The campaigning for the up-coming Federal election has had little of substance in a number of areas, and perhaps none more so than in education. What we have seen from both parties are trite shallow announcements which they think will look good in the headlines, not thoughtful public policy formation.
Take Ms Gillard’s press release from last week about education. A plank of initiatives to further develop the Education Revolution of which we have heard so much, and seen so little, over the past three years.
Let us look at the new announcements. Prime Minister Gillard pledges that there will be a new Australian Baccalaureate. When you read the fine print, the policy says that it will be a voluntary qualification which sits alongside the current senior qualifications. So a student in New South Wales is going to sit the Higher School Certificate, already a fine, internationally recognised credential, and then choose to do some more examinations from the Federal Government on top of that? For what purpose? It already takes the Federal Government more than four months to mark the National tests in Literacy and Numeracy, taken over just a couple of days.
Ms Gillard’s press release says: “Australia’s senior secondary certification arrangements do not have the recognition of, for example, the British "A" levels, the French Baccalaureate, the German and Finnish Arbitur, or the certificates of regional neighbours such as China, Hong Kong and Singapore.” Well, that is just blatantly untrue of the NSW HSC. This is an internationally recognised credential, equal to any of those quoted in the Gilliard release. The NSW Board of Studies has independent research to justify that claim.
To ensure that this does not appear to be only an attack on Ms Gillard and the Labor Party, I would make some remarks about the Coalition’s education policy, except that there is so little detail as to make that task just too difficult. It appears that it is very much the status quo, with no long-term vision at all and just some most minor tweaking of everything the current Labor Government announces.
The Gillard press release says that her government is “delivering an education system that is world class, rolling out a new National Curriculum with nationally agreed content and achievement standards …”. Yet the NSW Board of Studies, commenting on the work to date towards a national curriculum says about English “The ‘strand’ structure is artificial and does not enable teachers to integrate all the dimensions of English effectively”.
The NSW Board of Studies says, about Mathematics “… the curriculum is not seen as providing appropriate flexibility for teachers to address the needs of lower, middle or higher-achieving students” and “the curriculum … does not provide sufficient scope to prepare high achieving students for high levels of senior mathematics”.
About Science, the NSW Board of Studies says “The overall organisation of the curriculum does not provide a structure that will enable a coherent K-10 development of core science understanding and skills”.
What is it about the difference in attitude between Canberra and Sydney? The NSW tradition is for consultation. The profession is involved in decision making. The policy makers in the various different bureaucracies listen to the profession - to the leaders of schools and systems, to teachers, to the stakeholders. Of course sometimes different paths are taken by the Minister for Education, but I always have the feeling that the different opinions and ideas have been canvassed and considered before a decision is taken. But that is certainly not the case in Canberra, whichever government is in power.
For example, a few years ago I asked Dr Nelson, the Minister for Education at the time, if I could go to Canberra to see him for half an hour in order to discuss educational matters. He declined. This year I have twice asked Dr Peter Hill, (Chair of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Agency), to meet with me to talk about the national curriculum he is responsible for developing. That appears to be just too difficult for him.
Why? Why so little consultation and consideration? For example, I don’t know of any teacher group or professional group which supports the construction of Leagues Tables from NAPLAN results, yet Ms Gillard seems to be quite comfortable with this. Indeed, she has encouraged parents to have “robust discussions” with teachers if they feel that their school is not performing well in these tables.
Another of the most recent initiatives announced by Ms Gillard are bonuses for about 10 per cent of the “best” teachers, still to be defined, from 2014. A bonus of $8,000 is to be paid. In my experience, teachers are not motivated by this sort of pay and they do not want to be seen to be different from their colleagues. We certainly don’t want to set up a competitive system of pay - one teacher versus another. More importantly, there is little research, of which I am aware, which shows that such bonuses motivate teachers to work harder, to strive more for excellence, or are more likely to stay in teaching if they are deemed “excellent”. Quite the contrary.