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The education election: much ado about nothing

By Chris Bonnor - posted Tuesday, 17 August 2010

I’ve had to view most of this election campaign from afar - something which helped me survive most of it. Perhaps we should encourage such election tourism, flying people out to avoid tedious campaigns, maybe to return home to vote if they feel the need. If it takes off as an idea, remember: you heard about it here first.

In my case I attended a Big Picture Schools conference in the USA. These are schools which focus on the learning needs of each and every student. They operate almost in defiance of the conventional wisdom of testing, ranking, rewarding and punishing which has become so fashionable in English-speaking countries. We have an increasing number of these successful schools in Australia.

It was also interesting to see our election from the perspective of a country which has adopted, indeed pioneered, so many of the ideas that Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott threw up for this campaign. Alas they are policies which have not met with any demonstrable success in the USA - my American friends cannot fathom why we want them.


Being absent during the campaign might nicely equip me to comment on details about, or the evidence for, such policy offerings. But I came back last weekend to find no details - just a lot of resonating noise. As for evidence, Julia Gillard gave up referring to “evidence-based policy” not long after the last election.

Weighing up the merits of competing policies is difficult because there aren’t many competing policies. In her stewardship of education Gillard has perfected the Howard government’s quasi-market education policy: competition, choice, the basics, test-based accountability, national standards, and comparing schools. (I borrowed this list from Diane Ravitch’s The death and life of the great American school system.)

Such ideas and “reforms” are now an accepted orthodoxy for both parties, with the only challenge coming from the Greens. Few are asking whether such policies deliver quality outcomes for all our young people (they don’t) and whether they will shorten our long underperforming tail (they won’t). All Abbott and Christopher Pyne can do is fiddle with the details and/or push this orthodoxy further to the right.

So what have both parties offered? The ALP website lumps its policies under the title “school reform”. Some policies, such as the national curriculum, are restatements; others are new - at least in Australia. The national curriculum is to be supported by an “Australian Baccalaureate” sometime in the future. Few details, but words like “robust” and “world class” are prominent, along with “standards” (six mentions).

To help us reach such world class the Gillard Government will introduce Teach First, putting teachers in front of kids after just eight weeks initial training. Perhaps it should be called “teach first, train later if you feel like it”. But it actually represents increased rigour because another Gillard borrowed policy, Teach for Australia (you guessed it: Teach for America), insists on only six weeks of initial training. As the ALP website states, we don’t want prospective teachers to be “put off by the time it takes to meet the qualification hurdles”. Why stop at teachers? We can surely put anyone into a uniform to stand beside a hospital bed after five weeks training; maybe with an extra five weeks they can be equipped to wield a scalpel.

The ALP wants to empower local schools, something supported (with different wording) by the Liberals. The idea of greater authority for school principals certainly appeals. It is important for parents to see that principals can make a difference for their offspring and anything that increases parental engagement with schools can’t be bad. But the evidence that this improves student outcomes is quite thin: even NAPLAN scores show little difference between the centralised New South Wales system and the devolved management of schools in Victoria.


Locally controlled schools will increasingly pick and choose the students they want, widening the same equity gap about which Gillard expresses repeated concern. It will certainly worsen our social and academic divisions between schools. Perhaps we should keep enough regulated public schools to pick up the kids that no one else wants. At the very least the Nationals need to think about what this will do to rural schools.

It was hardly surprising to see performance pay for teachers in the ALP policy bag - but at least they’ve tried to broadly define what good teacher performance is all about. It will intuitively resonate with parents and the wider public, but in common with other policy priorities there is no evidence offered to suggest that it actually delivers quality teaching and improved student learning.

The ALP wants to use access to sport as an instrument to punish students who don’t attend school. It is hard to imagine anything sillier than this. And, in the tradition of adopting failed policies from elsewhere, they want to reward “top performing” schools - by inference punishing those who apparently don’t “perform”, regardless of the reason. The My School website sums up their understanding of school “performance”.

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About the Author

Chris Bonnor is a former principal and is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. His next book with Jane Caro, What makes a good school, will be published in July. He also manages a media monitoring website on education issues

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