Recent NAPLAN and PISA results show how New South Wales schools are at a tipping point. Without significant reform, our students will continue to slide in academic attainment, economic competitiveness and social capability and fairness. Our young people are paying a heavy price for the failed educational experiments of the past three decades.
Students from disadvantaged areas pay the heaviest price. Living in households and suburbs in crisis, by far their best chance of breaking the poverty cycle is a good school. Without basic skills and deep knowledge drawn from the curriculum, they have little chance in life. Without rigorous testing and grading, they struggle to show society how good they are, matching other schools and students who are enjoying the advantages of inherited opportunity.
Mark Latham’s essay appears in the March edition of Quadrant.
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The decline in the New South Wales education system is a crime against our children. The tragedy is readily apparent: everything about classroom practices and results has been studied in every country, in every conceivable way over many years. We know what works and what doesn’t work in boosting student outcomes. This attention to evidence, however, has been sidelined by a desire within the system to pursue experimental fads in classroom content and methods.
The culprits walk into schools every day:
1. Postmodernism propagates the myth that everything we know about ourselves and our society and its history has been “socially constructed”, and that there is no fixed understanding of the facts and records of our civilisation. The purpose of schooling must be to teach truth through knowledge, not to tell students there are no clear-cut facts, that somewhere behind the scenes there is a conspiracy to “socially construct” information. Postmodernism is an anti-educational doctrine, deliberately trying to replace knowledge with confusion in the minds of students.
2. Out of this confusion, students are then encouraged to question their own identity, to believe that personal characteristics like gender, sexuality and even race can be fluid. This reflects the insidious rise of identity politics in schools, dividing society into groupings divorced from individual merit and character. Schools need to return to the values of meritocracy, understanding that a person’s skin colour and other aspects of their appearance are irrelevant to their worth. We need to go back to the great Australian habit of looking through and ignoring race, gender and sexuality.
3. Postmodernism and identity politics in our schools are trying to engineer a very different type of society, based on “progressive” ideology rather than on the learning needs of students. Society and Culture, Geography, History and even English courses have become intensely political. This is a worrying trend, with regular reports of teachers projecting their worldview in the classroom. No responsible adult should put their political preference ahead of the needs of children.
4. A critical part of learning is self-knowledge: to appreciate the virtues, history and other civilisational influences of the society in which one finds oneself. If we don’t understand our own culture, how can we understand others? Yet in New South Wales syllabuses, every subject is guided by three learning objectives—Aboriginal Culture, Engagement with Asia and Environmental Sustainability—with little mention of Western civilisation. In fact, in many courses, the material is openly hostile to who we are and where we have come from as a nation—a self-loathing that must not be allowed to stand.
5. The 2008 Melbourne Declaration changed the direction of New South Wales schools by moving away from academic attainment into “a broader frame” for the “social development” of the child. This is another case of social engineering, falsely assuming that teachers can replace the functions of parents and families. It gave rise to the “Safe Schools” program and other “fluidity” teaching, plus an abiding focus on health and wellbeing issues. Some New South Wales non-government schools, for instance, are now surveying the sleeping and home screen-time habits of their students, downgrading their core role as educators.
6. As a close ally of these five trends, low-value experimental content and practices have entered the classroom. None of these fads have a clear evidence base but they have been allowed to flourish. Educationists have developed a long list of junk programs: play-based learning, philosophy circles, guided group work, inquiry-based learning, facilitation teaching, so-called “twenty-first-century skills”, general capabilities, creative thinking, growth mindset, co-teaching, collaborative classrooms, flexible learning spaces and constructivist teaching. John Hattie’s research (a global meta-analysis of 95,000 studies involving 300 million students) tells us that Direct Instruction achieves the best classroom results. That is, when teachers actually teach, standing at the front of the classroom and instructing their students on how to do things, creating a rich interchange of knowledge, ideas and inspiration. Yet in many schools this evidence has been wiped and Direct Instruction abandoned.
