Considering the Shergold Review: Opportunities and implications for equity practitioners
Dr Mel Henry and Professor Sarah O’Shea, NCSEHE, Curtin University
Academic achievement is important but not the sole reason for schooling. We need to focus more on preparing the whole person, no matter what career path they choose.
(Shergold, Calma, Russo, Walton. Westacott, Zoellner & O’Reilly, 2020, p. 12)
The Looking to the Future — Report of the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training (the Review), released in June 2020, sets out key findings and recommendations to enhance senior secondary students’ understanding and capacity to transition effectively into work, further education and/or training. Led by Professor Peter Shergold, the Review responds to two recent key government reports into education: 1) the National School Reform Agreement (COAG, 2018, p. 9), which identified the need for a national review of senior schooling as a priority under “Supporting students, student learning and student achievement”; and 2) Gonski et al.’s (2018) report entitled Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, which similarly recommended a “comprehensive, national and independent inquiry” (p.xiii) on senior school education. The resulting report is detailed and comprehensive in its investigation, presenting wide-ranging opportunities to contribute to enhanced transitions from secondary education to university, and beyond. Some of the key opportunities and implications for equity practitioners in higher education outlined in the Review, with particular regard to university outreach (pre-access), access and participation initiatives, are discussed below.
Overall, the Review provides a comprehensive overview and critical analysis of current systems of educational transition and pathways operating within the Australian education system. The authors outline several recommendations for a national approach that will support school students to develop essential life attributes that enable them to become productive members of the community. Eight key outcomes are proposed:
- All students will leave with essential skills to be active and engaged members of civil society.
- All students will leave with a Learner Profile, showcasing their range of skills, knowledge and experiences.
- All pathways will be equally respected, with students encouraged and enabled to pursue excellence regardless of their chosen post-school pathway.
- All students will benefit from informed decision-making, through quality well-informed career guidance.
- All schools will have strong partnerships with industry to facilitate relevant and contextualised career education and work exploration.
- All students will start to prepare their Education Passport, communicating their qualifications, learnings and experiences developed during and beyond secondary school, and aligned to their Learner Profile.
- All students will be provided with equal opportunity for success through student-centred and flexible learning approaches that meet the needs of all students, and ensure all students benefit from educational settings and approaches tailored to their interests and aspirations.
- Government policies will be informed by evidence, making use of big data integration and analysis, and prioritising development of the Unique Student Identifier.
The Review presents a refreshing view of secondary education, redefining the fundamental role of schooling. It highlights the overemphasis on ATAR and preparation for university entrance, and purposefully reframes secondary school as a means to prepare young people for life-long learning, where “Education should be acknowledged as the stepping stone to a fair society” (p.19). In doing so, the Review calls for a more student-centred, whole-of-person, and inclusive perspective of education, which situates all learners in the position of strength and as important contributors to an equitable and productive society.
Importantly, the Review holds student equity at its core. It recognises and calls for formal appreciation of diverse life experiences, equitable guidance and support, and a more inclusive system for assessing/evidencing learner capability. The authors propose a fundamental shift in the role of secondary education, consciously moving away from prioritising pathways and university entrance requirements, to facilitate consistent and quality outcomes for all students, regardless of background or circumstance. For many equity practitioners, the recognition that all young people should be prepared and supported to achieve their goals, regardless of pathway or background, would be welcomed, though not necessarily a new idea. The fact this is stated in the initial pages of a government-commissioned review of senior secondary school pathways, nonetheless, bodes well for the rest of the report, and sets the scene for a more inclusive educational system.
Valuing diverse backgrounds, situations & knowledges relevant to higher education
The Review seeks to reframe the fundamental purpose of secondary education away from preparation for particular post-secondary pathways, to one which seeks to prepare students for life-long learning. Fostering the development of transferable life skills and attributes will facilitate a more equitable playing field and sustained access to opportunity post-secondary education. Valuing diverse experiences, including those beyond the classroom, should translate into a more equitable appreciation of student capability. Positioning education as for the public good, furthermore, serves to counter the deficit narrative that often pervades discussions, and indeed policy, concerning diversity and disadvantage.
