What is the Melbourne Declaration?
In 2008, the Melbourne Declaration was signed by every Australian Education Minister at the time, becoming the basis of the Australian Curriculum and directing the trajectory of Australian education and its lasting impact on Australian schools and students. In November 2018, ten years on from the initial signing of the Declaration, Federal Education Minister The Honourable Dan Tehan MP announced that the Declaration would be updated in order to “continue improving student outcomes”.
The Declaration set out two main goals in 2008:
- the promotion of equity and excellence in Australian schools
- that all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.
Through these two goals, the Declaration articulates the notion that a better educated population supports “the nation’s social and economic prosperity” as well as “position[ing] young people to live fulfilling, productive and responsible goals”. The Declaration was also accompanied by the MCEETYA four-year plan (2009-2012) that directed state governments as to how they should work towards fulfilling the Declaration.
Has the Melbourne Declaration Been Effective?
In March 2018, the report titled “Through Growth and Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools”, and known as “the Gonski Report”, was released. The Report provided in-depth research on the quality of Australian student achievement and school performance over recent years.
Due to the abstract nature of the Declaration’s goals, it is somewhat difficult to quantify the progress made in the last ten years. However, the scope of the Gonski Report allows us to shed some light on the progress of Australian school systems during the era of the Declaration.
The Gonski Report ultimately determined that, while there have been academic improvements across varying student demographics, there are still significant disparities between the learning outcomes of students from differing economic backgrounds. Notably, it found that students with low socio-economic backgrounds are less likely “to have growth mindsets” oriented towards achieving higher academically. This was further supported by the fact that there still remains a large gap in academic performance between children of parents with little/no education and children of highly-educated parents. Therefore, while there have been some improvements, the Declaration’s goal of progress towards educational equality is yet to be realised.
In addition to this, on page 6 of the Gonski Report, it noted general problems with the falling quality of education across Australia. It presented data from PISA results between 2003 and 2015 that indicates a decline in Australia’s academic performance in comparison to other countries. Given that this time period significantly overlaps with the ten years that the Declaration has been in action, it is difficult to point to any progress towards the goal that “all young Australians become successful learners”.
Why Has the Melbourne Declaration Been Ineffective?
Over the past ten years that the Melbourne Declaration has been in effect, the world has undergone significant and rapid change. This has inevitably affected the nature of the workforce, the direction of the education system and ultimately, the way in which young people are educated and assessed. In an article in The Conversation, Don Carter suggests that a focus on the following four elements in the Melbourne Declaration update would assist to create relevant, adaptable goals:
- a greater emphasis on soft skills
- a strengthening of critical thinking skills
- a re-think of the ways that teachers assess student learning in the classroom
- closer attention to the language we use when talking about education.
One of the primary global changes in the past 10 years has been the developing abstractness of the workforce. Between 1986 and 2016, non-routine occupations became a fast-increasing proportion of Australia’s workforce. In addition, with so much information and data now available from the internet, teachers cannot just focus on content-based learning. They still teach but they tend to help students to become self-directed learners. There is still a core component that must be taught, but teachers now guide children how to use information effectively. Both of these factors indicate that education should make a departure from strictly content-based learning and move towards widely applicable skills. Of course, these are ideas that have been implemented in schools, encouraging a large push towards STEM-oriented degrees and professions in order to produce technologically-adept graduates who can adapt to a changing world. However, it would be hugely beneficial to couple this with a focus on soft-skills and critical thinking.
Soft skills are those skills of an interpersonal nature that are not specific to a particular job. Critical thinking refers to the concept of analytical thinking that leads to the formation of a critically-assessed judgment. Both sets of skills are becoming increasingly important in a world where occupations are highly dynamic, as they ensure that the students go on to become adaptable ‘learners’ in any situation, rather than having to rely on pre-existing knowledge.
How Can the Melbourne Declaration be Implemented Effectively into Schools?
When the Melbourne Declaration was released, it was accompanied by a four-year action plan that instructed state governments in relation to how to achieve the goals of the Declaration. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) was also established, in order to manage the nation’s professional education standards. Despite these efforts, it has been difficult to translate the abstract language of the goals into definitive milestones for which schools may aim. Moving forward, perhaps it would be helpful to create a stronger relationship between organisations such as AITSL and schools in order to ensure that schools know how to comply with professional national standards, and therefore further the goals of the Declaration.
Furthermore, the Declaration has a strong focus on creating intelligent, successful and driven individuals who contribute to the wider Australian community. However, in 2016, a record low of 38 per cent of Year 10 students was deemed to be proficient in the NAPLAN civics test. Additional support or resources devoted to these aspects of learning may aid in developing a more holistic educational experience. If one of the goals of the Declaration has been egalitarian education, avenues such as pastoral care can become increasingly important in creating “growth mindsets” among students of all backgrounds.
Looking to the Future
Education has always held an undeniably transformative power, and this has meant that schools hold huge amounts of influence over the kind of people that will form the future adult population. The significance of this role creates an even stronger onus to ensure that that the Declaration is updated to be clear, relevant and adaptable, as this will be the future of Australian students. The best preparation that can be given to these students is to ensure that they are wholly-rounded people, ready to adapt to a highly fluid career-scape, and hopefully this can be achieved through compliance with, and implementation of, an updated Melbourne Declaration.