The bell rings for another round in the education war
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The bell rings for another round in the education war

Five minutes after businessman David Gonski dropped his review into schooling excellence – let’s call it Gonski Part 2 – the grown-ups were at it again.

Australia, are we sick of our kids’ schooling being a political football and our schoolyards being on the front line of the culture wars?

Australia, are we sick of our kids’ schooling being a political football and our schoolyards being on the front line of the culture wars?

On the conservative side, commentator Kevin Donnelly (who just last week criticised Australia’s “dumbed down, overcrowded curriculum that lacks academic rigour”) dismissed the report as “all that’s wrong with the system”, while Jennifer Buckingham, a researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies (which is only independent insofar as its funding comes not from government or political parties, but big, particularly mining, businesses) said it privileged “psychobabble” over science.

In the sensible centre, Andrew Pierpoint, president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association, backed the plan’s greater focus on general skills such as creativity and critical thinking. “They’re the things a lot of employers look for in the contemporary age, [but] they're very difficult things to measure,” he said. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of measuring things that are easy, and therefore teaching things that are easy to measure.”

On what you imagine is the left, teacher unions asked for more money, arguing that you couldn’t implement what the report recommends without the funds (which surely must include better pay for teachers if the profession is to attract talent – because talent always follows the money, right?).

Federal Coalition backbencher Andrew Laming countered the unions with the idea that teachers should work more and holiday less. “Teaching needs to operate like other jobs, with the same hours, days and weeks as the rest of the economy, rather than cluttered school hours where there is little beyond the face-to-face time,” he said.

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Tell all those weekend workers who’ve recently had their penalty rates stripped that they should join the regular nine-to-five economy while you’re at it, Mr Laming.

Coalition backbencher Andrew Laming.

Coalition backbencher Andrew Laming.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Laming has accidentally belled the cat: one of the right’s big objections to public education is that, like public hospitals, its workforce is still unionised, and its union is still bolshie. Bust public education, and you can bust a union.

Australia, are we sick of our kids’ schooling being a political football and our schoolyards being on the front line of the culture wars?

For more than two decades, education has been the Central America in a proxy war between the right and the left: funding, curriculum and standards are all subject to endless argument.

And the uproar about falling standards works for both sides. (Are they falling? As a society, are we less literate, less numerate, less savvy about the world than we were, say, 50 years ago?)

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The left can call for more money (as if money were the answer to every problem), the right can call for more “rigour”, which sounds like rote learning and instructional teaching that relies on a hierarchical classroom, very good for breeding the obedient office drones and industrial workers of the future – if they can wrestle those jobs off the robots.

This is also very good for stoking the anxieties of parents whose own memories of school are probably distant, hazy and mostly unpleasant.

But what we – parents – want from education is straightforward: we want our kids to enjoy school enough to stay there until the end, and learn whatever they need to know to make the choices they want to make in life.

Simple to say, but hard to measure, and lost in all the squabbling.

Matt Holden is an Age columnist.