Pyne Picks The Easy Target On Schools


According to the shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, something remarkable is going on in Australia’s schools. Apparently, through some astonishing quirk, all the worst teachers have ended up in the schools with the kids from the most disadvantaged backgrounds!

You won’t believe it, but the worst performing 10 per cent of students are not randomly drawn from across Australia’s schools but tend to be concentrated in mostly public schools in our most disadvantaged areas. Pyne blames their teachers, but is he right?

Pyne argues that we don’t have an equity problem in our education system and that the socio-economic background of the family a child is born into doesn’t have a significant effect on their results at school. But the world over, the one thing education experts agree on is that socio-economic background is the best and most consistent predictor of success or otherwise at school.

However, from his Lateline appearance this week, it seems Christopher Pyne may not understand what equity actually is. He may have been sick the day St Ignatius Adelaide explained the basic democratic principle that all people are created equal, even if their circumstances are not; the more equitable a society, the smaller the gaps between the rich and poor.

When asked why, if equity is not an issue, the bottom 10 per cent of math’s students in Shanghai perform at a level that is 21 months ahead of the bottom 10 per cent of Australian students, Pyne said "the education system is failing our students". No argument there. But when pressed, and asked if dragging students from the bottom up was about equity, he denied it and said it was about parental involvement in schools, principal autonomy, independence for teachers and governing councils for schools.

So, for ex St Ignatius Adelaide student Pyne’s sake, let’s just look at what constitutes disadvantage and its effect on equity.

Kids with disadvantaged backgrounds tend to come from a disproportionate number of single parent households, with very low incomes, high levels of stress, very low educational achievement on the part of the family, often going back many generations and with what are now termed co-morbidities like drug and alcohol abuse and mental health problems.

Let’s look at how Pyne’s solutions might work for families like these and what effect they might therefore have on individual kids already struggling with unfair levels of difficulty.

1. Parental involvement in schools.

Parents who themselves failed at school, who are mentally ill, struggling to work, pay bills and raise kids on a single income, are the most unlikely to get involved in their child’s education. Unlike nice middle class families, school is an alien environment to them. If they are functionally illiterate themselves, school reminds them of their failure and shame. They are highly unlikely to get involved without considerable encouragement.

With encouragement they can get involved, but this takes time and money. Without it their involvement will remain inequitable. And, as they watch the quality and reputation of their child’s school fall further as a result, they will become even more alienated. It becomes what is termed a negative spiral. Worse, another thing we know for certain from research done all over the world, is that putting disadvantaged kids together in the same schools — as we increasingly do in Australia — compounds the disadvantage, making the downward spiral even more precipitous.

2. Principal autonomy

This is not necessarily a bad idea. If Principals are going to be held responsible for outcomes, they need to have some leverage over inputs. But, once again, if we hand over responsibility without recognition that some schools and Principals are dealing with much tougher social problems than others then we can only deepen inequity.

These schools already find it hard to attract principals; applications are falling for principal’s jobs in NSW and, particularly, in Victoria. Schools serving disadvantaged families will find it even harder to attract candidates, unless we offer incentives — in terms of pay and support. Disadvantaged schools may struggle with revolving acting principals and high staff churn. To be frank, many already do.

3. Independence for teachers in what they teach.

Actually I have the most sympathy for this solution. Gillard’s standardised testing and centralised curriculum are squeezing the time teachers have to engage their students in learning. They are being forced to teach to the test. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds lack cultural capital. Teachers need to be able to help such children catch up at their own pace. This takes time, skill and sensitivity. One size definitely does not fit all.

Middle class kids walk through the school gate better equipped than their disadvantaged peers. At the moment that advantage gap not only remains, but expands throughout school. Teachers need to be able to respond. In really tough classrooms, they may need extra literacy and student support staff — all currently being cut in NSW public schools. Larger class sizes will also not work in such schools — though they might be fine for St Ignatius.

And improving teacher training, paying teachers more and firing bad teachers are all fine ideas. Trouble is we are already short on principals and have chronic shortages in science and maths teachers across the country. The average age of teachers is now over 50; they’re about to start retiring in droves. Far from picking and choosing, many schools will be grateful for any warm body prepared to stand at the front of a class. No prizes for guessing which schools will find it hardest to attract good staff in an increasingly competitive employment market.

4. Governing councils for schools.

Once again, this can only advantage the advantaged. Middle class families who care about and understand education, who are confident about their own cultural capital and used to dealing with authority successfully and on equal terms will be an asset to their school. They may, of course, drive the staff of the school crazy — one reason, perhaps, why Victoria has such a shortage of people willing to be principals. That state has had Governing Councils for more than a decade. No noticeable effect on equity as yet, though. Indeed, there is no research that shows that such governance changes do anything to improve equity or even educational outcomes.

If, as looks likely, the Opposition wins the next election and the new Minister for Education doesn’t receive some intense remedial work on the actual meaning of equity, expect all of these problems to get worse. The Liberals are now saying said they will not implement Gonski, claiming it will cost $113 billion, not the $5 billion Gonski estimated. I find it hard to understand how that’s an argument for starving disadvantaged schools further.

But, tell you what, Mr Pyne: the public schools of Australia, particularly those servicing our most disadvantaged communities, will happily accept the lesser amount. You have no idea what a difference an extra $100,000 (even an extra $10,000) can make to a disadvantaged school.

Another sign of inequity, in fact, may be that while $100,000 is a drop in a bucket for some Australian schools — four students’ fees in some cases — it is more discretionary money at one time than some schools have ever seen.

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