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Future directions for state education in Queensland: The role of research

Terry Moran
Director-General
Education Queensland

The J.A. Robinson Memorial Lecture 1999[1]


I have two quite different reasons to thank the Queensland Institute for Educational research for inviting me to deliver the 1999 J.A. Robinson Memorial Lecture. In the first instance, the invitation to speak in commemoration of a major figure in Queensland educational research is an honour in its own right. So I thank you for the compliment. In the second instance, the invitation comes at a highly opportune moment for me. It enables me to speak directly to a particularly influential group about what is destined to be a particularly influential project.

I refer of course to the strategy development project Queensland State Education: 2010, which was launched last month by the Premier and the Minister for Education. No doubt most of you will have heard about this project, and those who are subscribers to the department's newspaper Education Views will have received the discussion paper entitled The Next Decade that accompanied the edition of 23 April 1999. As the instigator of the project, I want to use this opportunity to talk to you in general about the reasons for it and then to talk about the kind of public policy research that should underpin the strategy development stemming from the project.

Why would I want to initiate a project to develop a strategy for Queensland state school education? I was well aware that I would be regarded warily by the department, coming as I do after a long association with the vocational education and training sector as a newcomer to school education. Certainly I have views on the issues and the environment for school education that may differ from the views of those who have spent their entire careers in the system.

Inevitably my perspective will differ in some ways because it has been shaped by my own different experiences, in particular the knowledge I have gained in recent years of the issues concerning the training needs of Australian industry on the one hand and Australian youth on the other. But as they say, the onlooker often sees more of the game than the players. I knew some would suspect that because of my background I would be fixated on training and therefore on a particular model of senior schooling, to the exclusion of all else. I want to lay those suspicions to rest immediately by saying that I firmly believe in schooling as a process in which every stage is equally important and all are interdependent. At the same time we must recognise that the linear nature of the schooling process makes it almost inevitable that public attention will focus on the final outcomes for young people entering adult society and the world of work.

I was also well aware that the almost instinctive reaction among many people in Education Queensland would be along the lines of 'Oh God, not another review of education!' They are firmly convinced that the organisation has been hagridden with reviews throughout their careers and in one sense they are right. In the last ten years or so, they have seen:

As you can see, most of these reviews were concerned with issues of organisational structure or management, while two dealt with the management and organisational structure for curriculum development and only one with the content of curriculum.

I do not seek to deny the importance of these topics or to undermine the significance of some of the reforms that have taken place. After all, as chief executive I can hardly dismiss organisation and management as trivial matters. But the basic purpose and aims of schooling in Queensland have not been examined seriously since the report of the 1978-80 Ahern Select Committee, which was itself largely ignored by the Government of the day. The implications for education of major social, economic, and technological trends at global and national levels have remained largely unexplored.

A common problem of large organisations, private as well as public, is that bureaucratic habits become institutionalised. Practices become routines, rarely reviewed, and the keynote is 'We do what we do because that's what we do'.

To say this is not to condemn the individuals in the system. Despite our high-minded statements of commitment to service to the community, it is very difficult for junior clerks in a payroll section or an accounts receivable branch to perceive the nobility of their work and its role in the higher order of things. And in other parts of the organisation, habit and routine make it almost inevitable that the focus will remain on relatively superficial topics - another study of school organisation, another shuffling of squares on the organisation chart, another round of 'busywork' reinventing curriculum materials.

So I hold that there is a need for periodic review of basic purpose. This is not in itself a particularly controversial proposition. In fact the mandated process of annual strategic planning in the Queensland Public Service calls for it. But the danger inherent in the typical public service strategic planning process is that it will be seen largely as a matter of compliance with a Treasury requirement and tied to three year Budget forward estimates. This discourages thinking beyond the immediate concerns of today so that the result tends to be either a glorified operational plan for three years rather than one year, or a mixture of rhetoric and abstractions - goals without measurable outcomes, feel-good vision statements and short-term 'issues' without serious analysis of what needs to be done.

