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Education policy from the back of an envelope

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Education is threatened in many parts of the world, we are learning. In some US States they are cutting back on the school year and laying off teachers. Yet US scores for reading and maths in the international PISA tests are below that of countries like Spain (Krugman, "America Goes Dark", International Herald Tribune, August 10, 2010). In the UK, widespread cuts across education and related services are about to begin. And if the worldwide recession deepens in Greece, Italy and similar countries there will be cuts just as savage.

It's pleasing to hear, then, that Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants to increase spending in education, which she says is an investment in the future. Far better to invest carefully in education than to sink more money into the bottomless defence budget, as the US is doing. The rhetoric from the Australian Labor Party is pleasing. Its vision is to make every school a great school: a great school and a great education are the keys that unlock an individual's potential and the nation's future. “We will be creating ‘world class schools’ to educate the adults of 2070.”

It's all very exciting for someone like me who has spent his years struggling to educate teachers to the world outside and awaken their minds to new possibilities.

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The rhetoric is great. But what is the reality?

First, the BER. The interim review by Mr Orgill admits there have been problems in implementing the Building the Education Revolution program. I detailed some of these in an earlier article. A recent Australian article says that in New South Wales it has cost twice as much to build something in State schools as it cost Catholic schools. And State school principals have been lumbered with buildings that don't match up with their priorities.

What has to be done about this? The same as Mr and Mrs Average would do if a builder mucked up their home. Make him fix it. Any sane educational administrator knows that the NSW Department of Education can't manage to do much. Why did Gillard entrust it with managing massive building programs? Gillard is Prime Minister now. She should find out what went wrong and make it right.

It is all very well to make the education programs sound wonderful, but education is complex, and school buildings need to suit their purposes. The stimulus package was supposed to help kids' learn better, not enrich builders.

Second, bonus payments for teachers. The kid down the street might be managing McDonalds, and is able to select an employee of the month. John smiles a lot and he cooks the fries correctly. Great. Put his photo up and give him a medal. Problem: teaching isn't that simple.

James Ruse High School is the top school in NSW. How will we select the top teacher there? On the basis of her results? Oh, but her class is full of smart Asian kids who are already performing at top speed. How can we compare her work with that of a teacher struggling at Faraway School in outback WA? It would doubtless be easier in elite private schools, in which the principal has godlike authority. I can't see how it would be implemented across State Departments in NSW and Queensland which have already shown themselves incapable of creating workable new buildings.

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A half-baked bonus scheme sounds similar to the special promotions for excellent teachers which were supposed to work in NSW some years ago. It was all too hard, and was quietly dropped. Bonus payments would flow inequitably. They would be yet another way in which Federal funding would increase existing advantage for some children.

Third, a single national curriculum. Yes, this looks good on paper. But curricula are set up by States to suit their priorities. These are set up by States to include the needs of children in Cairns or Hobart or Broome. Are these needs all the same? There might be say 5 per cent of kids who transfer from State to State. Are their needs supposed to dictate what happens to the other 95 per cent?

Whose bright idea was this? Were any teachers consulted? How many hours of time will be wasted which could be spent teaching children to read?

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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