SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Give academic excellence a sporting chance
, May 7, 2005
The Victorian Bracks Labor Government backs elite sports - why not elite studies, asks Kevin Donnelly.If ever there was an example of double standards in politics, then the recent announcement by Victorian Education Minister Lynne Kosky about establishing an elite sports academy in the western suburbs of Melbourne takes the guernsey.
Kosky is reported as agreeing to establish a specialist sports school, to be opened in 2007, on the basis that such a school would allow sports-minded students to train at the highest level.
The contradiction, of course, is that while it is now OK to have a secondary school specialising in sport, where students compete for entry and where the curriculum is tailored to meet students' unique demands, the State Government has failed to extend the policy to the academic side of the curriculum.Penalised
Competition and excellence in sport are acceptable; unfortunately, the same incentive for academically able students is sadly lacking. Over the past 12 months, not only has Kosky withdrawn funding from the Government's gifted students program, she has also refused permission for schools outside the program to become involved.
Since the election of the Cain/Kirner governments in the 1980s, Labor Party policy has consistently downgraded academic excellence and competition. The Victorian Certificate of Education, in its original form, was intended to promote greater equity and social justice by reducing the emphasis on competitive, graded assessment.
Given the policy of the state branch of the Australian Education Union, the Government's reticence when it comes to promoting academic excellence and specialist academic programs is understandable. The AEU is firmly opposed to gifted programs or allowing schools to compete for students by having selective entry.
The union argues that the school curriculum must be premised on co-operation rather than competition and that allowing selective government schools to pick the more able students will mean that other state schools will suffer.
Ignored is the reality that parents are voting with their feet and turning to non-government schools in the search for stronger academic standards and better examination results - especially at year 12, where 40 per cent of Victorian students now attend independent schools.
In Victoria, only Melbourne High School and MacRobertson Girls High School are fully-fledged selective high schools where academically-minded students sit an entrance examination for entry at year 9.
Compare Victoria's situation with that of NSW. There are 30 academically selective high schools in NSW and this month about 14,000 students sat examinations seeking entry to the school of their choice.
Not only do these selective high schools represent a strong, viable alternative to the NSW independent school system but, unlike the situation in Victoria, NSW selective high schools consistently outperform non-government schools at year 12.
The Victorian education system is under review. In part, the purpose of the review is to ensure "the relevance of legislation to the contemporary education and training environment and that legislation supports the achievement of government policy objectives".
To that end, if the Bracks Government is serious about education reform, it should not restrict itself simply to opening one elite sports academy. The alternative is to free the system from capture by education providers and to implement those overseas initiatives that have been proven successful.
Charter schools in the United States - where the centralised bureaucracy steps back and greater autonomy and control are given at the local level - have been proven to raise standards, especially in depressed, disadvantaged areas.
Private-public partnerships in Britain, where corporate and philanthropic groups take control of under-performing schools and where the school culture is one of excellence and success, have also led to higher standards.
If individual schools are to succeed, it is also vital that principals are given the power to hire and to fire staff, to deal with under-performing teachers and to reward those who achieve the best results.
Finally, given the diverse range of student interests, abilities and post-school destinations, it is no longer feasible to have a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
Schools, in a general accountability framework, should be allowed to specialise and to offer a curriculum that best suits the needs of their communities.
- Dr Kevin Donnelly, director of Education Strategies and author of Why Our Schools are Failing (2004), is former chief of staff to federal minister Kevin Andrews.