Good at gardening, hopeless at engineering

Restless innovation saved Australian schools from their structural problems, writes Dean Ashenden. But now the strains are well and truly showing

13 June 2012

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Breaking point: Ken McKinnon, former chairman of the Schools Commission, said that Australian schooling was good at gardening but hopeless at engineering… As engineering became slower, more difficult, and much less exact, so did gardens flourish among the ruins.
Image: Charles Waller/ Corbis

IF RECENT and widely publicised comparisons of Australian schools’ performance are the canary, then something is seriously wrong deep in the mine. It is not just that the gaps – between the performance of different kinds of Australian schools and students, or between them and their counterparts in other Western countries, or between our schools and schools not too far to the north – are all growing. The real frightener is that our schools were probably doing better a decade ago. Our best hope is that we are going nowhere. It is likely that we’re going backwards.

That is one kind of problem. The other is: how to fix it? Australian schooling has been the focus of substantial efforts at reform for the entire lifetime of anyone currently working in the system, and a great deal has been achieved. Australian schools are a lot better than they were during the overcrowding and funding crises of the 1950s and 1960s, as a glance over the shoulder of baby-boomers like me will show. The sixty-three kids in my Grade V class were kept in line with a yardstick wielded by a returned soldier missing three fingers on the left hand. He was right-handed, unfortunately. And Australian schools could be a lot worse, as a glance at any OECD international comparison will testify. In the most recent study Australian schools performed better than those of the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway, for example, and much better than those of the United States and Britain. And despite disturbing inequalities in the Australian performance, inequality is even more marked in countries such as Switzerland, Germany, the United States and Britain. But it nevertheless seems likely that despite unceasing efforts at all levels, and despite substantial increases in national and personal incomes, schools have not been generating better, and better-distributed, learning. Australia is one of only four school systems in thirty-four OECD countries in which measured performance in reading and maths has declined.

These troubling developments are documented in three recent reports that between them stimulated a short-lived media feeding frenzy: Catching Up: Learning from the Best School Systems in East Asia, prepared by a Melbourne think-tank, the Grattan Institute; the report of the federal government’s review of funding for schools chaired by David Gonski; and one of Gonski’s commissioned papers, Schooling Challenges and Opportunities, written by a consortium led by the consulting firm Nous Group. Together, they have made possible a discussion about the big picture of schooling, and whether and how it could or should be changed.

All three reports rely on the most recent results of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests in reading, numeracy and science literacy among fifteen-year-olds in OECD school systems. Gonski also uses data from NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy), which takes in several age groups and subject areas, but does not include science, and TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). These data are limited in important ways. Only some aspects of less than half of the curriculum are measured. The tests reveal more about the acquisition of specific skills and knowledge than about more diffuse study and learning skills, creativity, social skills and so on, areas in which Australian schools like to think that they shine. But the PISA tests are fair-to-average-quality canaries. They sound the alert. For confirmation we must look for evidence elsewhere, ranging from dozens of academic studies and the substantial data sets generated within each of the state systems to the feeling you get when you walk through the school gate. That evidence tends to corroborate rather than contest findings of the PISA, TIMMS and NAPLAN kind. There can be little doubt that Australian schools are not performing as well as they should, or need to, or could.

The Grattan Institute runs a very particular line about how to fix our schools, drawing less attention to the specifics of Australia’s performance than to the startling gains made by schools in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and Korea. Gonski’s findings, informed by the Nous report, are less flamboyant, more comprehensive, and more troubling. Both Gonski and Nous note that the fall in scores runs across the spectrum from the best-performing to the worst; that the distance between the best and the worst Australian schools is high; and that the proportion of students clustered toward the bottom is high, as is the proportion of that group who have not even reached the basic minimum of knowledge to function in society. The further we drill down into these sobering facts the worse they look. A relatively high proportion of underperforming students comprises the same old faces: the children of poor, remote, Aboriginal and some non-English-speaking families, and children with disabilities. And they can be found in the same old places: government schools mostly, in poor and/or remote or rural areas.

