Gillard's education pipedream


Maths problem scribbled on paper'You can't get there from here' goes the gag, usually told at the expense of the Irish ancient and the baffled tourist. Well, now the joke's on us too. To get to the OECD's top five school systems by 2025 we'd have to have a school system and a strategy and a chain of command, but we have none of them, and getting them is probably beyond our reach. And so we are stuck.

In setting the 'top five by '25' target the Prime Minister has done us a favour, but made a rod for her own back. The target is narrowly-focused, but focused on areas of learning — reading, maths, science — that are 'basic' as ends in themselves and as means to other learning. Achievement of the target would require a more equitable distribution of attainment as well as better performance overall.

For the Prime Minister, the target is mostly trouble.

The first problem is the amount of daylight between here and there. The most recent round of international comparisons revealed that at the year 4 level, we are 22nd in reading, 18th in maths and 19th in science. More worrying than the league table is that up to a quarter of students who have been at school for nearly four years still can't read, do simple maths, or understand elementary scientific concepts.

Other international comparisons released this year suggest things are better by the secondary years, particularly compared with the UK and US. But they're still not good enough to match Canada, not to mention Finland and several Asian systems, all of which are lifting both overall performance and equity. We are not. We're flatlining.

Another problem for the Prime Minister is that she has little control over what happens next.

We have three school systems, or eight, or 24, depending how you slice it. There are three sectors: government, non-government systemic (mainly Catholic), and independent. Then there are eight states and territories, each with its own government system and non-government schools. That makes 24 'jurisdictions' (or even more, since the Catholic sector is further divided along diocesan lines). The feds are involved in all 24 yet control none.

School systems are complex organisms, hard to change even when change is coordinated, cumulative and sustained. Our policies are none of these, Julia Gillard's valiant efforts notwithstanding. She has been the driving force in a government more active in, committed to, and optimistic about schooling than any since Whitlam.

Many of her initiatives are both necessary and constructive: a revived national curriculum; publicly available information about the resourcing and performance of every school; support to schools in getting more control over their own destinies; an IT upgrade; and most importantly, the Gonski proposal to fund schools according to their educational task rather than the sector to which they belong.

But this is all tactic and no strategy. The idea of an encompassing strategy appeared only in September of this year, five years after the 'education revolution' was inaugurated, and still exists only as a bare outline.

Moreover, there is no high command to drive it. As Federal Minister for Education Gillard set up a new ministerial council and a new system of performance contracts, but the cats still decline to be herded.

Gonski's funding scheme has been watered down at the behest of the states and independent schools, and his plan weakened by the states' veto of the 'national school resourcing body', yet Gonski is still neither agreed nor funded. The Federal Opposition has threatened to repeal any Gonski legislation in favour of a funding status quo.

State premiers and ministers of education have problems of their own. All contribute to funding non-government schools, but get little say. All have chronic problems of steerage in their own government systems. Most of their tightening budgets are locked up by industrial agreements centring on fixed maximum class sizes, leaving room only for low-spend policies tied to three-year election cycles. Big reform is beyond them.

Every state minister of education agrees, for example, that 'teacher quality' is key to better student outcomes, and that much-improved salaries are key to 'teacher quality'. But where will the money come from?

It could come from re-allocation. One US calculation found that just five more students in every classroom — and remember that the great majority of classes contain less than the allowable maximum — would deliver a 34 per cent salary increase for every teacher. But which minister would dare to mention such a heresy?

Last in this dismal catalogue is the most powerful underlying dynamic of Australian schooling, often referred to as 'residualisation'.

On the face of it the problem stems from exceptionally high levels of competition between sectors and schools. This is one league table where we come out on top. When principals around the OECD were asked how many schools they compete with our principals nominated an average of four, far ahead of the next on the list. But does the problem lie in the amount of competition, or in the kind?

Competition for more successful schooling for more students could be a powerful force for good. But that is not what our schools compete for. As demonstrated by one of Gonski's commissioned studies, our schools compete for students, causing the educationally rich to cluster with their kind and the poor with theirs, to the advantage of the former and the disadvantage of the latter.