7. Programs with a poor evidence base can only flourish if ministers and departmental heads let them. While some countries tightly prescribe content and teaching methods and materials in their curricula, New South Wales has moved in a different direction. With policies such as Local Schools/Local Decisions, schools have wide latitude in deciding what they teach and how they teach it. Fads and ideology have been allowed to proliferate, unchecked by central systems of quality control. The new curriculum needs to avoid vague notions of “learning with understanding”, “curriculum flexibility”, “emotional engagement” and “diversity”, as fostered by the Interim Masters Report. Classroom content, practices, learning materials and external consultants should only be used by schools after a rigorous, high-effect evidence base has certified them.
Given the scale of these problems, inevitably, the recent PISA results showed fifteen-year-old New South Wales students to be several years behind their Asian counterparts. Why? Because Asian schools don’t use the junk trends listed above. In their system, schools function as schools, not as political laboratories or social work clinics. Their teachers actually teach, as the centrepiece of classroom activity—unlike our schools, where it has become fashionable for teachers to wander around open-plan “learning spaces”, coffee mugs in hand, as “facilitators”.
In successful education systems, evidence outweighs ideology. What matters is what works.
The message is clear. If “back to basics” is to mean anything, it must mean schools being schools, with teachers instructing students directly. Unfortunately, the Interim Masters Report ignores this evidence and policy direction. It raises little objection to the failed, faddish experiments of the past thirty years and, in fact, seeks to go further down the same path.
Masters makes no mention of the problem with postmodernist content. Nor does he deal with the proliferation of politics in schools. Junk programs and practices are accepted as a given. In learning to read, there’s no insistence on synthetic phonics being taught ahead of inferior whole-word methods. In effect, the Interim Report is more of the same, reinforcing the failed thinking and “flexibility” that has already taken schools in the wrong direction.
Postmodernism in English
The English curriculum has become more like a tutorial in identity politics than the development of comprehension and writing skills. Studying the great works of English literature has also become optional. If students choose to pursue politics at university, good luck to them. But it shouldn’t be compulsory during their school years under the fraudulent banner of “English”.
Large parts of the high school English syllabus now focus on identity issues, promoting gender theory and the politics of “diversity”. The curriculum states: “Students experience and value difference and diversity in their everyday lives. Age, beliefs, gender, language and race are some of the factors that comprise difference and diversity. English provides students with opportunities to deal with difference and diversity in a positive and informed manner, showing awareness, understanding and acceptance.”
Students are asked to “identify the ways in which cultural assumption is presented in texts, for example, gender, religion, disability and culture”. The “conventions of speech” are said to “influence community identity” while language “embodies assumptions about issues such as gender, ethnicity and class”.
Multimedia, film, animation and speech studies have been introduced, usually with intensely political content, such as the actress Emma Watson’s address to the United Nations promoting Left-feminism. The class time allocated for studying the classics of prose, plays and poetry has been substantially reduced. For students in Years 7 to 10, the syllabus contains no requirement for reading novels, let alone the great works.
The few classics that remain in the classroom have been recast through the prism of leftist politics. Even the meaning of Emily Bronte’s work has been rewritten. In the New South Wales curriculum, “Wuthering Heights is traditionally read as a novel about intense human relationships but contemporary alternative readings include a political reading, seeing it as a novel of social class and bourgeois exploitation in Victorian England and a gendered reading, with gender stereotypes.” Little did Cathy realise she was coming home to a tutorial in cultural Marxism.
In Year 10 English, students have to answer the question, “Is This Who We Really Are?” as part of a unit on “Media Gender Representations”. The course aims to “make young people aware that besides media representations, gender stereotypes also exist and are perpetuated by many factors, such as peer pressure, family upbringing, culture and tradition”. This is not education, but an attempt to push young people away from observable truths in their lives, in favour of postmodernist propaganda.
Like the discredited Safe Schools program, it seeks to pressure students into disregarding the things they have learnt in the family home. The unit presents students with a list of so-called gendered adjectives, including clever, decisive, responsible, hardworking, leader and even frigid—a bizarre English exercise in sex education. There is no evidence of words such as these being “gendered” (even if that mattered in the teaching of English).
