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Emotion but lack of fiscal detail

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 5 September 2012

While failing to provide any details about the new funding model to replace the socioeconomic status (SES) model, due to expire at the end of next year, Julia Gillard's speech to the National Press Club is replete with highly charged emotion and grand promises.

The Prime Minister promised to put Australia in the top five in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests by 2025 and to ensure that at-risk groups achieve "their full potential".

But there are doubts as to whether the government can deliver. Even if the federal government can find the additional billions needed and force cash-strapped state governments to contribute their share, the reality is that much of what the Prime Minister proposes is misdirected.


The federal government's so-called education revolution, such as the costly and wasteful Building the Education Revolution fiasco, adopts a centralised, bureaucratic and statist model of educational delivery.

Principals complain of the government's command and control approach and compliance costs, while teachers are drowning in bureaucratic demands that drain energy and take valuable time away from teaching.

Expect the Prime Minister's National Plan for School Improvement to add to such concerns as it represents an additional layer of costly and intrusive bureaucracy.

Both in her speech and in answering questions, the Prime Minister singled out progressive educational fads such as personalised learning and open classrooms and suggested more traditional models of teaching and learning were ineffective.

Wrong. The evidence is that progressive fads are counter-productive and that the best way to raise standards is to have disciplined and focused classrooms - instead of open spaces - where teachers are in control, students are told when they have failed and the curriculum is academically based.

Such characteristics explain why Asian countries perform so well. The promise to get Australian students to perform among the top-five countries in the PISA tests by 2025 is set so far in the future that the Prime Minister will, most likely, never be held accountable.


The irony in looking to overseas when judging performance and identifying what needs to be done to strengthen outcomes is that there are schools in Australia that perform at the top of the table in both Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and PISA.

Research proves that diversity, choice, competition and school autonomy are key characteristics of stronger performing education systems. This explains why Catholic and independent schools, compared with public schools and after adjusting for students' socioeconomic background, perform as well as schools in Asian countries.

If Gillard is serious about lifting standards then she will ensure that non-government schools are properly funded and, even better, used as exemplars to strengthen government schools.

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This article was first published in The Australian on September 4, 2012.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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