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February 28th 2009 print

Kevin Donnelly

Chairman Rudd’s Education Revolution

The Rudd Government is committed to creating an education revolution to build a world-class education system, which would establish Australia as one of the most highly educated and skilled nations. This commitment recognises the central role that education plays in the economic and social strength of our nation. Education not only drives productivity but also empowers individuals to reach their full potential, and helps overcome disadvantage.

—Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Quality Education: The Case for an Education Revolution in Our Schools

Since being elected in November last year the ALP government has signalled education as a key priority, in terms of both what the government wants to achieve and how it wishes to be judged by the electorate. Given that twelve months have elapsed since the election, it is timely to evaluate Prime Minister Rudd’s so-called education revolution and its impact on schools.

The first thing to note about education under the ALP government is that its approach to public policy is highly centralised and bureaucratic—all roads lead to Canberra. While the Constitution gives control of school education to state governments and the Commonwealth government neither employs teachers nor owns any schools, since being elected the Rudd–Gillard government has announced a range of policies and initiatives calculated to exert control over state and territory education systems and government and non-government schools. Chief amongst these are:

• the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (largely replacing the existing eight state and territory curriculum bodies)

• a national curriculum (involving both content and assessment, kindergarten to Year 12 and mandated for government and non-government schools)

• a National Partnership on Quality Teaching initiative

• a national accountability and performance reporting framework

• a National Partnerships Program to address socio-economic disadvantage

• a National Action Plan for Literacy and Numeracy

• a National Schools Assessment and Data Centre

Once implemented, the above policies will lead to a significant shift in how schools operate, including: what is taught and how it is assessed; teacher training, professional development and registration; how schools and teachers are evaluated and rewarded in terms of performance; and how school funding is decided. The Commonwealth government has also signalled that it will pressure schools, government and non-government, from kindergarten to Year 12, to abide by ALP policy in areas like promoting equity and overcoming disadvantage and promoting a cultural-Left view on issues related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture, the environment, cultural diversity and difference, Asian studies and the class war.

Given the ALP’s antipathy to non-government schools, it should not surprise that much of the agenda underlying Chairman Rudd’s education revolution is directed at weakening the position of Catholic and independent schools, in terms of both funding and their power to act autonomously and free from government interference and constraint. While nowhere near as obvious or blunt as Mark Latham’s hit list of so-called wealthy private schools, the Rudd–Gillard campaign against non-government schools represents a greater danger, as it is cloaked in the guise of conservative education values and supporting parental choice.

The Rudd government’s attack on non-government schools is especially misguided, as research suggests one of the most important characteristics of stronger performing education systems is a robust and well resourced non-government school sector. Choice, competition and diversity are key ingredients to educational success. While Kevin Rudd’s education revolution embraces all aspects of education from early childhood to Year 12, from what is taught to how teachers are trained and rewarded, from using computers to making students Asia-literate, the following focuses on the ALP’s plans for the national goals for schooling and Australia’s national curriculum.

Kevin Rudd’s Five-Year Plan

Evidence that the Rudd government intends to centralise control and to enforce a cultural-Left view of education on Australian schools can be found in the National Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians—Draft (described as a new declaration for a new century) and the associated MCEETYA Action Plan 2008–2012. The two papers detail the ALP’s philosophy and values underpinning education, especially curriculum, and will set the direction for all Australian schools over the next five years. The national educational goals paper replaces the 1999 Adelaide Declaration and will act as a blueprint guiding the work of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA)—the peak body including all of Australia’s education and training ministers.

The action plan commits governments, schools and school sectors to implementing Kevin Rudd’s education revolution in areas like early childhood education, improving the quality of teaching and school leadership, raising standards, addressing equity issues and making schools and systems more accountable in terms of performance. It should be noted that most of these initiatives are copied from the failed education agenda that Tony Blair forced on British schools.