In Years 11 and 12, postmodernist texts have become common, such as Alain de Botton’s ridiculous book The Art of Travel. Botton constantly complains that the things he is witnessing as a tourist are not real. Yet if there is one thing in our lives that is self-apparent it’s the act of travelling and seeing famous places first-hand. No one pays good money for tourism to believe that nothing is real.
This is typical of the postmodernist agenda: encouraging students to believe that all they know and feel about themselves and society is inherently fluid, that there is no valid reality in their young lives. This is not the study of English, but an attempt at indoctrination.
Postmodernism and identity politics need to be removed from the English curriculum. Priority needs to be given to literacy, comprehension and writing skills. Secondary students need to study the great works of our civilisation, the literary classics that tell us who we are and explain the evolution of our culture. They need to learn English, not politics.
Postmodernism in History
The facts of history are well established. No amount of politically motivated revisionism can recast them. Yet the New South Wales history curriculum encourages this foolhardy process. The K-10 syllabus starts by declaring: “There are many differing perspectives within a nation’s history and historians may interpret events differently, depending on their point of view and the sources they have used.”
Thus students are forced to spend vast amounts of time on “source verification”. Instead of learning the joy and wonder of history, they are required to question how our knowledge of history has been “socially constructed”. As if the causes of the First World War are unknown or China’s objection to nineteenth-century colonisation remains a mystery.
This is an insult to historians and the diligence and records of the academy. It’s part of the postmodernist pedagogy of promoting doubt and confusion ahead of deep knowledge. Source verification involves asking how history was recorded, rather than the key questions of how and why it happened. Many students find this process torturous and drop out of senior-year courses such as Modern History, which has overdosed on verification techniques.
As a school principal has told me, “The history curriculum is designed to confuse students rather than educate them. The priorities are wrong. How could anyone regard the ‘Pro-Democracy Movement in Burma’ as more important than studying the French Revolution?” Aung San Suu Kyi came into the high school history syllabus when she was fashionably popular among the Left. Now she has lost favour (due to allegations of genocide) her story might not be taught as much—another lesson in the folly of constructing courses around transient political trends.
Another school leader has said, “We spread our resources too thinly in teaching history. The syllabus deals with many cultures and peoples across the world, without developing a clear knowledge of Western history. If we don’t properly understand ourselves, the history of our nation and culture, how can we understand that of others?”
In Stage 4 (Years 7 and 8) it is possible to study “The Ancient World” without the history of Rome or Greece being taught—the birthplace of democracy, humanism and Western values, architecture, arts and legal codes. In studying “Ancient to the Modern World”, it is possible to not learn European history, to overlook the Renaissance, Enlightenment and rise of classical liberalism. A combination of the Ottoman empire, Khmer empire and Mongol expansion can be studied instead.
In “Modern World” classwork, there’s nothing mandatory about courses on the rise and fall of communism, the Cold War and the post-September 11 war against terrorism. Rather, the emphasis is on “rights and freedom”, “popular culture”, “the environmental movement” and “migration experience”. In senior-year Modern History, there are case studies on the West, but mostly from a negative perspective. Several courses are trivial and strange, such as “Tibet in the Modern World” and “The 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, its impact on environmental awareness and the impact on Earth Day 1970”.
The teaching of indigenous history has also become problematic. Leftists might wish for something more glorified than the truth of a nomadic people (hunter-gatherers) but the facts do not support such revisionism. Historians as diverse as Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey have reached the same conclusion: that by the start of the eighteenth century, geographic isolation had left Aboriginal society behind, compared to the technological advances of Europe’s Industrial Revolution.
Historians are united in what happened, mainly because it did happen. The colonial settlement of Australia involved significant mistakes but generally, governors such as Lachlan Macquarie tried to civilise those around them, in both the indigenous and convict populations. They tried to turn a prison into a new society, ultimately building the best nation on Earth. This is one of the great achievements of human history and should be recognised as such in the curriculum. “National pride” should not be treated as a dirty concept.
The fiction underpinning Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has no place in schools. There’s no shame in a people being nomadic. Logically, it means that written languages, history books and wheeled transport are not practical parts of such an existence. That’s how Aboriginal Australia was for 60,000 years, and that’s how it should be taught in schools. I can’t imagine anything more disrespectful to indigenous people than rewriting the truth of who they were and how they lived.