Gonski — if agreed, if funded, and if implemented — would slow this dynamic and reduce its worst effects, but not eliminate it.

It is difficult to see our present way of organising, funding and governing schooling getting us anywhere near the 'top five by '25', even if other school systems agreed to stand still in the meantime. What kind of system might?

It would, first, turn the toxic competition between schools and sectors to advantage by levelling the playing field, and freeing up all schools to play. We could do worse than adapt the AFL model, a masterclass in combining funding and regulation, subsidies and penalties, socialism and the market to generate a competition that elevates the game because everybody has a chance of winning. (Well, nearly everybody.)

Second, a more productive system would be both more centralised and more decentralised, and less politicised. National coordination of funding and a common regulatory framework, for the great majority of schools, at arm's length from governments and politics, would combine with resource control down in schools or groups of schools.

Third, schools would be required to make more flexible and outcomes-focused use of resources in exchange for new money. Staffing, training and career progression would be restructured, and teacher pay lifted by at least 25 per cent. These changes would require, among other things, staffing schools according to student-staff ratios rather than fixed class size maxima.

But how to get there from here? Such a system is not off the planet. Its key features are generally consistent with, if much more ambitious than, policies and proposals currently being pursued piecemeal in Australia.

Nor is the scale of change without precedent — consider, for example, the creation of the great government systems in the 1880s, or the Karmel/Whitlltam program of the early 1970s, or the Dawkins reforms to higher education a couple of decades later.

The difficulty is in finding the political pressure, ambition and muscle of the kind that drove such game-changing reforms. In its probable absence, come 2025 we'll still be here, baffled, and stuck. 

Dean AshendenDean Ashenden has been a consultant to state and national education agencies and ministers of education.

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, Gonski, education, Catholic schools



submit a comment

Existing comments

Here we go again, the endless, merry-go-round on schooling. Schooling is but one player in education. Teachers, on the whole are dedicated, prepared and competent. Schools are resourced. Schooling authorities, government and non-government are working to or above benchmarks answerable to international standards. But again I say, schooling is only one component in education. Economic and cultural determinants are the other components. If big business and the movers and shakers in culture were put under the microscope, the real problems with education would stand out so to be held accountable and condemned. Economic sector demands that students be available and trained for the least amount of money and in the least possible time limits have resulted in an invasion into the primary school curriculum of almost apprentice-like skills acquisition which is almost tantamount to channelling children towards a narrowing of school expectations, producing robotic responses in problem solving rather than a broader understanding. And culture is no longer seen as the owned and contributed to social capital of the nation, but limited to that which can be consumed, thus making the marketing of culture the supreme aim, with entrepreneurs the celebrated rather than true thinkers.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 20 December 2012

What makes a great school? At Year 4 level, we are 22nd in reading. Not a great statistic. I may be biased (in fact, I'm sure I am) but here's my two cents worth. Make the school library a funding priority, invest in producing teacher-librarians who can inspire, empathise with and shepherd children who will learn to value the environment of the library. Who will choose to hang out there on a very regular basis. Only with love of learning do children respond and the school will flourish. It takes money, but something in addition to money as well.
Pam | 20 December 2012

Do we have comparative stats of government v private. v catholic ? Surely our (now) non-homogenous society is a major contributor to our poor performance ?
Jim McDonald | 20 December 2012

The author assumes that Gillard actually wants to do something useful, which is a highly questionable assumption. After all, her record in education so far is abysmal, all very status quo and stolen LNP policies with a large chunk of tax money thrown at schools to very little good effect and a national curriculum that is far from national. Then, as the author points out, there is the small problem of those within the state-territory education departments who continue to employ school principals who have very clearly failed to watch over standards, get rid of dud staff, or to lobby state treasurers through their unions and principal associations for better funding, on top of which are the lazy parents who pay little or no attention to how schools are run. But were they to make the effort and crossed the 'ideas' of the principal or teaching staff, would find themselves and their children on the outer, deeply resented for pointing out the emperor was disrobed if not naked. Finally, there is the not-talked-about possibility that because schools are now regarded primarily as commodities, the expectations are probably far too high, so all the angst simply compounds the appearance of abject failure of our school system.
janice wallace | 20 December 2012