Perhaps worst, and most suggestive of problems in the whole system, is that students with the lowest attainments are highly concentrated in “disadvantaged” schools, and that the educational penalties of being there are higher than in any other comparable OECD country except the Netherlands. The only areas of clear improvement over the past decade or so are in the proportion of young people completing Year 12 or its equivalent and in Indigenous participation and performance, but the gain in the former has been in “equivalents,” and improvement in the latter is from a very low base.

Gonski refers only obliquely to an aspect of schooling that is, particularly to parents and to students themselves, as important as “outcomes” of the kind reported by standardised tests: the character and quality of an experience which stretches over quite a few of the most formative years of just about every Australian life. Gonski does note that students who do badly at school often leave school early and disaffected, and that they often go to schools where many other students also leave school early and disaffected. It is a hint that the patterning of differences in the school experience is likely to mirror the patterning of outcomes.

No single element of a complex ecology can be pinpointed as the source of either the problem or the solution. The Grattan report, lucid, focused and, to borrow a phrase, suffused with an insufferable air of adequacy, says that all we need to do is go to Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai, borrow and implement the gestalt of their methods – without attempting to simply transplant it, of course – and soon we’ll be taking a leap forward as great as theirs. Gonski’s much more thoughtful proposals are threefold: for schools to be funded according to the size of the educational task set for them; for the task to be defined as improving educational outcomes, particularly among the worst-performing schools and social groups; and for the schools’ efforts in this direction to be guided by a growing body of evidence about “what works” generated by research into “effective schools.”

The boldest program is outlined by the Nous consortium. What is needed, it argues, is not a host of new ideas and policies but a comprehensive, integrated and sustainable pursuit of what is already known to work. To this strategy the Nous group attaches a number of well-designed suggestions about tactics, and particularly a focus on the very long “tail” of low-performing students concentrated in low-performance schools.

None of these proposals, from Grattan, from Gonski or from Nous, is wrong. But all except those from Nous are, to different degrees, incomplete, urging change in some areas while leaving others untouched. And all, including Nous, fail to say how their proposals will find a way down to the classroom floor. Nor does the following. But it does attempt an essential first step: understanding where both the problem, and elements of a solution, came from.

A big problem, a big solution

Problems in the control of schooling began in the early 1950s, with the erosion of the majestic state departments of education. Creatures of the exuberant egalitarian and sectarian settlement of the 1880s (schooling would be free, compulsory and secular, unless you were a Catholic or a toff), the departments aimed to deliver equality of opportunity through uniformity. And, relatively speaking, they did. The departments controlled everything: the training and employment of teachers; syllabuses and textbooks; allocation of classroom time to subjects; end-of-primary-school examinations. Their most powerful instrument was the inspectorate. The district inspector ensured compliance, disseminated instructions and innov­ations, and connected the high command with the troops in the field.

But the greatest strength of these systems lay in faith. Teachers regarded themselves as belonging to The Service. There was romance in their task of bringing the three Rs to every child, no matter what their circumstances, often over vast distances and against great physical and psychological adversity. The task was clear, worthwhile and doable. Life in the service was not meant to be easy, and The Department could be capricious, unfeeling and oppressive, but it looked after its own. Teachers had secure employment and a good living wage, which counted for a great deal in the first half of the twentieth century; but more, they believed in what they were doing, in themselves, and in the department.

The departments began to lose all this soon after the end of the second world war, at first almost imperceptibly, then in a rush that quickly brought some of them close to disarray. The problems began down in the foundations of the great pyramid of schooling, the classroom. Baby-boomers flooded into the schools and, worse, we stayed, and stayed. The classrooms bulged, and teachers, particularly in the secondary schools, found that the familiar subject matter failed to “engage” and that “discipline” failed to produce order. It was obvious to teachers that the departments would have to provide smaller classes, more teachers, and more “professional” working conditions.

