As a conservative, I baulk at the word “revolution.” In late-nineteenth-century Holland, a conservative party formed under the banner of the “Anti-Revolutionary Party,” and that phrase sums up where I sit on the question of revolt. There is one exception, though, and that is in regard to modern education.
Ask parents who send their kids to schools to get an education (rather than child-minding) and they will tell you there is something wrong, a malaise that sees their kids being neither exposed to nor absorbing what they should be learning. The statistics have been telling us this for years. Basic literacy and numeracy results have declined steeply. Students are being subjected to 21st Century Learning, which amounts to less reading, writing and arithmetic, and more ideological teaching of history, race, gender and climate. And don’t get me started on the impact and consequences of lockdowns.
On the climate issue, we see students’ declining mental health outcomes due to alarmist indoctrination. Today’s students, if surveys are to be believed, are more than ever feeling hopeless about the future, in part thanks to the catastrophism preached by teachers. Today’s kids need to be the generation making the changes that will save the world. No pressure, though!
For argument’s sake, let’s set aside ideology for a moment — gender-bending, climate change propaganda, racism. Leave it all in the picture and uncontested. On the basis of student academic outcomes alone, anyone can see ever-increasing federal and state funding has not led to better results. Need it be said education standards affect a nation’s economy? Productivity is going to be a long-term challenge for Australia as our population ages and the proportion of productive workers decreases. Is a poorly educated person more likely to be productive; I’m concerned that the obvious answer is ‘no’. The current generation of school-leavers is not exactly setting the world on fire in terms of productivity and innovation, which seem two reasons why we need to keep importing workers from overseas. Immigration, however, is never better than a stop-gap, even when it is a stop-gap that has been applied year-in-year-out over decades. The structural problems and long term, poor education standards will make us both a dumber country and a poorer one.
Fixing this requires nothing less than a revolution of four steps: The first, bring the teachers’ unions to heel. Two, implement a school-choice voucher system. Three, commit to sacking underperforming teachers and, before it gets to that stage, focus step four on the reform of teacher training. To lead the revolt, we need a Margaret Thatcher, and I’m not just talking about the Thatcher who liberalized the economy. I’m interested in the Thatcher who took on the unions. We need a Liberal leader who will take on the teachers unions until their power and influence is broken.
The teachers’ unions are a structural problem when it comes to Australia’s future productivity. The Australian Education Union (AEU) represents teachers across the school sectors, primary and secondary, public and private. Many of these teachers are very good at their jobs, but many aren’t. Indeed, the teaching profession is beset with mediocrity, in part because of the AEU, which consistently rejects all calls for interrogating teacher performance. It refuses to allow performance to be tied to pay. It blocks any efforts to move against under-performance. It always argues for more money for schools and smaller classes, which result in more teachers and, crucially, more union members. The AEU is a huge problem. And that is leaving aside all the ideological barrows it pushes.
Step 1 is to smash the unions. Really smash them. Start the policy implementation at the beginning of a new electoral cycle to give the government time to win the electorate over. The AEU will hate vouchers and they will hate performance monitoring and sackings. It goes against everything they stand for, which is in the end their own self-interest. They will give a Coalition government hell for doing this. Heck, they might even grind the system to a halt for a while.
But that would be a ‘don’t throw me into the briar patch’ moment because Step 2 puts vouchered money into parents’ hands. If your school closes because unionised teachers get cranky about being required to demonstrate their competence, you can take your voucher and go somewhere else that is offering the service you’re looking for, at least in the short term.
Indeed, in the longer term the principle expressed here matters a great deal – personal choice. Households can choose where they deploy the vouchers each and every child is allocated. Say the government spends $17,000 on a child’s education per year, which sounds shockingly high but that is roughly what is being spent currently. If parents had that money in voucher form they could take to any institution they favoured. Would they choose the local state school? Maybe they would. But I bet many would choose well-run, high-performing, cost-effective private schools. Some might even choose homeschooling.
With the voucher system’s incentive, more high-performing private schools would be founded, market forces would kick in and schools that are both good and cheap would find themselves flush with students and funds. And they would be staffed with better teachers because the unions wouldn’t be keeping everyone beholden to mediocrity.
Which leads to Step 3, Performance. The government implementing this revolution should commit to a comprehensive performance review of the entire system, with every teacher found to be an under-performer shown the door. The time frame could be, say, five years, which would give teachers a window to get their act into gear, also buying the government time to balance the policy.
That balance would be in teachers training, which is Step 4. Currently, students studying to be teachers are often, to put it delicately, not fit for purpose. Some can’t complete a basic mathematics problem or write a coherent and grammatically correct essay. Generally, an ATAR score of 60 is sufficient to study teaching, but as University Reviews notes:
…you should know that you’ll be towards the bottom of your class in terms of academic achievement if you enter university with a 60.00 score. As you look around the room in your first lecture and think about which students might be the ones to fail, the first person you probably should be looking at is you. You’ll need to step up from what you did in secondary education to do well at university.
It’s an appalling situation. Teacher training should be overhauled to encourage outstanding talent to prepare for the classroom, thus improving standards more generally. This could be done through generous scholarships and, of course, rewards for performance. A key method of achieving this demands making teacher training predominantly classroom-based. Abolish Bachelors and Masters degrees in Education or Teaching, except for those who want to become education academics. Such a credential shouldn’t qualify anyone to stand before the blackboard in an actual classroom. Rather, every prospective teacher should be required to have completed a minimum three-year undergraduate course that gives them specialist knowledge in one or two disciplines (e.g. Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Laws).
Upon completing their undergraduate studies, these students would then enter what is effectively an apprenticeship program administered by a university. This could be a Graduate Diploma in Teaching, or an 18-month Masters. It could have some theoretical components, but at least half the training course should be practical, in the classroom, with mentors involved.
The result of this plan? Better teachers, better schools, better student outcomes, better academic results, and, ideally, more productive citizens in the long run. That’s the kind of revolution this conservative can get behind. Now, where to find the antipodean Margaret Thatcher.
Simon Kennedy is Associate Editor at Quadrant. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Danube Institute