Notwithstanding the claims of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to being educational traditionalists (see “Getting the Schools Back to Basics”, Quadrant, June 2008) the national goals paper embodies a New Age and politically-correct view of education. The preamble, as with much of what currently passes as curriculum policy, repeats clichés about “global integration and interdependence”, “technological change”, “environmental pressures” and the “digital age”—ignored is that education must deal with continuity as well as change and that human nature is the same now as when Greek tragedies were first performed.

Similar to Australia’s failed politically correct, outcomes-based education model of curriculum (for a description, see “The Dubious Quest for a National Curriculum”, Quadrant, September 2008) the national goals paper argues that education must celebrate diversity and difference, students must become Asia-literate, and all must “respect Indigenous cultures and the unique place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as a valued part of Australia’s heritage and its future”. As with previous attempts to develop a national approach to curriculum, such as the Keating government’s statements and profiles of the mid-1990s, one searches in vain for any mention of Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage or what we owe to the institutions, language and culture inherited from the United Kingdom. Instead of identifying and celebrating those cultural values and beliefs that we hold in common and that ensure stability and peace, schools are told they must teach respect and appreciation for “cultural, social and religious diversity”.

Julia Gillard, in addition to being Minister for Education is also Minister for Social Inclusion and a member of the Fabian Society, so it should not surprise that the national goals paper emphasises education’s role in overcoming disadvantage. Under the heading “Promoting equity: a foundation for achieving our goals”, schools are told that they must provide an education free from “discrimination based on gender, language, sexual orientation, pregnancy, culture, ethnicity, religion or disability, and differences arising from students’ socioeconomic background or geographic location”. One wonders what the impact of such a policy will be on the enrolment practices and curriculum of schools committed to the Christian faith—no doubt, as a condition of Commonwealth funding, such schools will be made to enrol students from a diverse range of religions and sexual orientations and curriculum will have to adopt a politically correct attitude to diversity and difference, based on the concept of cultural relativism and the belief that all lifestyles are of equal value.

A second example of the national educational goals paper enforcing an ideologically driven view of education and disadvantage is the statement that all young Australians have the right to “achieve not only equality of opportunity but also equity of outcomes”. Equality of opportunity has long been accepted as one of the cornerstones of Australian education; where the national goals paper goes further is to argue that education must engineer a situation where all students and groups of students, regardless of ability, interest or motivation, achieve the same equitable outcomes. It should not surprise that Julia Gillard’s call for equity of outcomes mirrors the call of the one-time Victorian Minister for Education, Joan Kirner, for equality of outcomes. Like Joan Kirner, Julia Gillard is a prominent member of the Socialist Left faction of the Victorian ALP.

Given that the Rudd government has stated that one of the indicators of school performance will be the extent to which schools overcome socio-economic disadvantage, it should also not surprise if, in the future, funding is diverted from so-called privileged non-government schools to government schools serving disadvantaged communities, on the assumption that such government schools are in greater need and, according to critics of non-government schools, better able to foster increased equity and social cohesion.

The MCEETYA Action Plan 2008–2012 also represents a highly centralised and bureaucratic form of Commonwealth control over education. Much like the grandiose and ambitious plans characteristic of Communist Russia and Maoist China, the plan boldly proclaims that governments and bureaucracies have the solution to Australia’s educational problems and that all schools, parents and students need to do is to commit to the government-inspired action plan and all will be solved. Again and again, throughout the document, the statement is made that all school sectors must commit themselves to the various government-inspired and mandated proposals and initiatives.

The Rudd government’s thirst for micro-management is best illustrated by its plans to improve teacher quality. Under the heading of “Improving the quality of teaching and school leadership”, the government signals that it will push for nationally agreed teacher standards, registration, professional development, performance pay and accreditation of accomplished and leading teachers. Given that the reforms, in all likelihood, will be managed by Australia’s education establishment, represented by the very bureaucracies, subject associations, schools of education and assorted fellow travellers responsible for recent failures like “outcomes-based education”, the chances of anything improving are minimal.