For a fundamental reappraisal of organisational purpose to have any chance of success, therefore, I suggest at least four preconditions are necessary:

In the case of the project Queensland State Education: 2010, I believe we have met these conditions: I do not claim, however, that the discussion paper is the be-all and end-all so far as contextual information is concerned. It does not pretend to be a full-blown academic treatise, but neither is it a superficial piece of gee-whizzery and puffery. It has three main objectives: The drift of students from government to non-government schools is a factor that state school systems around Australia have historically failed to address or to acknowledge openly its adverse implications. This state of affairs stems from two causes.

One cause is a combination of systemic attitudes that accept the drift as somehow inevitable, a kind of force of nature that has been with us since anyone can remember, coupled with a disinclination to take action that smacks of anything as distasteful as competitive marketing. To resist the drift would have required an explicit commitment to public education. Given our love of diversity and choice, it has seldom seemed reasonable to disturb old debates about the central place of public education in our society. There has been no real imperative at the Government level.

The other cause is the ambiguity of state governments' attitudes in the past towards the drift, where their commitment to the ideals of state education has been compromised by the easing of their budgetary load as the total costs of schooling increasingly shift to the Commonwealth through its high subsidies for non-state school students. As non-state schools have demanded extra resources, this has sometimes been at the expense of public education.

However, there are features of public education that we should cherish and whose loss, if we were to allow public education to fall into irreversible decline, would imperil our ideal of the civilised society. At its best, public education inculcates in the vast majority of our young people the core values of our society in ways that avoid the veneer of elitism or exclusivity that can poison some other forms of education. It ensures that wealth and privilege are not the sole gateways to obtaining the knowledge, skills and understandings they will need to function effectively in adult society and the world of work.

But public education is in danger as much from apathy and ignorance as from any active malevolence. The drift in enrolments erodes the funding base, undermines staff morale, and leads eventually to the situation in which the student population is severely skewed to the most disadvantaged social groups. At this point the condition is probably terminal.

We can ignore the trend no longer. There is considerable risk that it may accelerate under the influence of factors such as the abolition of the Commonwealth New Schools policy, the effects of the Enrolment Benchmark Adjustment and the latest Federal Budget funding measures that even more clearly favour growth in the non-government sector.

Non-government schools are adopting more aggressive and sophisticated marketing strategies to gain a greater share of student enrolments. Our teachers and principals know this and many of them are fighting hard at the local level of the individual school to combat the drift. But they are telling us in the current consultations that we need to take action at the system level. Unless the system as a whole adopts positive measures to arrest the trend, the predicted outcome for state schools to become, as one commentator put it, 'holding pens for the disadvantaged' will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Conversely, if our system is seen to be fighting to arrest and reverse the drift, then I have no doubt that the effects on morale will be electrifying. Nobody wants to work for an organisation in decline, but they will take pride in an organisation that has pride in itself.

Earlier I posed the question 'Why would I want to initiate a project to develop a strategy for Queensland state school education?' I see it as having the potential to:

I made the point earlier that the discussion paper is not to be regarded as the be-all and end-all so far as contextual information is concerned. The last but one page in the discussion paper is headed 'The Questions' and identifies thirteen topics to provide a focus for the discussions across the State and a framework for reporting the results. However, we recognised the need for more substantial information to be made available than the discussion paper could accommodate and that is the initial role of the public policy research program.

If you visit our website called 'Listening to the Ground', which is designed to provide news and reports from the Queensland State Education 2010 project, you will find a description of the program. Our intention is to post on that site a research paper on each of the thirteen identified topics. In most instances the papers will be literature searches drawing on existing material, but they will be very helpful to anybody who wants to pursue a topic in more depth.

Let me comment on just two of the topics. One is education and the Queensland economy and it poses the following questions:

All these questions assume the contemporary perspective on education and the economy. Like partners in the tango they are essential to each other, intertwined, sometimes seemingly bent on taking different steps in different directions, but thrilling when the partners are well adjusted to one another.

Let me take another example by raising some of the questions that surround communication and information technology:

These questions confront us with a major and powerful force for change. As Bill Gates says, 'In the next ten years, organisations will change more than in the last 50 years'.

I want now to move beyond the specific range of topics identified in the discussion paper and talk in more general terms about our public policy research needs. We might state them formally as follows:

This is clearly a broader brief than we have embraced in the past and it calls into question the ways in which we have tried to gather strategic information. For the most part, research in education has been reactive and backward-looking in nature, rather than proactive and forward-looking, and it has been undertaken in response to problems or issues that have arisen within the profession. As might be expected, these features are particularly evident in those organisations responsible for the administration of education.

