How should Labor respond to the Australian government’s education proposals?

There are currently lots of excitable educationalists who are losing their minds on Twitter because of the government’s proposals for education. It’s probably best not to listen to them too much. Instead, I offer to be the voice of reason. In short, the Labor party should adopt some of what the government is proposing whilst maintaining a pretty crucial point of difference.

First, we must acknowledge that the government has a valid point which is perhaps best expressed in Simon Birmingham’s own words:

“While Bill Shorten has promised more money for schools, Labor is ignoring the decades of significant funding growth yet declining performance. For all Labor knows, their extra funding will be used to build a second or third sports shed or pretty up a school gate rather than addressing the generational deficiencies of our schooling system.”

In truth, it is perfectly possible to massively increase funding to an education system without improving outcomes or whilst outcomes actually decline. I lived through a huge injection of funds into the English education system, an investment with little to show for it. This is because educationalists have broken theories about education and, when given the cash, they spend it on these notions.

For instance, we still have far too many children in this country suffering through mediocre ‘balanced literacy’ programmes in which explicit phonics is downplayed in favour of platitudes about ‘reading for meaning’. Yes, there are those who would dispute this, claiming that phonics is taught but how can this be the case if primary school teachers themselves lack the knowledge to do so? And if they’re so committed to phonics, why do we keep hearing from educationalists that only a small proportion of English words can be decoded this way (citation unknown)?

This state of affairs exists despite Australia’s own 2005 review of the evidence that demonstrated a clear advantage to systematic and explicit phonics programmes and despite repeated exhortations to pay attention to this evidence from all parts of the political spectrum.

This is why Labor should welcome a phonics check. Labor should also welcome the efforts to ensure that all students study a robust mix of courses at Year 12 so that they don’t limit their options too soon in life. The dream has to be a rigorous and academic education for all. That is what Labor is about: breaking down elites and increasing opportunities for everyone.

However, Labor should roundly reject the idea of performance-related pay. Learning is latent and can only be inferred through relatively poor proxies. In Malcolm Turnbull’s previous life as a banker, his performance could easily be measured by the amount of money he made and this, no doubt, is why the idea is appealing. But you can’t do that with teaching. The same teacher, teaching the same content to a different class can have quite different outcomes. Performance pay will only end up rewarding statistical noise. Yes, there are pay reforms that might help; more flexibility for principal’s, for instance, but PRP should be roundly dismissed as naive, bureaucratic and unworkable.

And, of course, Labor should continue to offer more money than the Coalition. With the right checks in place, education is worth investing in.

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8 Comments on “How should Labor respond to the Australian government’s education proposals?”

    • Felicity says:

      Thank goodness for that. I was feeling alone on the left! I hope there’ll be crossbench support.

      • Tempe says:

        You’re not alone Felicity. There are some of us on the left, like you, who have thought these issues through perhaps more thoroughly than some and can clearly see that progressive Ed. stands in the way of equity and equality. You may be aware that many teacher bloggers in England managed to change the curriculum to one that was more knowledge-based. Many of them are on the left too.

  1. Ronda says:

    I think Birmingham’s words are distasteful, given that he’s throwing rocks at public schools getting a second or third sports shed, but appears to have no issue with some government-subsidised schools spending $63m on orchestral pits and aquatic centres.

    I also think there are very few schools that would spend the money on such frivolous items. Though given the state of many learning spaces in our public schools, I actually think it would be a wise investment to use funds to upgrade buildings – children can’t function when they’re packed in like sardines in mouldy, leaky, echoey, too hot, too cold demountables.

    Having said that, I take your point and totally agree with a need for there to be accountability for the use of funds.

    I’ve seen and heard of so much money wasted on programs where everyone is trained up, the program is poorly implemented to tick a box, and quietly discarded as a failure. What’s worse is when they’re deemed a success when there’s been no actual data gathered other than teacher observations or standardised tests are used that don’t take into account normal student progress without the program. These programs get plonked into school reports like they’ve actually made a difference, when you know at ground level they’ve achieved very little (and note: this is some, not all programs).

    Having said *that*, I’m sure the same shenanigans occur in private/independent schools as well.

    My concern is that the LNP will see it as an opportunity to allow their corporate mates like Pearson to get their noses in the trough, which is equally as problematic as Labor’s laissez faire approach.

  2. […] Greg Ashman: How should Labor respond to the Australian government’s education proposals? […]

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