Big Ideas From Little Minds

Robyn Grace, The Age‘s Education Editor, has a wide-ranging article today, on how to fix Australia’s education system. Grace’s article is titled,

Abolish the ATAR, make teachers repeat: The big ideas to shake up our education system

Grace’s article quotes the usual Smart People: Pasi Sahlberg, John Hattie, Geoff “too much basics” Masters, and so on. These go-to clowns suggest a number of old and new ways to paint the deckchairs.

We can’t be bothered thinking hard about this drive-by pontification. If anybody believes that some suggestion in the article might make more than an iota of difference we’ll give it some thought. Otherwise, we’ll go back to betting on the football.

UPDATE (24/09/23)

Greg Ashman has undertaken the work that we declined, and has responded in detail to Grace’s clown posse. Greg’s Substack article is here.

20 Replies to “Big Ideas From Little Minds”

  1. I’ll comment on one of the “big ideas”.

    “Another idea is to increase class sizes slightly to allow teachers more time for professional learning and preparation.”

    What a moronic suggestion. More students = more work. Were any of these “big ideas” run past teachers in the trenches? Or are they just thought bubbles from knuckleheads who live in the magic faraway tree? Whatever time might be created would almost certainly be taken away with the extra administrative demands. In fact, I think you’d end up with less time.

    “Research suggests that small changes in class sizes do not significantly affect student learning.”

    I wonder what affect it has on teacher retention?
    How small is “small”? I’ve seen – first hand – that reducing class sizes from 25 to 20 makes a big difference.

    Another article written by someone who hasn’t done their due diligence, knows nothing about the reality of teaching, and is happy to provide free advertising for these academic boneheads. Put all these boneheads in the classroom for 2 years as full time teachers and then let’s see what they have to say.
    (That’s also one of my big ideas for solving the teacher shortage).


        “Education experts in Australia have proposed several radical ideas to improve the country’s education system. One suggestion is to abolish the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), a ranking system used by universities to select students. New Zealand abolished its tertiary entrance rankings in 2004, resulting in higher high school retention rates and improved student outcomes. Another idea is to increase class sizes slightly to allow teachers more time for professional learning and preparation. Research suggests that small changes in class sizes do not significantly affect student learning. Experts also recommend implementing looping, a practice where teachers stay with the same students for multiple years. This approach has been found to improve student-teacher relationships and academic achievement. Other suggestions include streamlining curricula to focus on deep conceptual understanding rather than memorization of facts, incorporating gaming into the curriculum to enhance student engagement, and establishing an independent body to review and evaluate curriculum materials to ensure high-quality instruction.”

        1. Maybe I’m drunk, but I simply can’t see that paragraph in either the Age version or the SMH version you linked. How many paragraphs down?

          Of course I see that the ideas are there, and are nuts. But I’d still like to first get the quote sorted before responding.

          1. You’re probably not drunk. I tried to get around the paywall (I’ve used up my free quota of articles for the month) and thought I’d accessed the article (or at least the first paragraph or two) through a backdoor. Maybe the back door was only a summary of the article.

            In which case (and my mistake), the quotes aren’t from the article but are someone’s summary of the article.

              1. OK. I gather though that increasing class sizes slightly (“say by two to three students” *) to allow teachers more time for professional learning and preparation was suggested in the article. So surely it is worth discussing?

                * Quoted from the Grattan Institute

                This idea appears to have come from the Grattan Institute,:

                How to give teachers more time to prepare well for class

                as a result of a survey. The fine print to the survey says “answers to question about moving to larger classes are from primary school teachers only”. (Does the article mention this?)
                Furthermore, there is no indication of how many teachers were surveyed and how those teachers were chosen.

                Greg Ashman suggests that the idea is reasonable but gives no reasons for this view. I think the idea is dumb, at least in the secondary school. In my opinion whatever time might be created would almost certainly be taken away with the extra administrative demands. In fact, I think you’d end up with less time.

                1. Plenty of things in the article are worth discussing (i.e. ridiculing), but it is too far removed to respond to your comments based upon a summary of the article.

  2. The “Abolish the ATAR” section is weird. The first time I read it, it just seemed wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the wrongness. Then re-reading it, I became more confused; I think it’s just very poorly reported, and there are multiple arguments / claims being thrown together in a confusing way.

    Firstly, it’s not even clear to me who is actually arguing to abolish the ATAR. Hattie does not say, nor is he indirectly quoted as saying, that the ATAR should be abolished. At most, he makes some claims about the negative impacts of the ATAR; and perhaps it’s implied by his children attending NZ schools after national tertiary entrance rankings were abolished – although, perhaps it’s the reporter’s view that the ATAR should be abolished, and they are leaning on Hattie’s biography.

    But that aside, to the extent I can discern an argument (or arguments) for abolishing the ATAR, it (they) seems very weak

    (1) The first seems to be that the ATAR contributes to inequality in the school system, since schools can advertise highest ATARs, percentage of ATARs over 90, etc. and this attract parents (especially wealthy parents). No evidence is presented for this, but it passes the pub test. Nevertheless, I don’t think removing the ATAR will do much about this inequality. Wealthy schools (with high achieving students) will find other ways to advertise their student results – percentage of students admitted to the most prestigious universities / courses, for one. Not to mention the unquantifiable, but still real, prospect of your son / daughter attending the same school as the scions of the rich and powerful.

