Our Education Equity Problem Is Real

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I remember my years as school principal with much affection, and my belief that it was a job usually well done. But I confess that on occasions I’d flick a problem into the too hard basket, while creating some apparently greater priority: a committee to decide on a new school uniform, or a plan to enrol girls — in an all boys school. It would create sufficient interest and activity to let me get on with what mattered.

Creating hype and distractions is big in politics too, especially the politics of education. Let’s not forget Kevin Rudd’s various revolutions. And Gillard’s endless school reforms — does anyone remember performance pay? Or the My School website with its millions of hits — when did you last use it?

In education it is the recommendations of the Gonski review which still sit in the too hard basket. For almost two years the Gillard Government went quiet on these, then reshaped some into a grand but somewhat different and cheaper plan. Labor worked hard at the penultimate hour, hoping to wedge the Coalition — but, as we know, Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne had an apparent Damascus conversion to Gonski just in time for the election. The rest is history.

Pyne had a particular problem with the Gonski review. It challenged everything he knows about our framework of schools — which may not be much — and it was especially challenging when key movers and shakers in the non-government sector chorused initial support for the recommendations. Pyne then spent over a year dancing around the edge of the debate, supporting some bits and white-anting others, while essentially denying that Australia’s schools faced an equity problem. That alone raised eyebrows.

In government he initially felt emboldened to walk away from Labor’s deal with the States and spent two weeks last November in a spectacular double backflip. It is rare for Pyne to be left so exposed — suddenly his undergraduate debating skills were of little use — and from that time his cartoon images in two major dailies have featured a rather long and apparently wooden nose.

The Coalition’s eventual Gonski deal with the states was designed to get the issue off the front pages, regardless of any long term costs to schools. The deal runs out after four years and so will the money. Even over the short term the states are no longer obliged to sustain their investment in public schools. The upshot is that the awful equity and achievement issues in Australia’s schools, so thoroughly investigated by the Gonski panel, won’t go away.

In fact it’s getting worse. By looking at student and school achievement data I’ve shown how the social and academic divide between our schools, creating the core of our equity challenge, has continued apace. In some cases it has worsened over the same time it took to propose, undertake, start to act on, and finally to undermine the Gonski review.

In walking away from any real solution the Abbott government needs to create a diversion, perhaps an equivalent of my new school uniform policy. What better way than a couple of circuses: a beat-up about the national curriculum and another push on school autonomy?

In fairness, both were part of the Coalition’s election agenda, but the announcements and unfolding events have certainly created the level of distraction needed. What else can explain having Kevin Donnelly review the curriculum, unless it is a product of Pyne’s sense of humour?

By any standards, both the curriculum review and reforms such as making schools more autonomous won’t do much for student and school achievement, arguably what schools are all about. This isn’t unusual: one of the enduring features of the Labor-Coalition school reform bandwagon is the disconnect between the apparent problem and the hyped solution.

The national curriculum has its problems — I’m still trying to understand why we need it — but putting Kevin Donnelly in pursuit of some ideological balance makes a mockery of the scholarship usually needed for such a task and is contemptuous of the wide consultation already completed. No one seems to be able to justify the disruption the review will all create for all schools.

The rolling out of independent public schools nicely illustrates many features of symbolic but relatively useless reform. The very notion of independent public schools is an oxymoron: the education bureaucracies in each state will remain as the school authority. More important, claims that more school autonomy will improve student and school achievement have been thoroughly scrutinised.

In particular, Christopher Pyne’s claims about the beneficial impact of greater school autonomy in Western Australia have been judged mostly false by Politifact and as unsubstantiated by ABC Fact Check.

He may be light on the facts but Pyne displays chutzpah in droves: he has ploughed on, regardless of the growing daylight between what is an appealing narrative about greater school autonomy and the reality on the ground. He is busy creating an alternate reality: greater school autonomy is easy to sell, it contains all the language of freedom, quality and choice — in stark contrast to the apparent alternative of command and control. Who cares about the evidence?

Pyne’s problem is that even many on his side won’t buy it. NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli was quick to rain on his independence parade. "We don't believe the research supports creating either charter schools or fully independent public schools," he said. He was soon joined by others.

The media has also given oxygen to the doubters. One of the legacies of the Gonski review and the debate it generated is that even the average punter seems to know more about what schools really need. Media reports and comments seem more informed. Perhaps diversions and circuses won’t cut it any more; they certainly won’t have any lasting impact.

Of course all those years ago we never did enrol the girls into my old school and the uniform didn’t change all that much. The circuses came and went and we just got on with the jobs that were needed. It isn’t too much to ask.

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