Thursday, April 19, 2007

Innovation meets education - a winning formula

This is the second part of an article co-authored with Naomi Smith, first published in Sydney's Child.

This year, more than ever we have seen a distinct trend towards the centralisation of education policy. The federal government, principally through its education minister Brendan Nelson, is intent on wresting the responsibility for education from the states and exerting its influence on every classroom in Australia. 

Strangely enough, this policy is at odds with the Liberal’s philosophy of decentralisation, small government and deregulation. In many policy areas they recognise that competition and minimal government control is best for consumers. Take for example these comments on superannuation by Malcolm Brough, the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer in the final session of parliament for the year.

Today we are here to talk about choice. … This side of the House actually believes [the Australian people] have the capability to choose for themselves, and they have done so…. It was interesting to read [in] the Financial Review today … the headline: ‘Everyone’s a winner in transition to choice era’.  That is the Financial Review giving it the thumbs up. Why are they a winner? They are a winner because people have lower fees, better service, greater choice and a greater return on their savings…. As the Australian people head into Christmas time, they will know that this government will continue to provide choice,”

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Choice, competition and a deregulated superannuation market had led to lower prices and a better range of services for consumers. The government acknowledges this, and is indeed proud of this fact and makes a point of mentioning it whenever possible. 

Many studies have shown that the same principles apply to education. School choice, curriculum competition, diversity of educational products and a deregulated education marketplace drive up standards, encourage innovation and introduce real consequences for failing schools while providing excellent schools with a pathway to expand and grow. And yet, when it comes to education, the Federal government introduces measures which run in exactly the opposite direction. 

It is also informative to look at the reasons given by the Federal government for the introduction of these centralising measures. When explaining these measures, Dr Nelson complains that there are differences in standards between the states and that this creates difficulties for people who are moving interstate. But a mere 2% of the school age population mover interstate each year. Changing an entire education system for the benefit of 2% of the students is clearly not justified. He also cites the difficulties faced by defence personnel and their familles when the move about the country. This group of students make up an even more miniscule faction of the entire school population. Even the Reid report gives scant regard to this argument, yet Dr Nelson continues to put it forward as a valid reason to change the current arrangements.

As outlined by Naomi Smith, Brendan Nelson is intent on seeing some form of national leaving certificate introduced to Australian schools.  Although Nelson denies he is working towards a national curriculum, no one doubts that a national leaving certificate will have some effect on the material children are taught in schools. Every teacher knows that the test at the end of the year influences the choice of subject matter in the classroom. It’s simple commonsense to conclude that the national leaving certificate will create more uniformity in the state curricula of the relevant subjects. It would be a logical next step for the Federal government to introduce a national curriculum once a national leaving certificate is in place. After all, if all students in the country are sitting the same exam, they may as well study the same curriculum to prepare for it. This highly controversial move to a national curriculum would no doubt be introduced as a means of providing the best preparation for all students. This year Brendan Nelson commissioned a study to compare year 12 courses in all states. It would be very easy to use the results of such a study to argue that some states are worse than others and that in order than no student be disadvantaged when preparing for the national leaving certificate, a uniform national curriculum is needed. 

Unfortunately, centralised education planning does not drive up standards. Education is an intensely personal matter and the teacher’s values love of his or her subject is the primary motivating force which inspires teachers to give of their best. A top down decree which turns inspirational teachers into mere bureaucratic functionaries delivering a curriculum which has been devised by a distant and faceless member of the educational commissariat is unlikely to inspire peak performance in students.   Red tape, regulations and centralised control have minimal power to enforce excellence but enormous power to hinder teachers in their vocation and to turn excellent creative educators away from the classroom and into areas in which their creative talents are appreciated. 

Take the poster of “Values for Australian Schooling” recently issued by the Federal government to all schools. In order to be eligible for federal funding, every school in Australia has to agree to display this poster in a prominent place. Of course the schools will agree to do this. They would go broke if they didn’t. But the display of such a poster and the programs of values education which accompany it will not achieve the aim of inculcating values in all children. Many schools will resent Dr. Nelson telling them what they should or should not value. The poster could well become an object of ridicule and derision rather than the inspiring message it is designed to be. 

Increased centralised education policy and curriculum means that you and your family have less choice, less competition between schools and school districts. It means that educational fads more easily disseminated across the entire country and the less innovation will be fostered.  We may hope that the education bureaucrats in Canberra will altruistically try to work for the good of all Australians and make policy and curriculum decisions objectively based in impartial reports, but it is much more realistic to acknowledge that the first item on the agenda of any bureaucrat is his own self interest and that centralised education will mean that the welfare of political parties and pressure groups will be put before the needs of your children.

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