EDUCATION: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
ALP's 'education revolution' copies UK's failed policies
, September 5, 2009
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Tony Blair's head must be spinning.
When it comes to the federal government's education revolution, the reality is that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are simply copying policies implemented by Blair when he was British prime minister.
Initiatives such as early childhood education, a national curriculum and national testing, identifying under-performing schools and holding them accountable, and investing in computers and information and communication technology - all these are copied from British Labour.Rhetoric
Even the rhetoric is the same. Just compare Blair's exhortations, "Our goal: to make Britain the best-educated and skilled country in the world" and "education, education, education", with Kevin Rudd's statement: "We need to lift our vision and start to imagine an Australia where we turn ourselves into the most educated economy, the most educated society in the Western world."
Education Minister Gillard, late last year, called on business to become more involved with schools, when she said, "I am certain that we will not achieve world-class education in every Australian school without the active support and involvement of the business community."
It should not surprise that Blair expressed the same sentiment in 1999 when he said, "When people say keep business out of schools I say: the more support and involvement of the wider community, including business, in our schools the better."
That Australia's education revolution copies what has been tried in Britain over the past 12 years should not surprise.
The ALP's links with Britain include one-time schools minister David Miliband advising the then opposition in the lead-up to the 2007 election.
One of the most influential sources of policy advice during the Blair years was the left-wing think tank Demos. The director of Demos, Tom Bentley, after working as a senior adviser to the Victorian ALP government, now advises Gillard.
Tony Mackay, the deputy chairman of Australia's National Curriculum Board, also has close ties with the British Labour, having worked with Demos and other British education bodies such as the London Leadership Centre during the Blair years.
Given that Rudd's education revolution mirrors events in Britain, the question needs to be asked: have the Blair policies succeeded in raising standards and strengthening schools?
Based on the results of the most recent national tests for 11-year-olds, where two in every five children are leaving primary school under-performing in mathematics, science and English, the answer is "no".
Where there is evidence of test results improving, as noted by Alan Smithers in his report Blair's Education: An International Perspective
, such results are illusory. Not only have tests been made easier, but schools have also inflated results by narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test and excluding weaker students.
Such are the flaws in Britain's national testing system, one that Australia has followed with national tests at years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Key stage three tests have been abolished. And a recent report evaluating the primary curriculum argues that high-risk, one-off tests need to be wound back in favour of more teacher-directed classroom assessment.
In relation to the national curriculum, Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools originally appointed by Margaret Thatcher and reappointed by Blair, argues that subjects lack academic rigour as they are prone to politically correct fads such as personalised learning and teaching wellbeing.
In his recent book, Class War: The State of British Education
, Woodhead also suggests the reason so many students achieve excellent examination results is because, over time, questions have been made easier and standards watered down.
Such are the concerns about the senior-school curriculum being dumbed down that a group of Britain's most prestigious independent schools has decided to abandon A-levels in favour of more academically rigorous and reliable alternatives.
As to why Blair's reforms have been ineffective and why Rudd's education revolution is also destined to fail, the answer lies in the overly bureaucratic, centralised and top-down nature of the reforms. As suggested by Woodhead: "The lesson for this failure is simple, the top-down imposition of politically inspired education reform does not work."One size fits all
Micro-managing schools and enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach stifles creativity, innovation and denies schools the freedom and flexibility needed to achieve strong outcomes.
There is an alternative.
Research into the characteristics of stronger performing education systems and schools identifies autonomy, diversity, choice and competition as central, the very things ignored by Rudd's and Gillard's education revolution.
Evidence that school choice and a more market-driven approach works is easy to find: just look at Australia's Catholic and independent schools that, even after adjusting for students' socioeconomic background, outperform government-controlled schools in areas such as literacy, numeracy and year 12 results, as well as school retention rates and success at tertiary entry.Dr Kevin Donnelly is the director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies. This article first appeared in The Australian, August 12, 2009.