Notwithstanding ALP state and federal governments’ rhetoric about a back-to-basics approach to curriculum, it is obvious that the national action plan adopts a progressive and New Age approach (like the much condemned outcomes-based-education model). When describing what needs to be done to strengthen the middle years of schooling it says, “The middle years of schooling require a distinctive and developmentally appropriate educational program to meet young adolescents’ cognitive, physical, emotional and social needs …”. The characteristics listed include giving students control over learning, adopting a pedagogy best suited to middle-year students and structuring a curriculum, in relation to students, that is relevant to “meaningful life events, experiences and questions that are of concern to them”. Once again, the content of important subjects is subservient to the world of the student.

One of the great strengths of Australia’s non-government school sector is that it embraces a range of schools reflecting diverse educational philosophies, including Montessori, Steiner, various faith schools and more traditional schools that embrace a competitive, academic approach to the curriculum. If the national goals and action plan are forced on all schools, such diversity will be lost as schools committed to a discipline-based, teacher-directed pedagogy will be forced to make the curriculum student-centred and immediately contemporary and relevant. In addition, those non-government schools that are judged as failing to meet ALP governments’ views about equity and overcoming disadvantage will also lose funding

Evidence of increased government control and antipathy to non-government schools is also illustrated by the approach taken to what is termed “increasing accountability and transparency”. While all schools, especially non-government, currently collect and make public information related to a number of indicators, including results in state and national literacy and numeracy tests, post-school destinations for students, staff morale, curriculum focus and financial and enrolment details, the Commonwealth government’s approach represents a significant escalation.

Schools and sectors will be made to collect data to establish the degree to which they have implemented government policy, each Australian child is to have a “unique student identifier” to track his or her performance during the compulsory years and beyond, and schools must agree to make public information related to their “philosophy and approach to supporting [students’] intellectual, physical, social, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing”. The data collected by the Commonwealth government will be used to direct resources—a code for gathering information to justify reducing funding to supposedly privileged non-government schools in favour of government schools serving disadvantaged communities. In fact, compared with many other OECD countries, Australia’s education system is already highly successful in overcoming disadvantage.

Outcomes-Based Education Revisited

Australia currently has eight separate models of school curriculum. While there are common characteristics, they reflect state and territory differences and variations. As demonstrated by the last twenty years or so of curriculum development, in diversity and local control there is strength as, generally speaking, it is impossible to force all schools and systems to adopt a centrally determined one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum. While the then Keating Commonwealth government sought to impose its national statements and profiles on schools, Victoria and New South Wales, given their autonomy, were able to escape the worst excesses of what is now generally agreed to have been a dumbed-down and politically-correct approach to curriculum. Such freedom and flexibility are now under threat.

The Commonwealth government has established an interim National Curriculum Board to develop a curriculum, initially in English, mathematics, science and history, to be ready for implementation at the start of 2011. All states and territories will be made to implement the Rudd government’s national curriculum (from kindergarten to Year 12) as will Catholic and independent schools. (As part of the Schools Assistance Bill 2008 tabled in late October in the Commonwealth parliament, non-government schools will lose their funding if they refuse to teach this national curriculum.) Not only will implementation of the national curriculum be a condition of funding, in addition, all schools will be monitored and publicly evaluated in terms of how successful they are at achieving the performance standards associated with the national curriculum.

The Rudd government has given the task of developing Australia’s national curriculum to the same cultural-Left education establishment and educrats responsible for the last mess. The Chair of the National Curriculum Board, Barry McGaw, is a close friend of the ALP, having completed a number of projects for previous ALP governments in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and organised the launch of Kevin Rudd’s education policy at the University of Melbourne in the lead-up to the last federal election. Professor McGaw is also an advocate of absorbing Catholic and independent schools into the state system of education on the basis, supposedly, that non-government schools promote social instability and reinforce educational disadvantage. The Deputy Chair, Tony Mackay, for some years has worked with the London-based left-of-centre think-tank favoured by Tony Blair, Demos, and supported Australia’s adoption of outcomes-based education. Tony Mackay is also head of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, a professional group that argues there is no crisis in education and that complaints about falling standards are a media beat-up orchestrated by conservative commentators and newspaper editors eager to improve circulation.