Education is a fine sounding word, but it means different things to different people. For many it means Instruction, which is what is used when comparing different systems. For others it can mean Indoctrination. But it needs to be remembered, "If you 'educate' a devil, you don't get an angel. All you get is a clever devil."
Robert Liddy | 20 December 2012

If every country in the OECD study is scrambling to be "top 5 in '25", then our prospects are not good! International comparisons are useful, but not if they are used to make us the best in the world. Our motivation is to provide the best education we can given our history, geography, resources and political frameworks. Dean has sketched a possible new future for schools which could take us beyond the framework that limited Gonski (funding allocation and distribution). Unless we can hold some national discussions around the broader framework that Dean suggests, there will be little leadership, educational and politcal, that can lift our schools to provide an excellent education for each student.
Garry | 20 December 2012

It is dispiriting to read the cynicism of the comment by Janice Wallace, especially her assertion that, when Minister for Education, Ms Gillard was responsible for "a large chunk of tax money [being] thrown at schools to very little good effect". On that specific point, I have been impressed by the numerous new buildings which I've observed on many school sites around Sydney. Furthermore, I have spoken to quite a few parents of children at some of those schools which received new buildings and -- universally -- that heve been delighted at the result. A crucial question with such surveys is the validity of the methodology. In this case, I'd suspect that the "table" has been compiled "post hoc", with data which had been compiled is quite disparate ways from very heterogeneous education systems, with some of them national structures, some [as in Australia and in Germany, for example] from state-administered systems with yet others the responsibility of local government. Drawing valid conclusions in such circumstances is fraught. Then there is the scope of the testing and whether matters which we would consider important might have been omitted from the metrics involved. To draw rational conclusions, we would all need access to far more detail than most of can achieve. And we would need to approach any analysis free of political or ideological bias and animus.
Dr John CARMODY | 20 December 2012

Great article Dean. I appreciated the link to the Melbourne Football Club! This is about the best article I have read at cutting through the politics of the Public/Catholic/Private debates. Educational reform should be about the bigger picture for all students and your proposals here seem sensible steps towards this ends.
Brenton | 20 December 2012

*Gillard has tried "payment by results", anyone knowing education history will know that this is a failed policy of the mid nineteenth century. Bad policy bad advice. *As others have said schooling is only part of education and if more effort were spent educating parents in how to support children and teachers there would be more progress. *Though capitalists and conservatives say they value capital they fail to see that the capital which manages the capital of the country is the capital of the mind. They want cheap education or none at all. As an Irish parish priest said of the creation of the Catholic University in Dublin, "They now have enough education to critisise the government, if you give them any mnore they will be criticising the church". * If money is the way to get better teachers watch out! You might just get the candidates who are now going for commerce, medicine and the media. Why not make it harder to become a teacher and show we value and respect teachers? Unless the rest of society value teachers and learning dollars won't fix education. *Since Labor has emasculated Peter Garrett you can't expect any strong leadership from that quarter. *Who says the OECD has the best set of criteria? Why not set our own and lead the rest who are either too dependent on the OECD or ignorant about education or as non committed as we are about Gonski.
Michael d. Breen | 20 December 2012

The main issue with education standards and expectations in Australia is that we have developed a culture of narcissistic individualism and philosophy of life which is secular materialism. Most Australian people are not thinkers and 45% of Australian people have poor literacy and numeracy skills and 80% of Australian people have little knowledge and understanding of subjects such as philosophy, history, literature, science, religion, theology, cinema, theatre, the visual arts and other performing arts. Australians are generally only interested in their level of income and their ability to buy a flash house, flash car, flash clothes and electronic gadgets.
Mark Doyle | 20 December 2012