Australian history is important, both pre- and post-1788, but there is no reason for indigenous culture and history to dominate the curriculum. Currently in the Years 7 to 10 History syllabus, there are 133 mentions of “Aboriginal”, thirty-seven of “British” (mostly negative), fourteen of “Western” and seven of “Christianity’. This is part of a pattern: downplaying and stigmatising the achievements of the West, while idealising indigenous culture.
Masters plans to add to the Aboriginal overload with his proposals. He gives his personal political opinion, without reference to a clear evidence base. Hence his advocacy for creating extra “time within the curriculum” and in “professional learning” and “teacher education programs” so that “Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives are relevant across the curriculum and throughout the years of school”.
Should Aboriginal content be taught in our schools? Absolutely. Should it be taught in every syllabus? Absolutely not.
Postmodernism in Science
One would normally expect the teaching of science to be immune from political content. It’s a pure subject, universal in its knowledge base and application. Yet even school science has been tainted by postmodernism, with attempts to position it as culturally and socially “constructed”. Students need to “appreciate the contribution that diverse cultural perspectives have made to the development, breadth and diversity of scientific and technological knowledge”.
The K-6 science syllabus claims to “foster in students a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world”. Instead, it is more like a course in Environmental Studies, interwoven with diversity, indigenous and “intercultural understanding”. In studying the “Earth’s relationship with the Sun”, for instance, students are required to “investigate how changes in the environment are used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to develop seasonal calendars”.
In understanding the fusion of materials, students need to “identify a range of natural materials available locally and through trade used by Aboriginal people for a specific cultural purpose”. There’s also a requirement to “identify how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples care for the Earth’s resources on-country, for example: ochre, fish and seeds”. In studying agricultural technology, classes “explore the plants and animals used in customary practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
Due to the requirement for an Aboriginal learning priority in every course, some of the content is a massive stretch, bordering on comical. In understanding “Digital Technologies”, for instance, K-2 students are required to “explore the uses of digital devices in developing and sustaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and languages”. Indigenous culture had no books or written history but now apparently, it is sustained by digital devices. Bruce Pascoe, eat your heart out.
In words that could be lifted from a Greens pamphlet, “Sustainability education” is said to be “futures-oriented, creating a more ecologically and socially just world”. What does this mean in practice for a primary school student? In a desperate attempt to include any and all environmental content, they are taught to “turn off dripping taps and unnecessary lights” and develop “reusing/recycling campaigns”. In a strike against the commercial world, the syllabus aims to “develop informed consumers” among nine-year-olds, “making sustainable choices”.
Too much of curriculum development has become an exercise in virtue signalling. In 2018, for instance, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) published ninety-five ways in which science teachers can incorporate indigenous culture into their lessons. This included:
# Students examining the transformation of energy by studying Aboriginal fire techniques;
# Researching indigenous knowledge of celestial bodies and the origins of the universe; and
# Studying increases in velocity and impact-force through Aboriginal use of spear-throwers.
Some of this is actually anti-science. It’s typical of how subjects are being taught through the lens of white-leftist-guilt, rather than academic integrity and political independence. It might cleanse the conscience of political types, but it is doing nothing to help our students or economy compete internationally. It’s consigning Australia to be the academic trash of Asia.
Postmodernism in classroom practice
In their teacher education and instruction booklets on Classroom Practice, universities are also spreading anti-educational postmodernism. On a recent visit to a school I was handed its guide to teaching: a departmental document prepared by James Ladwig and Jennifer Gore from Newcastle University. This Classroom Practice Guide (2003) talks of “knowledge not as a fixed body of information but rather as being socially constructed and hence subject to political, social and cultural influences and implications”. Nothing is immune from this doctrine, with “scientific knowledge open to social and historical dynamics”. Vast amounts of time are likely to be wasted as “teachers or students dig out the historical background behind the knowledge presented in a topic”. Source verification is apparently more important than learning science, history, geography and literature.