Evidence that the process has been captured by the cultural-Left can be found on examining who is leading the development of the subjects due to be implemented at the start of 2011. The ex-communist and apologist for a black-armband view of history, Stuart Macintyre, is in charge of the history curriculum. With English, the lead academic, Peter Freebody, is a well-known advocate of critical literacy, where students are taught to deconstruct (analyse) texts in terms of power relationships and the rights of victim groups. The prospects for science are no better, as the academic in charge, Denis Goodrum, advocates a progressive and New Age approach to the subject, one that devalues essential content and formal teaching, and argues that education must be made entertaining and immediately accessible and relevant.

The background paper setting the context in which the national curriculum will be developed is titled The Shape of the National Curriculum: A Proposal for Discussion. Much of the paper contains extracts from the National Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians—Draft, previously discussed. Much like Australia’s outcomes-based-education (OBE) curriculum (otherwise know as Essential Learnings), the national curriculum paper undervalues the more academic, discipline-based approach by arguing that schools must teach competencies and skills associated with what are described as general capabilities. In a re-run of the failed Mayer Competencies developed during the early 1990s (fortunately, that had minimal impact on schools) the paper argues that generic capabilities will be embedded in the English, mathematics, science and history curricula developed for schools. The paper also argues in favour of a number of cross-curricula perspectives that have a decidedly politically-correct flavour, including cultural sensitivity, sustainable living, developing an Asia-Pacific perspective, and respect for other cultures.

One of the weakest aspects of OBE relates to assessment and reporting. Valuing self-esteem is more important than telling students they may have failed; high-risk, summative testing is replaced by continual diagnostic assessment, and students are no longer ranked one against the other or against norm-referenced standards. Running a marathon race provides an example; under the more traditional format contestants would be ranked first to last with the top performers rewarded. Under OBE, where the criterion for success might simply be finishing the course, regardless of the time taken or the placing, all would be winners.

In all probability, the new national curriculum will continue an OBE approach. When describing the achievement standards associated with the national curriculum (defined as the quality of achievement that is expected), for example, the paper suggests assessment has three functions: establishing the quality of learning that students are expected to achieve, providing a language teachers can use to discuss assessment with students and parents, and assisting in identifying under-performing students. Ignored is the need to have an assessment system to rank students in terms of achievement and to provide a competitive ethos in which top performers are recognised and rewarded.

In addition to the background paper, specific papers related to English, mathematics, science and history have also been released. The papers provide further evidence of the danger in imposing a national curriculum. While cloaked in a back-to-basics, traditional approach (recognising the need to teach grammar and phonics), the English paper is flawed and ideologically driven. Mirroring the ALP government’s worldview, the paper suggests that Australian society is “pluralistic and changing”, characterised by “diversity and dynamism” and that a major function of education is to promote equity (especially related to socio-economic and indigenous status). Once again, change is emphasised over continuity and what the nation holds in common is ignored in favour of diversity and difference.

The paper undermines a commitment to literature by adopting an expanded definition that includes multi-modal and digital texts as well as images and non-print texts. Critical literacy is still present, as is the influence of theory, as illustrated by how literary studies is now taught at the tertiary level. The paper does acknowledge the need to teach grammar, but it fails to clarify whether the model adopted will be a traditional one or the more politically-correct model represented by a functional linguistics approach. Many readers will remember being taught traditional grammar—including parts of speech and how to write grammatically correct sentences, along with correct punctuation. Much like critical literacy, functional grammar is all about analysing language in terms of power relationships. Nouns are renamed as “participants”, verbs are described as “process” and adverbial clauses and phrases are changed to “circumstances”. Such is the confusing and arcane nature of the terminology associated with functional grammar that Bob Carr, when New South Wales Premier, had it banished from the state curriculum.

