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Gillard's ideals are likely lost without a map

Date: November 06 2012


Nicholas Stuart

It's months since Julia Gillard outlined the details of her continuing 'education revolution', so the rest of the media has long moved on. But the issue is worth revisiting, because it demonstrates one of the great problems of the Gillard government: what might be called its operating method and, more significantly, its misconception about the reason for existence.

I suppose I should state straight up that I'm all for getting every young slacker to learn more and work harder. After all, they've got youth, looks, health … it's only fair they should be locked-up in soulless classrooms until they've memorised every Chinese character. And, if you accept that, it's very easy to get your head around our Prime Minister's thought process for education.

I think she does believe learning is the answer to higher productivity: that everything worthwhile can be readily distilled into a checklist and regurgitated in a three-hour exam. The trouble is she believes this is all that our lives are about.

It seems pretty sensible until you pause to think about it. But once you do it's difficult not to come to the conclusion that the education policy is the result of more spin than what goes into the fluffiest meringue; less substance than the shimmering mist. Singapore is among the world's top five nations for test results; but how many Nobel prizes is it producing? None, so far at any rate, and that's the problem with the plodding, predictable way the government is tackling so many issues.

The Gonski Review, for example, offered detailed recommendations to deal with complex issues. The PM's office meddled with these because they wanted something that would sound good on the nightly news.

That's why the emphasis reverted to learning. Not thinking in any depth, or education in the broader sense. Just LEARNING. And the most savage indictment of the whole review resulted from unnecessary meddling.

The PM's office grasped for something that would sound good on the news and turned to teacher training. Gillard announced every teacher shall, henceforth, be in the top 30 per cent of high-school graduates in English and maths. Really? And how will she enforce her diktat - pay them more? The idea's fine but it can't, and won't ever, be implemented.

Of course, we need the best and most dedicated teachers possible. Wonderful people, who will inspire our children. But what about someone who's fantastic at sport and a good communicator, who desperately wants to be a physical education teacher, yet can't make it into the top 30 per cent of their cohort for numeracy? Are you really going to stop them from teaching? Kevin Rudd didn't do any maths above year 10, studying French and History instead. Would you really prevent him from teaching politics because he hasn't made some arbitrary cut-off?

Ironically, it just so happens that one of Gillard's MPs has researched teacher productivity. Before he was a politician Andrew Leigh wrote academic papers demonstrating he'd managed to acquire both significant literacy and numeracy.

I knew this after glancing at one of his reports into education productivity where, on page 11, he includes a complex mathematical formula showing how the demographics of students are changing. But the equation also serves the purpose of utterly convincing me that the Member for the Canberra seat of Fraser knows what he's talking about. The trouble is the more I plough through his research, the more I doubt Gillard's policy prescriptions in this area.

In another study published in 2008 Leigh did isolate a critical factor that postulates why teacher aptitude might be declining. Pay.

Yes, it's true. Who would have thought it? Money. Leigh discovered that the rising salary differential between the amount people earned as teachers and the amount they could earn elsewhere is encouraging people to work in other professions.

Gillard's protestations she cares about the quality of our educators might ring just slightly more true if she tied her own pay rises to their salaries. And why not? Teachers would love to get the 30 per cent bonus that our politicians received this year.

So the literature is conclusive: there are ways of improving the quality of our education system.

Unfortunately Gillard highlights few of them. Indeed, it's difficult not to come to the conclusion that she's dealing here with something she doesn't quite understand.

That's OK. After all, it was the need for expert advice that resulted in her commissioning Gonski to study the issue in the first place. What a pity she felt the need to meddle.

Exactly the same process appears to have been repeated with the Asia White Paper. Ken Henry won't discuss how many of the ideas in his original draft were gutted as more practiced apparatchiks combed through his work, discarding nearly half of it.

It's only to be expected that a practicing foreign affairs expert would have a very different - and, quite possibly, far more realistic view of our region - than someone whose background is with an economic bias. Without understanding the writing process it's not really possible to comment. What is a concern, though, is that the product reflects the same mechanistic approach as the response to Gonski. It's all inputs and outputs, driven by the same dull vision of 'excellence'.

Now don't get me wrong, this sort of thinking has an important place in the role of government. But it would be nice if there were qualifications placed on the targets that have been elevated to critical objectives and announced with so much fanfare.

Take education, again. Ten universities in the top 100 by 2025? Currently we have five and there's no plan to achieve the grand objective. And does Gillard really mean education, or simply do better at passing tests. The two objectives are by no means the same thing. Politics is about both laying out a road map for the future and managing the particulars of the present. Currently, the government's doing neither.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.

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