Education, as a big ticket public expenditure item, has been a perennial site for political tinkering, perhaps increasingly so, given governments’ shrinking control over matters economic.
As a social recipe invented just 150 years ago, as opposed to something naturally given, mass schooling will be what we make it, built and re-fashioned to fit the times and shifts in the moral order.
As a mass institution, schooling touches most people’s lives at some stage, so every voter will have an opinion, distilled from highly individualised encounters as past student or parent, on how to fix problems they encountered, however long ago. This leave teachers and schooling systems very exposed to critique from all directions, and to constant waves of contradictory, reactionary reform. Since the Howard years, Federal governments of either persuasion have repeatedly gatecrashed state jurisdictions, exerting more and more centralist influence with blunt carrot and stick funding levers. This federalism renders the education sector even more exposed to opportunistic and populist political expediency. I challenge any organisation to conduct its business with so many cooks at the hearth.
Sociologists of education (Brendan Nelson’s favourite people) have been tracking the intrusion of corporate managerialism and its effects on schooling practices since the 1980s. Gillard’s bonus for high performing teachers is not a new idea, but rather a long discussed and seemingly logical development in the series of neoliberal renovations, re-styling schools and their leaders in the corporate mould. The same goes for principals’ power to fire and hire staff. These are not new ideas, but rather logical extensions of the tack Australia and most of the industrialised West have taken in marketised school reform, for better and for worse.
The Liberal party’s website banner for education policy, “we will protect choice”, evidences an even stronger belief in the power of market logic. The makeover reduces a complex nuanced enterprise into a narrowly conceived business model that, I suggest, alienates the accumulated wisdom and motivations of many in the educational sector and glosses over its unique qualities. Let me expand on how and why education might not fit a business model.
Education markets are not the same as commodity markets. A “good” school cannot indefinitely increase “production” and ship its product out to meet growing demand elsewhere.
Australia’s spatial spread means we are all forced to buy local: school catchments, defined in terms of daily commuting schedules if not enforced zoning, will largely reflect the socioeconomic makeup of their local community, give or take families who can contemplate boarding school. The rewarding of “excellence” from limited coffers will advantage the already advantaged and relatively disadvantage those who cannot access such spatially circumscribed “quality” product.
Similarly, when the principal in the rural/remote school gets the opportunity to hire and fire staff, they will have to compete against the lure of urban centres for desirable candidates. We have trouble recruiting doctors and other professionals into these communities - why should teachers be any different? Good luck to the aspirational school trying to recruit “quality” staff to renovate its status.
Resources for education are limited, and the “profits” are not just discretionary surplus. When we import “reward and recognition” models of performance pay from the business world, we fail to dignify the acute sensibility in the education sector that funds spent here mean funds not spent there, that is, at the chalkface. The collective spirit of the teaching profession, evidenced in high rates of union membership, comes from the importance and dignity of the shared and collaborative enterprise - educating all the next generation, not just some. If we individualise teachers’ work we risk unravelling this collective ethos and strength. This is not to say teachers don’t deserve reward and recognition, but to explain the discomfort that such unreflective importation of business practices will engender.
The “Australian Baccalaureate” similarly is not a new idea - David Kemp as a Liberal Minister for Education raised the possibility of an Australian Education Certificate as a way to break the state’s “monopoly” on schooling certifications, and commissioned a close study of the International Baccalaureate as a potential model (See ACER’s 2006 report with the delightfully resonant title: Australian Certificate of Education: exploring a way forward). In the business model, the Australian Baccalaureate equates to a pitch for a luxury model targeting the global market - rewarding those more able/talented/worthy with a higher status brand, and a view to wider horizons. Why not consider such outcomes for all?
When the complaint is of too many senior certifications that erode brand Australia recognition, it seems strange to add one more. Such a “top range” brand of distinction will symbolically debase the currency of the less distinguished National Curriculum for senior years - and it’s yet to be written!
As a teacher educator, I understand my responsibility in this environment is to produce quality teaching graduates, who can meet the spiralling expectations of a hypervigilant public. I would ask that same public, however, to recognise their own role in making teaching a less attractive occupation. It’s a job that has no boundaries - we continue to ask more of them - and we need motivated, capable people to join and stay in the profession. Pendulum swings from short term, reactive policy exercises produce as many problems as they solve, and erode confidence in the people we need to do the job.
Schooling is a mass institution that underpins our economic competitiveness, national identity, and civil society. Elections allow us to dream big, respond decisively, break with past traditions, re-vision what might be, and what should be. I don’t think a narrowly conceived business model helps us think outside the box.