This the departments were unable to do. Thanks to the transfer of state taxation powers to the Commonwealth in 1942, state treasuries had more money going out than coming in. Problems in the Catholic parish schools, containing then about one in six students, were even more dramatic. Coinciding with rising numbers coming to and staying in the schools was a rapid fall in the number of low-cost nuns, brothers and priests available to staff the schools. Class sizes were astronomical, and the schools deeply impoverished.

Unable to pay their way out of trouble and unable to avoid change in their long-established and highly successful modus operandi, the departments cast about for reforms that would still leave them in charge. Each has its own story to tell, with different patterns of discontent, of change, and of resistance to change leading to different end results – an unusually decentralised system in Victoria, a still determinedly centralised one in New South Wales, for example. But in the general upshot, more was ditched than taken on board. The departments lost the loyalty of teachers to unions, lost control of teacher training to the universities, lost curriculum and assessment to independent boards and agencies, and lost the inspectorate altogether. The department was no longer embodied in Head Office, but diffused across the state in “regions,” thus increasing from two to three the number of layers in the system (increased again from three to four as the federal government arrived on the scene at about the same time).

By the late 1960s the departments as mighty forces of progress and order were finished, beached whales stranded between the old top-down, person-to-person directives and the new idea of specifying what is to be achieved then allocating resources and responsibilities, sanctions and rewards, accordingly. Around them gathered flocks of hungry agencies, authorities and organisations.

These developments produced in the space of only twenty years or so the Whitlam revolution of 1973, laid out by the economist Peter Karmel in his report, Schools in Australia. The big problem was money, and the federal government would be the big solution. Bounty from the beneficiary of vertical fiscal imbalance gushed into the Catholic schools and flowed to the state systems. Since the bishops wanted to lock in public funding as a right not a privilege, Whitlam agreed that the second, tiny component of the non-government sector, the high-fee independents, should get some money too. Suddenly the ancient taboo on “state aid” to church schools, dating back to the egalitarian and sectarian settlement of the 1880s, seemed obsolete. Everyone was in the money. Class sizes tumbled, teacher salaries rose, new schools were built.

Paradoxes of public policy

A sweeping solution that turned largely on funding, however, soon produced new problems in just that domain. It was obvious that more money means smaller classes and better-paid and better-trained teachers, and therefore better education. The corollary was also obvious: we must spend as much as we can afford and/or as much as the most generous of comparable societies, as measured by proportion of GDP.

What began as a manifest necessity became an unsustainable dogma. One source of the problem lay in teacher salaries. As the American economist William Baumol pointed out more than forty years ago, salaries rise not because teachers are becoming more productive but because their employers are forced to compete in the labour market with industries in which workers are becoming more productive. Driving this cost escalator even faster was the push for smaller and smaller classes, a strategy which didn’t take long to run into the law of diminishing returns. Costs rose much more quickly than educational gains. These irresistible forces soon hit an immovable object. Suddenly, the federal budget was in trouble. The halcyon days of 1973 turned into the Hayden austerity budget of 1975. The struggle between opposing pressures has continued ever since, but the power of resistance is now acquiring a new ally. The baby-boomers who demanded more education are now demanding more aged care. Policies developed by a young society are unsustainable in an old one. And now, as then, baby-boomers have the numbers.

The problem of funding lies in quality as well as quantity. Prescribing class sizes and contact hours had the effect of locking into place one of many possible groupings of students and teachers, the one that was, in spite of its emerging difficulties, still taken for granted when the “class size” strategy was constructed. This turned one of many possible ways of combining what might be thought of as the factors of production – time, effort, skill and space – into the only way, for just about all kinds of schools and schooling. And it stigmatised other approaches, usually developed by teachers in low-status schools where traditional methods just didn’t work.

Locking up class sizes and teacher contact hours also locked up budgets. Just about every dollar in just about every school-system budget, capital and recurrent, is spoken for. That leaves the states in no position to drive reform, whether it’s integrated, sustainable and comprehensive or otherwise. Indeed, locking up the budget was the joint work of those nominal adversaries, teacher unions on one side and employers of teachers on the other. The unions wanted to protect the money from fickle governments, and the departments wanted to protect it from competitors in other portfolios.

