Now that the dust and the bulldust is starting to settle it is getting easier to see what came out of the 2020 Summit - but as far as education is concerned, scanning the Summit report is a bit like a hungry dog scouring a rubbish tip looking for something recognisable to eat.
Most of the morsels were found in the productivity agenda - with participants facing questions to which we already know the answer, along with push-polling type questions which would steer discussion towards the achievable, while tip-toeing around the hard-to-solve issues.
I don’t want to be “holier-than-thou” about this - as a school principal in a former life I would always make sure that each annual school plan included stuff that was going to happen anyway. And I don’t want to bad-mouth the summiteers because many exciting ideas did emerge across the topic areas.
But even allowing for all that, the education ideas coming out of the Summit were a bit underwhelming. There were some good ideas, but others addressed superficial concerns, gave jobs for someone else (schools) to do and restated much of the bleeding obvious. Some ideas were in potential conflict and others, almost certainly a good idea at the time, might have a mercifully short life span.
The biggest category was “lofty-ideas-which-need-a-dose-of-reality”. The constant references to inclusion, even in the productivity group, were very refreshing. But the mere presence of fee-charging schools alongside free schools guarantees that it is exclusion, not inclusion, which has a firm grip in Australian schooling. The productivity group may wish to overcome the “public-private divide in education”, but they’ll need to demolish a herd of sacred cows.
Let’s take just one example: the productivity group wants to fund students according to need. The students’ parents say you should fund their choice of schools according to some entitlement that comes from the mere paying of taxes. The principles of need and entitlement don’t make good bedfellows.
While inclusion was up there in lights in the Strengthening Communities group, the finger didn’t point to the way our current framework of public and private schools actually undermines social inclusion. The report from this group flagged the idea of perks for private schools which enrolled students from low income families, but missed the potentially regressive impact of this on the communities they are supposed to be strengthening. The Indigenous Australia group fiddled with this idea as well, also forgetting that pulling kids out of their communities is always going to be a double-edged sword.
Many ideas fall into the “good-idea-but-we-are-doing-it” category. We do try to attract quality people into teaching and celebrate the career. We do have many links with the universities and with business - witness the huge success of vocational training. We are ploughing ahead with a national curriculum and certainly would like universal pre-schooling. We do use schools after-hours. What we need is better resourcing for all these things in an improved federal-state funding framework.
Then there is the “schools-will-do-it” category. The Health group wants to feed more fruit to primary kids and the Creative Australia group wants mandate creative arts for all students. In most states the latter is mandatory anyway, and that is part of the problem: mandating something for adolescents is usually a turn-off. Kids in New South Wales desert modern history and geography in droves after they get past Bob Carr’s compulsory bit. Sorry Cate, you’ll have to wait your turn in the make-it-mandatory queue behind the basics-bullies and the history-hounders. While you are waiting, think about what should fall OFF the school curriculum to make space for more compulsions. Now that would be an innovation!
I know the Summit was meant to be a brainstorm and we shouldn’t shoot down good ideas BUT we really do need to come to grips with the issues that the Summit seemed to avoid. Try these for starters:
- How do we ensure that public policy places the need of children to get a quality education first among all other priorities?
- How can the provision and resourcing of schooling reduce, rather than accentuate, resource and opportunity gaps between children, schools and communities? How can schools reinforce social inclusiveness, harmony and the development of strong social capital in every community?
- What should be essential in the role, character and provision of public education? What role should private schooling play and what arrangements might support this role?
Until we come to grips with these big education issues the best efforts of the Summit in education will prove to have fallen well short of the mark.
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