Central to the Review’s recommendations is an appreciation for the complexity of the secondary student population, and the need to challenge the ways in which disadvantage is conceived, by reshaping what is valued within these learning environments. A sentiment summed up as follows: “The challenges faced by disadvantaged students should not be seen just through the lens of social deprivation: rather, their capacity to overcome the barriers should be recognised as a positive attribute when assessing their learning capabilities” (Shergold et al., 2020, p17).
Acknowledging the merits of students’ broader capabilities and experiences, a holistic Learner Profile and Lifelong Education Passport are proposed, offering a comprehensive overview of the skills (both academic and non-academic) that students acquire during and alongside their secondary education. The Learner Profile would articulate and evidence the range of skills, knowledges and experiences held at the time of graduation (or when leaving school), including academic results, work experience, volunteering, cultural experiences and personal achievements. It provides “a more wide-ranging view of student achievement, and a more reliable measure of the whole person” (Shergold et al., 2020, p17). Such a profile offers a strengths-based perspective of diversity, which recognises and values experiences beyond the classroom.
The proposed Learner Profile presents a shift in thinking around how learning is demonstrated and the types of knowledges that should be recognised. Learning is not assumed to be confined to a class room. The recommendations offer a more comprehensive understanding of the range of assessable outcomes in secondary school. This understanding is equally situated within an equity framework. Recognising the lived experience of diverse learners shines a spotlight on valuable skills that often go unacknowledged in more formal educational settings. The authors highlight several valuable experiences outside of school, which may contribute to students’ learning, including cultural knowledges, caring skills or volunteering.
‘The experiences gained by a young Indigenous person in a remote community through their rite of passage; the learning that comes from a school student having to take on caring responsibilities for a disabled parent; or the discipline gained from volunteering for a community organisation – all can be of significant value in demonstrating capabilities’.
(Shergold et al., 2020, p. 40)
The Review extends understanding of what constitutes knowledge and learning, incorporating forms of ‘experiential capitals’ (O’Shea, 2018) in Learner Profiles. These profiles would bring together knowledges and qualifications derived from all facets of life, including skills that may have been acquired in households, such as caring or additional family responsibilities. The Review succinctly identifies the limitations of assessing learners solely in terms of formal exams, and identifies that entry into university is overly dependent on ‘point in time’ assessments, leading to rankings such as the ATAR, which do little to showcase the breadth, depth and reach of students’ extra curricula skills sets. Instead, the Learner Profile presents an opportunity to actively showcase the strengths, commitment and resilience of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, reducing potential for systemic, compounded disadvantage and indirect discrimination, associated with assumptions around equal capacity to fulfil extra curricula expectations. Explicitly connecting extra curricula experiences to students’ development as life-long learners and productive members of society, furthermore, removes the onus of justification for reasonable adjustments or special consideration, and reduces the inherent othering of students from under-represented backgrounds in the education system.
Though commendable, it is acknowledged the adoption of a comprehensive Learner Profile will require dedicated effort to ensure its inclusive intent is realised. Equitable support and guidance in preparing these profiles must also be available to ensure students from under-represented backgrounds are not further disadvantaged by granting expanded opportunities for more privileged students to showcase their extracurricular experiences. Likewise, care must be taken not to place further pressure on students by setting unreasonable expectations on their time. Activities such as relaxation, self-care and social interaction, for instance, are also important developmental experiences, though students may find themselves encouraged to neglect these activities in place of those directly applicable to their Learner Profile.
