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Rules of engagement for surviving schools debate

By Dean Ashenden - posted Monday, 25 March 2013

If Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have done nothing else, they have certainly got us talking about schools. Everyone wants to have their say about what's wrong with schools and how to fix them, not just the politicians but grandees of print journalism, stars of national radio and television, leader writers, economic commentators and whole fleets of bloggers, enough in total to drown out the familiar drone of the interest groups and old education hands like me.

Those of us who have been writing about or agitating in schooling forever have our own well-worn ways of getting it wrong, not by what is said so much as by what isn't. Unfortunately these selective habits are often recycled and amplified by the arrivistes.

There are still six long months to go before we can all stop talking about schools, so here are some dos and don'ts for the meantime.


First, do not talk about the outrageous conduct of the independent schools (the rich ones especially) or the Catholics (the bishops especially) or of the government sector (unions especially) without saying why they are behaving outrageously. They are doing only as they are encouraged, required or allowed to by the world's worst-practice Australian system of sectors: three funding sources mixed in three ways for three groups of schools governed in three ways.

The sector system is guaranteed to produce adversarial conduct on all sides and hence chronic special pleading, misleading "facts" and a culture of complaint.

Second, do not suggest that more competition between schools or sectors will improve the situation unless you are prepared to talk also about how to make it a competition that everyone, or just about everyone, reckons they can win (as in the AFL, for instance). That would mean, among other things, setting ceilings to spending by schools as well as floors of the Gonski kind, and common rules on things such as cherry-picking students and booting them out.

Third, do not talk about the (manifest) need for more or more fairly distributed public money unless you also are prepared to talk about how to make better use of them.

In particular, have a good answer to the question of what it is that the public got by increasing per pupil expenditure on schools by 2 1/2 times (in real terms) in the 50 years to 2004 (without any improvement in the salaries and status of teachers).

Fourth, do not justify more spending on schooling on the grounds of its productivity.


It's a half-truth anyway (schooling is more about scrambling for a share of a growing cake than about growing the cake) but, even if it weren't, the argument for more and better schooling isn't that it's good for the economy. The central point is that it's better to understand how the world and its numbers and words work than not, and that if you don't, you're legless.

Fifth, don't talk about the virtues of tried and true methods in the classroom unless you can also suggest how they will accommodate the coming technological revolution in teaching and learning. Machines are capable of substituting for the labour of teaching, and will soon be more so. Think of schooling, think of the waterfront, or dead country towns, or Fairfax, and then tell us how teachers should teach.

Sixth, for these and other reasons, please do not talk about teacher quality unless you talk also about the quality of the workplace and the work process of the teacher's 25 or so co-workers. The classroom and the lesson are inherently hard to manage ways of organising time, people and work.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Dean Ashenden was co-founder of the Good Universities Guides and Good School Guides, and had been an adviser or consultant on education policy to state and federal governments and agencies.

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