Labor’s education revolution: an evaluation

National surveys consistently place education, along with employment, health and the economy, as an issue near the top of the list when it comes to ranking voters’ concerns. Debates about falling standards, lack of classroom discipline, under-performing schools and teachers and how the curriculum has been dumbed down are a weekly media event.

It should also be acknowledged that education, in addition to its utilitarian value, deals with the knowledge, understanding and skills that individuals need to lead fulfilling and rewarding lives and to address the question of what constitutes the good life. The moral and spiritual role of education is equally as important as measuring its value in terms of increased productivity and having a more efficient economy.

Leading up to the 2004 federal election the then Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, and the Shadow Minister for Education, Stephen Smith, signalled the Australian Labor Party’s education revolution as one of its key policy areas in the bid to win government.

Copying the Howard Government’s agenda in areas like testing and accountability, funding to non-government schools, adopting a back to basics, academic curriculum and saying ‘no’ to the left-wing Australian Education Union, it was obvious that the ALP wanted to nullify education as an electoral disadvantage and to appear even more conservative than the conservatives.

Copying Prime Minister Blair’s cry of education, education, education and President Clinton’s agenda to raise standards by increasing testing and developing a national curriculum, the ALP successfully captured the media’s attention and won the public debate.

On being elected the new Prime Minister stated that voters should decide the success or otherwise of the new ALP Government by how well it implemented its education policies. Appointing the then Deputy Leader of the Government, Julia Gillard, as Minister for Education emphasised the importance of the ALP’s education revolution and guaranteed that education issues dominated the media cycle.

Like Prime Minister Rudd, who famously stated that parents should vote with their feet and move schools if they were unhappy with the local option, Gillard’s rhetoric was conservative and she advocated a range of polices identical to those championed by the previous conservative education ministers.

Such polices included implementing a national curriculum, currently being developed, testing schools in literacy and numeracy at years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and making results, in addition to other school information, public on the My School website, supporting school choice by agreeing to maintain the existing socioeconomic status (SES) funding model until 2012 and introducing measures to improve teacher quality and to better reward successful teachers.

The ALP government also embarked on a program to give every Australian senior school student a lap top computer, to connect every school to the internet and provide every secondary school with a trade centre. As a result of the global financial crisis the government also embarked on the multi-billion dollar building the education revolution (BER) program.

Evaluation

The first thing to note about the Rudd/Gillard education revolution is that it is highly centralised, bureaucratic and statist in its approach. While the federal government neither owns any schools nor employs any teachers (as school education is the responsibility of the states) since 2007 the federal government has taken control.

Whether curriculum, assessment and testing, teacher registration and certification, overcoming disadvantage or lifting teacher quality and school performance the ALP’s education revolution signifies a fundamental shift in control of education and the work of schools.

Much like the socialist economies of the old eastern bloc, the assumption is by centralising control, defining outputs, forming committees, setting targets and enforcing a top down model of management that government dictates will be implemented.

Ignored, as so aptly detailed in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, is that governments and bureaucrats, given they are so removed from the everyday reality of people’s lives and complex social institutions, can never replicate the myriad of decisions and actions taken at the local level.

One needs to look no further than the costly, inefficient and wasteful BER program to see the flaws in such an approach. As a result of schools being forced to accept off-the-shelf templates and being denied the right to decide for themselves what should be built, billions of dollars have been wasted with minimal educational benefit.

Given that government schools are controlled by head office, and lack the local control and flexibility characteristic of non-government schools, it should not surprise that a number of inquiries into the BER have revealed that Catholic schools, compared to government schools, are far more efficient and financially responsible in building infrastructure.

The BER program is not the only example of failed implementation. The budget for the computers in schools program has blown out by millions of dollars, the promise to give every secondary school a trade centre remains unfulfilled, plans to develop a national curriculum are 1 to 2 years behind schedule and the My School website, given its unreliability and flawed methodology, is mired in controversy and debate.

