I need to beg forgiveness from the outset. The commentary in OLO this month has focused on how we can produce a clever country. I want to take a different tack. In a forthcoming book Jane Caro and I speculate a little on what schools in 2020 might look like, from the perspective of a mum seeking a school for her son (Jared) who is good with his hands – edu-speak for being strong on gross motor skills but a tad deficient in other directions.
If anything, the weight of concerns in recent times has been about the Jared's of this world: how their underachievement is doing us in, what we should do to lift their level of achievement.
Getting back to our story, mum soon finds that Jared's attributes aren't keenly sought after by the schools within reasonable reach. The nearest school charges fees, another was closed down years ago and another made selective. Yet another was an independent public school that couldn't cater for his special needs (sound familiar?). Scratch the music academy and all that is left is the comprehensive school near the shops – but she doesn't want him in with that crowd.
Nowhere to go. So much for choice. So much for almost three decades of constant and often manic school reform seeded by the neo-liberals and driven by successive governments urged on by compliant commentators.
It isn't working: we are not creating schools which provide even comparable quality and opportunities for all our kids.
And there is more evidence and commentary that maybe, just maybe, this isn't entirely the fault of the schools. The couple of years leading up to the Gonski review saw increasing concern, not only on within-school reform but on how we can fix things outside the school gate as well - especially the way in which we provide and fund schools.
All other factors being equal, which they clearly are not, the Gonski recommendations have the capacity to rescue Australia from the coming decade of mediocre school performance, with all the increasingly obvious social and economic implications.
But it probably won't happen, so let's go straight to the year 2020 and look back, half seriously, at what 'did happen' between now and 2020 - and why we became even more, 'The Stupid Country'. http://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/isbn/0868408069.htm (I know this is another book advertisement but we really did warn about our possible futures).
2012 What did happen, all those years ago, in 2012? PISA test results (actually released in 2013) confirmed that our low-SES fifteen-year-olds (not unlike Jared) were two to three years behind high-SES students. The Gillard Government's implementation of the Gonski recommendations was delayed after a campaign by non-government school groups – following a time-honoured process of subverting sound reform.
2013 The new Abbott government wasted no time in linkingteacher salaries to measurable student outcomes. Teachers gradually stopped doing things that couldn't be measured. All public schools were made autonomous and private school fees made tax deductable. A new mega corporation of Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein (remember him?) and Michael Gove (the Tory education secretary) was given a contract to run 800 for-profit schools in Australia. To find savings, all public secondary schools with less than 300 students were closed. The Gonski recommendations were further delayed.
2014 There was a major moral panic about the physical fitness of students. Fitness was tested by a NAPLAN-style measure and the scores listed on My School. The Fairfax press obligingly produced a league table. Due to lack of time in the teaching day music disappeared from the curriculum. Professor John Hattie analysed 314 pieces of research to show that quality teaching matters more than everything else. A new bureaucracy to help parents choose schools was established, with choice consultants appointed to every district.
2015 PISA tests showed that low-SES fifteen-year-olds were now well over three years behind high-SES students. To address this growing crisis NAPLAN tests were set for students in Kindergarten – and school funding was made contingent on schools doing better. Christopher Pyne was replaced as education minister by Tim Hawkes, brought in via a Senate vacancy. The Grattan Institute showed that the Philippines had overtaken Australia in PISA because all their school students sat in neat rows.
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