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.