Gillard's education revolution a failure
30th January 2012

In the following, published in the Australian, I argue that the ALP government's education revolution has failed and that school choice is a better solution.

Schools learn hard way

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard argues that her government's education revolution is the only way to raise standards and strengthen outcomes. Whether the Building the Education Revolution, national testing and a national curriculum, computers in schools or national teacher certification and registration, Gillard believes all roads lead to Canberra and that only her policies will achieve success.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the past four years of botched programs, cost over-runs, delays and mismanagement prove, the Gillard-inspired and orchestrated education revolution is conceptually flawed, wasteful and ineffective.

Notwithstanding the promise to give schools greater flexibility and autonomy, as noted by Melbourne-based education expert Brian Caldwell, the reality is that the ALP's education revolution exemplifies a command and control model of public policy.

No wonder Australia's school principals complain about compliance costs associated with responding to the federal government's increasing dictates and that teachers complain of the excessive workload caused by an intrusive model of educational delivery.

The billion-dollar BER program, in addition to failing to deliver value for money, imposed a one-size-fits-all template on schools that denied local communities the right to design and manage infrastructure best suited to their needs.

The computer in schools program is over budget and behind schedule and the promise to give all secondary schools a technical trade centre has been abandoned. As proved by both national and international test results it's also the case, despite the billions spent and excessive demands imposed on teachers and schools, that results have failed to improve.

In relation to the Program for International Student Assessment, not only are countries we once outperformed now achieving better results, but we now have fewer students achieving at the highest level. Students' results in the National Assessment Literacy and Numeracy Program have also deteriorated.

Best illustrated by the decision made by NSW, Victoria and Western Australia to delay implementation of the national curriculum, there are also fears that imposing a centrally designed and mandated curriculum will lead to a lowest common denominator approach where all students suffer.

Notwithstanding the rhetoric about being world's best and making Australia more internationally competitive, the reality is the ALP's education revolution is founded on overseas polices that are now seen to be flawed and counter-productive.

When she was education minister, Gillard, after visiting New York and hosting the head of education Joel Klein's visit to Australia, lauded that city's success and justified increased testing and accountability by what was happening in the Big Apple.

More recently, not only has US President Barack Obama warned about the dangers of standardised, high-stakes tests, similar to NAPLAN, but research carried out by test experts from Harvard University concludes New York's apparent success is based on faulty data and dumbed-down tests.

There is an alternative to the ALP government's education revolution. Internationally, the cutting edge of educational reform is the school choice movement. Whether city academies and free schools in Britain or the US-designed charter schools, the move is to free schools from provider capture and to embrace autonomy, diversity and choice in education.

Based on research by such experts as Ludger Woessmann, Eric A. Hanushek, Caroline Hoxby and Andrew J. Coulson, the consensus is that stronger performing education systems are those where Catholic and independent schools are properly funded by government, parents are free to choose between schools, and schools are given the flexibility to meet local demands.

The fact that non-government schools in Australia outperform government schools across a range of learning outcomes, even after adjusting for schools' socioeconomic profile, is evidence that autonomy, choice and diversity in education works.

While not fully meeting the criteria for autonomous schools, the fact that Western Australia has introduced independent public schools, the NSW government is giving state schools greater freedom and the Queensland and federal opposition parties, if elected, have promised to also embrace school autonomy, signals that school choice has also reached these shores.


Responses to this Post

Coming both out of and through the immense change wrought by the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions, and which for many, produced much pain and suffering, was a century-long "window" of general, societal improvement. During the period from the 1840s to the 1950s, western society - particularly in Britain (and thus in Australia) - came to be fashioned in a manner far more closely in tune with the aspirations and tastes of the patrician intellectualist minority than with majority, plebeian tastes and life-style ambitions.  

To be sure, it was a situation which generated the catch-cry of "the haves and the have-nots" by writers like Karl Marx. But on the more positive and societally healthy side, it produced a "possibility", a "vision", of a quality of life to which all, including the "have-nots", could aspire; and a great many of these were indeed able to achieve that goal. Not surprisingly, therefore, and with a more educated "ruling class" in control of its design and implementation, we had an era of wonderfully effective education. It was even the case that "Mechanics Institutes" proliferated, gaining immense popularity among adult workers who, for one reason or another, had not had the benefit of sound, formal childhood education.

In the 1870s, both Oxford and Cambridge Universities lifted their courses and teaching standards - having traditionally not matched those of the great German universities; or indeed even those of The Shrewsbury School, England! In Queensland, for example (which now is said to have one of the most ineffective primary and secondary programmes in the world), a primary school education based on the C19th Irish system, was alone, sufficiently sound as to produce generations of remarkably articulate and literate members of the commercial world and society in general.

However, since the 1950s, the pendulum has given the upper hand to mass plebeian tastes and equalitarian aspirations, with the inevitable down-grading of standards in all aspects of our society - the dumbing-down of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (and the English BBC, too), significantly - and this new "ruling class", with its "Pop-culture" and its desire for the easy life, is now dictating the standard of our educational offering and setting its upper limits. Perhaps, as the ancient psalmist predicted, "the meek have indeed inherited the earth"? Be all of this as it may, it is true that we cannot expect governments to hold our hands while we "go potties".

However, only government can institute and direct educational policy in Australia. Gillard's Socialist-Equalitarian model can in no way halt the slide into ever poorer levels of literacy and numeracy, nor, given the Australian psyche, could it possibly usher in "the great day of Socialism". But, if the warnings of conservative thinkers are not heeded, and if steps are not urgently taken to prevent it, we will lapse into a society comprising an oligarchic elite, holding monopolistic ownership of both learning and wealth, with a vast intellectually and economically disenfranchised peasantry; precisely as came to be the case during the "Dark Ages", which succeeded the golden ages of classical Greek and Roman culture.

But for the "credit-card", we might be closer to this than we think. Already, I go into a retail outlet and enquire after an item. The response from the young assistant is invariably, "Right! [longish pause] - So [another shorter pause] - what was it that you wanted to know?" They can't mentally "process" spoken questions. No wonder we see signs everywhere warning us that "aggressive or abusive behaviour towards staff will not be tolerated": they are necessary to prevent us from venting our frustration as we long for the world of yesteryear.
Bruce Manning,Queensland.



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30th January 2012

In the following, published in the Australian, I argue that the ALP government's education revolution has failed and that school choice is a better solution.Schools learn hard wayPRIME Minister Ju...
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