While I recognise that our review, evaluation and performance measurement undertakings have involved some elements of research, they are neither synonymous with, nor a substitute for, the kind of proactive educational research that contributes to organisational policy and decision making. Research efforts have been further fragmented, uncoordinated and lacking in unified statewide directions when the programs of the individual statutory authorities are taken into account. I am thinking, of course, of the Queensland Board of Senior Secondary School Studies; the Queensland School Curriculum Council; and the Queenlsand Board of Teacher Registration.

Policy makers look to educational research to provide information that can be applied to the planning and administration of initiatives for improving the quality of the system and its schools. While the relevance of research information and the reliance on overly-simplistic models to its application have often been questioned, the significant funding for and investment in education requires a reconceptualisation of the kind of knowledge that a system needs.

In the absence of organisationally-generated research information, Education Queensland has been required to use research from studies conducted elsewhere, such as by the education faculties of the universities or by the Australian Council for Educational Research (with which the Queensland Institute for Educational Research is affiliated), or to acquire funds to outsource specific research initiatives. Both strategies have inherent problems, and for various reasons have failed to meet Education Queensland's research information needs.

The past decade has been quite turbulent for education systems, and Queensland is no exception. We have witnessed, among other things:

There are three related implications of these influences for educational research:
  1. in times of uncertainty, there is a greater, not a lesser, need for research;
  2. the kind of research that Education Queensland needs in the future is quite different from what was required in the past; and
  3. research needs to be more timely if it is to have strategic value and impact.
As an organisation, Education Queensland is desperately short of good policy-relevant information on performance and comparisons between systems, in Australia and overseas. In particular, international comparisons are essential strategic information. They have been of little interest to our universities, but they are vital if we are to fully comprehend our comparative performance. We also do not have a good record in meaningful program evaluation, though I believe the longitudinal study of school-based management being carried out for us by the University of Queensland will be an honourable exception.

Let me suggest a list of priorities for research information for Education Queensland:

  1. Research on indicators of organisational performance. There is a need to go beyond the collection of data on educational indicators to the exploration of what links there are among the indicators and how these links can be measured.

  2. More foundational research on school effectiveness. The literature on the effectiveness of schools is extremely complex, with little data derived from Australian schools.

  3. Research on school self evaluation. Given the accountability pressures, and policies on school based management and planning, there is a need for renewed research on what constitutes best practice in monitoring and assessing student and school performance.

  4. Impact of school structure and governance on the outcomes of schooling. The fundamental goal of Education Queensland's school-based management initiatives is the improvement of student learning outcomes. Even though there is a current research project designed to address some of the outcomes of school-based management processes, the research required is very complex and certainly cannot be achieved within the confines of a single project.

  5. Assessment and reporting of student growth. There is a need to develop and test models of monitoring student performance that classroom teachers can employ to measure the growth of students, and that can be used by the school to demonstrate impact and effectiveness.

  6. Transition from school to further education or the world of work. The destination of students on exit from our education system is of prime importance. Research-based information that goes further than simply documenting pathways is required.

  7. Research on the social ou tcomes of schooling. Education Queensland through the Performance Measurement and Review Branch is leading a national project on the Social Outcomes of Schooling.

  8. Curriculum-oriented research that links curriculum standards to student performance. Establishing standards of performance requires a continual cycle of proposition of learning outcomes and empirical evidence through student assessment.

  9. Fundamental research on the nature and structure of schooling. Education throughout the western world is replete with examples of the adoption of educational innovations based on little research evidence. If Education Queensland is to embrace the measurement of 'leading' indicators of organisational performance, then the requisite research work needs to be undertaken to provide a basis for the strategic directions.
If Education Queensland is to be able to make use of this kind of information to undertake research-based policy development, we will need to establish a suite of agreed procedures. Education Queensland has few existing avenues for acquiring, synthesising, collating, presenting and disseminating research data to schools or to those involved in strategic planning.