All of this – a single way of organising educational work, locked-up budgets, and the puny grip of “policy” on both – is underwritten by industrial agreements which are in turn supported by the widespread belief among teachers that this is where their personal and professional interests lie. These arrangements in fact work in the opposite direction, becoming instruments of a salary structure that plateaus early and low, career structures defined more by seniority than capacity and responsibilities, low social status, and a job that for too many soon looks like a step on the way to somewhere else.

Karmel’s solution brought with it a second cluster of funding difficulties. His scheme dictated that funding for Australian schools would come from three different sources and go in three different mixes to three different categories of school. In two of these categories large numbers of parents would pay significant amounts of money towards the cost of their children’s schooling, while in the third even larger numbers would pay very little or nothing at all. Yet all three sectors, and therefore all three groups of parents, are in receipt of funding from governments, both federal and state. This arrangement is without parallel anywhere in the OECD.

One criticism of this scheme of things is that it is unfair. Many of those now paying fees can’t really afford to, while many of those who don’t, can. School funding is a de facto taxation system, simultaneously progressive and regressive. It taxes some of those who can afford to be taxed but not others, while at the other end of the scale it picks and chooses from among those with modest incomes, taxing some, exempting others. At the upper end fees run to more than $10,000 a year for a primary school student and $15,000 or more for a secondary, so that a family with three children in high-fee schools would be up for a total of around half a million dollars in present-day values. From that family’s point of view their government-school neighbours are getting a very substantial subsidy from the public purse. The other side of this coin is that a sizeable minority of families, perhaps one in four or five, most in “disadvantaged” government schools, get nowhere near enough support for their children’s schooling, even though they can’t afford now-commonplace educational experiences such as school camps and excursions, computing, extra tuition, and classes in music, sport, dance and the like. Whichever side of the coin we look at, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that schooling should get out of the taxation business or get into it on a more considered basis.

Another ground of concern is more consequential. An unintended effect of providing public support to three sectors, two of them outside public control, is that both schools and school sectors feel that they must compete, either from ambition or in self-defence. Forty years on, Australia has what may be the most marketised of the thirty-four schooling systems surveyed by the OECD. School principals in these systems were asked how many schools they competed with. In Norway 20 per cent said that they competed with two or more schools. In Finland the figure was 44 per cent. In Australia, no less than 90 per cent of schools compete with two or more other schools, by far the highest proportion in any OECD country.

In theory, that might seem to be a good thing, but in practice it is not. Steadily accelerating and extending its reach over forty years, this dynamic is often referred to as “residualisation,” a term which betrays its origins in the defence of the victims of the process, the government schools. It draws attention to the fact, compellingly documented by the Nous group, that on a playing field which is anything but level, government schools in low socioeconomic status areas lose the students whose parents can afford to change schools. Students left behind are thus deprived of the beneficial presence of students from more affluent homes, while the schools themselves find it harder to attract or hold experienced leaders and teachers, which makes them even less attractive, which causes them to lose more students and resources, and so on down the spiral. And spiral it has been. When Karmel reported, 78 per cent of all students were in government schools, up from 76 per cent a decade before. Now the figure is 63 per cent, and still falling. In the past decade 223 government schools have disappeared as twelve new Catholic and seventy-nine new independent schools have been established. In just the past five years government school enrolments have risen by 2 per cent, Catholic by 6 per cent, independent by 14 per cent.

But as the Nous study points out, the term “residualisation” glosses over the fact that the process goes on within the government sector as well as between it and the two non-government sectors. This unpleasant reality is most visible in New South Wales, the largest of the government systems, in dozens of schools with selective entry to some subject areas and twenty-odd entirely selective high schools which function as publicly funded private schools, all sucking students, prestige, academic success and viability out of hundreds of “comprehensive” confrères who are supposed to take pride in the distant flagships of their motley fleet.