Some of the references for teachers are not only outdated but also unusual, such as the claim that “People living with HIV have developed a unique knowledge of Australia and its institutions that is recognisable as cultural knowledge.” No one is too young to avoid the reach of postmodernism:
Kindergarten students can be introduced to the idea of knowledge as problematic. For example, in talking about my family, they can see that families mean different things to different people (one, two or many parents; no siblings or many; extended family or nuclear) and that the notion of family depends on circumstances.
Really? In the name of education, five-year-olds are told it’s possible to have more than two parents. How could this be a useful part of kindergarten tuition?
As daft as it may seem, family fluidity also features in the K-2 History curriculum. Little children are taught “Present and Past Family Life”, having to answer the question, “How has family life changed?” This is an invitation for teaching about various sexuality types and gender fluidity.
It’s not hard to predict how Asian schools would deal with this nonsense. But in New South Wales it is embedded in classroom practice and the curriculum—a prime reason why, in international benchmarking, our results have tanked. Our system is more interested in social engineering and superseding the role of parents than actual education.
Masters has little to say on the vital question of how best to teach children to read. Yet the evidence is clear: Hattie’s research assigns Phonics a 0.6 effect level and Whole Language 0.06 (with 0.4 as the “hinge point” at which something is worth teaching). Learn-to-read programs in the New South Wales curriculum must be based on the explicit teaching of Phonics. Despite the weight of evidence supporting this approach, school leaders persist in pursuing fad ideas involving Whole Language reading.
For instance, the state government’s Language, Learning and Literacy (L3) program, taught to more than 16,000 Kindergarten to Year 2 students, only teaches Phonics incidentally. It is based on a New Zealand project called “Picking Up the Pace”, which is described as a “socio-cultural, co-constructivist view” whereby “language and meaning are a way of thinking, feeling and acting in a social practice”—that is, postmodernist pap.
L3 is part of the government’s Early Action for Success (EAfS) literacy and numeracy strategy. Evaluation reports highlight how 77 per cent of the schools that joined EAfS in 2013 had either negligible or negative changes in Year 3 NAPLAN reading scores. This is not surprising, as L3 uses a methodology similar to the discredited Reading Recovery program.
Even though CESE identified Reading Recovery as ineffective and the government stopped supporting it, schools themselves have defied this research and policy by piecing it back into literacy programs. I have visited government schools where L3 and Reading Recovery are still being used, perpetuating Whole Language methods. It’s a strange system where the research and government can say one thing and schools are free to do the opposite, to the proven detriment of students.
The era of laissez-faire teaching must end. Evidence-based boundaries need to be placed around classroom practice. Governments need to govern and teachers need to teach solely in ways that are known to work and benefit students.
Schools as schools (not social work centres)
In recent decades, school resources have been diverted into a range of non-academic objectives. While Masters identifies the extent of the problem, he also legitimises the “social development” approach:
Ongoing changes in Australian society are requiring schools to take on broader roles and responsibilities than the implementation of a set of syllabuses. Schools are increasingly focused on students’ social and emotional development, physical and mental health and wellbeing, and a range of personal skills and attributes, including resilience, optimism and the ability to communicate and collaborate with others. School-wide priorities of these kinds are not adequately addressed as syllabuses and “outcomes”, but nevertheless need to be recognised as part of the total curriculum of today’s schools. A challenge is to provide the time and support in schools to address these broader priorities.
This is part of Masters’s more-of-the-same approach, extending the folly of the Melbourne Declaration. For schools, most of these activities are futile. There is no compelling research to say that schools can teach or measure personal attributes like resilience, optimism and collaboration. So why are vast amounts of time and resources being diverted away from knowledge development (which can be measured and taught)? Masters never answers this question.
Similarly, he offers no validation of his assertion that “ongoing changes in Australian society are requiring” a new mode of schooling. This is simply a personal opinion. Most parents would say they expect schools to be schools, leaving the social development of children to those who know them best: their families.
There are some fine teachers in New South Wales schools but for parents, ultimately, they are relative strangers in our lives. Parents are responsible for their children, as the core source of love, guidance and pastoral care. When schooling is finished, good parents are still there, always there, to deal with the challenges facing their children.