Beyond secondary school, a comprehensive Learner Profile would offer universities a more inclusive and holistic means to select eligible students for course entry. It presents a detailed and inclusive picture of the whole student, supplementing crude and, in some cases, inequitable ranking systems, such as the ATAR (O’Connell, Milligan & Bentley, 2019). Used effectively, Learner Profiles offer a more nuanced and balanced understanding of students’ readiness for higher education. Establishment of a Learner Profile for all Australian school-leavers would provide a valuable source of information for university admissions teams to consider, which may facilitate more equitable access to higher education. The living nature of the Education Passport, which guides and evidences students’ educational journey, furthermore, supports appreciation for non-linear post-secondary pathways, which may be more common for people from disadvantaged and under-represented groups (O’Shea, 2019; Pitman et al., 2016). Effort will be needed, nonetheless, to proactively minimise potential implicit bias in interpreting and assessing such Learner Profiles and Education Passports.
Career and pathway guidance in partnership with university widening participation initiatives
The Review presents particular opportunities for university widening participation initiatives to support secondary students’ career exploration and pathway guidance. Career exploration and pathway guidance is a core component of many university outreach programs, which seek to raise awareness and aspirations toward higher education and associated careers. Based within universities, these programs have direct access to up-to-date and detailed course/pathway information, with capacity to engage with industry partners to offer contextualised career information, alongside an appreciation for the diversity of opportunity for career guidance within schools. As such, university outreach programs are well placed to deliver quality pathway guidance and act as conduits to industry, to supplement school-based activities and assist secondary school students to make informed decisions about their future.
In supplementing pathway and career guidance within schools, university outreach initiatives must also take some responsibility for redressing the perceived duality of post-secondary pathways and the overemphasis on ATAR. Non-ATAR pathways, including vocational education and workplace learning, should be promoted alongside ATAR and higher education opportunities, with all pathways presented as equally valuable, and each serving a particular yet equally valid purpose. Such discussions should also present vocational education itself as a potential pathway into higher education, and a valuable supplement to undergraduate studies that enhances preparation for the workforce; presenting a complementary, rather than competitive view of post-secondary pathways. In engaging secondary students, furthermore, university outreach programs should not exclude students who aren’t already on ATAR pathways, with vocational education students equally likely to benefit from quality information about university.
University outreach programs can also play a valuable role in helping to shift understanding of the role and place of higher education in the wider community. In working with schools, university staff can help to inform teacher, parent and student understanding of diverse career pathways, the changing role of ATAR, and the nature of university qualifications. There may be valuable opportunity, furthermore, for such programs to partner with vocational education providers and industry representatives to actively demonstrate the validity of all pathways and present qualified information about the particular purpose and nature of each pathway.
Enhancing equitable pathways into and beyond higher education
Universities play a key role in assisting senior secondary students to make informed educational decisions, through clear pathway information and exposure to what it is like to study at university. Whether through outreach activities, personalised prospective student course advice, or university websites, there exists significant opportunity for greater clarity and student-centred information about why and how one might apply to university. For those who have chosen to pursue particular pathways, universities (and vocational education providers) can also work closely with secondary schools to prepare students for those pathways. There exists opportunity for university and/or TAFE-based remedial and enabling programs to be offered alongside secondary school, for instance, particularly where students do not meet minimum literacy, numeracy or digital literacy standards. Exposing students to post-school learning environments may also hold particular value in supporting school students to explore opportunities beyond school, and empowering them to make informed decisions about their post-school pathways.
The Review specifically highlights the potential for micro-credentials to offer greater depth and diversity to the schooling experience, with participation in these recognised within school assessment schedules. university outreach and enabling programs could provide the necessary ‘bridge’ for school students to access this type of micro-credentialing, offering the academic literacies or necessary provider knowledge to assist participation. This recommendation is particularly valid in the current COVID-era, where short higher education certificates are already being developed to prepare adults for a post-COVID skilled workforce. Perhaps such certificates could be offered to school students as well, with participation recognised as part of their Learner Profile. University equity practitioners could also work with schools to develop the proposed national Transition from School Program which aims to “trial” and “evaluate” initiatives designed to support “vulnerable and at-risk students as they prepare to leave school” (Shergold et al., 2020, p22). Partnering with higher education equity and outreach areas would bring great insights to such a program and avoid the possibility of ’reinventing the wheel’, as many providers are already proactively engaged with this cohort and supporting the development of essential skills for their post-school journey.
