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Teachers unions' policy is not helping to address falling education standards

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 29 January 2004

Are Australia's government schools politically correct? And are unions such as the Australian Education Union to blame?

According to Rob Durbridge, the AEU federal secretary, and Maree O'Halloran, president of the NSW Teachers Federation, the answer is no. And union apparatchiks insist that all is well with state schools; it is critics such as Prime Minister John Howard, they say, who are out of step with mainstream views.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that parents are voting with their feet, with about 30 per cent of Australian students now attending non-government schools. The figure rises to 40 per cent at years 11 and 12 as parents seek better academic results, more disciplined classrooms and school values more in line with those at home.


And why are so many parents turning their backs on public schools? One reason is that the teachers unions are their own worst enemies. Instead of advocating high standards, school accountability and a balanced curriculum, unions promote an ideologically driven, dumbed-down view of education.

Take the unions' response to the Iraq war. Not only did unions across Australia vehemently argue against our troops' involvement, but teachers were told that they, in the words of the NSW Teachers Federation, should "take action in your workplace and community" and "support students who take an anti-war stance".

This is hardly surprising. After all, since the late 1970s, teachers unions such as the AEU have been captured by the Left. Not only is the education union a member of the Australian Council of Trade Unions but year after year it campaigns to elect state and federal Labor governments.

Anyone familiar with the union’s 1993 and 1988 curriculum policies will know that the union has long viewed Australian society as inequitable and socially unjust. Education, in the words of the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, is part of the "ideological state apparatus" and those advocating change must "take the long march through the institutions".

As former Victorian premier and education minister Joan Kirner has argued, education has to be reshaped "so that it is part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system". That the AEU embraces a politically correct view of the world can be seen by its views on assessment.

Most Australians love to see their teams win and students love to compete. Not so the AEU; its 1993 policy rejects any form of assessment that is competitive, used to rank students or based on set year-level standards of achievement. Apparently, failing students is bad for their self-esteem.


The result? Unlike those countries that perform best in international maths and science tests, where students are regularly tested, Australian students face their first high-stakes competitive examination at the end of secondary school. No wonder a government survey of Australian academics found more than half agreed that first-year standards had fallen over the past five to 10 years.

Students are not the only ones saved from the embarrassment of being told that they may have failed. Teachers unions are also fierce critics of giving parents any information that might allow them to rank schools.

According to Ken Boston, a one-time NSW director-general of education: "There is a conspiracy of silence and a determination to avoid making public any information which might indicate that one school is more effective than another."

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This article was first published in The Australian on 21 January 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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