The same kind of thing happens in other ways in other states. The relaxation of the old zoning regulations in the interests of “choice and diversity” has combined with “devolution” and “school autonomy” in matters of self-presentation, marketing and de facto student selection to produce a stratification, particularly in secondary schools, not all that different from the NSW case. Government schools are, of course, unavoidably the beneficiaries or victims of the social geography of sprawling suburban conurbations, and of steadily increasing income inequality. But judged by the kind and quality of educational experience and attainments delivered to their students (and, we should add, their teachers), the government systems have swum with rather than against the social tides.

As well as disguising the inner workings of the government systems, the term “residualisation” has drawn more attention to what has been going on at the bottom than at the top, where a tiny number of independent schools have taken the money from both state and federal governments and commenced spending, serious spending, so as to put themselves in a class of their own. They and most of the parents who patronise them see this in a different light: as a matter of excellence (the school view) or of the right to choose to give children the best possible start in life (the parent view). Leaving to one side other motives, usually left unstated but often to do with social aspiration and racial preference, few parents realise the extent to which a choice they make for their own children is also a choice for everyone else’s children.

A detailed analysis by the Nous group demonstrates that the “value-add” of independent schools, taken as a group, is no greater than that of government and Catholic systemic schools except in the degree to which value is added to each student by the educational “capital” that other students bring with them from home to school. The inverse of the rule applies at the other end of the scale, with the opposite effect. What is striking, Nous concludes, is “the strong correlation between the performance of a child and the average SES [socioeconomic status] of all the other students that attend his or her school.” Also striking, both Nous and Gonski note, is the unusual combination in Australia of a high concentration of high SES students with high, and low with low, and the combination of a high proportion of schools that produce very good results with a high proportion that produce very poor results.

Almost as depressing is the fact that attempts at justifying these arrangements are often made by those who suffer most from them, and in terms that compound the problem. The reasoning employed is clear, simple and seductive. Public schools provide for all. Those who want to opt out must accept the cost of leaving the commonweal. This rationale stems, of course, from the “free, compulsory and secular” settlement of the 1880s. It was always a disingenuous formulation, but its shaky foundation has now entirely disappeared. A hundred years ago a public school was “normal” and those who went elsewhere had indeed “opted out.” But that was when few went to or stayed long at secondary school, and before Karmel made opting out an option for the many, not just the few. Now people don’t opt out, they “choose.” Public schools, now merely “government” schools, are just one option among several. Worse, they’re the least desired option. Far from being the norm, they’re a fallback.

Those who once could stand plausibly on the anti–State Aid platform of free, compulsory and secular are now merely the defenders of government schools, firmly wedged in a cleft stick. They want government schools (which they still like to call “public” schools) to be seen as “great schools,” and put signs on the school fence to say so. But in other forums they have to point out that government schools are being dudded, driven down by “residualisation.” Parents pick up on the mixed messages, of course, and do what they feel they must, under a pressure so strong that sending your children to a government school is now tantamount to neglect. Individual solutions reinforce the collective problem.

Parents can hardly be blamed for seeing how the system works and then using whatever resources they can assemble to do what they think is best for their children. Nor can parents who can’t afford to avoid the circumstances handed out to their child-ren be blamed if they feel abandoned. The net effect has been to steadily and with glacial power stretch the distance between the most and the least effective schools. The system puts prestige and the most productive educational settings where they are least needed and takes them from those in greatest need. Operating more as a centrifuge than a precipitant, it flings more and more to the bottom and more and more to the top, so that in several of the big cities sizeable areas have no government secondary school or, at the other end of the scale, no independent secondary schools.

Less than twenty years after the Karmel reforms one of their architects looked back in dismay at what had been wrought. “We created a situation unique in the dem­ocratic world,” Jean Blackburn pointed out in 1991. “It is very important to realise this. There were no rules about student selection and exclusion, no fee limitations, no shared governance, no public education accountability, no common curriculum requirements below the upper secondary level… We have now become a kind of wonder at which people [in other countries] gape. The reaction is always, ‘What an extraordinary situation.’”

