'You can't get there from here' goes the gag, usually told at the expense of the Irish ancient and the baffled tourist. Well, now the joke's on us too. To get to the OECD's top five school systems by 2025 we'd have to have a school system and a strategy and a chain of command, but we have none of them, and getting them is probably beyond our reach. And so we are stuck.
In setting the 'top five by '25' target the Prime Minister has done us a favour, but made a rod for her own back. The target is narrowly-focused, but focused on areas of learning - reading, maths, science - that are 'basic' as ends in themselves and as means to other learning. Achievement of the target would require a more equitable distribution of attainment as well as better performance overall.
For the Prime Minister, the target is mostly trouble.
The first problem is the amount of daylight between here and there. The most recent round of international comparisons revealed that at the year 4 level, we are 22nd in reading, 18th in maths and 19th in science. More worrying than the league table is that up to a quarter of students who have been at school for nearly four years still can't read, do simple maths, or understand elementary scientific concepts.
Other international comparisons released this year suggest things are better by the secondary years, particularly compared with the UK and US. But they're still not good enough to match Canada, not to mention Finland and several Asian systems, all of which are lifting both overall performance and equity. We are not. We're flatlining.
Another problem for the Prime Minister is that she has little control over what happens next.
We have three school systems, or eight, or 24, depending how you slice it. There are three sectors: government, non-government systemic (mainly Catholic), and independent. Then there are eight states and territories, each with its own government system and non-government schools. That makes 24 'jurisdictions' (or even more, since the Catholic sector is further divided along diocesan lines). The feds are involved in all 24 yet control none.
School systems are complex organisms, hard to change even when change is coordinated, cumulative and sustained. Our policies are none of these, Julia Gillard's valiant efforts notwithstanding. She has been the driving force in a government more active in, committed to, and optimistic about schooling than any since Whitlam.
Many of her initiatives are both necessary and constructive: a revived national curriculum; publicly available information about the resourcing and performance of every school; support to schools in getting more control over their own destinies; an IT upgrade; and most importantly, the Gonski proposal to fund schools according to their educational task rather than the sector to which they belong.
But this is all tactic and no strategy. The idea of an encompassing strategy appeared only in September of this year, five years after the 'education revolution' was inaugurated, and still exists only as a bare outline.
Moreover, there is no high command to drive it. As Federal Minister for Education Gillard set up a new ministerial council and a new system of performance contracts, but the cats still decline to be herded.
Gonski's funding scheme has been watered down at the behest of the states and independent schools, and his plan weakened by the states' veto of the 'national school resourcing body', yet Gonski is still neither agreed nor funded. The Federal Opposition has threatened to repeal any Gonski legislation in favour of a funding status quo.
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