Beyond secondary school, universities also have responsibility to continually guide and support their students to move between pathways, and to make informed decisions about their future. Universities should adopt a ‘wrap around’ approach that provides support and guidance to students from pre-arrival through to graduation, and beyond. Career education and pathway guidance must be available to university students to ensure they remain equipped with unbiased, personalised and up-to-date information upon which to manage their learning and career aspirations. Such guidance may be particularly applicable at critical time points, such as upon course enquiry, selection of units and majors, or consideration of postgraduate studies and/or graduate employment programs, with targeted advice and initiatives offered in various modalities and across diverse student populations.
The value in students making informed decisions to move out of a university pathway must also be recognised by universities as legitimate and sensible. Such decisions, while potentially challenging for an institution’s bottom line, may facilitate a more positive outcome for that individual learner. Recognising the complementary value of different educational pathways, furthermore, means institutions should appreciate the potential long-term value in students leaving university to pursue vocational education or workplace learning, which does not in itself prevent students from benefiting from higher education down the track (e.g. through postgraduate studies). University support for current students, therefore, must equally accept and communicate the value of non-university learning pathways.
The Shergold Review presents a valid, innovative and inclusive opportunity to strengthen secondary education through greater appreciation for the whole student, and collaboration between schools, universities, vocational education providers and industry. Accepting and implementing widespread change in the role of secondary education and diverse pathways, nonetheless, necessitates a widespread cultural shift. It is not just universities who drive the overemphasis on ATAR and higher education pathways. Tertiary Admissions Centres, schools, politicians, parents, employers, the media and students themselves, may all hold and perpetuate perceptions around the value of higher education over other pathways. Widespread dissemination and discussion of this Review, therefore, is highly recommended. Shergold et al.’s comprehensive and well-researched review offers an exciting opportunity to build a more equitable education system that values and supports students from all walks of life, and that will help to build a productive and inclusive workforce.
COAG. (2018). National School Reform Agreement. Canberra: Australian Government. Retrieved from https://uploadstorage.blob.core.windows.net/public-assets/education-au/pathways/national_school_reform_agreement_8.pdf
Gonski, D., Arcus, T., Boston, K., Gould, V., Johnson, W., O’Brien, L., Perry, L., & Roberts, M., (2018). Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. Canberra: Australian Government. Retrieved from https://docs.education.gov.au/documents/through-growth-achievement-report-review-achieve-educational-excellence-australian-0
O’Connell, M., Milligan, S.K. and Bentley, T. (2019). Beyond ATAR: a proposal for change. Melbourne, Victoria: Koshland Innovation Fund. Retrieved from https://www.all-learning.org.au/sites/default/files/resources/beyond_atar_proposal_for_change_all.pdf
O’Shea, S. (2018). Considering the cultural strengths of older first-generation university students. In Bell, A., & Santamaria, LJ. (Eds.) Understanding Experiences of First Generation University Students: Culturally responsive and sustaining methodologies. UK: Bloomsbury Publishing.
O’Shea, S. (2019). Mind the Gap. Exploring the post-graduation outcomes and employment mobility of individuals who are the first in their families to complete a university degree. NCSEHE Research Fellowship Report. Retrieved from https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/publications/post-graduation-outcomes-first-family-university/
Pitman, T., Trinidad, S., Devlin, M., Harvey, A., Brett, M. & McKay, J. (2016). Pathways to Higher Education: The Efficacy of Enabling and Sub-Bachelor Pathways for Disadvantaged Students. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Perth: Curtin University. Retrieved from https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/publications/pathways-to-higher-education-the-efficacy-of-enabling-and-sub-bachelor-pathways-for-disadvantaged-students/
Shergold, P., Calma, T., Russo, S., Walton, P., Westacott, J., Zoellner, D., & O’Reilly, P. (2020). Looking to the Future Report of the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training. Canberra: Australian Government. Retrieved from https://www.pathwaysreview.edu.au/