The announcement by the new federal Labor government that it proposes an “education revolution” has received wide attention. Various measures scheduled for implementation are proposed as necessary to lift the standard of education. These include the provision of a computer for every school student in years 9-12; a program involving high quality early childhood education and care, with an increase in the child care tax rebate to 50 per cent and universal health and education centres for all under five; an increase in school retention rates from 75 to 90 per cent by 2020, with a four-year minimum funding guarantee to the States and the establishment of new trade training centres at secondary schools; the establishment of a national curriculum; and a phasing out of full-fee paying undergraduate places accompanied by an increase in Commonwealth supported places at universities.
There is ample evidence of the need for major policy changes that would lift the standard of education. This includes the latest National Report on Schooling showing 20 per cent of year 7 students do not meet national numeracy benchmarks and a further 11 per cent without basic reading skills.
Another recent survey by academics suggests a decline in standards over the past 25-30 years. Unsurprisingly there is a not unconnected continued drift out of government schools despite those schools having higher teacher-student ratios than their non-government sector counterparts. More money and smaller class sizes are not necessarily the answer.
One rationale for action to lift education standards is the contribution it would make to helping improve productivity and employment, a worthy objective which Education Minister Julia Gillard has emphasised. However, the connection between improved education and productivity and employment growth is a long term one and productivity-improving policies would need also to include much greater competition in labour markets - in respect of which Labor is going backwards - and much reduced business regulation.
The more important justification for improved education standards lies in building a society in which the majority understands the basis of our culture and history and the importance of acceptable standards of behaviour, including the acceptance of personal responsibility for one’s actions. This latter requires more than just literacy and numeracy. In short, improved education has both material and cultural objectives.
The question is whether Labor’s proposals really constitute a “revolution” that will improve standards in an efficient and desirable way. On the surface the proposals sound attractive - who, for example, except those questioning spending priorities could object to secondary students having computers. But closer examination suggests they constitute a mixed bag involving many rather ill-thought out ideas. Take the early childhood initiative, for example.
With the support of Gillard, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has put this “initiative” forward after, he says, reading parts of a book by James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate economist who argues that the development of a child’s learning capability in the first few years can set the course for life. Drawing on this (rather obvious) conclusion, Rudd floated the idea of government intervention - not as a policy of the government but as a “vision” - apparently without exposing it to any serious analysis in the public service or the Ministry. And while early development is important, that does not in itself justify universal government child education centres.
Indeed, it appears that Rudd has misunderstood Heckman’s position. Although a proponent of early education, Heckman has indicated it should be targeted solely at disadvantaged kids. He is quoted as explaining, “You go where the marginal returns are the highest and they’re highest with disadvantaged children”.
Visions of government education of the young smack of the old socialist ideology that served the double purpose of getting women into the workforce and reducing parental influence at an early age. But the idea that early learning capability is more likely to come from government-run child care centres than from parental care and encouragement is widely disputed. As Alan Mitchell (chief economist at the Australian Financial Review) recently noted, researchers at the federal Department of Family and Community Services warned three years ago that “long term benefits … of early interventions in early childhood continue to be asserted in broad public debates, despite limited empirical support”.
True, successes are reported in some overseas experimental interventionist programs but these relate to children of disadvantaged parents likely to have a bad home environment rather than to children generally. Moreover, the gains in the experimental programs come mainly from reductions in crime, which hardly solved the participants’ problems. And even gains from Head Start, which is not an experimental program and has been operating in the US for many years, appear to fade out - perhaps because of poor subsequent school performance.
In short, consideration of the important role parents generally play in bringing up their children seems largely to have been overlooked in framing the Rudd vision. It is one thing to encourage mothers to return to work by providing subsidised child care centres - although those attending such centres can develop behavioural problems - but is quite another to turn them into education centres.
Another concern with Rudd’s floating vision is that he admitted having done no analysis of its cost or whether it should be given a priority in determining the allocation of budgetary resources.
Des Moore is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise and a former Deputy Secretary, Treasury. He authored Schooling Victorians, 1992, Institute of Public Affairs as part of the Project Victoria series which contributed to the educational and other reforms instituted by the Kennett Government. The views are his own.