In addition to being statist in its approach, a close examination of the ALP’s education revolution reveals a left-wing Fabian ideology. This should not surprise given Gillard’s involvement in socialist-left student politics, her links to the Victorian Fabian society and the fact that Joan Kirner (the one-time Premier of Victoria) is one of Gillard’s mentors.

Notwithstanding that Rudd and Gillard have cloaked their education revolution in conservative rhetoric, including back to basics, parents’ right to choose non-government schools and holding schools accountable, the reality is that the ALP Government’s agenda is left-wing and politically correct.

Every subject in the national curriculum has to be taught through a PC prism involving aboriginal, environmental and Asian perspectives. As a consequence, the history curriculum ignores Australia’s Western heritage and the significance of the nation’s Judeo-Christian values and beliefs.

Much of the new curriculum, not surprisingly given the march of postmodernism and deconstruction through the Academy, also embraces the view that there are no truths or absolutes as how individuals perceive the world is subjective and knowledge is a cultural artefact.

In the 29 pages of the kindergarten to year 10 history document, Christendom is mentioned once and Christian also once, but only in the context of studying other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Judaism and Islam.

In the science draft teachers are told that Western scientific concepts are on the same footing as indigenous views about science. The geography curriculum adopts a similar relativistic approach to knowledge when it argues that students should be taught that indigenous concepts of the land are just as valid as Western concepts, on the basis that,

“By understanding Indigenous conceptions of their interrelationship with nature, all students can learn that there are other ways of thinking about and interacting with the environment and its resources that those informed by a Western capitalist tradition”.

The impact of the postmodern can also be seen in the national English curriculum, a curriculum that defines literary works as cultural artefacts, that explodes the definition of literature to include multi-modal texts and puts Shakespeare on the same footing as, “tween mags, avatars, social networking and manga”.

Whereas most schools around Australia now have the freedom to implement the state mandated curriculum or equivalent, under the Rudd/Gillard education revolution such flexibility is denied and schools will lose funding if the refuse to comply with what the government dictates.

Curriculum is not the only area where schools are being forced to adopt the ALP’s left-wing agenda. Under the Melbourne Declaration, the blue print endorsed by Australia’s education ministers that all schools are to follow, the statement is made that schools must provide an education, “free from discrimination based on gender, language, sexual orientation, pregnancy, culture, ethnicity, religion, health or disability, socioeconomic background or geographic location”.

Taken literally, such a statement denies Catholic and other faith-based schools the right to discriminate in relation to who they enrol and who they employ. Currently, religious schools are exempt in such matters; as a result of the ALP’s education revolution schools will lose that freedom.

The ALP’s commitment to school choice and the right of parents to send their children to non-government schools, unfortunately, is empty rhetoric. When Minister for Education Julia Gillard, while stating that the ALP Government would not take money away from non-government schools, refused to guarantee that the level of funding would be indexed and that the funding such schools receive would keep pace with any increase state schools might gain.

By forcing non-government schools to reveal financial data and making such information public on the My School website, the intention is to create a situation where funding to Catholic and independent schools can be reduced. One way to achieve this is to discount government funding by taking into account money raised locally, such as fees and philanthropic support. The current SES model does not penalise schools for raising funds at the local level.

An alternative

There is an alternative to the Rudd/Gillard education revolution; an alternative that embraces autonomy, choice and diversity in education and where the influence of government is minimised. Under such a system schools would be freed from provider capture, where teacher unions, bureaucrats and politicians unduly influence and control what happens in the nation’s classrooms.

While such models exist overseas, whether so-called charter schools in the U.S. or city academies in the U.K., it is important to recognise that Australia’s non-government school sector also exhibits many of the characteristics of such a market driven system.

Australia has a tripartite system of education, involving government, Catholic and independent schools. It’s also the case, compared to other OECD countries, that Australia has one of the highest percentages of students in the non-government sector.

