A Right Trifecta


The beginning of the school year always throws up some unexpected headlines. But you can always rely on Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, backed up by the likes of Kevin Donnelly and Jennifer Buckingham.

This year, they’ve all been busy during the break the Minister preparing for a recent address to the National Press Club; Jennifer delivering her latest broadside against public schooling, ‘ Teachers and the Waiting Game,’ through the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS); and Kevin publishing another tome, unsurprisingly called Dumbing Down.


At the end of January, Julie Bishop (or was it Kevin for Julie?) also penned an article for the Sydney Morning Herald in which she urged another Kevin (Rudd) to take a second look at Tony Blair’s education reforms in Britain, including measuring school performance, more accountability, league tables and the rest. These are actually not ‘British reforms’ the Welsh, for instance, don’t want a bar of endless testing, ranking, naming and shaming schools. They know it doesn’t work. And oddly enough, school education in Wales is making great advances.

Perhaps the Minister should revisit her own assumptions about marketplace reforms in schooling. After two unproven decades most of these, along with their backers, need to be consigned to the dustbin of history. But alas, they have re-emerged this year, promoted by the usual suspects notably Jennifer and Kevin.

Jennifer’s piece of research for the CIS is interesting, not least for her acknowledgement of the help provided by none other than Kevin who was also close by (in spirit) when Julie gave an address entitled ‘Education and Economic Growth’ in Brisbane recently in which she gave Kevin’s book a bit of a plug. Perhaps that’s the least she can do. The Prime Minister has also done his bit, by launching Kevin’s book in Parliament House and planting its main ideas into the columns of a major newspaper.

Julie’s speech included more than a smattering of Kevin’s recycled revelations, but as usual she invented stumbles all of her own. Fresh from issuing warnings of Maoists in the classroom and then having to retreat (a Short March, perhaps?), the Minister claimed that academic standards in our classrooms are declining, yet in the same speech said, ‘I am not suggesting that Australian students are underachieving.’ Clever kids! Maybe Kevin’s book will explain how all that is possible.

Her performance at the National Press Club was predictable and included more clichés per minute than the average sports commentary. Jennifer’s article received a rap there it must have been her turn. I am still coming to terms with Julie’s criticism of the States for their apparent one-size-fits-all management of schools, while she drags them into a bigger-size-fits-all regime of uniform national curriculum, testing, reporting and just about everything else. She is really onto a winner it so tugs at the heart strings: I am, you are, we’re all Australian and the dumbed-down States can go jump!

A disappointment at the National Press Club was the array of non-questions from a mainly obsequious parade of journalists one even asked something along the lines of: How does a pretty girl like you cope in Cabinet? Cutting edge stuff! The remaining questions focused mainly on the Howard-Bishop agenda, rather than reflecting any interest in any other issues.

Certainly the Howard Government’s agenda of distraction has worked. For instance, despite Kevin Rudd’s rhetoric about social justice and the ‘fork in the road,’ within days of becoming ALP leader he announced a policy for a national curriculum and thereby wandered off down a road already neatly paved by the Federal Government. Even his education ‘revolution’ (so far) exhibits more evidence of bovine droppings than barricades.

Image from sxc

Meanwhile, Jennifer has done the media rounds with her research. I tuned into ABC Radio National’s Life Matters, just in time to hear her claim that school principals ‘have no say in dismissal’ of poor teachers. After picking my jaw up off the floor I tried to set the record straight on the same show the next day. The principal is the one who identifies teachers to be placed in a program of review, and manages the whole process. If the Principal does this fairly and the teacher doesn’t shape up, then the teacher is dismissed. The process operates in much the same way in private schools: it certainly needs to be improved, but it does work eventually.

But, then I thought more about what Jennifer was saying. She shares with the other conservative critics the same ideological blinkers which get in the way of what are sometimes quite good ideas. Instead, their blinkered solutions send those of us who still believe in equity scuttling back to their trenches.

These conservative critics also share the same preference for overstatement and slogans ahead of balance, and use this to good effect. All commentators, including me, do this to make the occasional point, but for some it is an art form and it drives their analysis.

A more fundamental problem is that the conservative critics (and especially the so-called ‘cultural warriors’) are commonly out of touch with the reality of every day life in schools. There are many examples, but let’s stay with the dismissal of poor teachers. For every dodgy teacher put through a program and dismissed, another three or four leave because principals lean on them. Far more ‘unsuitable’ teachers leave public schools than any statistics indicate. We don’t know about government-funded private schools, and that is part of the problem: only public schools are subject to FOI. This is where the light is and this is where intrepid researchers and tabloid journalists focus their attention.

This patchy availability of information means that what might otherwise be generic concerns fall exclusively on public schools. The conservative critics never correct this mistake because it fits their mindset. Their image of public schools is very dated and they fail to acknowledge the very real changes which have taken place in recent years. (Where these are acknowledged, the credit is given to the Federal Government which according to their rhetoric is waging some heroic battle against the union-dominated, troglodyte States.)

Another problem is that they lean on untested solutions, or they offer ‘solutions’ which can be supported by just enough research to make them appear credible. Jennifer’s panacea is to devolve the decision making authority to principals, parents and more. Principals will always support much of this, but let’s look at the bottom line: the best measure of any change in education is whether it improves education for all children. It is easy to prove that Jennifer’s solutions will improve education in some schools. What she doesn’t address is the impac
t on everyone else.

Schools empowered by local control are better able to import their successes (especially teachers and students) and export their failures to others. Even the Blair Government is moving to fix this problem, especially as it relates to rules about enrolling students. Buckingham praises devolution in Victoria, yet the increasing equity gaps in Victoria, especially between rural and urban schools, are causing considerable concern (see the discussion paper Equity, Excellence and Effectiveness Moving forward on schooling arrangements in Australia at the Education Foundation website).

The conservative critics almost always fail to understand the different obligations of public and private schools. Jennifer wants public schools to select all their teachers. Principals in public schools do want far more say over selection of staff (although many have considerable say now, one way or another), but we will always need to balance the wants of specific schools against the needs of every community.

Public systems alone have an obligation to serve all communities, everywhere; private schools can pick the market they choose to serve, and carefully avoid any obligations they don’t want. It is part of the illusion of choice.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.