In the drift away from the basics of learning, New South Wales schools are also engaged in mental health programs. In truth, the best thing they can do for the mental wellbeing of their students is to stop pushing dangerous notions of gender fluidity. Telling children as young as five they can be boys one day and girls the next is a form of ideological child abuse and should be treated as such.
At its core, fluidity teaching runs against life’s observable truths. With very few exceptions, people are born either male or female—a basic truth of biological science. Programs like Respectful Relationships undermine the legitimacy of science in our schools, a self-defeating outcome. They should be abolished, along with similar indoctrination lessons in physical, health and sex education and library resources.
Why have schools over-reached in this fashion, intruding on family life? Perhaps teachers find pastoral care an easier job than being held accountable for academic results. Maybe, as employees of the state, they are more comfortable with the social engineering of young people—a worrying trend. Certainly the paucity of government funding for community and allied health care has pushed these responsibilities onto school budgets.
Whatever the case, we have one guarantee: the more school and teaching resources are diverted into pastoral and health care, the more academic results will continue to decline. If Asian schools spend 100 per cent of their efforts on knowledge development but our schools are only 50 per cent engaged in this activity, it is inevitable that their outcomes will out-strip ours.
Health funding is a problem for all governments, especially in addressing the “missing middle” of service provision (preventive/community-based care, positioned between primary GP and hospital services). In Victoria, a new mental health tax is being introduced, a sign of how governments need to find new ways of overcoming community health scarcity.
With the full Gonski resources now flowing, schools are awash with funds. Increasingly, they are being used to compensate for the “missing middle” in health care. High schools are bringing allied health professionals onto staff—in some cases, creating health care faculties. Most likely for these schools, in heavily disadvantaged areas, it’s too big a task. They run the risk of losing focus on academic outcomes, overwhelmed and distracted by health care management (a discipline for which they have little training or experience).
The best outcome would come from a different approach: refocusing schools solely on academic attainment and vocational education; while properly funding community/allied health budgets to provide these other services for young people. Ideally, schools should be schools, working closely with well-resourced community health services to ensure their students are physically and mentally primed for learning once they enter the school gate.
The New South Wales Health Department is a long way from achieving this goal. It needs a rocket under it, plus a new approach to healthcare resourcing. For instance, in south-western Sydney, a fast-growing region with areas of high socio-economic disadvantage, the state government has not built a community health centre this century. There’s a backlog of six new centres to be built.
De-cluttering the curriculum
The major concern with the syllabus in schools is its breadth. As a high school principal told me, “We are spread too thinly, trying to do too many things instead of developing deep knowledge and understanding among students, the type of depth that sparks their learning interests into the future.” A primary principal said, “There are too many ‘nice to knows’ in the curriculum, as we call them, the bits that should be optional if we had time to teach them.”
De-cluttering the curriculum has also been the government’s mantra: a “back to basics” approach for literacy and numeracy. Unfortunately, the Interim Report fails to advance detailed recommendations in this regard. In fact, Masters heads in the opposite direction, advocating extra syllabus content in the following areas:
# A theory component in vocational education
# A practical component in academic subjects (almost impossible to achieve in courses like Ancient History)
# More identity politics via proposals for an “Inclusive Curriculum” and “Recognition of Diversity”
# Every student being required to learn more of “Aboriginal languages, cultures and histories”
# “To increase significantly (second) language learning in NSW schools”, commencing in the primary years
# Year 12 students undertaking a Major Project, without any evidence of benefits flowing from such a commitment
# Legitimising the “social development” role of schools, finding extra time for teachers to go down this path. Masters takes this to the extreme of prioritising “social and emotional development over other mandated areas of the curriculum for children who require this in the early years of school”.
There are huge transitional costs in redesigning syllabuses over the next twenty years, the Masters time horizon. None of the Masters proposals listed above are needed. His task was to take things out of the syllabus, not add items devoid of an evidence base. This is how the system got into trouble in the first place.
The solution should be simple: remove the failed fad elements, thereby boosting the potential for improved academic attainment and de-cluttering the curriculum. Return the system to the basics of learning (foundational skills and deep knowledge) from which it should never have deviated. Give students the essential content in literacy, numeracy, science and history they will need to deal with the challenges of economic and social change.
