in numeracy, down to the “sustained duration” of the pandemic. 

At the time, Education Minister Yvette Berry did not respond directly as to whether the Directorate would be looking to bring in system-wide instructional change for teachers, telling reporters it was still unclear exactly why less advantaged children were slipping further behind.

This latest inquiry put forward eight recommendations, which the Government have supported in principle. 

Among these are establishing a system-wide model of curriculum implementation, teaching, assessment and professional learning, to achieve greater consistency across schools. 

“The Directorate should develop a consistent approach to teaching in ACT public schools that aligns to an evidence-informed teaching framework, with quality professional learning and coaching,” the report states. 

But the report’s take on what constitutes ‘evidence-informed’ teaching is contradictory in parts, Del Rio said. 

“I think that the report is 90 per cent of where it needs to [be] in terms of findings and recommendations. 

“I think that the report is stronger when it comes to the recommendations on literacy than it is on numeracy. And there are some elements within the report that are a bit contradictory in terms of the messages that they’re giving,” she noted. 

 Del Rio estimates $92 million will be needed over four years in order to make the ACT "a world leader" in literacy education. 

In it’s recommendations for numeracy, the report shows there’s “still a little bit of cognitive dissonance around whether explicit instruction works in favour of inquiry-based learning,” Del Rio suggested. 

“[This] will make it a little bit difficult when it comes to implementation, to reconcile some of the conflicting messages, which you can also see in some elements of the report around literacy.”

Among the ‘evidence-informed’ literacy teaching approaches listed in the report are cooperative and collaborative learning, differentiation, guided inquiry, self-regulation and metacognitive strategies.

Last year EducationHQ highlighted concerns over metacognition’s validity as a learning tool, with one US academic deeming it a “sprawling and nebulous construct”, which makes its “pedagogical value dubious from the outset”.

Dr Greg Ashman, author and deputy principal at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, has also argued that metacognition is effectively a “latter day excuse for educational progressivism”. 

With regards to collaborative learning, UNSW Sydney’s Emeritus Professor John Sweller has contended that having students collaborate in small groups on tasks was commonly seen to be a valuable learning tool – but this was not necessarily the case.

“They can learn more easily, more quickly, by the teacher actually standing there and telling them, ‘Look, this is what you need to know, this is how you do this, this is what this means’. It’s explicit teaching,” he said. 

The report recommends scrapping the use of predictable readers to teach young children decoding and blending skills, but says these can be used “only after decoding capabilities have been well established”.

It also suggests running records should be discontinued as a means of assessing learning progress, but schools should allow for their use as “a formative tool to understand student reading strategies in a way that complements other rigorous and reliable testing tools”.

Del Rio said there needs to be “real clarity” around “what needs to discontinue, what’s based on science and what methods aren’t”. 

The expert panel was made up of four academics from Australian universities, and one executive director from the NSW Department of Education. 

Moving forward, Del Rio would like to see the Government follow the lead of Tasmania and bring in a group of expert advisors to oversee the implementation. 

“Tasmania has set up an oversight committee for their review, which includes representation from the Grattan Institute, from AERO, people with lived experience. 

“And I think that a similar model is really going to be called for here in the ACT, because we are such a small jurisdiction – and we know that we need to get in outside experts, including academics, who are across the science on cognitive learning and literacy and numeracy.”

Work is now due to begin on designing a four-year implementation plan, with principals invited to be a part of the process. 

The shift will be no small effort to pull off, Del Rio warned. 

“This is the beginning of a change, but certainly not the end,” she said. 

“I think we should recognise that these aren’t small changes, they’re really significant, and they’re going to require a significant investment by the government, which Equity Economics estimates will be in the order of around $92 million over four years, in order to make the ACT a world leader when it comes to literacy.”