It is all-out war between the Australian Federal Government and the Australian Education Union (AEU). Up until this month, the conflict has played out in the media as a war of words, centred on the publication of results from the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) through the MySchool website.
The stage is now set for an industrial action showdown, with the 180,000-member AEU maintaining its ban on teacher supervision of NAPLAN, despite an investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman. Any order against unprotected industrial action will cover Victoria, Northern Territory and the ACT. In other states, education ministers have pursued such an order to prevent a teacher boycott.
There would have been a few die-hards who hoped until the last minute that Education Minister Julia Gillard could be brought to the table to negotiate terms.
She has not, however, truly engaged with concerns from teachers, principals, academics and - yes - parents, regarding the flaws in determining groupings of “like” schools, the use of MySchool figures by the media to create simplistic rankings of local schools, the promotion of a professional culture that teaches to a test, and the creation of an adversarial relationship between parents and teachers.
What intensifies the conflict is that both sides actually agree on a core point - that NAPLAN provides valuable information. In fact, Gillard and teacher unions present a similar argument that the national tests are not to be taken lightly. The divergence of opinion over the use of test results is made sharp by the fact that both parties are righteous in roughly the same spirit.
Yet the Federal Government has carefully crafted its communication so that it would seem teachers do not share its goals or the values of parents. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has stated, “The Australian Government is on the side of parents and we're on the side of MySchool because we want to lift the standards of all Australian schools.”
The rhetoric echoes Gillard's proposal that parents be recruited as replacements should the teacher boycott go ahead. It is a kind of brinkmanship that discomfits even her state counterparts, Geoff Wilson (Queensland) and Jay Weatherill (South Australia), who oppose this move. Weatherill went as far as saying that “a number of the suggestions [made by the union] about improving the quality of information on the MySchool website seem sensible to me.”
Indeed, the use of data is the area in which stakeholders, who would be normally aligned, are divided. Catholic and independent schools, for example, will not be boycotting the national tests despite stated concerns over MySchool (a telling move, given that such schools would generally sit in the top half of any league table).
According to Dr Julie Faulkner, senior lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology School of Education, Labor voters would be similarly divided. She says that those who had expected a “progressive approach” from the Rudd-Gillard partnership “are dismayed by the confrontational stance”. She fears “teachers will again be used as scapegoats for deeper systemic social inequities, while the government positions itself as a tough, can-do leadership”.
Such a situation would be catastrophic because the relationship between government and the education sector should be one of shared vision. After all, the modern socioeconomic engine is driven by the literate, numerate, and functional masses who spent most of their formative years in a classroom. It is therefore in the government's interest to get education right.
However, it has failed to do so by alienating educators. Gillard has drawn the line between teachers and parents, as if teachers are not naturally supportive of parents' desires regarding their children's education. In challenging state schools, it would be the reverse - teachers often wish that parents were more involved in their children's schooling.
“We need to move from the overused 'accountability' catchcry,” says Faulkner, “and think about 'support', 'resources' and 'relationships'.” Unfortunately, while Gillard has stated that the MySchool data will help governments identify schools in most need, she has not gone as far as saying that the data will be used to craft more equitable funding arrangements for public and private schools.
The point is that the best outcomes for students come from a collaborative partnership between governments and schools, between schools and families, and among teachers - not the adversarial relationship that the Federal Government has so far promoted for its own end.
Already, media outlets have been trumpeting how much it will cost taxpayers for teachers to walk out on NAPLAN. What has been buried in the debate is the idea that, unlike other industrial disputes over employment conditions and workplace policy, the May boycott will be one of principle for participating teachers.
As Faulkner points out, the overemphasis on NAPLAN-based school comparisons “exacerbates the tensions between quality teaching and learning. In the long term, it leads to teaching to the test, due to fear of results.” For many teachers, the professional — and for some, the only ethical — thing to do is to oppose such moves.