    (2) Another argument is that the ATAR distorts the subjects students choose. To the extent that this occurs, it doesn’t overwhelmingly favour the “traditional academic” subjects – a lot of students will pick less prestigious subjects that are perceived as “easier” to help achieve a higher ATAR – ie. general maths, health & human development, etc.

    (3) Third argument: a significant minority of students do not complete year 12 (the reporting here is particularly poor, since it’s unclear what it means to “not complete” year 12 – get a VCE but don’t sit exams? not get a VCE certificate? not get either a VCE or VCAL certificate?) What exactly does this have to do with the ATAR?

    I’m not going to die on the hill defending the ATAR. But if we’re going to abolish it, we should do so for the right reasons, and we should acknowledge that we’d be giving up on some good things about it (ie. when it comes to allocating a scarce resource, namely admission to tertiary education, it’s efficient, and it’s fairer than many of the proposed replacements like learner profiles and interviews).

    Really, the main thrust of this section seems to be that the final years of high school is not suitable for a significant minority of students. I’m happy to accept this, and that we should aim to do better. But how exactly is abolishing the ATAR meant to help with schools providing a better level of education for these students? This seems more about providing schools with sufficient resources to support students who otherwise want to develop their knowledge / skills, but may struggle with a typical school / classroom environment and routine; providing teachers with appropriate training and resources and time to support their students; designing and implementing a good variety of courses for a wide range of student needs / interests, and so on.

    The ATAR really just seems to be a bit of an easy target because of its association with wealthy private schools and the marginalisation of a significant minority of students, even though it’s not the direct cause of them, and its elimination wouldn’t solve those problems.

    1. Re: Argument (1). ATAR does not contribute to inequity. Resourcing etc. contributes to inequity. And yes, schools will always find a way to advertise (misrepresent) why they’re better than everyone else.

      Re: Argument (2). I have found the opposite. Students choose subjects with high scaling because they think it will boost their ATAR.

      Re: Argument (3). Not finishing implies no ATAR. But it’s not an iff. No ATAR does NOT imply not finishing. I agree that “not complete” requires a clear definition.

      Unscored VCE is an option for students (that has significantly increased in popularity over the last few years). In that sense the ATAR has been abolished where appropriate for several years.
      I would have thought that any argument for the global abolishment of something would include what it gets replaced with. I haven’t heard any good suggestions.

    2. There are only three possibilities:

      1) Universities use something like the ATAR for admission to serious university studies;

      2) Universities adopt some American type system, (a) with or (b) without an SAT-type test, for admission to serious university studies;

      3) Universities give up on serious university studies.

      At the moment, all of these seem possible, particularly since universities are keen on Option 3. Anybody who thinks rejecting Option 1 for Option 2 will be *less* beneficial to rich kids is out of their mind.

      1. There’s also the system where universities have their own entrance exams. I think most universities in Asia do or used to do this.

        1. Thanks, Joe. Yes, 2(c). But there’s no way around it: you either assess people ready for serious uni or you don’t. If you do, then the only further question is how fair and accurate is the assessment.

          I don’t trust the ATAR, because VCAA and VTAC are arrogant and phenomenally incompetent. But I trust even less some vague “something else” proposed by a balloon fart like Hattie.

  3. In 2020, around 61.9% of domestic undergraduate university offers are reported as non-ATAR/non- Year 12.

    The figure has been fairly constant over recent years.

    Sources: Undergraduate applications, offers and acceptance. 2021.

  4. So… universities are giving up on the ATAR in around (sorry, I had a bit of a giggle at this choice of words…) 61.9% of cases so schools should follow?

    I’m not entirely sure of the point being made here, am I on the right track…?

    Universities dropped a few prerequisites over time and we all know the impact that had on enrolments in some subjects. So… is this something that is probably going to happen and we all just have to go along with it?

    Are study scores going too? If not, each university could quite easily calculate their own version of an ATAR for each student who applies. Maybe NSW Extension 2 Mathematics could be scaled up relative to Specialist in Victoria (and, by extension, everywhere else in Australia).

    1. The statistics that I quoted suggest to me that the ATAR ranking does not play the dominating role in getting to university as is often portrayed.

      1. Yes, I accept that premise. I reject the implication (which you were not making, but others may) that universities are not looking at numerical data on students when deciding admission.

        The ATAR may well be flawed because of how it is calculated. This does not stop universities from ranking students in some other way, that is basically an ATAR but only applies to students who apply to a specific institution.

        The issue with statements such as “X% of students were accepted into universities/post school destinations on metrics other than the ATAR” is that it does not actually say what metrics were used (and I suspect it is very different depending on the admitting institution).

        In short: I don’t see it as particularly meaningful nor significant that 70% of students were made non-ATAR offers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 128 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here