The science paper is also flawed. It argues against teaching essential knowledge and facts by suggesting that education must be made contemporary and relevant to students’ interests. As with OBE, entertainment replaces learning as teachers are told they must centre science teaching on controversial issues related to everyday experiences and so-called real-life situations. Memorisation and formal, competitive testing are also out the window as teachers are told that assessment must be diagnostic and formative. The more traditional subject-based approach, described as a “content-based summative approach”, is frowned upon and the paper argues that “a knowledge-laden curriculum” leads to a superficial understanding of the discipline. Ignored is the impact of state and territory classrooms being forced to adopt an OBE approach, an approach that has led to falling standards as evidenced by remedial classes at the tertiary level and academics having to water down first-year subjects in mathematics, physics and chemistry.

On being interviewed by the Australian when the history paper was released, Stuart Macintyre boasted that the approach taken was balanced and free from bias—he even went as far as challenging critics to find evidence that the view of history teaching presented was in any way ideologically driven. On first reading the history paper, compared to how history was dealt with under the banner of the OBE-inspired Studies of Society and the Environment, one can detect a more traditional flavour. The paper argues that history, as a distinct discipline, should have a strong narrative focus and that students should be taught facts, dates and the importance of significant historical figures. There is an acknowledgment that Australia has inherited many of its institutions and cultural practices from Western Europe and that religion is an important aspect of the subject.

Balanced against such positives, under the heading “History for the twenty-first century”, is the list of historical influences on Australia’s development as a nation. The list includes the usual cultural-Left touchstones, including celebrating multicultural diversity, the need to value Aboriginal culture and adopt an Asia-Pacific perspective, concern about the environment and the need to embrace information and communication technology (ICT). When detailing what will be taught in junior secondary school in Australian history, chief among the areas covered include “immigration, women’s rights, the Vietnam War, Indigenous rights and contemporary political history”—no doubt all interpreted from a Left perspective.

The Member for Warringah, Tony Abbott, pointed out that one searches in vain for any mention of what we owe to British institutions and cultural practices or the central role Christianity has played in the evolution of Western civilisation. Unlike Zhou Enlai who, on being asked the significance of the French Revolution, reportedly answered it was too early to tell, the history paper gives the subject a decidedly contemporary focus when it states that it “stretches from the distant past to the present”. That the subject is in danger of being watered down is also evidenced by the call to embrace cross-curricula perspectives such as literacy, numeracy, ICT, languages and Asian studies, the arts, as well as civics and citizenship. Clearly, the history paper is weighted towards a cultural-Left view of the subject, but whether the syllabuses written next year will make the situation more biased, only time will tell.

The British Experience

Much of Kevin Rudd’s education revolution is copied from Tony Blair’s education agenda—everything from early childhood education, to a national curriculum, to making information about school performance public and efforts to improve teacher quality. That Australia is copying the British experience should not surprise. In opposition Kevin Rudd fashioned his renewal of the ALP on Blair’s success with New Labour. A senior Labour Minister, David Miliband, visited Australia before the election and counselled Rudd and other senior members of the ALP about the best way to gain electoral success. In education, the contacts between Australia and Britain are strong. The ex-Director of the New South Wales Education Department, Ken Boston, has for some time been head of the London-based Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, while Tony Mackay, Vice-Chairman of Australia’s National Curriculum Authority and President of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, is close to the leftist think-tank Demos. Tom Bentley, a past Director of Demos, has worked at the senior policy level in Victoria, in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and is now a senior adviser to Julia Gillard.