There is no one villain of this piece. Teacher organisations have been advocates for one sector rather than opponents of the whole system. Catholic bishops since Whitlam’s time have insisted on public subsidies for avowedly “elite” or “exclusive” schools in pursuit of a guarantee, the private “right” to public funding. These “elite” schools and their clienteles have engaged in vigorous class formation and warfare, consolidating dominant groups in their schools, dividing them further from others, and consolidating an underclass in other schools. Governments at both levels and of both stripes have adopted policies that by omission and commission have supported and entrenched an educationally and socially counterproductive organisation of a major public institution. The blame could be chased all the way back to the 1880s and no doubt well beyond that. But the point is: how many more generations has this scheme of things got left to run?

A leaderless, politicised group

If one face of “residualisation” is seen in its educational consequences, the other shows in a structure that entrenches and defends itself. Before Karmel, the structure of schooling was simple: there were six silos (or eight if you count the territories), each more or less like the others, each a law unto itself. It is true that each of the silos contained three layers – the government, the Catholic and the private schools – but each layer was clearly defined. They had little to do with each other. The government schools, by far the biggest layer, were free. Both the Catholic parish schools and the wafer-thin crust of private schools depended entirely on fees (very low in the former, very high in the latter) and contributed services for their survival.

Karmel changed all that. From that moment the biggest spender on schools controlled no schools at all, while the six state governments that did control schools were no longer self-reliant and could no longer please themselves about how resources were spent. Roles and responsibilities in the non-government sector became blurrier still, pitting long-established prerogatives against the requirements of both state and federal governments. The silos now looked more like a Rubik’s cube – a total of eight states and territories, each with three sectors, a total of twenty-four components – except that the image suggests neatness and order in what more closely resembled a field of ants’ nests, each surrounded by swarming interest groups representing parents, churches and teacher organisations, joined in the struggle for federal spoils by the eight state and territory governments.

Whitlam’s boast was that by solving the State Aid problem he took schooling out of the political arena. The reverse is the case. The Karmel–Whitlam arrangements pushed more and more aspects of schooling into the decision-making arenas of nine governments, each on its own electoral timetable, all prey to lobbies, campaigns, and displaced sectarianism and class warfare.

These fractures and conflicts interacted with others precipitated by the collapse of the old departments and the loss of their functions to newly established curriculum and assessment agencies, universities and teacher organisations. The upshot is a complex and entirely leaderless group, a tangle of bodies and agencies of every description, religious and secular, state and federal, bureaucratic and communitarian, elected and appointed, large and miniscule, each with little capacity to make anything happen but with the collective effect of preventing anything happening quickly or effectively or at all. Behind a thicket of blinds and hides exists a little corruption and malpractice but a deal of waste, inertia, territorial skirmishing, obfuscation, and evasion of the central responsibility of improving the amount of quality learning and demonstrating that that has been achieved.

The problem was in its infancy in Karmel’s day, but already sufficiently clear in prospect to cause him to recommend that Whitlam establish the Schools Commission to provide a centre to a crumb-ling aggregation of systems. Suffice it to say that it did not and could not. The commission was dismantled not much more than a decade on. Since then governments have depended on endless consultations, agreements, charters, compacts and partnerships with the ever-expanding cast of supp-licants, authorities and agencies. All this in a country with not much more than half the population of California.

A permaculture of “innovation”

The “system” is a mess, but a very fertile one. Ken McKinnon, chairman of the Schools Commission for much of its life, liked to say that Australian schooling was good at gardening but hopeless at engineering. The image nicely captures the complicated and sometimes contradictory consequences of turning silos into ants’ nests. As engineering became slower, more difficult, and much less exact, so did gardens flourish among the ruins, a permaculture of “innovation.”

