The state of the Australian education debate

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Jonathan Simons has written a piece for Schools Week, a UK trade newspaper, in which he argues that, whatever the shortcomings of the education debate, at least England is having one. It is a great piece to provoke reflection from 17,000 km away. What is the state of the debate in Australia and what can we do about it?

First, it is important to agree with Simons. It is easy to underestimate the value of open and frank discussion. There are individuals on social media who suggest the debate is all a confection, or perhaps even a conspiracy. However, when you look at the unthinking guff pumped-out worldwide about education and the groupthink that bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development all sign-up to, uncritically, this position is untenable. I think the OECD folks are wrong, but even if they are right, we all benefit from a bit of critical thinking. Analysis and criticism can only strengthen a solid set of ideas.

So what is the state of play in Australia? We certainly do not have the kind of debate that is taking place in England, but there are some encouraging signs.

The phonics debate

The end of July saw a debate between Australian proponents of phonics and the cloistered establishment. Team phonics wiped the floor with their opponents who could only really make vague appeals about ‘meaning’. This felt like a step change. I think team whole-language agreed to the debate, assuming they would easily win and were witness to the ground shifting under their feet.

A lot of time in education, people do not know the opposing arguments and this became apparent when team whole-language failed to anticipate much of what team phonics had to say. Nothing makes the need for open debate clearer.

The newspapers

I have been pleasantly surprised throughout 2018 at the quality of Australian education journalism and a reinvigorated willingness to be investigative. It may be just my perception, but I have seen fewer stories in the serious papers that are essentially puff-pieces uncritically promoting a given school’s new initiative.

Phonics is still the vanguard issue, but every movement needs a vanguard and phonics is pretty important.

Poor behaviour

The elephant in many classrooms is poor student behaviour. Where the recent PISA survey data should have caused a major round of introspection, it was all explained away with little fuss.

Discussion of behaviour is Australia mainly proceeds via slogans such as ‘all behaviour is communication’ or ‘we don’t want a punitive approach’ and very little of this is examined. And criticism tends to see the critic pointed to an (ir)relevant piece of government legislation. This is turf firmly occupied by educational progressivism and would take something akin to England’s free school programme to disrupt it, so perhaps there is less hope of movement here.

Gonski 2.0

The defining issue of 2018 was perhaps the publication of Gonski’s platitudinous report, reheating many of the familiar OECD and world education conference circuit cliches.

But Gonski 2.0 received a drubbing from critics and only a luke-warm response from fans. Perhaps future reviews may spend more time reading through the public submissions before signing up to a programme very like everything that has gone before.

And so to 2019…

What will the next year hold? Watch this space and, if it is safe for you to do so, add you own voice to the debate. We need you.

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2 thoughts on “The state of the Australian education debate

  1. Perhaps one of the most neglected issues in the education debate is the immense patronage in the gift of institutions which exist to preserve the current orthodoxy. One of the great ironies of the English experience is that it took Tony Blair’s personal intervention to finally tip the scales in the phonics debate, yet at the same time education spending virtually doubled in real terms under New Labour. Relatively little of this money found its way to the chalk face; insofar as monies trickled through to schools, it was absorbed by the creation of more deputy and assistant heads, who tended to justify their existence with school improvement schemes that promoted progressive enthusiasms and saddled working teachers with unnecessary or even counter-productive tasks. Excessive (or perhaps obsessive) lesson observations conveys a message to pupils: their teachers aren’t trusted professionals, but rather lackeys of the SLT. This has a predictable effect on behaviour.

    The Free School Programme did indeed put patronage in the hands of a few revolutionaries like Katherine Birbalsingh and this gives us all hope. Yet at the same time, progress is limited by the vast amount of patronage still in the hands of progressives. At a school near me, heads of department who were committed to a knowledge-rich curriculum are being replaced by ‘Learning Leaders’ trained under the auspices of the Education Training Inspectorate at the DfE. The NCETM pays lip service to cognitive load theory yet at the same time promotes a spiral curricular progression which is so overloaded with concepts and counting that each topic can only be covered so superficially that most of it is forgotten by the time it comes around again. And of course they control the Maths Hubs, and it would seem that there’s precious little that Nick Gibb can do about it. In short, we may be winning the war of ideas in England, but there’s only so much you can do about it when so many people–all too often, failed teachers–make handsome salaries in leadership roles which are largely in the gift of committed progressives.

    1. This is a point that I’ve made regularly over the years: there are very serious financial incentives for promoting bad ideas in education. It all stems from the academy – that is where the pushback ultimately has to come from.

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