What will be the greatest impact of Australia’s new education bill?

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This week, Pauline Hanson stood up in the Australian Senate and expressed an ill-informed opinion about the inclusion of kids with autistic spectrum disorders in regular classrooms. This is nothing new. Hanson has form for all sorts of wacky views such as the ones she has expressed on vaccines.

Hanson is the leader of One Nation; a fringe right-wing populist party. She’s like a female version of Donald Trump but without the intellectual grunt. While some commentators have calmly and proportionately rebutted her claims, others have been whipped-up into a feeding frenzy. This is unfortunate because an attack on Hanson by the establishment is only likely to increase her profile among those who would consider voting for her. Hanson is trolling us.

The context for Hanson’s remarks was a debate about a new funding deal for Australian schools; a bill that has now passed the parliament. The deal is complicated because Australian schools are supported through a mix of federal and state funding. In addition, federal government also funds a proportion of the costs of  non-government schools. This reduces fees so that, for instance, regular families are able to send their children to catholic schools. So although it’s a contentious arrangement, no politician is going to throw away votes by removing this support.

The new deal increases funding overall while cutting the amount going to some non-government schools. The system will be simplified to a needs-based model that supersedes the mess of separate deals that currently exist. The Labor opposition have criticised the deal mainly on the basis that they would have spent more money. 

This all provides plenty of fodder for policy wonks with big calculators. However, potentially the most significant long-term impact of the new deal has hardly had an airing this week.

Simon Birmingham, the education minister, wants to ensure that any extra funding improves outcomes. He seems frustrated with an Australian context of increasing educational expenditure coupled with the kind of declining performance that can be seen in the results of international assessments such as PISA and TIMSS.

Later this year, a review will commence into the best (and worst) ways to spend money in the education system. I am hopeful that this will be driven by evidence rather than educational theory. If so, this could represent a quiet revolution. We might be able to move on from balanced literacy, constructivism and the project-based learning fad in favour of teaching methods that actually work. Let’s hope so.


6 thoughts on “What will be the greatest impact of Australia’s new education bill?

  1. You don’t have to be a fan of Pauline Hanson’s to concede that she might have a point here. Isn’t it, as usual, a matter of degree? These days “autistic” covers a large range, from being “a bit slow” (as we used to say) to severe intellectual disability. It’s even applied to high-functioning Asperger’s kids, who outstrip their classmates intellectually.

    I followed the link in the Conversation piece to the excellent Ruijs & Peetsma article “Effects of inclusion on students with and without special educational needs reviewed”, and was left with the impression that the whole issue is devilishly complicated. I did NOT get the impression that the studies cited support the Conversation headline: “Pauline Hanson is wrong — we need to include children with disability in regular classrooms”. (I haven’t read the other linked articles yet.) I thought Farrell (2000), who was quoted in the article, put the problem in a nutshell:

    “There are two types of arguments in favour of inclusive education: socio-political and empirical. The socio-political arguments mostly state that inclusion is a matter of human rights: children with special educational needs have the right to be educated in regular schools. Farrell (2000) describes some problems with this line of argument. First, he states that the most important right of children is to have good education, even if this means special education for some students. Second, he states that rights can conflict: parents might feel their child has aright to be educated in a regular school, while the child might objectively be better off in a special school. Furthermore, other children have a right to good education as well: placing a child with special educational needs in a regular class might have a negative effect on the other pupils. Finally, Farrell (2000) states that there is a right to choose: if special education is abolished, parents will be denied any choice, as a special school will no longer be an option. Because of these problems, the empirical arguments are very important: policy decisions should have regard for the effects on students.”

    Effects of inclusion on students with and without special educational needs reviewed (PDF Download Available). Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248571719_Effects_of_inclusion_on_students_with_and_without_special_educational_needs_reviewed [accessed Jun 24, 2017].

    1. Agreed. Autism is defined in far too general a way these days (partly due to the virtual removal of the “Asperger’s” category). Linda Graham’s piece may have been relatively calm and proportionate, unlike some of the crass emotionalism in politics and the media, but it was also very misleading. If she does not believe that mainstreaming such kids in the generally-understood way is appropriate, which she stated in her reply to my comment, then she should have made that quite explicit in the article. Influential people do read these things and sometimes base their policies around them – you need to be careful not to give a false impression of your own favoured policy.

    2. Agree. I’m not sure Pauline Hason is completely wrong. There is a spectrum and it’s my belief that some of those children – those with more severe disability/behaviour – would perhaps be better off in special needs class rooms or schools. It is also true that the impact that is felt on the class/teacher generally should be taken into account. I think the greater good does outweigh the desires of individuals.

  2. Speaking as both a teacher and a parent, I hope that some of this extra funding is spent not on all the usual dubious you-beaut interventions, or on expensive white-elephant new toys as in the Rudd-Gillard era, but on actual infrastructure – specifically, new primary schools in areas where the demographics are exploding (I live in one such area, and everyone who lives here knows that within the next few years the existing schools just won’t be able to cope, demountables or no demountables).

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