As I write this, hundreds of American schools are employing Australian consultants to help them raise their performance grades. The government South Korean Ministry of education, with a policy that its own teachers must teach English in English, is turning to Australian universities - not American or British - to provide the training that will enable them to accomplish this difficult feat. Domestically, our export of Australian education exceeds that of wool or wheat, showing that we are no longer a country that rides on the sheep's back. And globally, thousands of young Australian educators are being employed to teach the children of the world - in the UK, in China, throughout the Middle-East and even developing regions in Africa. The world wants what Australian education provides.
Yet if you lent an ear to some of the alarmist domestic commentary that regularly surfaces in this country, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are on the brink of a new Dark Ages of illiteracy and delinquency. Much of this commentary is hyper-partisan, predicated on Cold War-era scares that leftist zombies are going to eat your children's brains, and deserves to be taken about as seriously. This article aims to be a circuit-breaker against the relentless hyperbole of the doom-sayers and the catastrophists.
A lot has happened in Australian education in the last five years, and much of it should quell the fears of the partisan right, if they only will listen:
The National Curriculum prototype for literacy, assembled by a team of distinguished academics (I omit the obligatory prefixes “ivory-tower” and “leftist”) includes a generous helping of phonics and grammar instruction.
There are draft National professional standards being cooked up for teachers, to enable equal professional performance and recognition across the country.
The rate of take-up in private education has slowed as we reach a new equilibrium and funding stability in the public-private balance.
Experienced teachers are being offered re-training in Maths and Sciences to make up staffing shortfalls in those subjects. NSW is leading the country in our literacy and numeracy performance, aided by large infusions of new technology and higher standards of professionalism required by the NSW Institute of Teachers.
And while I disagree with both its form and methods, the MySchool website appears to be a hit with parents.
Our education system, like our health system, is or should be the envy of the world.
Of course, like all good systems, we must brook no complacency, and always look for the opportunities to improve. Indigenous education results remain stubbornly, scandalously low, but this should not obscure the incredible level of commitment and professionalism of the educators who work in Indigenous education and the results they do achieve. Likewise, students from backgrounds of socioeconomic disadvantage, including rural dwellers, are under-represented in higher education by as much as 50 per cent of their demographic proportions; and often it is not academic performance but practical factors such as living costs near our major universities that keep disadvantaged students away from the gilded gates. Universities and technical colleges are now formulating policies that will make their courses more accessible for disadvantaged students in financial, social and practical terms.
Whether such positive progress even registers with critics remains a mystery. But one can only characterise criticism as fair-minded if it takes the good with the bad. Carping only on the negative registers as so much noise, and should be disregarded if for no other reason than we will succumb to defeatist thinking, while the rest of the world knocks on our door looking to employ our methods, and our teachers.
Having taught both international and domestic students, I would remind readers that the Australian public comprehensive high school remains one of the most important institutions for building social cohesion among our younger generation. For example, in the rural NSW town where I am shortly to commence an assignment, the children of the doctors and accountants mix with those of the factory-line workers and pastoralists, as well as the hardscrabble kids. This mixing does all of them some good, as they see their town and their world through different eyes. I am at a loss to understand why some parents are so eager to segregate their children from diversity and difference, and in some cases separate them even from sound scientific knowledge such as evolutionary and vaccination theory - all the while claiming that education standards are low!
Another of the oddities in the critique of Australian education is that people for whom “personal responsibility” is a mantra in other areas of comment seem quite prepared to heap responsibility for every poor grade onto educators. It won't wash with those who value the notion that students must do the work in order to achieve; and that it is families, communities and peers who contribute as much, if not more, to a child's development than do educators.
But, I digress. Now, what was the question? Sorry, I'm having difficulty hearing you over the whingeing ...