The Struggle for the Schools

I don’t resile from a fight with any teacher union, anywhere, at any time … It is absolute nonsense, you know—trendoid, politically correct social engineering —to believe in any way testing is inappropriate in school circumstances. You’re doing the kids a disservice and their family a disservice by not doing it. There’s a big cruel world out there.

—Kevin Rudd, Opposition Leader, October 2007

Kevin Rudd, after taking over as Opposition Leader in December 2006, made much of the fact that he was an economic conservative. Playing Tweedledum to John Howard’s Tweedledee, Rudd successfully portrayed the Labor Party as fiscally responsible and no longer captured by left-wing unions and their fellow travellers.

Education is another policy area where Kevin Rudd and the ALP staked the middle ground and copied the Howard government’s agenda. In the months preceding the November 2007 election, Rudd and Stephen Smith (the then shadow education minister) delivered a series of policy papers and speeches that argued for higher standards, increased accountability, a back-to-basics approach to literacy and numeracy and a more traditional, academic curriculum.

Whether demanding plain English report cards, student assessment on a five-point scale (A to E), putting history and geography back in the curriculum or guaranteeing parents’ right to choose non-government schools, it was clear that the ALP had outmanoeuvred the Coalition government and the Education Minister, Julie Bishop.

Kevin Rudd’s success in winning the education debate was helped by the Australian’s campaign highlighting the substandard state of Australia’s education system. While the national newspaper has a history of criticising progressive educational fads and defending academic subjects, beginning in 2005 the paper embarked on a sustained crusade calling for higher standards and a more traditional approach to the curriculum.

While those academics and professional associations responsible for the current situation argue there is no crisis and that all is well, taken together, they provide damning evidence of a failed system. It should also be noted that both major political parties have accepted the validity of the critique developed by the Australian: both argue for an end to progressive fads like outcomes-based education and for the primacy of a rigorous, academic curriculum based on traditional subjects.

Notwithstanding the additional millions spent on education since the 1970s and 1980s, the years of curriculum change and experiments like outcomes-based education, standards have failed to improve. Thousands of children leave primary school unable to read and write or do mental arithmetic and many Year 12 students enter university unable to write a properly structured, grammatically correct essay.

Australian students are in the second eleven when it comes to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests, consistently outperformed by students in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. In the Programme for International Student Assessment, Australian standards have declined since 2000 and countries we once outperformed are now doing better than Australia.

In an increasingly violent, dysfunctional and immoral world, many students leave school culturally illiterate and ethically challenged, with a minimal understanding of Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage and the debt we owe to Western civilisation.

Many critics argue that, far from education providing a ladder of opportunity, schools are part of the capitalist system and are guilty of promoting inequality and social injustice. For these critics, learning is not valued for its own sake; instead, the role of schools is to turn students into New Age warriors of the cultural-Left.

The first thing to note about Rudd’s education revolution is that it represents nothing new. In fact, most of the ALP’s policy agenda is copied from the UK Labour Party and Tony Blair. Initiatives like early childhood education, a national curriculum and national testing, identifying under-performing schools and holding them accountable, and investing in computers and associated information technology have all been tried before—with mixed results.

The ALP’s links with the UK include the one-time British Schools Minister, David Miliband, advising the then opposition in the lead up to the 2007 election; the Director of the Blair-favoured left-wing think-tank Demos, Tom Bentley, acting as a senior policy and ministerial adviser to both the Victorian and Common-wealth governments; and Tony Mackay, the Deputy Chair of Australia’s National Curriculum Board, having worked with Demos and other UK education bodies during the Blair years.

While the ALP’s rhetoric about raising standards, holding schools accountable, doing more to overcome disadvantage and protecting parents’ right to choose where their children go to school sounds worthwhile, there is a concern that Rudd’s education revolution is more spin than substance, and that the changes needed to strengthen the system will be ignored.

Research into stronger-performing education systems identifies school choice as a key factor. Educational success occurs where schools are autonomous and free from government interference, where there is competition between schools, where Catholic and independent schools are properly resourced and a diverse range of schools meets the needs and aspirations of various communities.

It’s obvious that Australian parents are committed to school choice and the freedom to decide where their children go to school. Since 1997, while government school enrolments have risen by 1.7 per cent, non-government school enrolments have risen by 21.9 per cent. Across Australia, approximately 33 per cent of students are in non-government schools; the figure rises to over 40 per cent at Years 11 and 12. Surveys show that parents want schools that are free from government interference and where the curriculum and the school’s culture best reflect community values and those of the home.

