In 2009 Peter Hutton, then the principal of a struggling state school in the suburbs of Melbourne, decided the only way to arrest falling enrolments was to change the way students learnt.
So Hutton did something which, following the release of the second Gonski report nine years later, is being treated as radical.
Hutton abolished year groupings at the school, switching Templestowe College from a traditional “horizontal” structure where students learn based on age groupings to a “vertical” one, where 15-year-olds work alongside 17-year-olds based on their own subject choices and level of ability.
The benefits, Hutton says, were dramatic. Enrolments lifted from 300 students in 2010 to 1,009 in 2017, while parent satisfaction and student engagement numbers all rose dramatically. Other unexpected benefits also appeared. Hutton says bullying disappeared from the school in part because competition was taken out of the learning equation.
Templestowe’s story has increased relevance following businessman David Gonski’s call for an end to the “industrial model” of school education and a shift to a curriculum based on “learning progressions” independent of year or age groupings.
The states, unions and federal Labor’s education spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, have all said that while the call for change is welcome, the increased focus on individual learning proposed in the report will mean the commonwealth will have to lift funding.
But Hutton says the opposite is true. He says doing away with year groupings increases efficiency because teachers are no longer required to waste time trying to teach a rigid curriculum to a class full of students at varying developmental levels.
It is referred to as “differentiated” teaching in education circles and Hutton says it is a deeply flawed concept.
“It’s well supported by research that if you take the top and bottom achieving 10% of kids out of a class you still have an academic span of around five to six years in the middle of most classrooms,” Hutton told the Guardian. “How can one teacher possibly be expected to differentiate to that extent?
“Differentiation is something we in the teaching profession have put out there to placate parents [and] on a good day you can do it if you’ve given up your weekend to plan a lesson, but when push comes to shove you teach to the middle and that’s the reality.”
But it is not enough to abolish year levels. Hutton points out that simply replacing one level of stratification with another based on ability would formalise the stigma attached to students who find themselves in remedial classes.
He says the way to avoid that is to move to an elective curriculum, where students are given responsibility for their own learning. At Templestowe, Hutton allowed students to choose subjects based on their own areas of interest and gave them a broader remit to move through the curriculum at their own speed.
That, he says, is also more financially efficient because it allows schools to run classes based on need.
“You can basically just run the electives that are financially viable and it frees up teaching resources so that there is greater choice for students,” he said. “Rather than having to run two half-empty year 9 and 10 drama classes, you can run one and redeploy the extra teacher to do theatre studies.”
Hutton ended his time at Templestowe last year and now heads up the Future Schools Alliance, an education consultancy firm that is in the process of helping another 50 schools across Australia and New Zealand to roll out his model.
And while he thinks the Gonski panel has gotten some things right, he is deeply critical of the review’s terms of reference, which explicitly called for strategies to “improve student outcomes and Australia’s national performance, as measured by national and international assessments”.
He said that the focus on literacy and numeracy measures had a detrimental impact on education and said international rankings such as Pisa were “the Olympic Games of education”.
“It’s an overly simplistic measure because politicians are obsessed with it because they just want to stand on the podium but it’s just not going to happen,” he said.
“Kids aren’t widgets, you can’t tweak them until you get the results you want. We only ever used to be higher up because Pisa measured a smaller group that didn’t include Asian nations.
“We’re never going to catch up to countries like Singapore and we shouldn’t try to.
“The irony is that countries such as China all look at Australia and laugh at us trying to move up the Pisa rankings while they look back at us trying to imitate our creativity and innovation.”