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Here’s why non-government schools work better

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2017


In 2004, in Why Our Schools are Failing, I argued Australia's competitive academic curriculum was being "attacked and undermined by a series of ideologically driven changes that have conspired to ­reduce standards and ­impose a politically correct, mediocre view of education on our schools".

Three years later, in Dumbing Down, I repeated the claim, arguing that Australia's cultural-left education establishment, instead of supporting high-risk examinations, teacher-directed lessons and meritocracy, was redefining the curriculum "as an instrument to bring about equity and ­social justice".

At the time the Australian Curriculum Studies Association organised two national conferences involving leading education bureau­crats, professional organisations, teacher unions and like-minded academics to argue all was well and that critics such as the News Corp's newspapers were guilty of orchestrating a "black media debate" and a "conservative backlash".

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The Australian's campaign for rigour and standards in education, especially its defence of classic literature and teaching grammar, was condemned by one critic as a "particularly ferocious campaign" that was guilty of wanting "to ­restore a traditional approach to the teaching of English".

Fast-forward to 2016 and it's clear where the truth lies. Despite investing additional billions and implementing a raft of education reforms, Australia's ranking in international tests is going backwards and too many students are leaving school illiterate, innumerate and culturally impoverished.

In the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, Australian students were ranked 22nd; in the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, Australian students were ranked 20th in mathematics; and in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, our Year 4 science students were outperformed by 17 other countries.

Australia's national curriculum, instead of acknowledging we are a Western liberal democracy and the significance of our ­Judeo-Christian heritage, em­braces cultural relativism and prioritises politically correct indi­genous, Asian and sustainability perspectives.

Instead of focusing on the ­basics, teachers are pressured to teach Marxist-inspired programs such as the LGBTI Safe Schools program where gender is fluid and limitless and Roz Ward, one of the founders, argues: "It will only be through a revitalised class struggle and revolutionary change that we can hope for the liberation of LGBTI people."

What's to be done? It's rare that those responsible for failure are capable of choosing the right way forward. Organisations such as ACSA, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Council for Educational Research are part of the problem, not the solution.

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Instead of education fads and a command-and-control model mandated by such bodies, where schools are made to implement a one-size-fits-all curriculum, assess­ment, accountability and staffing system, schools must be freed from provider capture and given the autonomy to manage themselves.

As argued by Melbourne-based Brian Caldwell: "There is a powerful educational logic to locating a higher level of authority, responsibility and accountability for curriculum, teaching and assessment at the school level. Each school has a unique mix of students in respect to their needs, interests, aptitudes and ambitions; indeed, each classroom has a unique mix."

The reason Catholic and independent schools, on the whole, outperform government schools is not because of students' socio-economic status, which has a relatively weak impact on outcomes, but because non-government schools have control over staffing, budgets, curriculum focus and classroom practice.

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This article was first published in The Australian.



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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at kevind@netspace.net.au. He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at www.edstandards.com.au

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