Faith a driver for education equity, says honoured academic

Professor Barry McGraw presented Ridley College's Faith and Work award

By Stephen Cauchi

November 13 2019 

The winner of the 2019 Faith and Work award, education academic Barry McGaw, told Ridley College that faith had driven his desire to remedy the “low-equity” Australian education system.

Speaking at a Ridley College dinner last month where the award was presented, Professor McGaw said faith had also led him to implement workplace measures such as birthday greetings to staff and observances for colleagues suffering bereavement.

However, he rejected moves to include intelligent design as part of the science curriculum.

 “The influence of faith on my working life … has certainly been stronger at some times and more tenuous at others,” said Professor McGaw.

“Nevertheless, it does seem to me that my faith has shaped my perspective on some major issues in education policy and practice.”

Professor McGaw has held a long list of education positions, including Chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority and Director for Education at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

He is currently a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow and Co-Director of the Australian National Development Index project at the University of Melbourne. An Anglican, Professor McGaw worships at St Michael’s North Carlton.

Professor McGaw said his faith had “prompted in me a particular concern about issues of equity in education and social cohesion”.

He told the dinner, held on 4 October, that equity in educational outcomes among students did not have to come at the expense of excellence.

Historically, Australian education was “high-quality” but “low-equity” whereas high-performing countries like Canada, South Korea, Japan and Finland were “high-quality” and “high-equity”.

Professor McGaw said that streaming of students into certain schools on the basis of ability, and the provision of “easy” and “difficult” versions of the same subject, had the effect of worsening inequality. 

After 2000, Poland abolished its policy of streaming all students at the end of primary school, with impressive results, he said.

As in Scandinavian countries, where there was also no streaming, the move virtually eliminated differences between schools in terms of academic performance.

And Poland’s overall academic performance had improved, he said. Poland “raised its average by pulling up its lower performers … in comprehensive schools, their expectations and their performance had been raised”.

Poland’s educational outcomes had since continued to improve, equalling Australia’s, outperforming the OECD average, and catching up with Finland.

But Professor McGaw said such a policy would not work in Australia. Schools here were divided by other factors in addition to streaming, including the government and private school divide, family wealth, faith and demography.

But Australian educational equity could be advanced via “bridging social capital” between different types of schools, he said. In the Adelaide suburb of Golden Grove, government and non-government schools, both primary and secondary, were adjacent to each other and shared facilities. 

On one site, three schools – one government, two private – share a library, science and technology facilities, and, for some subjects, teaching.

On one primary school site, a government and non-government school shared a playing field; on another, a common staff room.

“Schooling (can) contribute to social cohesion,” he said. “The Golden Grove arrangements seemed to me a very good way … to advance social cohesion”.

Professor McGaw said his other expressions of faith at work included leading a Christian fellowship group for secondary school students and organising a weekend conference on the implications of Christianity for the teaching of values.

On a curriculum level, he said he rejected the teaching of intelligent design in science subjects.

“The science curriculum includes evolution but not ‘intelligent design’ or its precursor ‘creation science’. When I have been challenged on whether schools may teach intelligent design I have said that they certainly may but that it should be in religious studies and not science.”

Professor McGaw said that another part of his faith journey involved the work environment.

“Christians must seek to ensure that all individuals are valued,” he said. “This must include acknowledging, publicly and privately, individual contributions to the work, particularly the contributions of more junior staff.”

One way to do this was to send staff a birthday greeting at their home address, an idea he picked up from business entrepreneur Bob Ansett.

“I wrote affirming messages to each staff member acknowledging particular aspects of their work. For those I did not know well enough, I talked with their manager.”

He also described how he had organised a staff gathering on a Friday afternoon for a work colleague whose newborn child had died.

“(My wife) suggested that I buy 130 red roses and 130 white cards and red ribbon and that I have a hole punched in the top left corner of each card.

“All staff members were invited to write a personal message to our grieving colleague.”

The Faith and Work award is designed to honour Christians who over a lifetime have integrated their faith and work. Past winners have included former Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens, bionic ear inventor Graeme Clark, former deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and former ABC managing director Mark Scott.

The Faith and Work award was hosted by Ridley College and presented by Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society.

It was supported by the Centre for Religion and Social Policy at the University of Divinity and by faith and work research organisation Reventure.