Education Department boss Mark Scott concedes the system needs work.
Education Department boss Mark Scott concedes the system needs work.

Public school standards slip across NSW

Fewer students are going to class, completing their HSC or landing jobs after leaving school, according to a new report that reveals the stagnating state of public education in NSW.

Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott has conceded the performance of public schools needs to improve, and has vowed to turn the results around by offering new vocational subjects, hiring better new teachers, improving training for principals and scrutinising school results more closely.

Hunters Hill High School student Nelson Lanfear, 14. Picture: David Swift
Hunters Hill High School student Nelson Lanfear, 14. Picture: David Swift

The number of senior students who complete Year 12 has fallen for the second year running to about 72 per cent, which is worse than 2013 levels, according to the NSW Department of Education annual report.

Only one in three secondary students turned up to school at least 90 per cent of the time last year. Both primary and secondary classroom attendance rates fell marginally between 2018 and 2019, despite truancy officers paying personal visits to 9099 students who regularly wagged school.

The schools boss said the curriculum was outdated and in urgent need of new vocational subjects for would-be tradies who lose interest or drop out because they think the HSC is only important for students who aspire to study at university.

"We recognise we need more rigorous, relevant and engaging vocational education subjects of high quality for students who may not aspire to university," Mr Scott said.

"Back when I finished school just 30 per cent of students completed Year 12, and they were only the students who aspired to university.

"We now expect all students to complete the HSC, and it is a fair criticism to say schools have not changed enough to reflect the very different school population in senior secondary years.

"Most educators would concede for too long vocational education has been the poor relation - and that goes all the way back in history to when the only students that completed Year 12 were those who wanted to go to university.

"We need to be able to demonstrate to students the investment in their time in their mid-teens and beyond is still a terrific investment in their education, earning potential and future life plans."

Hunters Hill High School student Nelson Lanfear, 14, is proof that when students find their subjects interesting and engaging they will attend school enthusiastically.

The Year 9 student has a near-perfect attendance record, which he credits to the freedom afforded by his teachers to pursue subjects and course material he finds most interesting, such as commerce and engineering.

"My school gives me quite a bit of free rein to explore subjects and find my areas of interest," Nelson said.

"That always prepares me for the real world, because I have to rely on myself more to keep learning."

Aspiring to study at university keeps Nelson engaged in school because his marks will determine course prospects.

The report says fewer early childhood education services ‘meet’ or ‘exceed’ national quality standards. Picture: iStock
The report says fewer early childhood education services ‘meet’ or ‘exceed’ national quality standards. Picture: iStock

School leavers are increasingly unlikely to learn a trade or land a job, even though the working-age population with Certificate III qualifications has increased in NSW.

Tradies are steadily losing confidence in vocational education as a way to train the next generation of workers.

NSW employer satisfaction with training dropped by almost 10 per cent between 2011 and 2018.

Mr Scott promised curriculum architects would work closer with tradies to design subjects that teach students real-world skills.

Key to the subject revamp will be the hotly anticipated NSW Curriculum Review, which Mr Scott hinted could land within weeks.

A national review of pathways into work, further education and training will help the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) modernise its vocational offering.

"We want to work with industry to ensure they feel students going on to do vocational education at the end of their schooling are well prepared by vocational education at the school level," Mr Scott said.

There is a strong appetite for TAFE to be more involved in setting up or running vocational classes, either in schools or off campus.

A new school comparison database - only available to school principals and the department - monitors students' performance on attendance, student engagement, performance and improvement in NAPLAN results.

The database offers detailed analysis between schools, which will allow the department to more easily identify underperforming schools and work out why the better-performing schools are excelling - regardless of how wealthy families are.

University graduates wanting a job as a teacher in a state school must now have a credit that is average or higher in their degree, pass psychometric tests, undertake a one-on-one behavioural interview, and pass a literacy and numeracy test introduced by the federal government in 2017.

But Mr Scott said the education department was working on a new way of filtering new recruits by analysing the common traits shared by the best-performing young teachers and only hiring applicants with similar characteristics.

The School Leadership Institute to train and identify future principals is in its second year, which Mr Scott said would help principals focus on curriculum planning, student progress and teaching quality, rather than being expected to learn on the job.

The education department annual report also revealed less than half of all Aboriginal students (45 per cent) completed the HSC, which has not changed since 2013.

On the issue of poor Aboriginal student retention rates, Mr Scott issued a full mea culpa, labelled it "disappointing and unsatisfactory", and said there would be more mentoring for Aboriginal students in the early and middle years of secondary school when they were typically deciding to drop out.

Just 40 per cent of teachers are satisfied with the flexibility of their working arrangements, but this is the one area Mr Scott doesn't plan to improve.

"Teachers can work from home during the school holidays but there cannot be the same flexibility for teachers to work flexibly during the school week," he said. "Our teachers need to work at school while kids are there."

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