Schools need to drop the modern obsession with turning themselves into political laboratories, gender fluidity factories, mental health clinics, social work centres and cultural propaganda tutorials. Our NAPLAN and PISA results tell the story. We have “growth mindset” but not growth in academic results. We have high school students who have heard of “gendered words” and the sins of colonisation but cannot read or write.
The curriculum would immediately be de-cluttered if its postmodernist, identity-political and social development content were dropped. Vast amounts of time and resources would be freed up for teaching and learning the basics.
This is another looming Masters disaster, with his recommendation that: “Within a clear framework of expectations, teachers should have flexibility to decide what to teach, when and how to teach it, and how much time to spend teaching it.” We know what works and doesn’t work in the classroom, so why allow teachers to ignore this evidence base and decide themselves what, when and how to teach? This is the laissez-faire ethos responsible for driving down New South Wales results under policies such as Local Schools/Local Decisions.
Wouldn’t it be wiser to require teachers to teach from a certified menu of programs and practices proven to be beneficial to students? The know-how exists to adopt this approach but it’s consistently ignored. This is the problem with “experts” like Masters. The same academics have been writing the same reports for thirty years for the benefit of the adults in the system (teacher autonomy) rather than the children (student results). They are like a “progressive” travelling troupe, going from report to report, promoting the same failed ideas and recommendations.
In particular, the troupe has an aversion to testing and grading. Masters rolls out the standard critique of NAPLAN and the ATAR as too “high-stakes” and “stressful’. Yet this is not what the best schools say. They see NAPLAN as a chance to verify what they already know about their students from internal testing, plus a chance to showcase their high-level school achievements. The campaign against NAPLAN is a campaign by education interest groups—elites who would rather hide failing results than fix them.
Masters also embraces the Gonski-inspired concept of “progression points”: replacing the assessment and grading of students in year groups with a new system of individualised progress, benchmarked against past performance. In practice, it’s a backdoor way of abandoning the rigour of student comparisons against their peers (abolishing A-E grades), so that students are only compared against themselves. It also involves increased confusion and work for schools, in introducing a system that hasn’t been implemented successfully anywhere in the world. New South Wales shouldn’t be a guinea pig for this unproven theory of student assessment.
Under the banner of “mindfulness” and “mental wellness”, standards have already fallen away. Schools are dropping their testing, grading, award-recognition and homework requirements to achieve a different type of classroom result: less stress, less anxiety, less discomfort. Naturally, some students are milking this new approach to minimise their workload. If a student doesn’t want to do something at school, they simply need to say they are anxious about it. “Anxiety” (what we used to call “worrying too much”) has become an all-purpose alibi for avoiding effort and responsibility. As a school leader has told me, “The mental health issues in schools are a mixture of the real and the confected and quite frankly, teachers find it impossible to know which is which.” Not surprisingly, the rise of the “snowflake school” model has coincided with a collapse in student academic results.
There’s another aspect of Masters’s “curriculum flexibility” that beggars belief. At page 69, he dismisses alternative, easier syllabuses for weaker students as requiring “courses [that] invariably lower expectations, risk categorising and labelling students, and often impose ceilings on how far individuals can progress in their learning”. Yet, as an expression of identity politics, he advocates adapting “the content of the curriculum” to take account of “varying cultural and language backgrounds” to properly align “the assumptions and expectations of schools”.
For Masters, syllabuses differentiated by learning abilities are bad, while syllabuses differentiated by culture and language are good. The argument is nonsensical—unless one has a blind, dogmatic attachment to identity politics.
Unfortunately, a variation of the Masters approach is already used in New South Wales. The new buzz-phrase in the system is “differentiated learning”. Schools are expected to have modified exams, lessons and work sheets for each designated category of students: Aboriginal, ESL, Gifted, Disabled and then the remainder. Segregation on racial and ethnic grounds is a particularly worrying development, for obvious reasons. It’s a surefire way of building resentment and division in schools.