Approximately 34 per cent of students attend Catholic and independent schools and the figure rises to above 40 per cent at years 11 and 12. Parents are voting with their feet and over the years 1998-2008 while enrolments in non-government schools grew by 21.9 per cent, the figure for government schools flat-lined at 1.1 per cent.

While non-government schools accept a degree of oversight and regulation, when compared to government schools, they have a high degree of autonomy in areas like staffing, financial matters, curriculum focus and determining how to best meet the needs and aspirations of their communities.

As a result such schools, when compared to government schools and even after adjusting for the socioeconomic profile of their students, achieve the strongest results in areas like literacy and numeracy testing, year 12 results and students gaining tertiary entry.

The European researcher, Ludger Woessmann, after analysing the characteristics of stronger performing education systems, measured by performance in international tests, concludes that factors explaining success include school autonomy, competition between schools and parental choice.

Research in the US also concludes that non-government schools, especially Catholic schools, are successful at strengthening social capital; defined as the relationships and bonds that tie communities together and promote reciprocity and social cohesion. In part, this is because schools and their communities share a common mission and parents have made a conscious decision to choose such schools for their children.

A recent Australian survey investigating racial discrimination and abuse in schools also found that Catholic schools are more successful in creating a tolerant environment where the incidence of discrimination is less than government schools.

Instead of adopting a one-size-fits all model of education it is vital that diversity is encouraged. Once again, the non-government sector provides a model that is worthy of emulation. Such a system includes schools with a range of different educational philosophies, including Montessori, Steiner and Erasmus schools.

While the majority of such schools are religious in nature there are also secular schools and, as previously mentioned, schools are free to embrace a range of educational philosophies, including the more traditional, academic and disciplined view of pedagogy to approaches that are more child-centered and less structured.

It is also important that governments support school choice by ensuring that non-government school parents are not financially penalised because of where their children go to school. Critics like the Australian Education Union argue that the current SES funding system is inequitable and unfair and, in the context of the Commonwealth review into funding, has mounted a well-orchestrated campaign to force governments to reduce support.

In the US, many states have introduced a voucher system where each student attracts a government subsidy and the money follows the child to whatever school is chosen. Another approach to funding is to allow school fees as a tax deduction, thus, making it easier for more parents to make the choice.

While not exhibiting all the characteristics of a pure voucher system, as detailed by the US economist Caroline Hoxby, it is the case that Australia already has a de-facto voucher system in the sense that non-government schools attract Commonwealth and state government financial support for the students they enrol.

Instead of denying non-government schools funding and trying to integrate them into the government school system, as has been suggested by the previous ALP Victorian Minister for Education, Bronwyn Pike, such schools deserve to be properly resourced and allowed to continue to function without government interference.

All schools, both government and non-government, must be given the freedom and flexibility to manage their own affairs and, while some degree of oversight is important, the role of government should be minimised. Similar to the way Catholic schools operate and based on the principle of subsidiarity, as far as practicable decisions should be made by those most effected and those closet to the school.

While critics like the AEU like to portray such a model of education as representing a neo-conservative, economic rationalist attack on schools, of interest is that Karl Marx expressed similar views in an 1869 speech titled ‘On Education’ and delivered to a meeting of the International Working Men’s Association.

Marx argues that government should have minimal control over education, when he states, “Education might be national without being governmental. Government might appoint inspectors whose duty it was to see that the laws were obeyed, just as the factory inspectors looked after the observance of the factory acts, without any power of interfering with the course of education itself”.

In opposition to a state mandated, detailed curriculum pushing a politically correct ideology Marx also argues, “Nothing could be introduced either in primary, or higher schools that admitted of party and class interpretation. Only, subjects such as the physical sciences, grammar, etc., were fit matter for schools. The rules of grammar, for instance, could not differ, whether explained by a religious Tory or a free thinker.”

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