Australia it is time we expected a little more from our students

Jesse Whelan
6 min readMay 18, 2020


Image credit: Melbourne child psychology

Welcome to Flightworld

Imagine the following situation.

You enrol in pilot school and begin your training. The first module involves learning the basic theory about flying. After spending a few months studying it is time to take the theory test. You get 45%, a fail. No worries, at least you tried and anyways it has been 3 months so the syllabus says that you need to move onto the next module → flight simulator training.

During simulator training you learn all about the different controls and instruments of your plane. You find everything confusing and it is really difficult to multitask. After a while you improve. Taking off and flying are pretty good but you always seem to crash during landing. When it comes time for the simulator exam you crash again. No worries, it is now halfway through the course and so onto the final module → flying for real.

Time to take command of a real plane. During your first flight things are going well. You were able to take off despite a bit of extra wind and once in the air things settle down. A real shame for you and the instructor that you never did manage to land…

If that story seems ridiculous, well it should. We would never allow people to get behind the wheel of a plane or a vehicle without demonstrating the right level of confidence. You cannot proceed to the next step with satisfying certain criteria.

Yet when it comes to K12 schooling it’s a different story.

Education needs some minimum standards

In Australia we don’t have a system of setting hurdles to move from one year to the next. Sit in class for 12 months and you’ll automatically progress to the next grade, regardless of performance. Occasionally, students repeat for behavioural or social reasons yet rarely for academic reasons. There’s no minimum literacy, numeracy or other academic requirements to demonstrate when a student is ready to advance. Where standards exist they are guidelines not hurdles. Given this, it is little wonder that around 40% of Australian students are below minimum standards in PISA.

Percentage of students achieving the National Proficient Standard — ACER PISA 2018: Australian students’ performance

It is no surprise that many Australian students have significant gaps in their literacy and numeracy. Through my own education support organisation I see many students who have significant gaps in literacy and numeracy. Students in year 6 or 7 struggle with multiplication tables and add or subtract using their fingers. It’s very hard to move on to more advanced concepts when you are spending significant mental effort trying to do basic arithmetic. Similarly, we find many kids struggling in English and humanities subjects because they cannot interpret what they are reading. They don’t understand the difference between nouns and verbs, singular and plural, and present, past, and future tenses. They can’t read unknown words.

Without these minimum hurdles and expectations we run an education system where we simply hope that students learn. If they learn enough by the end of the year “great” but if they don’t “oh well, too bad”. Expecting children to do advanced work when they don’t possess the fundamental skills is unfair. Schools that put students into higher grades where they are likely to fail are unjust.

Hurdle systems are common in sport and music

Compare Australia’s education approach to the grading system that many martial arts use or that you see in music. Karate or Taekwondo use a belt system to show the level of mastery of each student. Karate students start with a white belt. To progress to the yellow belt they must pass an examination. There are no free lunches; if you fail you stay at your current belt level.

It is similar when progressing through the eight grades of a musical instrument. To advance to the next grade students must pass an examination. If society accepts setting firm standards in these pursuits why not for school education?

Unfortunately in Australia, and in many western nations, talking about academic performance is taboo. Yet in sport we don’t have the same message. We say well if you can’t hit a backhand properly or you can’t kick a ball that well, practice and you’ll improve. Kids who are really good go to the top teams while kids whose skills are not yet as good go into lower teams. Kids then move up teams as their skills improve. Telling a kid their kick is not up to scratch and needs work doesn’t bother many parents; saying your kid is not up to their grade level in maths or science does. Perhaps that is because many people still believe our intellectual abilities are fixed despite what advances in neuroplasticity research tell us.

It is time to set minimum standards in our schools…

I propose that our schools move to a series of minimum standards required to move from one year to the next. The content of this assessment should be a smaller subset of what students learn during the year. Not everything we learn is fundamental to future learning. For example understanding grammar rules may be in. Remembering the year a particular event happened may not.

In the short term it is more important to set and maintain some minimum standards than to get them exactly right. I foresee stakeholders getting lost in a debate about what should be in these tests with nothing getting done. Just look at the endless calls for curriculum reviews! Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. To avoid this each state and sector could start with their own set of tests. These can be iterated upon regularly. Over time these tests could be standardised.

…but allow multiple attempts, like getting a drivers licence

Another concern from parents and teachers is around high stakes testing such as NAPLAN and the HSC. Personally I’m not a fan of most current HSC exams. Yet my issue has nothing to do with stress, which is something these students will need to deal with at university and later at work. My issue is that closed book exams are not a good representation of life in many cases. There are few cases in life where you won’t be able to consult a reference book or Google. Having facts in memory certainly saves time yet the focus should be on problem solving.

A good test simulates the environment in which the skill or knowledge will be used.

Students should be given multiple opportunities to sit these tests to demonstrate their competencies. In the US, high school students can sit the SATs (an aptitude test needed to get into most colleges) seven times each year. If they don’t get a desired score they can try again. Students who aren’t able to meet the standard by the end of the academic year should have access to summer learning programs — also a good way to combat summer learning loss — and take the tests during summer when they are ready.

The NSW government should be applauded for taking the first steps in this direction. From this year students need to demonstrate minimum standards in reading, writing and numeracy to be eligible to receive their HSC testamur. From year 10 students have two chances each year to sit the online tests. This is a good start but by year 10 it is much harder to help students with significant gaps. The next step should be setting a similar minimum hurdle to move into high school.



Jesse Whelan

EdTech entrepreneur, passionate about improving education impact through tech and research-driving practice. Former consultant and engineer. Harvard MBA.