November 30th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Free Trade: what's in it for us?

EDITORIAL: Let East Timorese refugees stay

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Medicare a 'sleeper' issue for Liberals, Labor

HUMAN CLONING: Research Involving Embryos Bill stalls in the Senate

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Pub with no beer / Sheep in sheep's clothing

AGRICULTURE: US free trade deal: will it help sugar farmers?

MEDIA: Bali "interrogation" photo sends wrong message

REFLECTION: Clyde Cameron on Archbishop Mannix and Bob Santamaria

LETTERS: Ted Serong (letter)

EDUCATION: Schooling SA-style: an exercise in planned mediocrity

EDUCATION: Dumbing down: the saga continues

ASIA: How many missiles are needed to make one China?

COMMENT: British media's royal flush

BOOKS: Rule Britannia: The Victorian and Edwardian Navy

BOOKS: Rethinking Peter Singer

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Schooling SA-style: an exercise in planned mediocrity

by John Kelly

News Weekly, November 30, 2002
In recent months the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia (SSABSA) has been preparing secondary teachers to implement its latest revision of curriculum and learning: Stage I (year 11) of the South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE).

South Australia's schooling now takes another step towards replicating the Labor models of other States. The principle on which the revision of all domains of learning rests is that the purpose of education is to produce equitable outcomes, the cardinal ideological tenet of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). It is not that students have a right to the opportunity of success, but rather that formal education must produce success; or at least the appearance of it.


Students under the new dispensation are awarded the SACE certificate on attaining a score of 50% within "essential learning" and "key competency" areas; which, at face value, might appear reasonable. The catch, however, lies in the way the minimal score is achieved.

In English, for instance, where Writing, Oral Presentation and Critical Literacy are stipulated as required activities, discretion lies with schools and teachers as to determining the percentage weighting they will attach to each of these components according to the perceived needs of students.

In this scheme it is possible for students to "negotiate" with their teachers not only the form and length of specific learning tasks within the given activity, but also its percentage weighting in the overall score. Students who are proficient in oral presentation (which may include the submission of a taped group exercise) can effectively opt to make this the centrepiece of their assessment.

This provision, among other things, will make it very difficult for teachers to dissuade their students from moving beyond their 'comfort zones' in learning to undertake more demanding tasks at the risk of achieving a lower mark or grade.

SSABSA, with its usual rehearsed optimism, does not regard this as a problem; nor, it is likely, will teachers who are result-conscious.

It is not cynical to regard the systemic arbitrariness and subjectivism that this latest initiative promotes as a further move towards the dismantling of essential core subjects and proven methods of assessment.

The idea of specific learning areas based on hand-wrought knowledge and attendant skills, and assessable by objective, appropriately exacting criteria, is unconducive to the "equitable outcomes" ideology (and anathema, of course, to ‘educators' brought up on an almost-unchallenged diet of post-modernist scepticism and relativism).

Concomitantly, the idea of disciplined knowledge, let alone truth, in schooling, as a satisfying and worthwhile end in itself and the main motive of the education enterprise has, for some years now, been sacrificed to a neo-socialist pragmatism that conceives education merely as an instrument for achieving contrived outcomes of "equity".

One glaring irony, among others, is that socialists of former times actually valued rigorous learning, albeit largely as a means to economically utopian ends.

The rhetoric of the SACE Stage I new deal is replete with vague terms like "integrated", "holistic" and "empowering". Its philosophy rests on the naïve, yet also contrived assumption that students are all Rousseauian Emiles - self-motivating and possessing an innate ability to know what is best for them in learning. The Aristotelian understanding of education involving an undergoing, a refining, indeed, a suffering, they see as a pathology inflicted by cultural and economic hegemons.

The chimera of a "Knowledge Society" where few will work in any recognisably traditional sense, is expressed in the new "eduspeak" as "life-long learning" (read for that compulsive Internet surfers) and requires the transformation of classrooms with expensive, electronic technologies.


The "perceived needs of students", in reality, occurs at the expense of the natural and acquired authority of parents and teachers - children know best. This new deal, in fact, patronises and indulges youth, encouraging non-systematic learning and the discipline it requires; and superficiality.

Students are capable of far more than current educational ideologies give them credit for in setting largely token and minimal expectations of curriculum and assessment.

In English, for example, the simultaneous extension of "text" to include virtually anything written, visual or electronic, and the systematic, slow but sure retreat from the word and the canon of Western literature ensures not only that students will not have to be exposed to and tested by arguably "the best that has been thought and said", but also that a cultural and moral relativism in keeping with social engineering and political correctness prevails.

There are grounds, too, for supposing that English as a subject, already non-compulsory at SACE Stage II (Year 12), will eventually be so voided of traditional content and methods that it will no longer be recognisable in formal curriculum.

In short, the sort of equity that drives the "educational vision" of SSABSA engineers is achieved by replacing worthy and necessary standards that recognise real differentiations in aptitudes and demonstrated abilities with work-completion requirements that are so minimal and fudged ("integrated") that virtually only those who choose to will not be awarded the SACE.

This is one of the reasons why more parents are choosing home-schooling and more schools are offering the International Baccalaureate to ensure that academic formation and excellence in academic endeavour and performance are more than nominal items in their prospecti.

Along with the now-customary denial that standards are being lowered is the belief by supporters of the latest SACE changes that the interests of social justice and compassion are being served; that the needs of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students "at risk" are being met.

Surely a better strategy would be the encouragement of more competent, dedicated teachers who take on teaching as their vocation and who can motivate students to strive to do their best in the pursuit of meaningful learning; learning not driven by ideological prejudice geared to vain slogans like "the information society"; learning that is based on turning the eye of the soul towards the light.

This would, though, require no less than a revision of how schooling is conceived, beginning with an understanding that it is not an agency of the Welfare State and that students are not all potential victims. It would require, too, given the demonstrated lower performance of boys in recent years, the abandonment of affirmative action policies that have contributed to the growing perception among boys that "school is for girls".

  • John Kelly is a teacher in South Australia

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