Most but not all of these innovations appeared at school-level. Schools experimented with “unstreamed” and “mixed ability” student groupings, with “descriptive,” “goal-based” and “criterion-referenced” assessment, with “community participation,” “student involvement” and “relevant” curriculum, and with dozens of other ideas, some to do with core business, many not, some loopy, some very smart, almost all person- or circumstance-dependent, with a correspondingly short half-life. The departments, too, became gardeners. They fiddled with the secondary schools, combining the old high and technical schools into comprehensives and amalgamating boys’ and girls’ schools into co-eds. They went in for “devolution” to new regional offices, for open classrooms and mini-schools and school clusters, for more say for “school communities,” for “consultants” and “evaluations” in the place of inspectors, and for grants in support of “school improvement.” They rebranded everything, from discipline (“student management”) to syllabuses (“curriculum”) to headmasters and headmistresses (“principals”).

Satellites of the school solar system were productive too. Authorities entrusted with end-of-Year-12 assessment developed an extensive range of curricula, often of a very high standard. Universities generated a torrent of research and commentary, most of it of more use to academic careers than to schools, but some of it invaluable, particularly in developing forms of assessment that revealed what students had learned rather than what they had covered; in well-argued and clearly evidenced accounts of what made schools more or less effective; and in what kinds of “innovations” were worth the time and effort. Federal governments joined in, beginning with Whitlam and the Schools Commission’s “innovations program” as well as programs for disadvantaged schools, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, girls, rural and remote schools, and special education. Successive federal governments followed suit, differing mainly in levels rather than kinds of activity. The present federal government is unusually active, propagating shelter sheds, computers, family allowances, new national agencies, a neo-inspectorate, a powerful information collection and dissemination system, and a very promising (although not yet accepted) recasting of funding to schools.

This efflorescence of energy and activity at all levels in just about every schooling jurisdiction in the country combined with federal money to see Australian schooling emerge from the overcrowding crisis of the 1950s and 1960s in relatively good shape. The puzzle to which there is no settled answer is why this combination seems to have run out of puff. The law of diminishing returns from class size reductions is part of an answer. Another is reform fatigue and deepening cynicism about endless labour-intensive, low-payoff “restructuring,” “reforms” and “initiatives for change.” Other factors might include changes in the labour market (schools benefited when teaching was the only way out and up for bright young women and have suffered as other and more attractive opportunities became available); ineffectual responses to increasing problems of “discipline,” particularly in secondary schools; and the recent ascendancy of Harvey Norman (Australian kids are these days spending more time playing games than reading). At the centre of any cluster of causes would be the gradual acceleration and expansion of “residualisation.”

Even if the effectiveness of both funding and gardening has declined, they have left a rich deposit of under-exploited resources, not all of them at the school or local level. Whitlam’s intervention, for example, made schooling a much more national affair even though it fragmented schooling in the process. In Whitlam’s wake have come a national curriculum expressed as assessable outcomes, nationwide testing and information gathering, Year 11/12 curriculum and assessment coordinated and harmonised to deliver a single national tertiary entrance system, a federal structuring of teacher unions and professional associations and conferences, national peak organisations of both government and non-government schools, and, if we’re lucky, Gonski’s proposal for a new national funding regime.

In the same contradictory way, Whitlam’s extension of public funding to non-government schools both privatised public funds and made “non-government” schools more open to public influence, and some of the losses lamented by Jean Blackburn twenty years ago have since been clawed back.

Public regulation now prohibits exclusion from any school on grounds of social or racial characteristics. All schools, irrespective of sector, are required to comply with public regulations governing everything from the number of toilets to class sizes to the treatment of girls and the content of the curriculum. All have signed up for the national goals of schooling. And all provide masses of information to public authorities about both “inputs” and “outcomes.” And while Whitlam’s efforts to get the politics out of schooling might have backfired, the grand apparatus of the Schools Commission also established an important arm’s-length precedent.