As the first step in strengthening our ability to pursue the research priorities I have suggested, we have established the Strategic Policy Branch and appointed a number of officers experienced in this work. We have also arranged for a close organisational and physical location of this branch and the Performance Measurement and Review Branch.

Linkages for international collaboration have already been established as a result of a senior officer's attendance at the European Socio-Economic Research Conference, held last month in Brussels. This conference was to introduce the fifth in a series of socioeconomic research frameworks funded by the European Community.

We must recognise that the contexts which impact on educational planning are broad, complex and multi-dimensional. The corollary is that if we are to ensure that research adds optimum value to our strategic planning processes, it is highly desirable that we adopt multi-disciplinary approaches.

This conclusion may sound fairly obvious, but not all researchers take kindly to it. There is a natural human tendency to guard one's turf - in this case, one's area of expertise.

Nevertheless, the multi-disciplinary approach is essential when we contemplate research to underpin high-level social and socio-economic policy development. Certainly this is the view in Europe, as was confirmed at the Brussels conference.

At the conference launch, the Member of the European Commission responsible for Research, Innovation, Education, Training and Youth, Madame Edith Cresson, introduced the Fifth Framework Programme with these words:

The Fifth Framework Programme was structured so that the activities to be implemented under it are defined, not by the traditional division into areas and disciplines, but as a function of the problems to be resolved. (my emphasis)
What challenges await us in the coming years? I will single out three: In concluding, Madame Cresson posed a series of questions which she hoped would underlie discussions at the conference.
How can we exploit this diversity to enable Europe to affirm itself and its values on the international scene, vis-a-vis other powers? To make its mark on the phenomenon of globalisation? To resolve the problems that it is facing? And to gain control of its destiny?
While the florid flavour of French rhetoric may have lost something in translation, the message is clear: get your collective acts together; make sure your work is accessible, not wrapped in jargon; make good use of existing work and don't reinvent the wheel.

Closer to home, but similar in aims, the development of a public policy research program for Education Queensland is intended to provide an improved understanding of the structural changes taking place in Queensland, nationally and internationally, in order to identify ways of managing change and to involve Queensland citizens more actively in shaping their own futures. This will involve analysis of:

This may sound overambitious for a department of education. My response is threefold.

Firstly, I believe we have a responsibility to ensure that as an organisation we are connected with society as a whole. This means more than talking with parents at P&C meetings and with stakeholder representative bodies. It means ensuring that the leadership is capable of giving the organisation strategic direction that is properly informed by, and relevant to, the needs of the community. It means also that the staff of the organisation are sufficiently well informed to be capable of understanding and acting upon the direction. There should be congruity of understanding throughout.

Secondly, the objective of well-informed policy development does not necessarily entail a huge program of original research. Remember that the processes include collaboration within Queensland, nationally and internationally. Nine-tenths of the work will be to find the available research information and to disseminate it within the organisation, with the guidelines: No reinventing of wheels; no jargon; and make it accessible and meaningful.

Thirdly, our responsibility to connect with society is paralleled by a responsibility to bring an informed influence to bear on the deliberations of government. Much of the collaborative research work at the State level will be with other Government departments, including the central agencies. Our role will not be that of mere passive recipients of data but of active participants in jointly developed submissions and discussion papers. Our research activity will be not only multi-disciplinary and multi-agency but multi-influential.

I am sure I do not have to convince anyone here of the importance of research in the global knowledge economy, but I will close with a statement that appears in the Announcement and First Call for Submissions Brochure for the Transdisciplinarity Conference, to be held in Zurich, February-March 2000. It should probably be on a plaque on everyone's desk.

Knowledge is the only unlimited global resource. The quality of life of present and future generations depends largely on our ability to produce and implement knowledge relevant to our needs.

Endnote

  1. The J.A. Robinson Memorial Lecture is an annual event sponsored by the Queensland Institute for Educational Research (QIER) in memory of the Queensland educational leader Dr J.A. Robinson. The 1999 lecture took place on 19 May 1999.

Author details: Terry Moran
Director-General of Education, Education Queensland
PO Box 33, Brisbane Albert Street Qld 4002
Email: terry.moran@qed.qld.gov.au

Please cite as: Moran, T. (1999). Future directions for state education in Queensland: The role of research. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(2), 159-172. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/moran.html


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URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/moran.html