What hope is there that Australian school children will develop the critical and analytical skills needed for their working lives when the body representing public school teachers, the Australian Education Union (AEU), persists in propagating false and misleading information to pursue a highly self-serving political agenda?
How can the nation's education professionals – those in the business of teaching critical thinking and responsible citizenship – accept the investment of their union dues in a costly advertising blitz that is nothing short of propaganda in its most negative sense?
How can the public ever believe in the high quality of Australian public education when the body representing the interests of government school teachers constantly 'talks down' their own system, ignoring the many successes and high levels of student and parent satisfaction?
The AEU's national campaign, launched in mid June with the catchy title I give a Gonski, aims to persuade the Commonwealth Government to provide the additional $5 billion-plus dollars needed annually to implement the recommendations of the Gonski Review of School Funding. 'Bully' may be a more apt verb than 'persuade,' given the aggression and intimidation of the campaign. Give us the money, says the AEU, and we will reduce class sizes and provide more specialist teachers. The threat to politicians is explicit: don't give us the money and we – teachers and parents – won't vote for you at the next election.
The campaign involves all the worst features of propaganda. "Facts" are presented selectively, focusing on only one of the funding partners, the federal government, ignoring the predominant role of state and territory governments in school funding, and completely disregarding the clear evidence that more recurrent funding, widely dispersed, is not the answer to school improvement. The AEU conveniently fails to mention that in the past ten years, public spending on school education in Australia increased by 44% in real terms, average class sizes have fallen and school infrastructure has expanded. Yet over the same period, performance has declined. As the Productivity Commission points out in its April 2012 report to Commonwealth and state governments on the school workforce, an across-the-board approach to reducing class size has been a costly policy, and one that has not translated into a commensurate improvement in overall student outcomes.
The union's campaign also propagates lies by omission. It deliberately overlooks the sizeable private investment by parents in Australian schooling which brings total education funding to just under the OECD average. As the Gonski report recognises, income from private sources is an important part of the revenue base of schools. When parental contributions are included, Australia spent the equivalent of 3.6% of GDP on school education, a total investment only marginally below the OECD average of 3.8%.
The campaign uses loaded messages. It appeals to fear by portraying the need for funding as urgent and the Gonski Report as a unique opportunity to fix a supposedly ailing school system that is in crisis. The Australian public may be surprised to find that Australia has a high performing school system by international standards, although in recent years we have fallen behind other high-performing countries. This is the challenge for policymakers, how to raise school achievement as other countries have done, and how to offset education disadvantage.
There is no shortage of good advice and sound evidence to lead responsible policymakers in sensible directions, lessons to be learned from other nations' successes. A starting point is that school spending, either as a proportion of GDP or as average per student expenditure, is an inappropriate measure of school quality. International and national studies have shown for some years now that higher levels of spending are not directly connected to better student outcomes.
Policymakers cannot pretend to be unaware of the extensive body of evidence which calls into question the connection between funding levels and schooling outcomes, nor can they be oblivious to the kind of investments that are known to be promising in bringing about the change that is needed.
By over-simplifying the issues, by relentlessly equating education success with spending levels and by using dubious opinion polls to create a false sense of crisis, the AEU is putting up smokescreen to hide the real issues that need to be addressed in our schools.
It is time that smokescreen was blown away.
It is the way money is spent in raising teacher quality, it is how schools operate in terms of personnel practices, it is having appropriate support for teachers in the classroom and it is engaging parents in their child's education that will make a real difference. Finding ways to attract the best and brightest students into teaching would be a better approach than tying up funding in employing more teachers so as to further reduce of class sizes. This has already been shown to be ineffective. Rewards for quality teaching, pay differentials for hard-to-staff positions, better teacher training programs, stronger links between teacher performance and career progression are proven ways to raise the attractiveness of teaching as a profession and improve school effectiveness. Providing additional support for teachers working in disadvantaged communities, including specialist support staff, would increase educational opportunity and help overcome education disadvantage.
For governments, this would mean making some hard decisions, ignoring the noisy rent-seeking behaviour of the teacher unions in favour of investing in worthwhile policies with real potential to improve the quality of schooling.
Rather than being blindsided by the AEU's propaganda, an informed public, intelligent policymakers and a responsible teaching profession might choose to consider the real evidence about what makes a difference to school outcomes before agreeing to further massive and untargeted public investment.