For my fiftieth birthday, the Australian government is intent on sending me a present – a bowel cancer screening kit. Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world and the aim of the kit is to avoid deaths by early detection.
Now I know what you are thinking – Is a policy of sending out bowel cancer screening kits to people over fifty years of age a right-wing or left-wing policy? Clearly, if it is right-wing and you are left-wing then you need to be opposed to it and if it is left-wing and you are left-wing then you need to be in favour. A similar issue arises if you are on the political right. So you need to know which of these it is in order to have an opinion about it, yes?
What’s that you say? You just want to know how effective it is, how much it costs and so on? How extraordinary! Don’t you know that there is a culture war going on and every technical solution to every prosaic problem has to be assigned to one political camp or another so that we can all exclaim how tiresome this is?
If you are a perplexed at this point then you will understand my frustration when I read Jordan Baker in the Sydney Morning Herald state that:
“Education is rife with ideological battles. The reading wars. The funding wars. The value, or lack thereof, of NAPLAN. The NSW Teachers’ Federation and principals councils sit at one end of that spectrum… Conservatives have traditionally sat at the other, although the previous two Coalition education ministers, Adrian Piccoli and Rob Stokes, had cooperative relationships with those left-leaning stakeholders.”
The statement is partially self-refuting. Why have Piccoli and Stokes let the right-wing side down? When you look further, both Piccoli and Stokes have called for serious reform of NAPLAN in a similar vein to the NSW Teachers’ Federation who they are supposed to be ideologically at odds with (NAPLAN is a set of Australia-wide standardised tests in literacy and numeracy taken by students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9).
We can only assume, therefore, that the end of the spectrum where Conservatives are supposed to sit involves being in favour of NAPLAN. But NAPLAN was introduced by Julia Gillard when she was the Labor education minister and when the right-wing Coalition took the baton of power from the Gillard government in 2013, Christopher Pyne, the new education minster, seems to have had deep misgivings about the programme, to the extent that the new government blocked the introduction of a science test.
Are you confused yet? Looking at NAPLAN through the lens of left-versus-right just doesn’t make any sense, does it?
And what of ‘the reading wars’? I assume that this refers to the debate between proponents of phonics and those who seek to downplay the role of phonics, a debate that has crystallised in recent times in Australia around the issue of introducing a phonics screening check in Year 1.
Such a policy is a direct parallel with the policy of a national bowel cancer screen. Sure, the bowel cancer screen aims to prevent premature death whereas the phonics check aims to prevent reading failure. There are differences of degree, but can we all at least agree that a failure to learn to read has some pretty serious consequences?
If so, why should the discussion be any different? Why is it not focused upon the effectiveness of the check, how much it costs and so on? Why does this have to be a left-versus-right battle?
Jordan Baker is not to blame here. She has not created this framing. However perplexed and frustrated we may be by it, we all recognise that education is an ideological battleground in a way that other areas of public life are not.
But this does not mean we have to accept this framing and we should all ask the question as to whose interests it serves.