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Gillard's got a cactus in the education policy cake

By Mike Williss - posted Wednesday, 18 August 2010

When Julia Gillard confessed to having put cactus inside a cake she was baking during a Home Economics lesson at her old school, Unley High, she unwittingly gave Australia a great new political metaphor.

What is the cactus in the cake of the Empowering Local Schools policy? What is the cactus in the cake of Delivering School Funding Certainty?

In the course of the last few weeks, Gillard (with the occasional help of Crean and Ellis) has announced a new swathe of policy commitments in education.


There is the proposal to deny sports opportunities to students who miss too much school; the proposal for an Australian Baccalaureate; for more school chaplains; for rewarding schools that show improvements in student test results; and proposals for performance pay for teachers.

The cactus in these Labor cakes is that they are nearly all Liberal Party policies.

Performance pay is the perfect example. It was a Julie Bishop policy when she was Liberal Minister for Education. It was rejected by teachers who don’t want to have to compete with each other for the top classes in order to maximise their chances of getting some monetary bonus. Teachers genuinely want to work collegiately. Unpopular with the profession, it is a vote-winner for politicians who want to be seen to be doing something, anything, regardless of the consequences.

One of the objections to the scheme likely to be raised is that teachers of some subjects will, in practice, be excluded. Of the four criteria to be used, one is analysis of student performance data (including NAPLAN and school based information that can show the value added by particular teachers). Teachers of Math and English are favoured by the availability of NAPLAN data. What comparable data exists for a teacher of Home Economics, Health and Nutrition, Physical Education or ICT? Will evidence of value-adding be shown by giving a class mainly C grades in Term 1 and then elevating them all to a B grade in Term 3? How will this be checked for statistical validity or self-seeking teacher “error”?

Teacher applicants for performance pay will be judged by a panel consisting of the principal, a senior regional staff representative and an independent third party. It is intended that the top 10 per cent of teachers will benefit. In a secondary school that may be anything up to say, ten teachers. But how many will apply? Twice that number? Thirty? Where is the principal going to find the time to manage lesson observations or sift through parental feedback (both identified as criteria by the government)? Where will the senior regional staff representative, who may have responsibility for 10 or 20 schools, find the time? And what is an “independent third party”?

So, apart from the profession’s obvious dislike for the competitive aspects of all performance pay proposals, there are clear workload implications. This is a hollow man policy; a feel good throw away to the electors by policy makers whose heads are stuffed with straw, who have no understanding of how schools operate or of the pressures people like principals are under. It was not for nothing that the South Australian Industrial Relations Commission recently noted that “the workload of leaders and teachers is unreasonable, excessive and unsustainable”.


There is similar cactus in the other Gillard policy cakes. Is Teach Next being introduced because fewer than the expected number of graduates have emerged from the six week Teach for Australia course that promised to put our “best and brightest” in front of our hardest classes? Will an eight-week course adequately prepare “accountants, bankers, engineers and scientists” in areas such as lesson preparation, incorporation of ICT in the classroom, familiarity with curriculum requirements, understanding of reporting and assessment policies and procedures, knowledge of learning theories and child behavioural psychology? Can it really be the magic wand which, waved over their heads, will turn them into the “expert maths and science teachers’ (sic) Australian schools need”? This is idiocy!

The icing on the cake must surely be the policy backflip on school funding.

Without reference to her Cabinet, Gillard announced last week that she would extend the current inequitable Howard-era SES funding formula for non-government schools to 2013 - the next election year. This is despite the fact that the experts she had appointed to the Review of School Funding have had meetings in all States and Territories to solicit opinions about a fairer funding mechanism for all schools. As noted Age economics writer Kenneth Davidson said, “This is a race to the gutter in education policy. It is bad process and worse politics. The basis on which school education is being financed is unsustainable. Apparently the leaders of both major parties are prepared to destroy public education if that is the price of winning government.”

The Australian Baccalaureate? Is it needed? Both government and private sector schools can and do offer the International Baccalaureate. Existing certificates like the South Australian Certificate of Education are internationally recognised. The Australian Baccalaureate is to be “voluntary”, will “build off the national curriculum” and be for “high performing students”. It will measure a “wide range their achievements (sic)”. Presumably grammar will not be one of them. What it will do, however, is to further entrench the hierarchy of schools (those who offer the AB and those who don’t), extend that to students (unlike a universal national certificate this will only be for “high achievers”) and create a hierarchy of subjects (potentially squeezing out subjects like Psychology, offered in South Australia but not part of the new national curriculum).

So far the much-vaunted Education Revolution has consisted of both Cactus Liberalism and Cactus Failed-Kleiniana being the major components of the Gillard educational policy cake.

And the attitude seems to be - let them eat it!

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About the Author

Mike Williss is a teacher of Chinese in South Australia. After 32 years in the classroom , he now works for the Australian Education Union in South Australia.

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