Perhaps most important of all, while the Karmel settlement can be blamed for triggering endemic competition between families, schools and sectors, it must also be given credit for sustaining and amplifying the ideal of “equality,” the basis of any opposition to the consequences of that competition. Karmel inherited the belief that equality in schooling means equal opportunity, a generous and productive idea in the days when schooling provided a decent minimum for all and in the process found those few who would “go on.” By Karmel’s time, however, that big ideal was looking more like a rationalisation for inequality on a mass scale, and Karmel, in muted tones, said so. “The Committee values the right of every child, within practicable limits, to be prepared through schooling for full participation in society, both for his [sic] own and for society’s benefit,” Karmel’s report declared. “To this end it accepts the obligation to make special efforts to assist those whose pace of learning is slow.” Not there, but getting there.

The political ask

That is a lot to go on with. But is it enough? Whether we care more about differences in attainments between Australian schools and students or between them and schools to our north, and whether we think we’re going backwards or merely standing still, the task is much the same: to generate steep improvements in educational performance across the board, and particularly in the most difficult of educational circumstances.

To that task Gonski’s proposals for funding and performance monitoring will make a contribution, but the big currents of “residualisation” will probably prevail unless and until all families and schools are put on the same footing. That would require changes in funding going beyond those envisaged by Gonski. And that would mean finding new sources of money. And that would be politically impossible as well as ineffectual unless it were to be accompanied by the right mix of rules, sanctions and incentives, universally applied.

The recent crop of big reports and the ensuing commentary have the great virtue of making it possible to talk about such imperatives and possibilities. They are not so successful, however, in suggesting how to turn them into a program of reform. Most media outlets plumped for “teacher quality” and then lost interest. Grattan had nothing to suggest about who would do the borrowing and implementing of the wisdom of the north, or how they could scramble over and around obstacles very different from those faced by unitary school systems in densely populated, culturally homogenous, autocratically governed, developing societies. Gonski inherited the essential weakness of his master, the federal government. Since it controls not a single school, Gonski was reduced to asking the national government to ask the state governments if they would kindly do what is required, including in the one third or more of schools that they don’t control either. Nous, making the biggest demands of schooling’s machinery, arrives at the biggest problem: who or what will drive an integrated strategy, across the board, over years or even decades? The political ask is of the scale of the 1970s, perhaps even of the 1880s. •

Dean Ashenden was a ministerial consultant to the federal education minister, Senator Susan Ryan, 1983–85. He was co-founder (with Sandra Milligan) of the Good Universities Guides and Good Schools Guides.

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  1. Richard Mason added this comment on 14 June 2012 | Permalink

    Our current educational policies are not working. This is particularly true for “disadvantaged” schools and students. NAPLAN results show virtually no improvement over the last 3 years in any state/territory jurisdiction, public or private sector, disadvantage or advantaged school. Any improvement seem more related to a poor base year.

    While NAPLAN results are of little use to parents it should start to become a tool to judge the politicians and education authorities. All should be hanging their hands in shame at the lack of progress.

    The one hope I have is that significant objective evaluation of educational outcomes will become more widespread and will trickle down to schools and individual classes. A necessary condition for progress is to accurately assess educational outcomes at every level. NAPLAN is useful in this regard and I am hopeful it will be a factor in marshalling the public to demand improvement.

    A major driver behind educational policy ought to be good educational research such as Visible Learning by Professor John Hattie. Research suggests pursuing smaller class sizes is not necessarily cost effective and that “quality of teaching” is much less effective than other policies. Some of our educational authorities claim they are taking note of the research but it is hard to find it in operation.

    I doubt that much will change unless parents and taxpayers demand better, more cost effective results and the system becomes more flexible.

  2. Ma Lee added this comment on 3 January 2013 | Permalink

    What is the situation now Jan 2013? From what I gather the schools are quite autonomous then, right? All schools are equally good for learning?
    In my country our government schools follow a similar curriculum and teachers etc are determined by the government. Believe it or not some have grown into good quality schools. However as families get affluent , more private schools are up and I fear poorer children will eventually suffer because the private schools will rob the government schools of good teachers etc. Sad really but I still think we should make sure government schools, being financed from taxes, are quality schools so that all children have equal opportunies.

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