EDUCATION: by Dr Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Schools need to devolve to evolve
, April 16, 2011
The new Liberal/National government in NSW has the potential to ameliorate the worst excesses of the Rudd/Gillard education revolution, argues Kevin Donnelly.
Now that Barry O’Farrell has become the new Premier of New South Wales and Adrian Piccoli the new Minister for Education, it is clear that education is one policy area where the recent NSW state election will have a significant and beneficial impact both in NSW and across Australia.
The Rudd/Gillard education revolution is highly statist, bureaucratic and centralised in its approach. Since the start of 2008, all state and territory schools, and education departments, have been made to implement Canberra’s dictates or lose their funding.
Be it the national curriculum, national testing and accountability via the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and My School, teacher registration and certification, or implementing ALP social policy in areas such as disadvantage, all roads lead to Canberra.
It is also the case that the education department of NSW, compared to those of Victoria and Western Australia, embodies a command and control model of educational delivery, and schools in that state lack the degree of autonomy that is experienced by schools interstate.
The federal Labor Government’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) program offers a clear example of the waste and mismanagement that occur when local decision-making is ignored in favour of head office taking control and depriving schools of the right to manage their own affairs.
The new Liberal/National Coalition Government of NSW has pledged to give schools the power to manage any BER projects that have yet to commence. The Coalition has also promised to invest $60 million in maintenance funding and, at the same time, promised that individual schools will have the autonomy and flexibility to decide how the money will be spent.
While representing initial, first steps, the move to free up schools mirrors Tony Abbott’s comments in his book Battlelines, in which he argued that school communities, including parents and teachers, need to be given greater responsibility and freedom to decide what best suits their needs and interests.
The move to free up schools, while stridently opposed by the militant and powerful NSW Teachers Federation, also mirrors recent events in Western Australia where Colin Barnett’s Liberal-National Government has introduced a popular and well supported school autonomy program.
While the BER and school maintenance policies are only two examples, if the policy of school autonomy is further developed, it suggests that O’Farrell’s new government will be more sympathetic to giving schools and their communities greater control over decision-making.
The proposed national curriculum is another example of where, most likely, the new government will have a strong influence. Barry O’Farrell has made no secret of his dislike for the way in which political power, under groups like COAG, has been centralised in Canberra and the way that states’ rights have been diminished.
If, as feared by the NSW Board of Studies, the ALP-inspired national curriculum represents a lowering of standards, then there is a possibility that NSW, along with WA and Victoria (all now controlled by right-of-centre governments) will resist moves to weaken locally-designed curricula.
In the case of NSW, such an outcome is more than likely, given that its school curriculum, while needing to be strengthened and refined, is far more academic and rigorous than the draft national curriculum frameworks that have been designed to date.
As Minister for Education, and now as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has championed national testing and making results public. Citing the example of New York, when schools were under the control of Joel Klein, Gillard argues that the best way to raise standards is to make test results public on the My School website.
Some months ago, Barry O’Farrell was criticised for supporting those fearful that making test results public would lead to league tables and naming and shaming schools. Events have proven O’Farrell correct.
In New York, Joel Klein’s testing and accountability regime is being criticised for failing to raise standards, for inflating results and for having a destructive impact on the classroom. Australian teachers now refer to the national literacy and numeracy tests not as NAPLAN but as NAPALM, and test experts, such as Dr Margaret Wu at The University of Melbourne, have serious doubts about the validity and reliability of the test results.
Speak to teachers and school leaders across Australia and it soon becomes obvious that the rate and scope of the Rudd/Gillard education revolution has exhausted teachers, weakened morale and, counter to the ALP-inspired rhetoric, made teaching more onerous and difficult.
Beginning teachers leave after four to five years, long-serving teachers are retiring early, and school leaders are suffering record levels of stress and anxiety.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute. His website is at: www.edstandards.com.au