I,m not a teacher, nor am I directly concerned with education at any level, but I'm not surprised at all that our performance at primary level is way behind many other countries.I was appalled to read a 6th grade composition submitted last term in a Catholic school by my grandson. The composition had three spelling mistakes, including "bort" for bought. I can't help but query why teachers don't spend more time in class, rather than 12 weeks annual leave, plus "Curriculum" days and "Correction" days, plus four day break for Melbourne Cup,(In Melbourne)and other public holidays. One grandson finished his 8th grade year at a Catholic Secondary school on Friday 14 December. my second finished sixth grade yesterday,ie 19 December. Why? What's the hurry to get away on a very, very long holiday. Why?
Bill Barry | 20 December 2012

Mark Doyle, to your last sentence I would add the word "sport". Fr Mick Mac Andrew, I almost always disagree with what you write, so I surprised myself by saying a wholehearted "Hurrah" to your comment. The god of this nation is Economy. We worship it, give it headline status in every new bulletin, attend to every detail of its fluctuations, obey its commands without question. We need a different God.
Janet | 20 December 2012

Prior to our arrival here in 1954, I was in high school in Holland. The majority of our "Early learning was by rote learning like your tables and the basics of languages like English, French, German and Italian, this was in the first years at high school. this has stood our family in good stead here in Australia. In the last 30 years too many people have been pandered to, even at university, some courses will never benefit anybody but have been included to satisfy a small minority. Australia needs to get back to Reading Writing and Arithmetic as the basics in all primary schools. Funding should be based on results taking into account the calibre of the students and their backgrounds. Teachers should be paid on results within certain parameters also.
Clem Schaper | 20 December 2012

Or is it just an outcome of a lot of immigration from countries which aren't the brightest bringing our averages down.
Robert | 20 December 2012

Our present way of organising, funding and governing schooling is indeed ripe for reform. Ashenden recommends turning 'toxic' (or imperfect) competition between schools and sectors to advantage by levelling the playing field, but wont say how. For a start all Catholic and similar other systemic schools should be treated exactly similarly to state schools, funded equivalently and with commensurate accountabilities, as in most other OECD polities. Its the least one might expect from an idea emanating in a Jesuit publication that sets Ashenden up to be listened to and then appears to contain him. The AFL model is indeed an apt way to proceed, employing a combination of funding and regulation, subsidies and penalties, socialism and the market to generate a competition that elevates the game because everybody has a chance of winning. Secondly, we should restore the Commonwealth Schools Commission to fulfil such tasks; and keep it at arms length from government in order to provide Ashenden's common regulatory framework. This would enable resource control to be devolved to schools or groups of schools. These reforms would also satisfy many of the stated objections of the AEU, and clear the obstacles in the path of all-round school success. As Ashenden observes, it has been done before: in the 1880s, the early 1970s, and with Dawkins, and neither Labor or the Coalition should have major disagreement with it.
Dr Michael Furtado | 21 December 2012

Cynical Dr John Doyle? I seem to be in good company then, with Fr. Mick MacAndrew noting the undermining-downgrading of education for business purposes first, with Pam highlighting the need to focus on aquiring search and knowledge skills through good training, with Jim McDonald concerned about aspects covered in Rossenau's thinking of 'fragmegration', with Garry's comments on the folly of mindless comparison, and Janet who seems to get aspects of what I say. If your measure is to be merely the raising of bricks, mortar and tin sheds, then the focus should not be on praising Gillard, who may well have filled a perceived building gap, but on condemning her predecessors who created that gap. As I recall, Howard funded his years of surplus budgets by slashing sopending on public services. Filling that void is hardly enlightened action on Gillard's part but maybe you are praising her NAPLAN tests and web site efforts, or her support for $500m into evangelical Christianity in state schools? Gillard has attached herself to a public relations meme, that somehow she is the personification of good education and through that comes groundbreaking quality policy. Like most memes, and public relations stunts, it's simply not credible.
janice wallace | 21 December 2012


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up