In school management, it’s also a workload nightmare, made worse by NESA’s fastidious policing of differentiated learning. A better understanding of equity comes from the equal treatment of all students, with schools aiming to maximise the learning potential of everyone under their guidance (regardless of race and other personal characteristics). Divisive identity politics is poorly suited to the challenges of outcome-based education.
Conclusion and recommendations
Whenever we receive confirmation of Australia’s declining school results there’s surprise among the political class. Yet this disturbing outcome, so damaging to all aspects of Australian life, has been utterly predictable. Every move away from the evidence base for what works in classrooms has been a move in the wrong direction.
Changes to the school curriculum have been at the core of the nation’s academic decline. How could it be otherwise? Diverting the focus away from the basics of learning, into faddish social and political objectives, could only ever have one outcome: our international standing and competitiveness dropping like a stone.
Given the importance of the curriculum in schools, its failings tend to be all-consuming. Syllabus material works its way into textbook content. Teachers having to teach a new subject go straight to the textbooks for guidance. This process also influences professional development, as teachers share their syllabus/textbook/class experiences with colleagues. As a principal describes it, “The cycle of propaganda grows and grows.”
Even the good schools, wanting to be evidence-based in the development of foundational skills and deep knowledge, are trapped by the current curriculum. NESA rigidly polices syllabuses, seeking compliance line-by-line. The net result has been system failure, with more failing students, more failing schools and failing overall results.
Policy-makers have lost focus on the core purpose of school education: to maximise the knowledge, skills and future prospects of every student, consistent with the hopes and values of their family and the guiding principles of their nation.
In such a large system, changing direction can be an intimidating task. But major reform is now essential. This must include the crafting of a very different curriculum. Repeatedly, the government led by Premier Berejiklian has said it wants a “back to basics” approach. Such an approach will not come from the Masters process, which should be abandoned. Whatever the government thought when it appointed Geoff Masters, its stated goals are not being realised. His Interim Report is the antithesis of “back to basics”. Even the first line of the Terms of Reference—“The Review is conducted in a context of a high performing NSW Education system”—has become a joke.
The government should ignore Masters and adopt the following approach:
#Abandon the Masters process and instead, place the review in the hands of an appropriate reference group focused on key reform goals: using an evidence-based approach to improve school outcomes, de-clutter the curriculum and develop basic/foundational skills and deep knowledge among students.
# Instruct the reference group to remove all postmodernist, identity-based and political content from syllabuses.
# Remove the current “Cross-Curriculum Priorities” (Aboriginal Culture, Engagement with Asia and Environmental Sustainability) and replace them with an emphasis on self-knowledge as a society and a nation.
# Focus on the basics of literacy and numeracy, and knowledge-rich courses in science, history, geography, other social sciences and the great works of our civilisation.
# Reject Masters’s proposals for adding extra material to the curriculum.
# Return the focus of schools to academic attainment and vocational qualifications, ending attempts to engineer the “social development” of students. Schools must teach classroom material in a manner consistent with the values of families and Australian meritocracy.
# Build community health centres linked to disadvantaged schools, ensuring all students are ready to learn and maximise their potential. Schools should not be diverted from their essential educational mission, becoming quasi-health providers.
# Require CESE to research and certify an evidence-based, high-effect menu of classroom content, teaching methods, learning materials and external consultants, from which schools are obliged to teach and operate.
# Given the New South Wales government is the largest employer of teachers in the country (with substantial labour market leverage), draw new graduate teachers solely from universities using and developing pedagogies consistent with CESE certification.
# Ensure reading programs are based on the teaching of synthetic phonics, not failed whole-language methods.
# Develop school practices that value testing, grading and continuous improvement. Reject the introduction of “progression points”.
#End the practice of “differentiated learning” and ensure students are treated with greater commonality and fairness.
# Ensure all future changes to the curriculum are evaluated for their impact on student learning, before and after modification.
# Conduct a comprehensive review and overhaul of NESA, which has been a sub-standard organisation in managing the Masters process and also teacher certification (as per the recent Auditor-General’s report).
The Hon. Mark Latham is a Member of the New South Wales Legislative Council. This is an edited version of his submission in response to the New South Wales Curriculum Review Interim Report late last year