So how to ensure that students, regardless of socioeconomic background, achieve to the best of their ability? In Britain, the Blair Government's white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, released late last month, shows one way.
In allowing schools more autonomy in staffing and curriculum and giving parents the freedom to choose between government schools, the intention is to pressure schools to be more responsive to community needs, as opposed to what teacher unions and public servants may want to supply.
In the words of Tony Blair, there is a need “to escape the straitjacket of the traditional comprehensive school and embrace the idea of genuinely independent non-fee paying state schools. [The white paper's goal] is to break down the barriers to new providers, to schools associating with outside sponsors, to the ability to start and expand schools; and to give parental choice its proper place.”
The cross-partisan British think tank Reform argues that the Blair Government does not go far enough because it does not propose to introduce vouchers, so that the funding can follow the child, nor allow profit-making companies to manage schools, but the white paper abandons much of existing practice.
Historically in Britain, local education authorities control schools, and schools that under-perform continue unchallenged. Under the new set of proposals, not only will the role of local authorities be reduced but also, where there is parental demand, it will be easier to establish new schools that better reflect community needs.
In comparison, the recent Victorian government white paper Review of Education and Training Legislation (pdf file 852KB) represents a more traditional approach to managing education. Whereas the Blair initiatives push the boundaries, the Victorian white paper stays on safer ground.
Victoria's white paper fails to deliver on using results to rank schools in terms of performance, giving parents greater freedom to choose between schools and allowing private providers to manage schools.
Although the education rhetoric under the Bracks Government is couched in marketing clichés such as “best practice”, “performance and development culture”, “transparent reporting”, and “multiple pathways”, the reality is that the system is unresponsive and bureaucratic.
The result? In Victoria and across Australia, such is the level of parental dissatisfaction with government schools that non-government enrolments have grown from 22 per cent in 1980 to 31 per cent in 2004; at years 11 and 12 the figure rises to 39.5 per cent.
Similarly, the ACT Government's response to public schools losing market share also demonstrates a singular inability to think outside the square. ABS figures show government school enrolments dropped from 68 per cent to 59 per cent between 1984 and 2004. Commonsense suggests that if students are going elsewhere, it's logical for governments to examine why and to do something to turn the tide. Not so with those responsible for education in the ACT.
Instead of addressing the reasons parents are voting with their feet, the official response is just to get government schools to have a marketing strategy, hold open days and circulate promotional material.
As to why Victoria, and education systems across the rest of Australia for that matter, have failed to adopt more school reform, the reasons are easy to find.
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