The grim news for Australian schools is the mounting evidence that Blair’s education revolution has failed. Investment in early childhood education, instead of helping the disadvantaged, benefits the middle class. Teachers are still demoralised and it is impossible to staff schools in difficult areas. National testing and intrusive accountability measures have drowned schools and teachers in bureaucracy and led to a narrow curriculum. Examinations like the A Levels have been watered down and made easier to pass, and many independent schools have organised to introduce their own senior school certificate. Performance in most international tests has failed to improve, and educational disadvantage appears more entrenched than ever.

Competition, Diversity and Choice

But being pro-market, pro-business and pro-globalisation means working for a society where citizens are not dependent on the government … And it means smaller government and an end to the paternalism that nourishes political correctness, promotes government interference and undermines freedom and personal responsibility.

—Rupert Murdoch, 2008 ABC Boyer Lectures

In opposition to Kevin Rudd’s centralised, bureaucratic and micromanaged education revolution is a view of education that supports competition, diversity and choice. Australia’s education system, compared to most other OECD countries, provides parents and students with a good deal of flexibility and choice among schools. Evidenced by the growth in the non-government system over the last twenty years, the freedom to choose Catholic and independent schools is especially valued by parents and students.

Based on the 2007 ABS figures, between 1997 and 2007 the number of students attending non-government schools grew by 21.9 per cent, while the rise in government school students was 1.7 per cent. Across Australia just over 30 per cent of students attend non-government schools, with the figure in some states rising to over 40 per cent at Years 11 and 12. Unlike state schools, which are highly regulated and controlled by government, non-government schools are free to respond to the market and have autonomy over key areas like staffing, school culture, curriculum focus and how best to meets the needs and aspirations of their school communities.

Studies carried out by the German researcher Ludger Woessmann, identifying the characteristics of stronger performing education systems as measured by international tests, single out school autonomy and a robust and properly resourced non-government school sector as key indicators. While acknowledging the need for accountability (such as external, competitive examinations where school performance can be measured), Woessmann in a number of studies emphasises the need for choice, competition, decentralisation and autonomy: “The bottom line of the evidence from international achievement tests on competition from private schools is that students perform better in countries where more schools are privately managed.” Woessmann refers to US research into the impact of initiatives like vouchers and charter schools that concludes that children from disadvantaged communities especially benefit from school choice. While teacher unions argue that all schools need in order to raise standards is increased funding, Woessmann argues that additional investment, by itself, is not the solution. Closer to home, of interest is that one of the background papers to the 2008 Commonwealth budget (“Statement 4: Boosting Australia’s Productive Capacity: The Role of Infrastructure and Skills”) concludes that parental choice in education and school autonomy are significant factors in raising standards.

The benefits of school autonomy are especially evident in the recent experience of school reform in Sweden and the Netherlands. In the early 1990s, the state-controlled Swedish education system was deregulated and since that time there has been a dramatic increase in the number of non-government schools—rising from 107 in 1992 to 576 in 2004. The number of students attending Swedish non-government schools has increased from 1 per cent of the school population to 7 per cent. David Cameron, the leader of the British Conservative Party, recently announced that school choice would be a significant plank in the party’s policy platform. Such is the failure of many of the state-sponsored initiatives introduced during the Blair years that the debate in Britain now centres on how best to free schools from government regulation and control and to open schools up to market forces.

School choice is not restricted to affluent countries. As noted by the British academic James Tooley, school choice is increasingly popular in Third World countries:

“research, both from India and from other developing countries, suggests that private education in general is more effective (at least in terms of student achievement in key subjects), even when controlled for socio-economic class and the background variable of students.”

Kevin Rudd is proud of his ability to speak Mandarin and to empathise with the Middle Kingdom. Based on the Commonwealth government’s plan to centralise control and micromanage state and territory education departments, sectors and schools, it should be obvious that speaking Mandarin is not the only thing Rudd has taken from his years working in China.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a freelance education writer and the Director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies. His most recent book, Dumbing Down, is published by Hardie Grant.