One way to support parental choice is to introduce school vouchers or make school fees tax deductible. Instead of governments funding schools and school systems, as currently occurs around Australia, vouchers are based on the premise that parents and families are in the best position to choose a school—either government, Catholic or independent. Under a voucher system, each student attracts an agreed amount of taxpayer funding and the money follows the child wherever he or she goes to school. Vouchers are generally means tested and are increasingly popular in the USA, Europe and less-developed countries such as India, Bangladesh, Colombia and Chile. Overseas experience shows that vouchers help to raise standards and better meet the needs and expectations of parents and communities.

Vouchers introduce competition and choice in education and help free schools from provider capture (where teacher unions, education bureaucrats and politicians control schools to suit their own ends instead of addressing the needs of parents and school communities). On the grounds of equity and social justice, it is only fair if more parents, especially those in disadvantaged communities, are given the financial ability to choose between schools. While the current situation does not meet all the preconditions associated with school choice, it should also be noted that Australia already has a de facto voucher system.

In addition to introducing a voucher system, state and territory education departments need to hand over control of schools, especially government schools, to their local communities. In the USA they are called charter schools; in the UK, under the Blair government, such schools were described as city academies. Australia has a strong history of community schools. During the 1970s and 1980s, especially in New South Wales and Victoria, government community schools were at the cutting edge of innovation and meeting the needs of students, especially in disadvantaged areas. Such schools were able to hire their own staff and develop a curriculum that grew out of the local community and better reflected students’ abilities and aspirations.

Instead of being micro-managed and controlled by top-down, centralised bureaucracies, government schools should be empowered at the local level to hire, fire and reward staff and to ensure that the curriculum and school culture best meet the needs and aspirations of parents and students. Government schools should also be able to enter partnerships with business, tertiary institutions and philanthropic groups to ensure that schools are no longer isolated from the community and additional resources and expertise can be utilised.

Currently, government schools are being pressured to implement Kevin Rudd’s education revolution (including accountability, higher standards and better teacher performance) while, at the same time, they are denied the autonomy and flexibility to manage their affairs and control their destinies. Governments serious about educational reform would allow government schools to manage and control their affairs as non-government schools do. The increasing popularity of Catholic and independent schools derives from their autonomy and flexibility to get on with the job, free from bureaucratic restraints and an obsolete industrial relations system controlled by teacher unions.

As non-government schools are better able than government schools to achieve strong educational outcomes, it is vital that such schools are properly funded and their autonomy is guaranteed. The federal government intends to review the existing model of funding to non-government schools (the socioeconomic-status model). If critics like the Australian Education Union get their way, funding will be reduced and non-government schools will be forced into the state system. 

During the lead up to the 2007 federal election, Kevin Rudd and the ALP copied the Howard government’s conservative education agenda. Education was nullified as an electoral disadvantage and the Liberal Party was sidelined. One way for the conservative side of politics to regain momentum and to differentiate itself from the ALP and the cultural-Left is to adopt vouchers (or tax credits) and community schools as policy. Such a move would drive a wedge into the ALP, as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard would be torn between meeting the demands of the ALP-friendly teacher unions (especially the Australian Education Union, which regularly campaigns in support of the ALP at elections) and delivering what Australian parents increasingly want from their schools and what is best for Australia’s future.

Such a policy move from the Liberal Party would also highlight the moribund and micro-managed nature of Rudd’s education revolution. Instead of embracing school choice and innovations like vouchers and community schools, Kevin Rudd’s agenda is highly centralised, bureaucratic and premised on the belief that government knows best. Under Rudd, all roads lead to Canberra. Since being elected, the ALP government has started work on a national curriculum, a national accountability and funding system to force schools to follow Commonwealth policy, a national teacher registration and certification system, a national approach to early childhood education, and a national program to improve teacher quality.

Under the banner of Rudd’s education revolution, implementation of these policies has been tied to funding; something that during the years of the Howard government was attacked by the cultural-Left as unfair and counter-productive. Ironically, in addition to being centrally mandated, Rudd’s education revolution is being developed, implemented and managed by the very education bureaucrats and groups responsible for the last thirty years of educational failure. 

The ALP’s record in implementing policy since being elected in 2007 has been abysmal. The budget for the computers-in-schools program has blown out by millions, and schools complain of having to cover the cost of teacher professional development and software. The promise to give every secondary school a technical wing has been abandoned and critics have attacked the proposed national curriculum as ideologically driven, substandard and impossible to implement. Such are the concerns about the waste and mismanagement of the multi-million-dollar “Building the Education Revolution” infrastructure program that the Commonwealth Auditor-General launched an inquiry in August this year. Worse still, Julia Gillard has been so overwhelmed by her other portfolio duties that her role as Education Minister has been part-time and episodic.

Kevin Donnelly has contributed frequently to the Australian on education matters, as well as to Quadrant. This is an extract from his new book, Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars (Connor Court).

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